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DEALING WITH TRICKY FAMILY MEMBERS (1)

Audio Video

Recognise where self-preservation may have been misconstrued.

Over the years, I’ve heard from lots of siblings who feel as if their sibling carries resentment because they were ‘good’, or they didn’t argue or even fight back when there was chaos going on at home. It could even be that it wasn’t that there was major drama going on per se at home but more that them being a certain way was construed as making another sibling look bad, so there’s this pervasive sense of, Who I am is wrong.

The thing is, as a kid, you’re just doing the best that you can with the knowledge and experience that you have at the time. We’ve all developed coping mechanisms for certain things that helped us to feel OK about certain experiences or emotions that have previously taxed us.

If you have a sibling that seems to resent you for not battling in the same way that they did or for you being ‘good’ or whatever it was, three key things will help you to be more boundaried with them where you can feel less tricky on your end of things:

#1 Empathise with your younger self because it’s very possible that you’ve spent so much time invalidating your own experiences and perspective because of your siblings resentful reminders, that it’s taking a gradual toll on your sense of self – Unsent Letters and letters to your younger self work very well here. It’s important to note that many people pleasers and perfectionists often saw another sibling or family member experiencing what they felt were terrible consequences (through a child’s eye) for certain things or realised that if they were compliant in ways that others weren’t, that they were spared ‘bad consequences’ plus they may have gained praise and strokes.

#2 Recognise that they may misconstrue what may very well have been self-preservation and survival on your part, for you not having their back. You may not be aware of some specific and painful things that he/she has been through and that pain for them is being displaced into anger at you. You are not to blame for what they may have been through but if you recognise what might be the baggage behind the tricky or at least the possibility of the existence of it, you will not only be more boundaried because you will stop feeling responsible for their feelings and behaviour but you may have an opening to attempting to communicate with your sibling from a different place.

Broach the subject of the tension from a different place.

This only applies if you genuinely want to try to build new bridges or at least clear the air. If your relationship is too far down the gone road, this is OK.

If you recognise that it’s very possible that things that you have done for your own survival (e.g. being a pleaser, avoiding conflict, being the responsible one) has been misconstrued as something ‘against’ them, again, don’t take the blame for that – sit down and be open to having a discussion about how you each see each other. One of the things that saddens me is that a lot of people pleasers go unrecognised for how much emotional turmoil has contributed to their habits. People mistakenly think that they want to be Goody Two Shoes and make others look bad – no they don’t!

Explain, do not justify your position. Example (and this is from a real situation that occurred with a student I helped through a sister issue):

She told her sister that she knew that she had some anger towards her because she kept referencing her being “good” and not fighting back with their tyrannical father. She explained that she didn’t do any of these things because she didn’t love her siblings; she was absolutely terrified of what he would do to her and at a young age had realised that if she could stay on his good side, she could stay out of trouble. She then asked her sister for her side and her sister admitted that she had experienced abuse that hadn’t been known about by [my student].

For the first time, they were really seeing each other and instead of being against each other, they were together.

They both acknowledged each other’s perspectives and apologised, not because they were responsible for each other’s pain with their father, but because of how they’d been with each other. They are able to support each other through the grief that they’ve each felt and have begun to build a wonderful bond.

 

Stop over-apologising and go easy on the guilt.

If you have a sibling that it feels as if you have apologised for the same thing over and over again, stop apologising. No one, even a sibling, has license to keep beating you over the head.

“I’ve apologised to you ______ and _______ and _______ over the years for ___________ but I can’t and won’t do it anymore. I’ve apologised that you felt _______ (or whatever it was) but I cannot take responsibility any longer for how you are feeling or the way in which you’re behaving. I can’t force you to move on but I cannot be a party to this anymore. Either tell me what you think needs to happen in order for us to move forward and let’s see if we can find something workable, or let’s just live and let live.”

