Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person with a challenging family member

9 Ways to Cope With Challenging Family Members as an HSP

When you’re an HSP dealing with a difficult family member, treating your interaction like a work meeting can help keep the peace.

Over the years, it’s safe to say I’ve had more than my fair share of challenging family members thrown at me. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I feel things more deeply, whether it’s crying more easily than others or absorbing their thoughts and feelings — if they’re sad, I’ll feel sad; if they’re happy, I’ll feel happy. 

And, due to my higher sensitivity, when it comes to dealing with challenging family members, it’s led to a range of difficulties and unpleasant emotions, from anger and sadness to feeling invalidated (emotionally) and being downright anxious. 

But I believe us HSPs are strong and we do not need to suffer. Through trial and error, I’ve learned to better cope with challenging family members and want you to know that it’s definitely possible.    

9 Ways to Cope With Challenging Family Members as an HSP    

1. Take back control of the situation while keeping your well-being in mind.       

If a relative presents you with tales of woe, remember that it’s their drama, not yours. Let us pause for a moment. What do they want to achieve? Do they want a reaction? Or do they want to vent? In which case, we HSPs are well-equipped at providing the empathy they require, but we have to remember our own well-being, too, while lending them an ear. 

Perhaps they are not even aware of the effect they are having on our feelings. Maybe they are used to getting what they want though guilt-tripping and manipulation. The way I have come to look at it is to assess the situation objectively:

  • Person A = Drama
  • As Person B, we need to diffuse the situation as calmly as possible without exhausting our mental strength in the process. Assess. Assess. Assess. 
  • Before consulting with Person C (and/or Person D) to relay the situation to them (and thus perhaps exacerbate matters), perhaps see if Person A can be diffused by either changing the subject or just agreeing with what they say to humor them (sometimes this is easiest all around).

2. Behold the power of the speakerphone (assuming you are in a private place, of course).

Provided you take a call at home or some other quiet, private space, never underestimate the power of the speakerphone as an HSP. I once (read: many many times) had a hysterical, rambling relative on the phone, telling me about their many various problems and general misery. Of course, I had a mountain of empathy for them, but after years and years (and more years) of this, sometimes after a long day (and with my own problems to deal with), it would have a big impact on me. So to protect myself — energetically and emotionally — I started putting the calls on speakerphone. As an HSP, this lifted some of the heavy weight of emotions I was feeling. It was instant relief and I immediately felt less overwhelmed

3. Treat your interaction like a work meeting.

Try taking a professional approach when dealing with challenging family members. If you were going to a work meeting, you would be aware of what’s going to be discussed and what your personal input would be. You would not bring up sensitive and highly charged subjects of contention from years ago that were irrelevant to the present-day meeting. Nor would your coworkers. (At least I hope not.) 

So it can save you a whole lot of hassle if you prepare yourself for your “meetings” with challenging family members. There can be safe subjects that you know will keep the peace. Perhaps even funny and sweet stories that will always lighten the mood (thank you, children, for your cute little antics). But, above all, it works wonders when you take the time to write down (in advance) the areas which are not up for discussion when you meet with the person. If they bring certain subjects up which are potentially volatile, gently steer them back to the main purpose of the “meeting,” like a family day out, for example.

4. Set boundaries and limit what you share about yourself.

Limit their grip on you. This quite often requires the help of a professional therapist (since setting boundaries can be challenging for highly sensitive people), but for the day-to-day, information and knowledge is key. The more you hold back, the less they know about you. 

We HSPs can be experts in retreating and hiding in our inner world, so this should not be too difficult when applied. The less they know about you, the less strings they can pull. Recreate your personal HSP strengths; in other words, reframe the way you see the world: You will survive (perhaps with a few battle scars), but you will survive. 

