Survive Your Difficult Family by Being Smart

Eight skills for handling any family situation

Posted Jun 26, 2017

eric maisel
Source: eric maisel

Scott Peck begins his much-loved The Road Less Traveled with a simple, eloquent announcement: “Life is difficult.” Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina in an equally eloquent way: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Life is difficult and family life is even more difficult. Working as a family therapist with families, as a life coach and creativity coach with individuals, and as a mental health reformer within a system that isn’t helpful enough, I know that family life regularly takes its toll and that, when it does, little help is available.

There is no pill that can make family life easy. There is no pill that can spare you pain if one of your parents is alcoholic, if one of your children is troubled or if your mate is cheating on you. Family life can feel tremendously difficult. Because of the unavoidable intimacy and interconnectedness of family living, each person in a family is held hostage to the personalities, agendas, and shadows of everyone else in the family. You can’t easily avoid your mother or your father, your mate, your children, or your siblings. In a picture postcard family, where everyone loves one another, roots for one another, and never criticizes one another, you might flourish beautifully. In many families, just surviving is the issue.

The first place of taking charge is the following: be smart. I don’t mean being book smart or big brain smart. Being big brain smart is not the same as being aware, insightful, savvy, or strategic. Often the smartest writer isn’t the most successful writer and the smartest scientist isn’t the one making the breakthrough discoveries. Likewise, often the smartest child in class is the most troubled child and the smartest college student is the one who drops out of college. It doesn’t matter how much native intelligence you have if you aren’t also insightful, alert, and aware.

You want to be smart about what’s actually going on around you—in life and particularly in your family. This is much harder to do than it sounds. It isn’t easy to know how to think about life, how to think about our circumstances, or how to think about what is actually causing our difficulties. If, for example, you are sad, you may presume or you may be told that you have the “mental disorder of depression.” However it may be your family life, your work life, your school life, or your relationship life that is making you feel hopeless and despairing. There is a big difference between “having a mental disorder” and hating work, hating school or having a miserable time inside your family. If we incorrectly identify what is going on, we set ourselves off in what may prove a fruitless or counter-productive direction.

Tip: Be smart about what you put in your body. Let’s say that you are feeling sad and trapped inside your family. You go to a mental health professional and leave with a “diagnosis” of “depression” and with a prescription to fill. Now, in addition to your feelings of sadness and your sense that you’re trapped, you’ll have the powerful chemicals you’re taking to deal with. Learning something about those chemicals before you put them in your system is smart. Be smart about what you put in your body!

Be smart about what’s going on by asking the simple-sounding but profound question, “What is really going on in my life that is making my life feel so difficult?” Ask yourself that question and patiently try to answer it. The “patient” part is so important, as we usually race through life and rarely stop to quietly think. As a starting way to answer this question, you might brainstorm a list of “it might be this or it might be that.” This might sound like: “I know I’m feeling sad. What’s really causing my sadness? It might be the way Bob’s treating me. If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye. It might be how work is such a grind. If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye. It might be that I haven’t realized any of my dreams. If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye. It may be how ungrateful the children are acting—and how rude they are! If it’s that, I have to look that in the eye.”

You want to be smart and honest about what part you’re playing in whatever is going on. You want to be smart about making key distinctions among what you can’t control, what you can perhaps influence, and what you can’t control or influence. You want to be smart about your everyday survival and safety: yes, it may prove a tremendous financial hardship to leave your abusive husband, but how smart is it to allow yourself to be hurt? You want to be smart about your methods: does yelling at your children get you the results you’re after? Maybe it feels good for a brief moment to let your anger and disappointment out that way—but is it smart?

Being smart in the context of a difficult family life can mean all sorts of things. It can mean avoiding a given family member, speaking up and saying what needs to be said, changing your attitude and opting to be less critical or more loving, aiming for more closeness or more distance, changing your part in the dynamic between you and a certain family member, getting clearer about your life purposes and separating from your family’s dramas, and so on.

Is there one specific problem making your family life difficult? It might be family economics: not being able to pay your bills, not having medical insurance, having to live from paycheck to paycheck, etc. It might be the care that a certain family member needs: the dementia of a parent, the chronic challenges of a disabled child, etc. It might be issues of trust and betrayal: a philandering mate, an untrustworthy adolescent, or a regularly disappearing parent. There are no easy answers to such trying difficulties. But take a moment and see if there is anything new to be learned when you ask yourself the following question: “Is there something smart and new I might try to deal with this problem?”

Think of those words that are synonyms for smart—savvy, clever, strategic, sharp, astute, cagey, shrewd, streetwise, etc. What they all share in common is an attitude: I will not be defeated. Right now you may be living a “defeated” sort of life, burdened by your difficulties. Those difficulties may seem personal but may in fact be rooted in family and interpersonal dynamics. Whether they are more personal or more interpersonal, they may be weighing so heavily on you that, maybe without knowing it, your predominant feeling is one of sadness.

It is hard to feel sharp, astute or clever when you are also feeling sad and defeated! Let’s begin there: please announce that you do not want to stand defeated, that you do not want to live life with sadness as your predominant mood, and that you want instead to vote for life and to come out of the shadows. As a result of standing up and stepping out of the shadows, you are going to put yourself in a better position to be smart about your difficulties: smart about what’s going on, smart about protecting yourself better, smart about making needed changes. Let’s start there, with you standing up, coming out of the shadows, and enlisting your smarts in the service of a vastly improved life. 


Get Dr. Maisel’s new book Overcoming Your Difficult Family now. 

Learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, workshop and trainings at Dr. Maisel is the author of more than 40 books and teaching nationally and internationally at workshop centers like Esalen, Kripalu and Omega and in locations like San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Prague and Rome. Subscribe to Dr. Maisel’s weekly electronic newsletter (and get a free gift) at

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