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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, June 08, 2017
When we encounter difficult people in daily life, the easiest solution is to cut and run. But when the difficult people in question are your parents, siblings, children, or all of the above, you can’t necessarily end the relationships. What happens when you’re stuck with people who don’t respect boundaries or listen to reason? In his new book, Overcoming Your Difficult Family: 8 Skills for Thriving in Any Family Situation, Dr. Eric Maisel tackles the problematic aspects of families, offering tools to help you cope and stay present amid the challenging dynamics. 

We hope you’ll enjoy this enlightening excerpt from the book, in which Maisel shares useful strategies for being present with the difficult family members, coping to manage anxiety, and communicating clearly.

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To deal effectively with a difficult family situation, you need to “be here now”: you need to be present so that you can muster your strength, your courage, your clarity, and your smarts. If you’re only half here, you’re unlikely to find the motivation, the serenity, or the inner resources to cope.

Being present is hard. Most people are elsewhere: pestered by the past, lost in fantasy, or defensively distracted by the busy work and the busy thoughts that they create.

If you have two hours at your disposal and it is important to you that you have a certain difficult conversation with your teenage son, then it is not reasonable to plan on doing other things during that time, like weeding your garden, planning your menus for the week, catching up on the world news, or making sure that the storm windows are in good working order. In this context, all of those arguably reasonable activities are ways to avoid being present for that conversation with your son.

Nor is it useful during that time period to be thinking about weeding your garden, planning your menus for the week, catching up on the world news, or examining your storm windows — not if what you ought to be thinking about is what to say to your son. In these circumstances, those thoughts are deflections and distractions. They only help you avoid the hard work of dealing with your son.

If, on the other hand, you can be present, you can rehearse what you want to say to your son and rehearse your responses to his denials and justifications. You can do some internet research on your son’s situation; you can practice an anxiety-management technique in anticipation of the stress the conversation may cause you; or you can quiet yourself, center yourself, and march right off to find your son and talk to him. Most of the time, it’s fine to weed the garden or to think about weeding the garden — but not when you ought to be dealing with your son’s problem.

In addition to our defensiveness and our desire to distract ourselves from the important business at hand, thoughts of the past can also impair our ability to be present. We know that it would serve us to think clearly about what might best help our son and what precisely we want to say to him; but when we try to do exactly that, instead of being able to focus on those important tasks, we find ourselves flooded with anguish about the past, filled with regrets about how we have let our son down over the years, or saddened by our past wrong turns and mistakes. Those unwanted, intrusive thoughts prevent us from really being here now. Suddenly we are remembering — and stewing about — something we did or failed to do twenty years ago, and we are left with no mind space to deal with our son’s current pressing situation.

Dealing with our defensive distractibility and facing the unceremonious return of the past are lifelong challenges. We can make an effort to face them by holding the intention to be here now; by maintaining awareness of our very human penchant to fool ourselves, trick ourselves, and distract ourselves; by practicing calmness and thus reducing the anxiety that causes us to want to distract ourselves and flee; by engaging in a regular practice (like a meditation practice) whose objective is to teach us how to be here now; and by enacting ceremonies that help keep us present. We may never get perfect at being present, but we can make many improvements.

Tip: Coming Back to What’s Important
If you struggle with defensive distractibility, you might try the following to address it. Think about a difficult challenge — in the example I’ve been using, that conversation you need to have with your son. As you try to engage with that challenge, notice where your thoughts want to go. Do they go to the past and your regrets? Do they go to some task that suddenly seems very urgent, like weeding your garden? Wherever they go, calmly but firmly say, “I need to come back to what’s really important.” If that phrase doesn’t work for you, then pick another. Practice this exercise and see if you can gain some mastery over your wandering thoughts.

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Eric Maisel, PhD, is a retired family therapist, an active life coach, and the author of more than fifty books, including his latest, Overcoming Your Difficult Family. He has been quoted or featured in a variety of publications, including Martha Stewart Living, Redbook, Glamour, Men’s Health, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Self. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find him online at

Excerpted from the book Overcoming Your Difficult Family. Copyright © 2017 by Eric Maisel.


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