Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some advice on dealing with family bullies

I had an encounter with a aggressive bully of the type you meet on the schoolyard the other day. We were, in fact, on the bus and not in a schoolyard. He was easy to deal with. I stood up to him and he backed down. Thinking about it, it occurred to me that that is why we don't see many such bullies once we leave childhood behind. Their tricks only work on children.

But there is another type of bully who trades on a different kind of power and that is your family relationship with them. They are, in a sense, people who wish you and they were still like you were when you were children.

This really jumped out at me at a family reunion that happened in Quebec City last year. At any family gathering there is a tendency to revert to the old rules and relationships that applied back when you were all brothers, sisters and cousins together. You can spot the family bullies more clearly in that sort of atmosphere. Two in particular really stood out.

The experience was liberating. From that day I started to treat those two differently from how I had treated them up until that reunion because I realized that the many, many unpleasant interactions I had had with them over the years were caused by their being bullies. And when I started treating them differently, things got better.  They didn't get better. They are still the manipulative, bullying jerks they always were. But I got better. Slowly. At first there was  barrage of testing challenges from them on FaceBook that went on for a few months. That was emotionally trying. But every one of these bullying tricks made me stronger. Eventually, I stopped getting worked up at their tricks.

For whatever it's worth, here are the lessons I've learned:
  • The things that really matter to you are things that don't need to be said so DON'T SAY THEM. If you really want to be an honest person, then you will simply be that person. The compulsion to announce that "These are my values," is a sign of weakness and will be recognized and exploited as such by the family bully. "Values" are just crap we spout, virtues are strengths we have internalized.
  • Only apologize when you have done something wrong. Conversely, never apologize simply to placate someone who is acting angrily in response to something you said or did. That person is a bully and needs to be stood up to.
  • One of the primary indicators that you are dealing with a family bully is that they will pretend to discuss an issue rationally while actually being manipulative. Be especially on the look out for the following seemingly rational but actually deeply manipulative arguments:
  1. “I think you know what is wrong with what you did,” or, “If you think about this honestly, I think you will see the problem.” Say to them, “Let’s pretend I’m stupid and you explain it to me.”
  2. “I don’t think you can stop/help yourself.” The correct response is, “I wasn’t trying to stop myself. Why should I?”
  3. Attributing emotions to you that you aren’t feeling: e.g. "I don’t know why you are so angry," or "I don’t know why you are so bitter about this," and, especially, "I don't know why you can't be rational about this". More often than not, the person who does this is in fact telling you how they feel about you without realizing they are doing so.
Sometimes a family relationship will seem like it is not worth saving and it may be that it is not worth saving but there is never any point in breaking it off. First, do your best to be a good person but do not become someone other than the man you want to be simply to gain a family member's approval. They’ll eventually get the message and change or leave of their own accord.

Caveat: don't think of this as a way of winning. Trust me, you will be strongly tempted to try and win but that way madness lies. That is just lowering yourself to their level. Be honest with yourself about the pain they have caused you and the pain that a final break, should it come to that, will cause you. Otherwise you will get tricked into playing a sort of bluffing game with your family and family are too special to bluff with.

Instead, go back to those virtues that really matter—go back to the man you are and the man you want to be—and if you conclude that being that man is more important than staying in touch with this cousin, sister, brother, father, mother, or even, God forbid, child or spouse, keep living those virtues. They can go or stay. Never state it, that's issuing an ultimatum. Just live it.

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