Sometimes a person is stuck in a cycle of communicating through venting, arguing and complaining because their mentality is very much one of being the victim – they become entrenched in that. Being asked about what they want to do or what they want to happen next, focuses on action.
If your sibling tries to dump blame on you for stuff, an quick and easy way to make your boundary clear is, “I don’t take responsibility for that” or “I don’t take responsibility for _____________” and be specific so that it’s clear about what they cannot dump on you.

 

It’s not easy being half or step-siblings.

While blended families can make for some great times, sometimes, the kids within them have unexpressed and unresolved feelings and ideas. There can be jealousy, concerns about favouritism, not knowing their place, problems with one or both or even all three parents, and sometimes, there’s a spot of making up history based on biases towards a story that they’ve been telling themselves. This can mean that a half or step-sibling can have based their whole antagonism towards you on this idea that you, for instance, spent more time with other half-siblings when you were growing up, feeding this idea that they’re the odd one out… and then it turns out that they have their facts wrong. As is the case with other sibling tensions, if you want to attempt to move things forward, it will involve shifting away from script and having an open, honest conversation where you try to see each other more clearly and relate as two adults.

 

If your parents have a part in this, acknowledge it.

It might not have been intentional but in some instances, tension with siblings is directly related to things that the parents have said and done. While many parents are trying their best with the best of what they knew at that time, where TFM situations become tricky with siblings is when your parents get involved as if you’re still in the back garden squabbling over whose turn it is on the swing.

One of the things that a parent needs to do when they have more than one child, is to let their children learn how to navigate conflict and criticism, as it also plays a part in how we all engage in these as adults.

When a parent advocates primarily for one sibling or conflict is forbidden, or things descend into chaos, or the parent doesn’t set certain boundaries such as allowing for conflict but drawing a line at name calling, abuse, and anything else inappropriate, or they are actually divisive or don’t teach values about team work, sisterhood, brotherhood etc, it’s no wonder the siblings don’t get on.

As adults, we can change this. I know that for some parents, they get all fluttery and twitchy about the idea of their kids “not getting on” but everyone gets on better when they’re not swallowing down their feelings.

“Mom/dad, I appreciate your concern but we’re not kids anymore and you need to give us the space to handle this”.

Also make boundaries clear with your sibling(s).

“If we have a disagreement, rather than any of us running to mom/dad first, let’s have a go at sorting it out amongst ourselves. If any of us need to talk to someone, let’s talk to someone that isn’t mom/dad because it puts them in the middle of stuff as if we’re still kids plus one of us is going to feel awkward”.

If you have a parent who is, what shall we say… inappropriate with you and your siblings and can in fact be quite divisive and even jealous, that parent has bad boundaries due to being in a child role, likely behaving as they do because of their own issues with their siblings— another way that this issue can play out is where your parent projects their sibling issues so each time you and your sibling ‘trigger’ him/her, they claim that you’re being just like their [problematic sibling].

If you have a generally good relationship with your sibling(s) until your parent gets involved, try to sit down and have a chat about how you will each handle things in future. If you each are more aware of it, you can be united in seeing it when it’s coming.

One of the things that siblings do is talk about their parents. A parent treating their child like a spouse or therapist to gripe about another sibling will impact the sibling relationships over time plus it induces guilt.

I’ve found it useful to set a clear boundary with my parents: “I’m sorry to hear that you’re having issues with _________ but I don’t want to be in the middle of things because it tends to backfire” OR “When you call me up and complain about [your sibling], it puts me in a compromising position. I’m sorry that you’re [whatever the issues is] but I know from previous experience that it’s best that I stay out of things. I hope you sort it out soon”.

Acknowledging the role your parents play isn’t about blame; it’s about acknowledging that this has been a journey. You cannot pretend that you have not been influenced in some way by past events but what you can do is recognise where you are so that you can be more mindful.

Let the ‘playa’ get on with it.

