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5 Tips for Talking to Nosy Relatives About Your Mental Illness

The holidays are a time where relatives often come together, whether for good or for ill. And for those of us who are ill, it can sometimes contribute to that part of our lives. Family support is important, but when your relatives won’t stop asking questions or offering unnecessary advice, it can get overwhelming. Here’s your guide to surviving the nosy relatives of your holiday season.

Note: You know your family best — if any of these points sound like they won’t be effective for you, don’t do them. Your results may vary on all these suggestions, but these are some strategies that help me.

1. Changing the topic can work wonders.

Whether your relatives see and respect the topic change, or let it whiz right past them without realizing what you’re doing, a good old-fashioned “Oh hey, that reminds me!” goes a long way. For example, if someone asks why you don’t have a job yet, a great response is something like, “It’s complicated. But I hear cousin George has a new job doing fecal transplants. That sounds fascinating.” Or if you’re feeling spunky: “Have you tried the fruitcake yet? It’s truly delicious.” Topic changes are especially great for those awkward lulls in conversation after things have turned to a truly uncomfortable subject.

2. Honesty is (sometimes) the best policy.

Sometimes being grossly honest is the way to go. If your relative asks why you’re not eating enough, you can stay straight out, “Well, I’m getting over a nasty case of the eating disorders so sometimes food is a little hard for me.” This is best if you know your family has some awareness of mental illnesses and is likely to respect boundaries. It can absolutely be intimidating, but you’d also be surprised how supportive some people are once they know what’s actually going on.

3. Recruit a friend.

During the holidays, I often question whether I’m being oversensitive. For a while, I thought I was just a mean, nasty person because I had a hard time being around my grandmother, who can seem overbearing. This year, I talked to my dad about it and he confirmed she can be somewhat on the abrasive side. It helps to know I’m not making it up or ruining the holiday. Having someone else whose eye you can catch or who can laugh uncomfortably with you goes a long way.

On that note, it helps to prep your closest family members. That way, you’ll have someone willing to swoop in and either explain or distract as necessary. For example, anxiety and I have a close relationship, which is made worse by holidays and large groups of people. I pretty regularly sneak off for a few minutes (or hours) on my own to read a book or just decompress. When I give my dad a heads up, he makes excuses for me. This way, my family doesn’t feel unwanted or ask if I’m feeling OK when I get back.

I also have some family members who like to push my buttons, and when I talk to my parents they’re usually really good about inserting themselves into a conversation for me.

4. Set your boundaries.

Setting boundaries is a skill, and it’s one you can learn with practice. With some people, being straightforward that you don’t want to discuss something is a good option. Ideally, you can describe what they’re doing, tell them how it affects you and ask them to stop. Then you can introduce a consequence if they don’t stop. For example, if someone keeps asking you about your mental health in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can say, “You keep asking me personal questions. It makes me uncomfortable. Let’s talk about something else, otherwise I’m going to go hang out with the kids for a little bit.”

This may seem mean or as if you’re stirring up drama, but you have every right to ask a family member to respect your boundaries. Think about how much you’re willing to disclose ahead of time, and then decide if you want to set and enforce a boundary with those who continue talking and asking.

5. Have a sense of humor.

If having a sense of humor is how you cope, embrace it. “Oh, it’s time to talk about personal health issues now? Do tell me about yours!” Humor often gets the point across quite quickly.

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