Updated: Dec 10, 2019
You get to decide whether they suck you down or how to swim away!
Someone asked, “What do I do when I will be stuck with some particularly difficult to get-along-with relatives? They are critical, sanctimonious, mean, and all-around awful to be around. They know exactly what to say and do to get a rise out of me, and I always seem to give it to them, to my own detriment, as they use this against me as proof of what they say being true. It all becomes a downward spiral from there. I can’t avoid them at the moment. How do I survive this?”
Great question! We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We learn about civil disobedience and non-violent protest in school, emphasizing it’s use against government and political groups. But I think they should also re-frame in the context of our families and those closest to us. After all, this scenario is more likely on a regular basis (and yes, words can carry their own version of violence.
To answer your question, I want to talk about a human being.
I learned about Andy Warhol in art class in school, and I pretty much instantly dismissed him, and kept dismissing him for many years.
I wasn’t particularly impressed by his artwork, although it was likable enough (colorful), but it was pushed so ham-fistedly as somehow profound (I just don’t think it is) and unique (not by the time I was born) and as pretty much the only example of pop art we looked at (undeserved singular spotlight, see not profound), that I instantly disdained him, along with Ethan Frome, the alleged importance of geometry to my personal financial future, and all the other nonsense school imbrues you with for 8 hours a day (and back in my day, you couldn’t even catch a break at home because homework).
I came to love and admire him, much later, when I found out he had many great quotes (besides just the 15 minutes of fame one which was the only one I had ever heard), and that we actually had a very similar viewpoint on life, and that he was actually pretty cool as a person, even apart from his artwork. Here is one that changed my life:
“Sometimes people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, So what.
That’s one of my favorite things to say. So what.
'My mother didn’t love me.'
'My husband won’t ball me.'
'I'm a success but I’m still alone.'
I don’t know how I made it through all the years before I learned how to do that trick.
It took a long time for me to learn it, but once you do, you never forget. ”
Isn’t that great? The freedom you give yourself permission to have with one logical, simple (2 words!) question.
I was staying at a relative’s house and, as they always had, they were picking me apart, loading me down with (read: coercing me into following) most unwelcome advice and viewpoints, demanding honest in-depth answers to intrusive interrogation-style questions (that they would then, of course, share around), and generally making me feel miserable (about myself and life in general).
Now the best course of action is to leave immediately, but if you’ve deemed that not very feasible at the moment, as in my case (the alternative, a park bench, was growing increasingly appealing), here is what I have for you...
I was crying on the phone to my friend and they said something very powerful:
“It doesn’t matter. Their opinion doesn’t matter. Just focus on getting out because nothing else matters. You may have been conditioned from childhood to see this person as a saint, and the Ultimate Authority, but you are an adult now and you know that isn’t true. Their opinion doesn’t matter. What you need to do is make a plan to help yourself. What can you do *right now* to get out of that situation? What first step can you take? What can you work on? Put all your energy there, and don’t waste it over them on things that don’t matter.”
Of course I knew that, but I was too close to the situation, too many old wounds from a childhood of emotional abuse had been ripped open, for me to remember in the moment what counted most.
So that is why I am here telling the same to you now.
It’s easy to forget in the throes of extreme pain.
Even dogs, the most loyal and good-hearted creatures on the planet, have been know to lash out and bite those trying to administer life-saving care, because of the pain. That’s why it’s wise to muzzle your dog in those situations. The veterinarians do.
Sometimes you have to muzzle yourself instead of causing more problems for yourself.
This is not about condoning behavior, or agreeing. It's about not wasting your precious energy, care, and reputation by pouring it into the sewer of a toxic person's nonsensical domineering.
There are times to stand up for yourself.
But, in a chronically bad situation involving people who have consistently displayed a habitual lack of respect and concern (however subtly) for you as a person, that you intend to exit as quickly as possible (whether you know how and when or not, just A.S.A.P.), spend less time explaining how you feel (a.k.a. Giving them a free pass to: Crazy-label you, B*tch-label you, further disrespect, dismiss, and lecture you, and so on. You know the drill...)...
Don’t escalate the situation.
The only escalator you want to ride is the one where you vote with your feet all the way to the exit instead of down to the Basement of Debasement.
Instead, repeat after me, “So What?”
And this is SO HARD in the moment. SO HARD.
I forget too.
These vultures are the worst kinds of hypocrites who know exactly which nerves to trip to hurt you the worst, to make you go from a happy-go-lucky lovable pooch to a foaming-at-the-mouth, snapping mad dog who needs “a chain and a muzzle” (to quote Natasha Adamo).
Any time they need a show, to feed off of you, and to show how superior they are to your undisciplined displays (to feel better about themselves), they know right where to start pecking.
Don't give it to them.