8 Skills for Thriving in Any Family Situation

shadow of four family members

Love requires real strength of character: it demands that we stand vulnerable, patient, and open. – Eric Maisel

I couldn’t agree more when Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.”

Any life-altering experience can trigger awakening. But what contributes more to our spiritual growth, and much of what needs healing has something to do with issues of the family we grew up in. Why? It’s where our ego was formed and developed based on beliefs in the family – beliefs that we learn to carry for the most part of our lives.

For healing to take place in the family, it would often require outside intervention in dealing with such internal conflicts.

To my surprise, it’s creativity coach Dr. Eric Maisel who’s stepping in! I’ve learned that he was a family therapist (mostly to artist families) for a long time before he went full-time with coaching.

There are two main parts of the book. The first covers what he calls The Family Survival Toolkit: the 8 strategies for dealing with family affairs. These are:

  • Being Smart: how to be aware, insightful, savvy, and strategic
  • Being Strong: how to gain fortitude, stamina, and inner strength
  • Being Calm: how to keep anxiety at bay
  • Being Clear: how to communicate better
  • Being Aware: how to pay close attention to what is going on
  • Being Brave: how to stand up for ourselves when we feel weak
  • Being Present: how to “be here now”
  • Being Resilient: how to be willing and able to bounce back again and again

The second part describes the 10 difficult family types and how you can use the toolkit in order to thrive in any family situation. It doesn’t have to be exclusive. Like in my case, I’ve seen certain characteristics exist in our family that fall under more than one type. The book can help you identify which type your family belongs to. The ten types are:

  • Sad and Anxious Families
  • Loveless and Distant Families
  • Warring and Divided Families
  • Bullying, Aggressive, and Abusive Families
  • Demanding, Critical, and Argumentative Families
  • Compulsive and Addicted Families
  • Rule-Bound, Intrusive, and Authoritarian Families
  • Dramatic and Chaotic Families
  • Acquisitive and Materialistic Families
  • Frustrated, Hopeless, and Defeated Families

Time to roll up our sleeves and get to the heart of the matter.

Stand Up for Yourself

Please announce that you do not want to stand defeated, that you do not want to live a life of constant sadness, that you want instead to vote for life and to come out of the shadows. When you do, you will put yourself in a position to be smart about what’s going on, smart about protecting yourself better, smart about making needed changes. Start there, by standing up, coming out of the shadows, and enlisting your smarts in the service of a vastly improved life!

What this implies is that you have to decide for yourself. And before you can come up with a decision, you need to be aware first of the situation you’re in. Be specific as you can. Given this situation, you can now begin making necessary changes that will serve you.

Your family’s failures are not your personal failures. It’s not your fault that you were born in a difficult family, whatever type that may be. But it will be up to you how you approach your family life. Will you remain a victim to circumstances? Or will you choose to rise above them? Why not initiate the change for the better?

Be the change you want to see in your family.

Anxiety Management

Even if we do manage to attain calmness in one part of our life — say, during our meditation practice or while walking in nature — that calmness may vanish as soon as we step into our family circle and start dealing with the problems that make family life so difficult. Calmness is hard to attain, and it is hardest to attain when we need it the most.

As James Allen (author of As a Man Thinketh) put it, “Calmness is power.”

How do we attain that power? Dr. Maisel has ten tips to offer:

  • Deep Breathing. The simplest and powerful anxiety management technique. Try breathing slowly and deeply for five seconds, each for the inhale and the exhale.
  • Cognitive Self-Help. Change the way you think by (1) noticing what you’re saying to yourself, (2) questioning your self-defeating thought patterns, and (3) using positive affirmations.
  • Incantation. Combine deep breathing with positive self-talk. Use “I Am” on the inhale followed by a positive statement on the exhale.
  • Physical Relaxation Techniques. The Thymus Heart Rub technique from Dr. Henry Grayson’s book Your Power to Heal works really well for me. Try it too!
  • Mindfulness Practices. The more we become aware of our thoughts, the more we can detach from them, the less we suffer.
  • Guided Imagery. Picture in your mind a calming image or a peaceful scenario. His Enlightenedness JP Sears (author of How to be Ultra Spiritual) strongly recommends we don’t picture him naked!

jp sears

  • Disidentification and detachment techniques. Detach yourself from any transitory part of life (feeling, thought, family dramas) and affirm that you are larger than any experience.
  • Reorienting techniques. Quarreling parents or siblings? Put on those headphones, noise-cancelling if you have one, to shut down the negativity. Find ways to shift your attention to other things.
  • Discharge techniques. Shake off the negativity out of your system using physical movements (jumping jacks, squats, etc.). I literally shake my arms and legs to diffuse the bad vibes.
  • Flipping the calmness switch. Visualize you have a calmness switch that you can flip during anxious situations.

