What to do with that crazy family member
Let me be Paul Revere for a moment. “Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!” Crazy Uncle Remus and Aunt Annabelle are going to be showing up at your doorstep for Christmas. What is a “normal” family to do?
Craziness manifests in many different ways but, in short, we can break craziness down into three categories: Psychotic, Neurotic and Character.
My wife, Beth, and I were in Grand Junction, Colorado, last month because Beth’s brother was experiencing delusions of persecution. Although he had done nothing wrong he firmly believed that he was going to be taken to prison where he would spend the rest of his life.
My brother-in-law’s reality was very different from everyone around him. He was displaying what we call “psychotic” symptoms. A person is psychotic when they experience hallucinations (sensory experiences that really don’t exist) or delusions (a belief system that is patently untrue and often absurd).
I know a man who clearly illustrates a different kind of crazy. Instead of facing problems and dealing with them, he tends to avoid them by moving away and cutting off all contact. He changes jobs frequently, cannot hold long-term relationships, and will cut off all contact with family just to avoid the dreaded possibility of conflict.
So this is what we call “neurotic” avoidance. Usually neurotic people struggle with insecurity and anxiety. They often feel overly responsible for the feelings of others.
Psychotic and neurotic people need our help. They are victims of disorganized and irrational thinking. We reach out to these family members when they struggle.
There’s a third kind of crazy that you should know about—it’s the “Personality Disorders.”
Research shows that 10 percent of the population can be diagnosed with one of the personality disorders. There are many ways that personality can be flawed and so there are many types of personality/character disorders. They stem from early childhood emotional and relational wounds.
People with personality disorders don’t change much over the years and their insight is very low. They make everyone around them feel crazy. They have a way of not taking responsibility for their actions—they see their own problems as being caused by everyone else.
A family member with a personality disorder can make life difficult for everyone during the holidays. Here are some helpful suggestions to help you survive.
- Don’t get sucked in. They will bait you with provocative comments. They will bring up politics and religion. They will make negative comments about your children or your home. Expect that this will happen and be prepared to let it pass by. You aren’t going to teach them a lesson by telling them that what they did was wrong. It will only escalate the anger and conflict.
- Set up some emotional boundaries. People with personality disorders quickly move from a simple difference in opinion to an assault on you as a person. It is helpful to remember who owns the problem. The person with the disorder owns the problem, even though they are trying to get you to own it.
- Exercise patience. If they are here for the holidays, do your best to put up with it until they are gone. Be gracious and tell yourself that their behavior is not OK, but it is time-limited. Of course, if they become physically abusive it then becomes a legal matter, regardless of how long you have to put up with it.
- Ongoing forgiveness. You may come to really feel hatred for this other person, but that only puts you into another form of bondage. Remember, forgiveness is a 7 times 70 process (Matthew 18:22). It doesn’t mean that you need to make yourself emotionally vulnerable again.
- Let Go(d). Sometimes, the boundaries need to be very thick. For your own sanity you may need to let go of the relationship. After years of trying, you may actually need to say, “This isn’t working, and I need to protect myself.” Ending the relationship is a last resort, but if it is necessary, then letting them go may be the only answer.
Remember, we have been forgiven a great debt, and the best way to show our appreciation to God is to forgive the offenses of those who have hurt us. If we can see that crazy family member through God’s eyes, with mercy and compassion, then we will love as He has loved us.
— by Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D.
Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Psychological Services in Mission Valley. He is also a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. Learn more at www.lighthousepsy.com.