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Column: Stress Less

Slumped down on my office sofa, Rob muttered, "I'm tired of being the family outsider and loser." He had just returned from a much-anticipated family ski trip, sure that this time things would be different.

For as long as he could remember, Rob had felt like the family disappointment, the one who didn't measure up athletically, academically or socially. Now in his early 30s, Rob was the middle child of five. Even his two younger siblings were already out-earning him. He has many talents, just not the ones that his family recognized as important. In contrast, the Rob I saw sitting before me is a talented artist and musician. But he didn't feel as though his family understood, appreciated or accepted him.

Countless people who have graced my office door, most of whom were brought up by their birth parents, feel as though they were "switched at birth." Somehow they've never felt understood or fully accepted by their families. To add insult to injury, they continue to hope for what they've never gotten -- full acknowledgment and acceptance from the folks whose approval would mean the most.

Here's a news flash: You can't change your family members. That said, changing how you relate to them can begin to shift how they both respond to and see you. Here are some steps that may help you change those old, ugly and all-too-familiar family feelings:

Begin to accept what is (instead of what you wish were true): Stop setting yourself up for disappointment. When you get together with family set realistic expectations. Know that by choosing to spend time with the folks, you're also putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Although it may be counter intuitive, preparing for the worst may allow you to walk away from family get-togethers feeling less disappointed, frustrated or rejected than usual.

Initiate get-togethers that play to your strengths: As the saying goes, "the best defense is a good offense." Instead of waiting for -- and dreading -- the usual family get-togethers in the usual places, initiate something that focuses on your interests and abilities. Invite your family to a concert, theater production or museum. Or ask them to dinner on your turf -- literally or figuratively. Introduce them to a different cuisine, in a unique environment. Do this with confidence, even if you have to give an Academy Award-worthy performance to do so. When we feel inadequate, we often behave that way, which only feeds the family myth that we aren't good enough. On the contrary, if you lead with confidence, your folks may begin to develop a new-found respect for you and your talents.

Get ahead (and stay ahead) of the conversation: If you're the black sheep of the family, you likely default to stony silence, angry outbursts or shrinking violet mode when those dreaded gatherings occur. Surprise family members by asking them about themselves and offering information about your latest interests, adventures and achievements. Or talk about new developments in your areas of expertise, an interesting article you've read, or a compelling movie you've recently seen. In so doing, you'll be protecting yourself from the usual interactions while exposing your family to a newer, more confident, you.

Keep it short and sweet: With difficult family situations, seek quality over quantity. The longer a family spends together, the greater the likelihood that old and unpleasant dynamics will rear their ugly heads. Better to part ways on a high note, than to have things devolve into that painful place.

If none of these techniques works, maybe it's time to take a break from family functions for a while. Since family dynamics often bleed over into how we relate to the rest of the world, however, these tools may help you in other and unexpected ways: They'll work beautifully with the other judgmental or self-important folks you run into along the road of life.

Maud Purcell is a psychotherapist, corporate consultant and director of the Life Solution Center of Darien. Contact her at mpurcell@thelifesolutioncenter.net.

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