Do whatever works best for you.

Pay Close Attention

Awareness has both a noticing component and a predicting component. Being aware means both spotting something and also predicting its importance.

Dr. Maisel also shares some tips on how we can work with the awareness tool:

  • Ask whether core values are in question, or only little things. Don’t sweat the small things. If it’s a minor issue, don’t make a big deal out of it.
  • Pay close attention to whether everyone in the family is getting a chance to speak and be heard. Be the listener in the family. You make people feel they matter when you listen to them.
  • Notice when and if stress is doing the talking. You wouldn’t like what you’d say if you’re stressed out. Calm yourself first using the techniques you’re learning.
  • Notice whether family members’ fears are being acknowledged. There are usually underlying fears in people’s reactions. Practice empathy and understand where they’re coming from.

Your Life-Purpose Icon

It can be hard to remember your life purposes as life rushes along and you get caught up in everyday issues of survival and daily chores and responsibilities. Try creating your own life-purpose icon to remind you of your life purposes and your important intentions, something that serves as your emotional and intellectual anchor.

One thing that can really help us thrive is by identifying our life purposes and living them. To remind us of its significance, a creative tool Dr. Maisel encourages us is having a life-purpose icon.

My sister once gave me a Superman Lego keychain and attached it to the sling bag I always carry around. To this day, it serves as my life-purpose icon – becoming a superhero in my own way.

If you haven’t identified yet what your life purpose is, it’s still nice to have something that represents you. Find out what it is. It might give you clue to what is unfolding in your life.

Sibling Healing

It is common for brothers and sisters to fall out, for early alliances and divisions to last a lifetime, for grudges to be held, and for public feuds to erupt. Sibling relationships can be both fragile and volatile.

Here are some of Dr. Maisel’s tips to transform sibling rivalry into sibling healing:

  • Accept that there is a dark side to sibling relationships. Change begins with acceptance. Through acceptance, we bring the darkness to light and see what needs healing.
  • See which old perceptions need updating. Yes, they may have done you wrong in the past. But knowing what you know now, maybe it’s about time you considered forgiveness.
  • Have a conversation in a different setting. A fresh setting, a new place where you can have real heart-to-heart talk can pave the way for a fresh start.
  • Be clear. Know the whole story. Maybe your sister just got really tired at work and her attitude had nothing to do with you.
  • Detach from alliances. Be fair in all your dealings with your siblings.
  • Envision a different relationship. How would you see your relationship differently? Align with that vision.
  • Choose for today. Start living up to your vision. How can you add love in your interactions with them?

Dealing with Criticism

In a nutshell, you learn to deal effectively with criticism by taking charge of your personality and your mind so that you can live the life you intend to lead. As you grow in this direction, you learn to deal with criticism in new, more effective ways.

Dr. Eric presents three keys to effectively handling criticism:

  • Dynamic key – based on the field of psychology known as psychodynamics, which deals with childhood experiences, personality formation, and enduring psychological issues. This is a gradual process of consciously breaking free of the past by healing from the effects of shame, guilt, and other damages to your psyche.
  • Mindfulness key – involves identifying negative self-talk, learning detachment, and engaging in practices that return your mind to your control.
  • Holistic key – understanding your life purposes and committing your life to them. Take criticisms constructively to improve yourself in service to your purpose.

Recovery Tactics for Creatives

The very act of creating is a voyage into the unknown (a voyage that provokes anxiety), a command to send your brain racing (so that it can obsess productively), and an exploration of your deepest thoughts and feelings (with all the dangers associated with traveling to those depths). Recovery requires calmness and creating requires wildness: and therefore the wildness of creating can endanger recovery.

Creating is a life-purpose choice and a meaning opportunity. But everything falls apart if recovery fails.

