Holiday Special: What to Do If Your Family Gets Obnoxious About Occupy

“Family…is like receiving a life sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.” – Richard Pryor

The holidays lend themselves naturally to the topic of how to cope with family. I’ve covered this in the past but it bears regular revisiting. Right now, for instance, many of us are gearing up for challenging conversations with family members about the wonderful Occupy movement.

What You Need to Know About Boundaries

A fundamental problem, when relating to family, is boundaries, a topic that, from a time management standpoint, at least, is rather simple. There are two things you need to know:

1) Boundaries aren’t “between” you and the other person, but within you, in your heart and mind. You need to make conscious decisions about what you’d like your relationship to a person (or group) to be; what and how much you are willing to give; and what and how much you expect to receive. Once you make these decisions, life gets much easier, since you are now operating from principle instead of the exigencies of the moment. And,

2) It is your responsibility to state your needs. Too many people don’t, and not only do they cheat themselves of help or support, they cheat the other person of the opportunity to help or support. There could be many reasons for their reluctance, including shyness, shame about yourself or your values, or a fear that your request will be denied – and that fear might well be justified. Still, it is imperative that you learn to state your needs for three reasons:

a) They might actually get met. In fact, the people I encourage to state their needs to family, bosses and others almost always come back to tell me that the person not only complied, but was grateful to be asked.

b) Perfectionist myths about “lone genuises” aside, it’s practically impossible to succeed at an ambitious goal outside of the context of a supportive community. And,

c) The act of asking for help is itself empowering. I love it when someone emails me asking for help – and then I get a followup email a few minutes later saying, “Never mind – I figured it out.” What probably happened was that the asker had to overcame his shame to ask for help, thus becoming more empowered, and then got even more empowered once having asked. And so he attempted some risk taking, which in turn led to his coming up with a solution to whatever problem was plaguing him.

It can even be empowering to ask when the request is denied – so long as it is not denied in a harsh or demeaning way.

There’s a right and wrong way to set boundaries and ask for help, of course:

The wrong way is to blame and accuse, e.g., “I’m sick of getting picked on for my politics! You people aren’t just clueless, you’re mean!” (Or, “I’m sick of doing all the work around here! You’re all lazy slobs!” )

The right way is to state, in a calm voice, what the problem is and how it makes you feel, e.g., “You know, I love coming back and being with my family during the holidays, but all the mean comments about the Occupy protesters really upset me. You know I support that movement, and so I feel really unwelcome and alienated when you make those comments. I need to ask you to please not to make them any more.” (Stating how it makes you feel is key because it taps people’s natural empathy.)

If you’re lucky, the response will be something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize my comments were affecting you like that! I’m sorry – and I won’t make them any more.” But, let’s face it, another likely response is, “Oh come on, we’re just joking! If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” If you’re on the receiving end of that one, don’t take the bait. Say something like, “I’ve told you how I feel. Please respect my wishes.”

If they absolutely refuse to respect your wishes then you’ve got some hard truths to confront. Maybe you don’t go back next year for the holidays. Empowered people make tough choices like that all the time because they see very clearly the consequences of their actions: including the act of letting mean or clueless relatives bully or abuse you.

Coping with Challenging Questions and Comments

A related problem is how to cope with challenging questions and comments, which I write about in The 7 Secrets. (The excerpt is for writers, but the principles are general.) Here are some tips:

1) Learn to recognize rejection in all its forms: everything that’s not an unequivocal acceptance contains elements of rejection. Forms of rejection include denial, harshness, callousness, capriciousness and marginalization. Also, just because someone follows a hurtful comment with “I was just joking!” that doesn’t necessary reduce the hurt or sense of rejection. Ditto for someone who mingles compliments with harshness: the former do not necessarily take the sting out of the latter.

2) Cope aggressively, and in the right way: journal out your feelings, and (especially) talk things over with trusted and supportive friends or professionals. Reject any “grow a thicker skin” advice you might get. As I have written about earlier, the goal is to retain your thin skin – your sensitivity, compassion, openness and awareness of the world around you. That will necessarily make you vulnerable, so you also need to be very careful about whom you associate with and how you let them treat you – relatives included!

3) Work on your own issues of perfectionism and inadequacy and ambivalence: these leave you vulnerable, like a burn victim who is sensitive to the slightest touch.

4) Don’t insult the person or bully him. And, unless he’s honestly receptive, don’t try to convince him of the validity of your viewpoint – that’s a losing battle. Instead, question him Socratically – or simply live your values unambivalently and with joy.

Rereading The Lifelong Activist chapters now, I can’t help but notice that my tone seems a bit subdued. And why wouldn’t it? Those chapters were written during the height of the evil Bush administration. But the Occupy and allied movements, which have already claimed at least one major victory and are destined to claim more, give me great hope and optimism. Progressive activism in the U.S. and throughout the world is building up a huge head of steam, which is being fed inexorably by the fundamentally democratic essence of the new technologies that permeate our lives and societies. If that’s not something to give thanks for, this holiday season, I don’t know what is.

5) Oh, and if all else fails with your relatives, try defusing the situation by showing them pictures of kittens in classic rock album cover poses.

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Activist, coach, workshop leader, and author of The Lifelong Activist and The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.

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