“Ask a Priest: How Can I Deal With Negative Relatives?”

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Q: For quite some time I have felt like a complete failure. This prevents me from doing even the smallest things without feeling insecure and worthless. The people in my family are good, but when I was growing up they were also very strict. As a child I was horrified of sitting on the floor or getting the smallest piece of dirt in my clothes because I knew that if I did, there would be lots of angry yelling at me. Later in life, family members that I appreciated very much would spend long periods of time criticizing things my older cousins did or said — things that sometimes weren’t even inherently bad. I have slowly developed a mix of love, fear and need to please them, but this is making me cry almost every day. This year I’m going to enter college to study painting and restoration, and choosing this career path and not something engineering or business related created a lot of conflict with family members. However, I have never had talent, pleasure or even interest for the numerical disciplines. I really think my vocation is somewhere else, probably in sacred art. However, they are sure I will change my mind after a year, and every day make little mean comments that are slowly piercing me like “Yeah, well, you chose that career because life has always been so easy for you. For us it was different and the only thing we wanted was to have a secure job, etc.” My family has been a support for sure and I’m grateful, but they also make me feel guilty and anxious. I don’t feel comfortable at home. If I talk to them, they say I’m way too sensitive (which is probably in part true), or they laugh it off, or don’t give it any importance. Sorry for this long e-mail, but you are the first person I share this with and I needed to get it off my chest. Thank you so much for reading it. – A.R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I’m sorry to hear about the family situation. My heart goes out to you.

Unfortunately, some households are saturated in criticism. Perhaps your parents or other family members grew up in similar households, and now they are repeating the mistakes they learned.

A few ideas might be worth keeping in mind.

First, while you should be loving and respectful toward your family, you shouldn’t allow their negativity to damage your self-image. You are a beloved daughter of God, and his love for you doesn’t depend on your “being perfect.”

We are all a work in progress, and while we need to work on overcoming our faults, we shouldn’t feel like failures because we don’t live up to others’ opinions.

Second, you want to avoid repeating this pattern of negativity that you experienced at home. This isn’t God’s perfect plan for you. He doesn’t want you to get down on yourself. Nor does he want others to browbeat you.

So, what to do? Here it would be good to cultivate a solid life of prayer and the sacraments. Seek out a solid, regular confessor or spiritual direction who can help you keep a balanced perspective.

Given the psychological wounds you are carrying, it might be good to seek out a good therapist, perhaps a Catholic one. Sometimes we need healing at different levels, in addition to the spiritual realm.

And try to seek out activities and people who will help you to thrive and develop your talents and interests. Ultimately you are the one who has to make decisions about the direction of your life.

Obviously, the dynamics with your family won’t change overnight. But it is important that you keep certain goals on the horizon and work toward them.

If family members criticize you repeatedly about something, you might consider telling them politely that you understand their concerns, but that you don’t need to be told about them again and again.

If the old criticisms do come up again, you might consider changing the topic of conversation and moving on. Do that often enough, and folks will get the idea that their barbs are falling on deaf ears.

This isn’t to say you should tune out your family totally. I’m sure they love you and want the best for you. But their toxic talk has to cease and desist.

Another suggestion: If you will be living on a campus, it would be good to research ahead and see how you can connect with a good Catholic community when you arrive.

If there is a solid Newman Center or FOCUS chapter on campus, that might do the trick.

You need to be around people who lift you up, not wear you down. Count on my prayers.


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  1. Oh what a question this is. Negativity is something all on this ‘fleshly world’ must deal with. Our Savior dealt with it all the time by those Pharisees with long Phalacteries they carried on sleeve or around their head. (the right and wrongs, as they pharisees of the temple determined) If Jesus healed on the sabbath, they didn’t cheer the healing, they rebuked that he dishonored the Sabbath, If He ate with sinners they assumed He was condoning sin, but we know different, He was HATING THE SIN and teaching ‘not to sin.’ When the crowds were about to toss stones at the woman ‘charged with adultery’ (forgetting it takes two to commit that sin) Jesus ‘kneeled to ground’ and began writing in the dirt . . . speculation was He was letting them know ‘their sin’ . . . as He simply said ‘He without sin, cast the first stone.’

    On a personal note, when I entered the elementary school and the playground, being quiet type (maybe timid or shy in younger years) For my quiet demeanor some would taunt with ‘dumb’ ‘ugly’ whatever (kid stuff) my wise mom said two words: IGNORE THEM. I obeyed. Went to school, did as ought, studied for tests and got ‘good report cards’ . . . Those who taunted, well they were growing up also… so it sort of waned… those who still struggled with THEIR OWN sense of GOOD, remained ‘taunters’ and every now and again God allows them to cross our adult path. SOMETIMES they speak just to ‘show what they know’ believing “I” will believe them who are ‘so successful.’ IGNORE THE HUMAN WORDS… (sometimes hard) BUT IGNORE THE HUMAN WORDS and if you feel called to pursue an artistic career . . . if GOD put it in your mind. . . IT WILL BE SO. If as you study the subject, you find out MAYBE it would be better if . . . PRAY OVER THE OPTIONS… pray aka think and reflect AND you’ll find ‘your place’

    As you and your otherwise good relatives GROW aka MATURE… ‘they’ won’t even remember what they said. If they are older and still negative to you… it is because THEY need to up their own weak esteem. PRAY FOR THEM, encourage them in their abilities, (change the topic as Father said aka LEAD THE DISCUSSION) don’t BE PULLED DOWN by some, BE THE ONE WHO ‘PULLS UP’ those seeing life with negativity. PRAISE
    THEM… that’s really what they seek.

  2. A further word on those ‘doom and gloom’ ‘woe is me, woe is me’ folk… that crop up in workplaces, classrooms, neighborhoods . . . EVERYTHING is always SO BAD, SO WRONG. . .UNFAIR. . . .

    THINK where you first heard this type of negativity? OH yea, those teen years in the high school hallway of the 60s thru to the 21st century. I finally made the connection between PEOPLE who have HOPE (and WORK at whatever they must work at) and those wailing and grinding the teeth and cursing and swearing at life. READY? YES, the HAPPIEST PERSONS (not giggly happy) but just a peaceful ‘content’ happy . . . are those who attend to the church, the Sacramental life, those who ARE CLOSE to him. The word is CONTENTMENT… one job is sufficient, share a home with one’s parents who are blessed to have a home to share (or share an apartment with parents) ie: don’t JUST LIVE for self when single. SINGLE is a vocation to be there for one’s parents getting old. IT IS OK. Don’t worry what others say about it.

    DO WHATEVER job you were given to do, be happy GOD picked you for the job (that brings spiritual growth to know, love, and serve God)

    NEGATIVE folks are those who don’t know God. They are ‘in the world’ and running like crazy on a treadmill trying to please many, and attain ‘lots of stuff’ . . . and they lose sight of GOD… aka LOVE. Nothing we can do about negative types (and yes, everyone is pemitted a few little gripes here and there) BUT THOSE WHO JUST CAN’T SEE ‘ANY GOOD’ in life, themselves, and others… keep a cordial distance and do not get pulled down.

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