  • Put recovery first. As Sam Bennett writes in her book Start Right Where You Are, “Nothing is more important than your well-being.” Meditate first before you create. Center yourself in calmness before you enter the storm.
  • Choose projects wisely. Do not overwhelm yourself with too many projects. Less is more. Remember to put your well-being on top of your priority list.
  • Monitor your energy, your mind, and your mood as you create. Stop criticizing your work. Don’t compare yourself to others. Always check in with yourself if you need to take a break. You’re resting, not quitting.
  • Leave creative stints mindfully. Implement a ritual of ending your creative tasks. Your highly creative energy needs to go to rest when the task is over. Meditate not only before you create, but also after.
  • Monitor your choices. Devote time for your recovery and creative projects. Make decisions based on whether they serve your purpose or not. Learn to say NO to those that don’t.

Genuine Transformation

The goal is to change and transform the behavior, not to eliminate it. When we attempt to eradicate something in our lives, the physical and emotional cost is often very high, frequently resulting in people returning to a prior level of coping.

Transformation happens as people take charge of their feelings, perceptions, expectations, and yearnings.

Dr. Eric borrows this concept from Dr. Carl Sayles, likewise a family therapist, as he relates to behaviors in dramatic and chaotic families. They are family types that seem to be addicted to drama and can’t live without chaos.

To resolve the dramatic and chaotic behavior, we have to assess deeper what’s driving their behavior – the pain-body, as Eckhart Tolle coined it. The pain-body is formed in the psyche as unresolved emotional pain, which feeds on pain (drama or chaos) in order to sustain it.

Transformation happens not by eradicating the behavior, but by facing the pain that drives it. Being present is the skill we need most to do that.

When we are present in the moment, we become aware when our pain is triggered. Instead of reacting to it, we become present with it as it arises. Over time, pain-body will eventually dissolve and drama will come to end. As you heal, your family heals with you.

Live Your Purpose

You achieve this happiness that runs deeper than pleasure seeking by living a life oriented around and in alignment with your life purposes. You identify your life purposes; you announce that you stand behind them; you live them; you create meaning as you live them; and you produce a deep happiness, a happiness that produces physical and emotional health.

Though applicable to all, Dr. Eric points to living a purposeful life (see The Purpose Driven Life) in addressing materialistic families particularly. Materialistic families are the type that seeks happiness through pleasure and satisfaction in material things but never find it.

He cites a study by Steven Cole revealing how hedonic well-being (from pleasure) and eudaimonic well-being (from having deep sense of purpose and meaning in life) affects health. It shows that people who have high levels of eudaimonic well-being have low levels of inflammatory gene expression and exhibit a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

Dr. Eric also explains that to live with purpose, you must believe that you matter. And affirm that what you do matters. You must be matterr-ialistic!

He advises, “Do not chase happiness; live your life purposes instead.”

Hearty Thumbs-Up

If you have come to hate life, how can you also love life? This negative evaluation kills love and hope for the future.

If you’ve decided that nothing in life can ever feel genuinely enjoyable, then you will instantly sour experiences that you might otherwise experience as joyful. If you’ve made this unconscious evaluation, now is the time to change your mind — and your heart. You must, for the sake of experiencing life as meaningful and for the sake of your mental health, evaluate it more generously.

We need a miracle! What miracle? To see life from a different perspective, from love, in spite of all the challenges and difficulties it presents us.

Dr. Eric asks us to re-evaluate how we conceptualize life. He encourages us to hold it as a project, an opportunity to live our life purposes, and an adventure! The goal is to evaluate life more positively.

The simple tool he suggests to become more loving toward life? By giving life a hearty thumbs-up – literally, and regularly.

So here’s to overcoming your difficulties, to loving your family, to loving life!


Overcoming Your Difficult Family: 8 Skills for Thriving in Any Family Situation


ERIC MAISEL, Ph.D., is a retired family therapist and active coach and mental health advocate in the areas of critical psychology and critical psychiatry, Dr. Maisel writes the “Rethinking Mental Health” blog for Psychology Today and the “Coaching the Artist Within” print column for Professional Artist magazine.

He is the author of more than fifty books, and lectures nationally and internationally. Visit him at ericmaisel.com

Other Books by Eric Maisel

Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach
Life Purpose Boot Camp: The 8-Week Breakthrough Plan for Creating a Meaningful Life
The Creativity Book: A Year’s Worth of Inspiration and Guidance

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