Adapted from Dirge Magazine, November 2015
How to Deal with Assholes this Holiday Season
cw: emotional abuse, discussion of oppression
Did your new haircut make your Grandma cry? Does your partner want to throw out your collection of weird erotica? Does your obsession with taxidermy make your best friend roll their eyes? Maybe you liked a Socialist post on Facebook and now your family members are aggressively concerned for your immortal soul?
People who are supposed to support you can be real assholes about your identity and interests. It can be so much worse when these people are your family, because it can feel like you’re stuck with them for the rest of your life, trapped between a rock and a hard place.
You don’t have to take this shit just because you love them. There are ways to deal with this without putting up and shutting up. Here are a few that might help.
Here’s me in 2015, sporting the new undercut that made my lovely family collectively cry a little.
Sometimes it’s not so bad. An otherwise well-meaning acquaintance is trying to start up an uncomfortable joke, a colleague is trying to gossip about another colleague and you just want everyone to get along, or a friend is earnestly trying to tell you about their sex-life and it’s squicking you out.
Alternatively, the person you’re chatting to has just started talking about something that makes you really uncomfortable, but you know you can’t or won’t change their mind and it’s not worth the aggravation to try. You feel uneasy and you want to get out of the situation, but there’s no proverbial escape hatch and it hasn’t yet hit crisis point. In this instance, it might just take some distraction.
Hot drinks are a staple distraction technique in England. For example,
GRANDMA: I don’t know how you can stand to be around those so called ‘friends’ of yours. The boys all look like girls, the girls all look like boys, I’m pretty sure most of them are queer, and –
YOU: Would you like a nice cup of tea, Nanna? I was just thinking of putting the kettle on.
GRANDMA: Oh! Yes, please.
Other distraction techniques that seem to work include complimenting the other person’s outfit, singing Everything Is Awesome from the LEGO Movie, and mentioning that benign thing the other person can’t help ranting about (we all have at least one. If you ever want to get me to shut up about a particular topic try “What are you reading right now?” or “How many days until Christmas is it?”).
Picture found here.
Try to use ‘I’ statements in a neutral voice, at a respectful distance, with relaxed body language and non-aggressive eye contact. This might be difficult in the moment, and you might feel the other person doesn’t deserve this respect, but it increases your chances of being heard, which increases the chances of them being less of an asshole to you now and in the future.
Show the person that’s behaving like an asshole that you’ve heard them (which is not to say you’ve agreed with what they’ve said); say what you think or feel; and say what you want to happen. Showing you’ve heard someone can bring you both to the same level, and unbalance them if they were prepared to go on the offensive or defensive; saying how you feel shows what you have to say matters, too, while using ‘I’ statements shows you own your feelings in a non-apologetic way; and saying what you want to happen might bring about results. For example,
MOTHER-IN-LAW: I can’t understand how you can do the job you do and think you’re raising your children correctly. If you can’t see that your career as a comic book writer, alternative plus-size model, and circus fire-breather is damning your children to Hell, we won’t be coming over for your birthday.
YOU: As my mother-in-law I understand you have strong opinions about how my children are raised, because you want them to have the best start in life. When you tell me that my way of life will harm my children, however, I start to feel angry and invaded. I would like it if you didn’t criticise my job any further.
(NB. If you’re managing to work a career as a comic book writer, alternative plus-size model and/or circus fire-breather I just want to tell you how extremely cool you are.)
Picture found here.
Get Out of the Triangle
There’s a style of psychotherapy called TA (short for Transactional Analysis), and in TA there’s a theory of conflict called the Karpman Drama Triangle, in which there are three common roles to toxic arguments and poisonous social structures – the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer. The Persecutor says, This is all your fault. The Victim says, It feels like everyone’s out to get me. The Rescuer says, Let me help you.
Some people really know how to make you feel like a victim, even when you’re doing your best not to feel that way. Sometimes you may be feeling like a persecutor because the asshole in your life freaks out when you try to confront them about their behaviour.
It’s ok – it’s not your fault, even though others might try to tell you it is. There are roles many of us have learned to fit into because of early relationships (recovering Rescuer at your service) and sometimes other people really know how to draw you into an emotional and relational place you’d rather not be in.
These roles can fluctuate: someone can be out to rile you up, making you feel miserable. One day they might really hit a nerve. You kick out against that because it hurt, and it made you sad and angry. Suddenly, the other person is crying that you’re a bully and they are the victim who always gets yelled at, and that you’re the one who’s to blame.
Or, maybe a family member is trying to hurt you, but so far you’ve been a stone-cold badass who won’t give in. So they try to go through your spouse, and they do their best to make their lives absolute hell. You jump in to help your spouse because of course you do, and you become tangled in the role of the rescuer. Surprise! You’re back in the triangle.
These kinds of relationships are all about desperation, power, and control. It’s often because the people who try to get you to join them in the triangle don’t know how else to feel loved or important. They’ve got issues. That’s not their fault, but it is their responsibility to deal with those feelings in a way that’s safe for everyone.