Some people are playas and a sibling who is like this, flutters around and makes one sibling or parent their favourite and then moves on to someone else when that purpose is served. Maybe they suddenly have a super close relationship with your mom but it’s really serving a purpose of being divisive and going, “Look, I have her now” type of thing. It’s not to say that this behaviour isn’t annoying but the more you show this sibling that you want the same thing that they do, is the more that they dig their heels in, so don’t rise to the bait. It does not mean that they’re ‘winning’; it’s not about winners or losers – don’t fall in to the trap of thinking about things in their terms. Which leads neatly to…

 

But do not step aside.

I always feel really bad for anyone who feels as if they have to lie about how much time they spend with another sibling or their parent because they’re afraid of another sibling’s reaction or who, on seeing that their playa sibling is making a play for a close relationship that they have, decides to just step back. Stop dimming your light and making way for them. You are entitled to a relationship with your parents or other sibling. If this sibling makes a play for your friendships, stop inviting her out.

Guilt and fear of reprisals is never a good reason to include any person in your social life, never mind your sibling.

It’s not as if you can go around pretending that you don’t care about someone just so that your sibling can feel that the person is less valued and approved of and so as such, not worthy of him/her trying to make a play for that relationship. Their behaviour reflects deep insecurity and no matter what you say or do, until they change their relationship with themselves, all you stepping aside or propping up their ego is doing, is providing temporary relief. They will feel natural consequences when you wide berth them in the areas where you know they cross your line.

No seriously, stop dimming your light.

If you’ve been doing this, it’s been with loving intentions but it’s not good for either of you. Same if they’ve been doing that for you. It’s a habit based on old childhood reasoning that is keeping each of you small either in reality or in the other person’s mind. Sometimes it’s not so much what you do but why you do it and much as the original intentions are about protection, it’s damaging and leads to resentment due to one feeling owed (for holding back) and the other feeling patronised in some way. You’re not responsible for each others’ feelings. You’re not hogging up their quota nor are they doing it to yours. When you separate and own your own identities and paths, you can truly appreciate not just each other but also yourself instead of being defined by extension of being a sibling.

 

You don’t have to socialise with siblings or include them to such a deep extent.

It’s really important to cultivate your own lives, your own friendships, your own everything. We spend enough time sharing when we’re kids. I’m not saying that sharing is a bad thing but if you and your sibling are defined by the relationship (being siblings) instead of you each having definition as individuals, you will be enmeshed, just as discussed in Day 17 about parents. You won’t know where one ends and the other begins. You will feel responsible for their feelings and there will be resentment between you both, some of it based on irrational stuff from the past and all of it unresolved.

 

You each need to stand on your own two feet.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t spend time with your sibling; it means that you stop spending time with your sibling because you feel as if you have to or that you’re responsible for being the external solution to their internal issues. They will not be able to address any issues if you keep overcompensating for them.

Which brings me neatly to…

 

Stop positively reinforcing inappropriate behaviour.

Stop the insanity! Accept them for who they are, even if that means that you have to make adjustments to what you do. If your sibling isn’t good at keeping secrets or just having boundaries about what you share with him/her, stop telling them! You’re only telling them because you keep trying to throw them a bone to live up to what you feel a sibling ‘should’ be doing.

Stop telling them your business! It’s insanity – doing the same thing and expecting different results.

They’re not a ‘bad’ sibling if they can’t do certain things – they’re just not that kind of person and are influenced by their own habits. Stop giving them your back for them to put their foot in.

If they embarrass you when out socially, stop inviting them out. If they keep trying to sleep with your partners (or have), slam that boundary gate down so fast that they cannot get so much as a pube over it, never mind anything else.

You may be trying to include them in various ways to make your relationship deeper but it gets contrived when you’re ignoring who they are and instead are trying to get them to live up to an image. They’re not the person you want them to be. Build a relationship on who they are and stop judging you for who they’re not.

They’re a person first and foremost, so they have flaws just like everyone else that affect their entire life, not just being a sister or brother.

The upside is that if you stop engaging and stop rewarding when it’s inappropriate stuff, and instead, for instance, only return calls where they’re not sounding off at you and dumping everything at your door, a message gets sent down the proverbial line to them.

