Many of us have at least one family member who is not exactly a joy to be around. This is a person you love but quite possibly don’t like, and who can leave you feeling drained or even abused. If someone is manipulating you by distorting your sense of reality—e.g. when someone guilts you for not being around when you have other things to do, like working, taking care of kids, or looking after your own health—that’s gaslighting behavior, and it’s a form of emotional abuse. The dynamic of gaslighting in families might be specific to a certain relationship or it may just have to do with a certain person’s personality, but either way, it presents a dilemma, especially if said family member is someone with whom you are obligated (or forced) to spend time. Fortunately, it can (sometimes, not always) be possible to make such relationships work without sacrificing your well-being in service to theirs.
First of all, though, know there is no shame in not being over the moon about every single person to whom you are related. “The notion that we must like all of our family members tends to create psychological harm, because people often feel awful for not liking their blood relatives when, in fact, some people—relatives or not—have characteristics and behaviors that are often unlikeable,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “Some people are extremely toxic and, over time, create situations that make ‘zero contact’ the only mentally safe route. Others may be difficult and challenging yet are manageable as long as the interactions are short and well-handled with solid boundaries.” Overall, though, when it comes to handling gaslighting in families without compromising your own mental health, it’s important to prepare yourself for the interaction in a similar way as you would with any toxic situation: set realistic expectations, limit contact, and detox afterward.
The first step to take, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, is putting some self-care practices in place to help you prepare for a visit. “There’s a saying, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’,” she says. “Until you’ve met at least some of your own needs first, you’ll have nothing to give.” So, prior to spending time with gaslighting family members, she recommends doing something you know makes you feel good. “Spend time with people who are genuinely supportive. Also try to plan something to care for yourself afterward, and if you’re too busy, try to pair something supportive with your responsibilities—like great coffee or listening to music.”
“Try to plan something to care for yourself afterward, and if you’re too busy, try to pair something supportive with your responsibilities—like great coffee or listening to music.” —clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD
It’s also important to set boundaries for the visit as a means to keep gaslighting in families from becoming a bigger drain on your mental health. Keeping interactions short can help, and Dr. Daramus also suggests setting an appointment for directly afterward to ensure a timely ending to the meeting. Your self-care ideas can also be part of the interaction with the gaslighting family member in question, as well. “Maybe encourage [the negative or gaslighting family member] to participate. Even with social distancing, you could send them a care package and talk while you eat together or do facials online,” says Dr. Daramus. You can engage calming techniques like cleansing breath work before or after these interactions, too, adds Dr. Manly.
As far as what to say during your interaction, consider setting limits for how the relative in question is allowed to talk to you by confronting any issue with an “I” statement, says Dr. Manly. “For example, you might say, ‘I love you, and I want to tell you something very important. I feel hurt when you are very critical and negative. I want to spend time with you, but your negative comments leave me feeling very sad and hurt. I’m going to have to limit my visits with you unless things shift’,” she says.
Exercising some restraint and not “taking the bait” by indulging any negativity spirals can also be a helpful strategy for feeling less affected by gaslighting in families. “Instead of getting drawn into a verbal battle, feeling hurt, or getting angry, the recipient of the negative comment simply chooses to ignore the negative commentary,” Dr. Manly says. “This takes practice, but when such commentary is routinely ignored, the negative or critical person often ultimately gives up trying to create friction with the non-interested party.”
Do keep in mind though, that sometimes, gaslighting in families can be an indication that the relative is suffering from a mental-health condition like depression or anxiety, says Dr. Daramus. While this being the case may not make interactions with the family member any less draining, if you suspect that mental-health issues are in play, you might handle the situation slightly differently. In this case, Dr. Daramus suggests listening to what a gaslighting family member says and validating their feelings, as well as potentially offering them guidance for finding therapy or free online support groups. “But check in with yourself and end the call [or visit] before you’re drained so that you’ll be more likely to talk to them again,” she says. Having the boundary of a hard end time can be helpful for facilitating this scenario.
While when it comes to relatives, many people are more willing to make exceptions for bad behavior to a degree that often depends on the emotional connection, level of energy-drain, and issues such as failing health. “That said, it’s always important to put your overall mental health and well-being at the forefront,” says Dr. Manly. “No relationship is worth sacrificing your sense of self-worth, self-respect, and well-being.”
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