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#241: Am I my extremely difficult sister’s keeper?

Dear Captain Awkward, I would like some advice about a difficult family relationship.

My sister C’s been stuck in a loop for several years. She thinks that she’s worthless and that everyone hates her, so she spends most of her time at the computer instead of going out and doing things and meeting people, and this (“I never go out and do anything! I don’t have any friends!”) somehow becomes more proof of how worthless she is. And it’s as if every interaction with other people becomes hugely magnified to her because of this – if a stranger gives her an odd look she’ll analyze it for days and take it as proof that everyone really despises her.

This also makes her hard to live with, since it’s so hard to avoid hurting her feelings. She gets upset if someone else 1) doesn’t listen with sufficient interest when she’s telling them the latest news about her favourite celebrity, 2) says something mildly critical about something she likes (like a book or movie), or 3) accidentally uses a slightly brusque tone or a “cold” facial expression. Then she either cries, sulks or tells the offender at length what an unkind and inconsiderate person they are. If the offender gets visibly angry or asks her to stop doing this, she hears this as “You’re a horrible person and I hate you!”

We have this kind of fight about two or three times a week. I’ve been told by several people that I’m too blunt, so it’s probably partly my fault, but I try hard to be supportive and encouraging and not say or do anything she might think was hurtful. But eventually *something* always slips through my brain-to-mouth filter, and then she thinks I’m intentionally trying to hurt her (even when I’ve told her a dozen times that I’m not). I don’t want to hurt her, but I feel as if I’m always bending over backwards to avoid doing it and then she gets upset anyway (“That look you just gave me was really contemptuous!”) and I have to apologise for facial expressions I wasn’t aware of. And then I feel resentful. It’s not just me, the rest of the family gets drawn into this kind of argument with her as well, but I think I’m the one who does it the most.

C and I have both moved back in with our family for financial reasons (we’re both around 30), and I’m doing all I can, but I probably won’t be able to move for several months. So we’re stuck together, and we’re driving each other up the wall, and the whole family is worried about her.

Another thing: we have several relatives she pretty much won’t speak to because they’ve all done something at some point that made her think they despise her (or at least that they think they’re much, much better than her). If they invite her to a party or try to talk to her, she thinks they’re being condescending. She sulks if you mention their names or something that reminds her of them, and if you say something positive about them she gets angry – because we’re supposed to be on *her* side, she says. One of these relatives is a close friend of mine, and she’s very hurt and puzzled by the way C keeps avoiding her. I’m supposed to be on my sister’s “side”, but it’s hard to do when she’s being so completely unfair for no reason.

What can we do to convince C that she’s great and nobody hates her? How should I handle arguments with her? What can I tell our relatives who wonder what they’ve ever done to C? I’d be grateful for any suggestions.

Thanks!

Hello, Frustrated Sibling!

In answer to your questions:

1) “What can we do to convince C that she’s great and nobody hates her?”

Right now? You can do nothing to convince her of this. The C you describe is not so great. Paranoid? Completely self-centered? Throwing tantrums and looking for reason to take offense? Turning every imagined slight into a reason to take sides and proof you don’t love her? Making you always feel like you have to apologize?

If I met your sister right now at a party and observed 10 minutes of this behavior, she would go on my list of “Oh, you’re here. Looks like I need to be elsewhere!” people and then C. would talk about how I dislike her all night because I do not have a poker face (and she would be correct).

So what’s happening is that people are reacting negatively to C. (probably  because she is a soulsucking disaster to be around) and she’s picking up on that negativity. If you try to convince her that it’s not real and that she’s great, it’s not really helpful. You’re getting in the middle of the feedback loop. And it’s not really possible to convince her, because deep down on some level she knows she’s continually shitting the social bed and hates herself for it. More on that later.

2) “How should I handle arguments with her?”

Give her as little attention about them as possible. Boring, neutral, noncommittal answers. “Huh.” “Wow.” “I didn’t observe that.” “I’m sure you’re correct about that.” “Hmmmm.” “I’ll think about what you said.” Let her “win” arguments, if necessary, and by “win” I mean you win because you walk away and don’t have to be in the argument anymore. Stop apologizing for shit you didn’t do.

For example:

C: “That look you just gave me was really contemptuous!

You: “Huh.”

Invest in a good set of headphones. Your room has a door? Use it. Use it all the time. Get out of the house as much as possible. Take up a second part-time job, volunteering, social events, long walks – spend as little time around her as possible. Run every possible errand for your folks. Libraries are nice.

Try that for a while. See what happens.

3) “What can I tell our relatives who wonder what they’ve ever done to C?”

Try telling them nothing. Nothing is good. You’re not her translator or her social mediator. I mean, you have served/are serving in that role, but there is no rule that says you have to stay there, and since you want to change how you interact with C and how she interacts with others, getting yourself out of that role ASAP is a good idea.

So when C has some made-up conflict and a relative asks you why C is treating her badly or seems up set, answer with:

I have no idea. You should probably ask her directly.

And then change the subject to the weather or the lovely hat they are wearing.

I realize that all of this sounds harsh, and that C is your sister and you love her and you don’t want to (or can’t) really give her an African Violet and call it a day. C sounds deeply, deeply unhappy, and while we can’t diagnose mental illnesses secondhand through the internet, I feel safe in saying that SOMETHING is going on here and C should see a doctor for an overall physical checkup AND a mental health screening. (Commenters: We CAN’T and SHOULD NOT diagnose mental illnesses secondhand through the internet, even if the letter sounds really similar to stuff you’ve experienced/read about).