These roles can come up in healthy relationships, but what makes those relationships healthy is that these feelings and themes are recognised and discussed openly instead of played out reflexively.
Once you know a bit about this, it’s easier to see the roles people are playing and the roles people expect you to play. Refuse, if you can. Remember that what another person thinks of you is their emotional stuff, not yours. You can be assertive without being a Perpetrator. You can feel upset about what’s happening without being a Victim. You can help people without being a Rescuer.
Surround yourself with people who see you as an equal and who treat you with respect. If they can’t, and you’re stuck with them, take some distance and reject the game they’re trying to play. Above all, look after yourself.
It might look like this:
FATHER: Another piercing? You always have to act out, don’t you? You need to take that thing out right now.
(Expected reaction: “I’m sorry.”)
YOU: I know that you feel you’re right, but I feel powerless and upset when you say things like that to me. This is my body. I’m an adult and I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do with it. I can make my own choices.
FRIEND: My partner is being so horrible to me right now. I never know how to handle it and you’re always so good at looking after me. Do you think you can speak to them like you did last time?
(Expected reaction: “Poor you. I’ll talk to them for you.”)
YOU: I love you, and I’ll be here to watch bad TV and drink cocktails with you later no matter how things go with your partner, but this is your fight, not mine. I’d rather not get involved again. You’ve got the power to make yourself heard!
The above tips on assertiveness and empowerment might leave you feeling miserable and scared. It’s difficult to remain a reasonable, calm, and assertive person in the face of people who want to beat you over the head with the force of their own opinion.
Fear not; there’s a trick to being assertive and standing up for yourself while bypassing the wrath of your loved ones. People who want to change you, either aggressively or passive aggressively, tend to have boundary issues. The trick is to make your own boundaries as clear and opaque as possible without literally drawing it in Sharpie on the floor. For this you can use the Broken Record Method.
Keep repeating your main point. And repeat it. And repeat it. Use the important words in different sentences. Try to keep your tone neutral, your body as relaxed as possible, and try not to use blaming words – you may want to, and they may deserve it, but it’s a great way to make people not want to hear you. This reinforces your message, forces you to be heard eventually, and stops you from being diverted. It might look something like this:
YOU: I understand that you may feel ashamed of how me and my partner present together. But I feel sad that my partner hasn’t been invited to dinner, as my siblings’ partners have been invited and it makes me feel that me and my partner are not part of this family. I feel hurt and ashamed that we have both been excluded. I would like to be able to invite them to dinner.
MOTHER: You know how me and your Father feel about this relationship! We just don’t think it’s good for you be like this. Wouldn’t you rather marry a nice accountant, settle down and start giving us lots of grandchildren?
YOU: I know that’s how you feel, but I’d like to be able to invite my partner to dinner.
MOTHER: Why would you want to hurt and embarrass us like this? Do you want to hurt us so badly? Why do you have to ruin everything? And won’t somebody please think of the children?!
YOU: I don’t feel heard by you. I’d like to invite my partner to dinner.
Picture found here.
Sometimes the asshole in question is much more than just a loved one who occasionally acts like a bit of a dick at the family Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes people can hurt you so much that you need, or want, to walk away.
It’s ok; it’s not your fault. You have to put your own safety first, whether physical or psychological. You deserve respect. You deserve to express yourself and your interests without bullshit restrictions on who you should be, set by people who are supposed to care for you no matter what. That kind of conditional love can be dangerous, and it is not your responsibility to respect people who are cruel to you. Whether you’ve done all of the things suggested above or none of them, it is not your fault if other people have been intolerable to you.
I repeat – it is not your fault.
Cutting ties can take many forms, depending on your individual situation. Sometimes it means sitting down with the other person and telling them why this is happening before you go; sometimes it’s sending a message before blocking them; sometimes it’s packing your things while they’re out and going somewhere safe. You need to think about what’s best – what’s safest – for you.
Walking away is going to hurt. It may well turn your life upside down. Be as ready as you can be, go as safely as you can go, get your support network on your side, be as emotional as you need to about it, and try to do things that make you feel happy and strong, even if it’s just taking a few hours a week to do something calm or fun that’s just for you. Explain to everyone you can what’s going on. Remember that looking after yourself is not an indulgence, but a necessity. And keep being the awesome you that you know you are.
Be Yourself and Take Care
You are a valuable and awesome constellation of identities, interests, and idiosyncrasies. There are people who will try to make you feel bad for being who you are – but, really, how could you be any different? Are you going to hurt yourself, to twist yourself into knots, to please someone who doesn’t want you to be you? You shouldn’t have to deny yourself that weird hobby, your gender expression, your spirituality, your self-care methods, those empowering clothes, or the love of your life. Who gives a shit about anyone who doesn’t get that about you?
Being who you are in the face of oppression can be horrific. But if you stay true to yourself, you can live as you, and you are really awesome.
You deserve respect, from yourself and others. Love those who love you. Above all, love yourself as much as you’re able. Stay safe, dare to be yourself, and don’t let the bastards get you down.