For some the holidays are a special time, perhaps the only time all year they get to see other family members. As special as these occasions are, we all know a family—it might even be your family—for whom get-togethers are often fraught with trepidation, concern, and in some cases fear, because of the behavior of one family member. That individual predictably, in his or her unique way, manages to say the wrong thing, act out inappropriately, irritate others, contrives to be the center of attention, arrives late and expects you to wait yet again, or is never happy and wants you to suffer also.
These socially toxic individuals don’t care whom they inconvenience, irritate, or hurt. They are not mindful of others. If their disruptions ruin a long-awaited, carefully planned family reunion, in their eyes, so be it—and it is never their fault.
Do you know someone like this? Here is a list from Dangerous Personalities, of behaviors that toxic family members often display that can alert you to potential issues or enmity. These traits drive others to desperation but don’t seem to affect the misbehaving individual in the least:
1. Is irresponsible in speech and actions to the point of irritating others or hurting others’ feelings—it is as if this person negligently feels no need to filter what he or she says.
2. Has a “short fuse.” Displays of intense anger and outbursts are common and very disproportionate to the circumstances or the event that triggered the outburst.
3. Being around this person leaves you less happy, less fulfilled, emotionally drained, crying, or constantly on edge, as you fret about the next act that will embarrass or hurt you.
4. Tends to be opinionated, rigid in thinking, suspicious without cause, unyielding, or just plain truculent – seeming to enjoy conflict even at the expense of family harmony.
5. Needs to be the center of attention at all times or acts out with unjustified irritation or anger if feeling left out of anything (conversations, events, outings, et cetera).
6. When you are around this person, you feel emotionally and even physically drained or you feel anxious, troubled, tormented, or infuriated.
7. Those who are closest (e.g., you, family, children, spouses, boyfriend or girlfriend, et cetera) routinely have to “check” to gauge this person’s “mood.” You and others find yourself “walking on eggshells” around this person.
8. Arguments that should last a few minutes may go on for hours or days with no effort to ameliorate or end them.
9. Seems to play role of “victim” (to get attention) or “princess” (expecting special treatment). Has been known to accuse others of some perceived injustice or demands to be treated as royalty – with every whim catered to at the expense of others.
10. Is a “wound collector.” Collects past injustices, faux pas, mistakes, slights, or perceived social injuries and resurrects them to argue with or harangue others. There is no forgiving and forgetting – even mishaps from decades past are collected and cultivated for later reuse.
With individuals like this, the first thing to do is to recognize that you are not imagining things. Just because this person acted fine one day does not mean you should ignore the many other days of boorish or insensitive behavior at the expense of others. Someone who behaves this way as a matter of course is not being quirky. This is about being socially toxic to others—a common trait of the emotionally unstable personality. People like this need help, and they should seek out professionals who can handle this kind of disorder. In the meantime, we have to protect ourselves.
What can you do? Plenty:
1. Recognize reality and don’t sugarcoat it. People reveal who they are by their behavior, so don’t ignore the noxious things they do.
2. You must set boundaries as to what you will and will not tolerate. I know families that have had to bar adult children from holiday meals because they have ruined so many family gatherings in the past. Only when behaviors change should you lower the boundaries.
3. Get everyone else to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in these individuals, and don’t allow the conversation to veer into a minefield of divisive issues.
4. Set time limits: if dinner starts at 6:00 PM, start exactly at that time and let everyone know if they are late, dinner starts without them. The emotionally unstable personality is famous for being late (egregiously late) in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Don’t provide that opportunity.
5. Behavior that is dangerous (excessive drinking) or divisive, or that only serves to antagonize or irritate others should not be tolerated. If it is your house, you set the rules. If it is someone else’s house, you don’t have to be a party to acrimony, hostility, or worse.
6. Do expect to have a great get-together and to have a good time—and if someone is detracting from that as has happened in the past, resolve that this person simply will not have an audience this time – something these individuals usually crave.
7. If things get out of hand, especially where alcohol or weapons are involved (sadly yes, weapons), don’t ever hesitate to call the police.
8. Remember that just because you are family does not mean you are safe – we are only safe (emotionally, physically, psychologically) when we avoid or control those individuals or situations that would do us harm.
9. Family holiday time is not therapy time – that is for professionals to handle and in private. Do not allow yourself to be drawn into the drama that these individuals use to dominate social events and diminish your enjoyment of the holidays.
10. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, always remember that you have absolutely no social or familial obligation to be victimized – ever.
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Joe Navarro, M.A. is 25-year veteran of the FBI and is the author of What Every Body is Saying, as well as Louder Than Words. For additional information and a free bibliography, please contact him at: www.jnforensics.com – Joe can be found on twitter: @navarrotells or on Facebook. His latest book Dangerous Personalities (Rodale) is available on Amazon. Additional articles by Joe Navarro in Psychology Today can be found here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/spycatcher
This article was edited with the assistance of Thryth Hillary Navarro and Toni Sciarra Poynter. Copyright © 2014 Joe Navarro