And if you are fortunate enough to have geographical distance from the toxic family member(s), even better. But, either way, if you have been humiliated, manipulated, lied to, or taken for granted time and time again by certain relatives, then remember: You do not owe them anything. You can, of course, be civil, but you can also be civil to anybody! Step back and save yourself the heartache by limiting what you emotionally invest in these toxic people.  

5. Behold the power of the life grid: family only accounts for one of the nine squares.

Look to the power of the grid of life. Dr. Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, created a whole life grid: there are three rows and columns of boxes, creating a total of nine squares of equal size: 

  • Contribution
  • Hobby 
  • Leisure
  • Family 
  • Alone time (my personal favorite!)
  • Personal Growth
  • Work
  • Relationship
  • Friends

She then lists recommendations to write in each box. It is worth reminding ourselves, HSPs, that family is just one area of our life grid. When family members are challenging your limits, perhaps it is time to take a step back and revisit the other areas of your life grid. This creates a welcome distraction and encourages us to look at the bigger picture. By focusing on other areas of our life, we can take time to consciously invest in our health and well-being rather than exhausting ourselves trying to defend, justify, or protect ourselves against the challenging family member.

6. Alcohol is a big no-no: it will only increase your anxiety (which is not the point).

I have recently experienced the direct correlation between alcohol consumption and anxiety. Following a couple of glasses of wine after a long dry period, I suddenly experienced heightened levels of anxiety the next day. I knew the alcohol had to go

As an HSP, I tend to get stuck in ruts of various emotional thought patterns, sometimes positive and sometimes less so. When challenging family members’ repeated negative behavior grinds me down, adding alcohol to the mix can be lethal for my well-being (I’m sure many HSPs out there can relate). And, as tempting as it may be to just let go and have a drink, it may make challenging family members harder to deal with. 

The best way we highly sensitive types can manage challenging family members is to be as healthy, clear-headed, and emotionally stable as possible. Alcohol can all too often make us susceptible to even more suffering.  

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7. Look forward, not backward: The past is the past.

Look forward. not backward, HSP. I am learning the hard (and slow) way that the past is the past. There is no going back, and sometimes reliving experiences from the past involving challenging family members just further fuels the fire of resentment, anger, shame, and hostility. 

There is something wonderful about taking back control of your life and your future. If you are fortunate enough to be able to put some distance between you and your challenging family members, remember that the future holds the key. There is so much to be gained by looking forward. 

Through self-help books and articles, I have managed to heal at least some of the wounds of the past and have realized that I am no longer interested in emotionally investing myself in challenging family members. With no expectations of them, there can be no disappointment. I am no longer waiting for emotional validation from those challenging family members, as I did not receive it previously and do not expect to receive it from them anytime soon. So with that in mind, I am moving forward and not backward.     

8. Put your HSP powers to good use and make the first move.                   

As an HSP, it can be incredibly challenging when the status quo is rocked, especially when a family unit is reshuffled, like if your parents separate and then meet new partners. It can be uncomfortable to invite a new person into your family — and you may not bond right away (if at all) — and yet it is a fact of life for many of us. But it is never easy. 

For highly sensitive people, this can be even more challenging. Even if the circumstances are not ideal in which people you barely know suddenly become “family,” I would suggest that you put your best foot forward and greet them into your family with trust, respect, and kindness. When we put our HSP powers to good use and are sensitive toward others, we always get the best out of them and, equally, out of future relationships with them.    

9. Consistency is key: have a zero-tolerance attitude toward manipulative behavior.

You may find that if, like me, you are an HSP who’s previously been exposed to narcissistic, manipulative family members; at the time, you may not have been fully aware of their toxic influence. As time’s gone by and I have matured, I have begun to take a zero-tolerance attitude toward this kind of behavior. I am no longer responding to manipulative behavior.

I feel that narcissists love to take advantage of HSPs’ good nature, and it’s wise to be wary of this. By consistent responses and not succumbing to any pressure, you will eventually find that the challenging family member backs down as they will realize they cannot control or manipulate you any longer.

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