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SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim shares some tips on repairing a relationship with an abusive or toxic person. You can't fix them, but you can change how you feel and see the situation, and that could change everything.
Thank you for your articles. They are very good. My question is in regards to being a stepchild who feels they have been wronged by a stepparent. In my current state, I feel it is not worth the time and work to fix the relationship I have with my stepmother, who was verbally and physically abusive to me when I was younger. To this day, she is very difficult to talk to and openly shows favoritism to her children over me. Being an adult, I no longer fear her, but find that I am angry with her and resent her for how she treated me and still treats me. I avoid her as much as possible when visiting my father. I have tried to talk to her and tried to be her friend, but every conversation I have with her involves her talking nonstop about herself and her children. She is never interested in me or my wife and children. I cannot overcome my angry feelings towards her. My initial thought is to discuss my feelings with my father, but I do not know if this is a good choice. How do you repair relationships like this and is it worth fixing? I would love some advice.
You asked, “Is it worth the effort to fix?” Of course it is. This situation (and every situation in your life) is here as part of your perfect classroom journey so you can stretch, grow and learn from it. I believe it is not only worth it, but it's what you are meant to do.
Though, the “fix” is going to be about changing you, not her. You have no control over her or getting her to behave differently. She also has some serious problems if she abused you as a child, and she is the only one who can fix them. She really needs some professional help to deal with her fear and pain. I know this because it is only hurt people who hurt people.
You can fix this situation by changing how you see it and feel about it. You can stop letting her inability to be kind bother you because it really isn’t about you. When you get this, you will also change the way you act around her and she will probably respond to you in a more positive way.
The first step to changing how you feel is seeing her behavior accurately. It is highly likely she was abused and walked on as a child too. That abuse has created huge fears of inadequacy (failure) and being mistreated (loss) in her. These fears make her selfish and overly focused on protecting herself and getting reassurance and validation.
She was only unkind because she was miserable and scared. That was no excuse, but I want you to see that it wasn't personal. It wasn’t about you. It was about her fears about herself. She took them out on you because you were an easy target. She found that if she focused on being angry with you, it distracted her from dealing with her pain. She just didn’t have the self-esteem or strength to be loving. Her fear and pain made her selfish.
I want you to understand this because seeing her accurately is the first step in forgiving her and you must forgive her if want to stop hurting about this.
You must also understand abusive people serve a role in our classroom. They help make us into the people we are today. They make us strong and they give us the opportunity to learn to love and see our value in ourselves in spite of them. Can you identify any positives that were created in you or your life because of what she did to you? Are you a better father because you don’t want to be like her? Are you stronger because of what you survived? Are you more aware of others and go out of your way to make them feel safe?
When you can see how she served your education and growth, and acted as a teacher in your classroom, you won’t feel as angry. You also won’t see her as evil. You will just see her as a struggling, scared, suffering, student in the classroom of life, just like you. This perspective is one of wisdom, compassion and accuracy, and this should make you feel somewhat better. It should make you more capable of the next step.
Once you see the situation and her accurately you must shower her with kindness. It is the best thing you can do.
If you continue to be offended and avoid her, you are meeting her fear-based, unloving energy with more unloving energy, and that is never going to make things better. Most of us think if we act mad at someone they will feel our unhappy feelings toward them, feel guilty for hurting us and this will motivate them to change, but this doesn’t happen. Instead, they feel our dislike for them and it makes them dislike us even more. The more hurt you act the more they will mistreat you. Love is a better answer.
So, instead of acting hurt and mad, do these four things:
- Remember that you have infinite value. Your value isn’t affected by her opinions about you or how she treats you. You are bulletproof, and she cannot diminish your value or make you feel bad without your permission. You are safe and whole no matter what she says or does.
- Remember she is in your life for a reason. She is a teacher to help you learn to love yourself and others at a deeper level (we know this because it is the purpose of everything in the classroom of life). When you see her mistreatment or lack of interest in you as today’s lesson, which is giving you the chance to practice loving a difficult person, you won’t take it personally and you will rise to the occasion.
- See her as the same as you. Don’t treat her like the bad guy. She is just a struggling student in the classroom of life, who is doing the best she can with what she knows. She, just like all of us, needs more education and growth. But she has the same infinite value as you do. All human beings have the same value regardless of the amount of education they still need. You can consciously choose to see her intrinsic value.
- Shower her with kindness. Compliment, appreciate and validate her. Forgive her for being incapable of love and handling things badly. Be kind because it's the person you have decided to be. Ask questions about her and her kids and let the conversations be all about them. But instead of resenting that, give it to her as a gift freely given. She isn’t taking this from you. You are giving it to her.
In your email you said, “I cannot overcome my angry feelings towards her.” But this is not true. You can let go and change how you feel. You just haven’t been ready to do it yet. You may subconsciously think you must hold onto your anger to protect yourself. A lot of abused people feel this way, but your anger is hurting you more than it’s protecting you.
I promise seeing her accurately and understanding it’s only hurt people who hurt people will help you to let it go. Being angry doesn’t hold her accountable, it is not revenge, it doesn’t protect you and it doesn’t fix or help the situation in any way. Your angry feelings are causing you to suffer. As you go through the four steps mentioned above you will be choosing trust and love over fear and you can let it go.
You also said “My initial thought is to discuss my feelings with my father, but I do not know if this is a good choice.” I would guess, at some level, your father already knows how you feel. He just doesn’t know what to do about it. He doesn't have the “people skills” to handle this or he would have. I think you are in a better position to change this — with your love — on your own.
There is a great worksheet on my website called "The To Be or Not To Be Offended Worksheet" marked with a yellow star, which may help too.
It will be a process to shift your perspective, but you can do it.