Perhaps over the holidays you had a difficult conversation or two with a family member. (I sure did!) In every family there are difficult moments, delicate conversations, or family members with whom it is just plain challenging to get along. I recently read Jane Austen’s Persuasion and found in Anne Elliot, the novel’s heroine, a guide for navigating trying family situations with acumen and grace. Anne has lived through a trying family situation for years. Her mother died when she was fourteen, and Anne is the only thoughtful person in her vain and foolish family. Her father and sisters have driven the family into bankruptcy. Anne somehow manages to navigate her family drama with grace and poise, even as her opinion is neglected and her company is spurned by those who should be closest to her.
How does Anne manage to be calm and resigned in such circumstances, instead of angry and bitter? What is her secret for letting a multitude of injustices not ruffle her feathers? As I read, I found myself pondering these questions and making mental notes for how to learn from her example. Here are three strategies I learned from Anne for dealing with difficult family members and tough situations:
01. Take breaks.
Anne is the queen of the disappearing act. There are plenty of moments when Anne simply needs a few minutes to process what just happened or to gain control of her emotions before she faces a situation again. For instance, after a conversation with her love interest, Captain Wentworth, she is “fit only for home, where she might be sure of being as silent as she chose.” Elsewhere, when she is overwhelmed after Wentworth shows her some very deliberate interest, she is “in need of a little interval for recollection.” Anne clearly knows that it is much better to take a few moments of silence and space to herself than it is to try to continue to deal with a situation when she is not in full control of herself.
Don’t be afraid to take the breaks you need. This may be as simple as a quick trip to the bathroom or to grab your sweater from your car. However, there are also times when you need more substantial breaks. This can be true especially if you are staying at someone else’s home for an extended period of time. It’s okay to head out to grab coffee or go for a walk. It is significantly better to take a break to give yourself a little breathing space from difficult environments than to snap at people because you’ve been in that environment for too long. I’m a very strong introvert, so it’s especially challenging for me to be in environments with lots of TV, nonstop conversation, too many people, etc., for more than a few hours without getting a break to recharge.
02. Turn your filter on!
Anne visits her sister and brother-in-law and is caught in the middle of domestic conflict between her sister and her sister’s in-laws. Each party complains to Anne about the other, wanting her to tell the other how they ought to change their ways. Anne, instead of fueling the gossip and drama, relays only the information that is actually helpful to the other party. “She could do little more than … give them all hints of the forbearance necessary between such near neighbours, and make those hints broadest which were meant for her sister’s benefit.” It is interesting that nowhere does Austen say that Anne tells the others that these “hints” are coming from the other person. Anne does not indicate that someone has asked her to say this, and she most certainly does not convey all of what was told to her. Rather, she filters through the conversations and chooses what is helpful for the other to hear.
It is essential for us to filter what thoughts we choose to verbalize. In most conversations, the person to whom we are speaking doesn’t need to know all the details that she may be fishing for, eager for the latest gossip. Wedding planning drama? Don’t share it all. Budget issues? Don’t share that either. Not every question needs a direct answer, especially if the person will share the information with the entire world. (Of course, you need to use your own prudential judgment here: your significant other, for example, deserves the whole story; your mother’s friend does not.) Not every juicy detail needs to be repeated. Filter, filter, filter.
03. Take charge!
When her cousin has an accident and is severely injured from a fall, Anne takes charge of the situation and starts making decisions about what must be done. The others who are there have no idea what to do and stand paralyzed, asking her for instructions. Because Anne has the capacity to deal with the situation and rises to the occasion, those with her look to her for guidance. During the conversations that follow the accident, Captain Wentworth declares that there is “no one so proper, so capable as Anne!”
Sometimes, it’s okay to take charge. Obviously, this depends on the people you are with in that moment. In some situations, there are just too many cooks in the kitchen, and it’s better to back away slowly. Other times, though, it’s perfectly fine to step in and propose your own vision for how to solve the situation or what is the best course of action. This could be as simple as proposing a different, creative way to schedule the day so that everything is able to happen. Or, if everyone is fighting about what movie to watch, it’s OK to step in and suggest people vote on several options. Although Anne was calmly resigned to being treated unjustly for years, she was not a wallflower. She was ready to direct the action when necessary and to do her part to help the situation.
Persuasion’s Anne Elliot may be a fictional character and a woman of the nineteenth century, but she’s surprisingly relatable, especially in a trying family setting. Take breaks so that you have the space and sanity that you need to deal with difficult situations (introverts, I’m looking at you! And myself). Filter your comments based on the topic and audience. And sometimes, just step in and take charge, or at least propose a course of action. Then maybe you will be hailed, like Anne at the end of the book, as a “too good, too excellent creature!”