Your business is your business.

Just because you’re siblings, it does not mean that you need to tell them your salary, or how many people you’ve slept with, or how much savings you have or whatever. The same boundaries with everyone else applies here.

Their criticism (or concern about something) is just a form of feedback.

Just because a sibling says something, it doesn’t make it so.

Every person who makes a criticism is heavily influenced by their own perspective. Similar to with your parents, “I really appreciate your concern and I know that you’re worried that ____________ but I really am OK but thank you.”

Avoid opening conversations with criticism – this works across all types of relationships.

Instead of, “I’m really p-ssed off with you because you said/di ______”, go with, “Our relationship matters a great deal to me but when you said __________ (or you did __________) it really bothered me and I want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again because I value our relationship.”

 

Check in with you about unmet needs.

Look at Day 18 and go through the needs questions to examine whether some of your expectations of your sister/brother, are part of the tension you feel on your end. You might also find that asking you the same questions about his/her expectations of you will also reveal where they are crossing your boundaries due to unmet needs.

 

Let go of sides.

No matter what aspect of life it is, from the moment that you try to convince somebody to try to take your side, you’ve stopped being on your own side. There are situations in families where there may be abuse or secrets swept under carpets or there’s been a big bust-up of some sort and it may wound you to the core that your sibling doesn’t corroborate your version of events (even if the same thing happened to them) or that even if they do acknowledge what happened, that they don’t want to handle things in the same way that you do. It.is.hard. No two ways about it….but… you’re breaching your own boundaries and inadvertently crossing theirs in your quest to be right or to get them to see and do things in your way.

We all handle things differently. You, for instance, may be a lot more street smart, self-aware, more willing to rebuild your life, than a sibling who for whatever reason, healthy or not, they are not at a point where they can step away in the way that you have and might never be. It is a betrayal when a sibling denies something that you both know to be true and that’s a deep source of pain for you and may even have caused exclusion for you but remember that that person is betraying not just you but also themselves because of their own emotional pain and still being locked into a sense of loyalty about an unhealthy pattern.

It does not mean that you’re a liar or that you’re unwanted; some people are very attached to never ever confronting their feelings and experiences. If that means throwing people under a bus, including their sibling, they’ll do that, but never underestimate how that decision and the overall emotional chaos plays out in their life.

Yes, you will need to grieve the loss of the relationship and you will need to work on processing the pain of what you’ve been through and you will always miss that sibling but you are still a whole person who will get to live in a different way. The more that you try to convince them is the more unwarranted suspicion that you put on you plus you start unconvincing yourself in other areas. I cannot overemphasise the absolute necessity and abundant value of Unsent Letters, plus therapy and support groups can help you to come to terms with this.

If you are able to maintain a relationship with him/her, you don’t need to pretend that your truth isn’t your truth— you need to live and let live. As I said to a family member, “It’s OK for you to say or believe what you want to but I don’t share that same view. Each time we talk about this subject, we end up being annoyed with each other because we won’t come over to each other’s view. Let’s stop talking about him/her. Let’s live and let live and agree to disagree”.

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Remember, by being boundaried on your end, you are not taking responsibility for their feelings and behaviour but what you are doing is taking care of you and no longer participating in the dynamic in the same way. As a result, this alters the cues and triggers for them because you are no longer engaging and responding in the way in which they’ve come to expect.

JOURNALING: Do you think that, even if it wasn’t intentional, that there were things that were said and done by one or both parents that have sown some of the seeds of the tensions between you and your sibling? What are they and are any of these present right now? Are your sibling’s unmet needs revealing themselves in his/her thinking and behaviour towards you? Imagine that you had the opportunity to start afresh with your sibling but from an adult place – what are the first thoughts, fears, concerns that spring to mind? What is it that you would feel as if you needed to ‘forget’ or let go of? These are jumping off points for, yep, you guessed it— an Unsent Letter and/or using the Releasing Exercise in the Resources.