book reviews, family, mental health, overly helpful people, psychology

Repost: A review of When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People…

I originally wrote this review for Epinions in 2006. I am reposting it here as/is. I had reposted it on the original version of this blog, but that post included a time sensitive anecdote that is no longer relevant. So here’s the review on its own, as it was originally written fifteen years ago. Maybe this book is still as helpful as I found it back then.

I realize that since the holidays of 2005 have already passed, this review of Dr. Leonard Felder’s 2003 self help book When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity might be a tad tardy. On the other hand, the month of January has always seemed to me to be a time custom made for personal change. With the idea of personal change in mind, consider the following questions. Do your relatives make you crazy at family gatherings? Do they harangue you about the way you look, your job, your marital status, or your place in life? Do you find it unbearable to spend more than a few hours with your family? Do you feel like you’re out of the loop when it comes to important family decisions? Do you dread the holidays because it means you’ll be expected to hang around your family for long periods of time? If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, Dr. Felder’s book might be a big help to you.

Dr. Leonard Felder is a Los Angeles based licensed psychologist and co-author of another family oriented book, Making Peace With Your Parents. I had never heard of Dr. Felder prior to finding this book, but he’s appeared on Oprah, CNN, CBS’ The Early Show, NBC News, A.M. Canada, National Public Radio, and ABC Talkradio. I discovered When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People quite by accident. I got an email from Barnes and Noble alerting me to a large post holiday sale. I’m a sucker for sales and I’m always looking for new books. I managed to pick up a brand new hardcover copy of this book for about $4. Considering the fact that I’m a public health social worker by training and someone who has a hard time hanging around my own family, I figured it would be a fine addition to my personal library. Having just read When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People, I can understand why Felder is so popular. He has an easy to understand, conversational writing style that I found easy to relate to. He also offers advice that is both easy to follow and practical, while still reminding his readers that they can’t control other peoples’ thoughts or emotions, but they can control how they react when relatives start to pluck their nerves.

Dr. Felder uses interesting and realistic scenarios to get his point across to his readers. I often found myself nodding my head as I recognized some of the situations that I’ve found myself in when I’ve dealt with my family. For example, I have three older sisters who are driven career women. All three of my sisters keep themselves looking beautiful and polished most of the time, as they pursue their lofty professional goals. I’ve often caught a lot of grief from my family because I’m more of a housewife than a career woman.

I work as a freelance writer on an occasional basis. I’m more comfortable in sweats with my face unpainted and my hair unstyled. My lifestyle works for me and my husband, Bill, but that doesn’t always stop my family members from harassing me about the fact that I’m not like them. Consequently, I often find myself avoiding family get-togethers and hating every minute of them when I can’t avoid them. I love each individual member of my family, but not when we’re all together and personalities start to clash. Dr. Felder offers constructive ideas on what to do if you have a sister who is narcissistic and obnoxious, or a father who gets on your case about your employment status, or a mother who picks on you about your weight. He also offers assurance that family troubles are not unusual. There’s no reason to feel like a freak because you can’t get along with the people who created you. It happens to a lot of people. Dr. Felder’s book offers hope and a chance to make those visits with family more bearable and constructive.

One thing I did notice about When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People is that it does seem a little bit skewed toward those of the Jewish faith (which I am not). Dr. Felder is himself a Reform Jew, so he sometimes uses examples that will be more familiar to those who share his religious preference. However, I will note that Felder is careful to explain whenever he includes a cultural term with which his audience may not be familiar. For instance, when he uses a Yiddish term like mensch, he explains to his readers who may be unfamiliar with the term that mensch is a Yiddish word for “good person”. Felder’s explanations make the book accessible to everyone, but they also reveal that the book is slightly bent toward people of a certain culture. It’s only natural, though, that writers tend to write best when they focus on writing about what they know; Judaism is certainly something about which Dr. Felder knows.

When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People is divided into ten chapters that are dedicated to certain common issues. For example, Felder devotes whole chapters on dealing with religious disagreements, family battles about food, weight, clothes, and appearance, getting past drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behaviors, and relatives who are just plain intolerant. At the end of the book, there’s an appendix as well as a list of suggested reading and sources. I was happy to see that Dr. Felder suggested a book that I read and reviewed last year on Epinions.com, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress by Mary Edwards Wertsch— an excellent book for people who have family in the military.

The 2005 holiday season is now a memory. If you’re currently breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays are over because you found hanging out with your family stressful this past year, I urge you to read Dr. Leonard Felder’s book, When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People. Even if none of the scenarios in this book apply to you, you may find yourself comforted at least in the knowledge that you’re not alone. There’s no need to feel badly just because your family makes you crazy. As Dr. Felder points out in his book’s title, it happens to the very best of people.

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