So, my overriding principle is that you can’t control what other people will do, you can only control what you will do. You can’t gaslight C. into feeling good about herself and being nicer to other people, and it’s not helping her or you to continue to be her emotional punching bag/family mediator. If she wants to turn everything into a conflict, the one thing you can really do is to remove yourself as much as possible from the conflict zone and let her handle things herself. Which means things might get worse before they get better, but in a world where you can’t make other people act right, you’re within your rights to take care of yourself first by limiting your exposure and involvement with someone who is toxic and treats you like crap.

C is mean and unpleasant because she hates herself. That is really clear in her letter. And one problem, when you hate yourself, is that you keep doing hateful shit that proves your theory that you are horrible and should hate yourself. And sometimes you have enough self-awareness to see what you’re doing but you don’t have the ability to break the cycle. And she is using her self-hatred and her hurt feelings to control you into catering to those feelings – comforting her, running interference with other relatives, feeling like you have to constantly apologize, etc.

Now, I think there is some stuff you can do to try to help C. Here is one conversation you can have with her, directly:

“C. You are not acting like yourself lately. You seem really upset and sad, and I really want you to see a counselor or therapist of some kind. I asked my doctor and a few friends who have had good luck, and they gave me a couple of names. Would you like some help in making appointments?

Keep in mind that you can’t MAKE her go to counseling. You can’t MAKE her go meet people, or do anything to take care of herself. You can ask her to, present possibilities, and try to make it as easy as possible for her to go. It may take several conversations and tries before she’ll even consider it.

Here’s another possible conversation:

I’m not fighting with you about my facial expressions anymore, especially since I can’t see them – you can think whatever you want to about them. You are the one out of line here.

Here’s another:

Aunt Bea is not angry with you and did not do anything rude. That is YOUR perception, and it’s a skewed one. This is why I want you to see a counselor so badly.”

Here’s one more:

C, let’s go for a walk after dinner.” “Let’s take a drive.” “Let’s go to the library.

It’s a limited menu, and I’m sorry. C didn’t write to me, so the best I can do is give you some ways to take care of yourself while you have to live with her. I hope you get out of there soon.

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52 comments
  1. Anon said:

    I agree with everything Captain Awkward said, but I’d like to add two things.
    (1) The distrust, the emotional aspects of this, and especially the misinterpretation of “cold looks” to be “mean” or “inconsiderate” sounds a lot like borderline personality disorder. This is a difficult disorder for everyone.
    (2) Regardless, a counsellor/psychologist can be extremely helpful in supporting the “carers” (or in your words, keepers). It can give you an outlet for your frustration, and a reality check on your sister’s distortions. More importantly though, it can provide a mechanism to learn new strategies to deal with your sister in ways that are healthier for you (and her).

    • starskita said:

      Seriously? The captain specifically asked not to make internet diagnoses, and you do this in the first comment.

      Even if the letter writer’s sister does have BPD, or NPD, or depression, or bipolar, the label doesn’t matter. At all.

      Labeling helps at the doctor’s office to give treatment. Calling every difficult person ‘BPD’ has the side effect of saying anybody with BPD is always difficult. Which is really not cool, and has totally been happening around here.

      And furthermore, giving a internet diagnosis without anything to do about it even more unhelpful. In the previous letter, at least the purpose of commenters in bringing up NPD was to introduce a book that might be a helpful resource.

      Here, you’re just pathologizing the sister. Yes, she’s having trouble. Yes, it’s hard for everybody. Calling it borderline does not add anything. Either way, including if the sister has (is expressing?) BPD, the Captain’s suggestions are about the best one can do without the sister herself doing something about it. And if the letter writer tries to convince the sister she’s borderline, I promise you that it would not go over well, whether or not that were the correct diagnosis, which none of us, including the letter writer, are qualified to make.

    • Leah Jaclyn said:

      I have been in the sister’s position before, and I haven’t got any sort of disorder, I was just going through a really tough time and was really sad and down on my self. I think that it’s really super unhelpful to just say oh, this lady has a condition, it’s just going to be difficult, and you have to deal with.

      As for the letter writer the most important thing for you to know is that you can’t fix this for your sister, you can show her ways that she can help herself out of this funk, but she has to make her on decisions, water, horses and that sort of thing.

    • JenniferP said:

      1) Please don’t diagnose people you haven’t met on the internet. Thanks.

      2) Sometimes the “why” of shitty behaviors doesn’t matter all that much when you’re trying to set boundaries. I’m positive that the ex-boyfriend from 10-12 years ago who hit on my friends behind my back and told me it was my fault for being unattractive when he got caught (I have good friends) was suffering from some sort of depressive thing. He was also a dick who was behaving like a dick to me. Does knowing he had a mood disorder and having compassion for why he must have been feeling so insecure that he had to “act out” actually help me with anything? No. You know what helped? Telling him to fuck off and never talk to me again.

      We spend a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of why people are being shitty as if we can somehow fix those emotions if only we knew why they were happening. The LW’s sister is being SUPER-shitty. I’m almost certain that she is deeply unhappy and could benefit from talking to some kind of medical pro. But say the sister never visits a doc, never gets a diagnosis or treatment of any kind. The LW will still need her to stop treating her like crap, yes? Sometimes the answer is “Stop treating me like crap. Your sadness is not my fault, and you don’t get to use it as the reason you treat me like crap.

      • Totally this. My parents both have Diagnoses, and it took me a long time to realize that not only is it inappropriate for someone to dismiss one of my parent’s feelings about something as just being part of the Diagnosis (e.g. “oh, she’s just upset that I forgot her birthday because of the Depression”), but that it’s inappropriate for me to accept certain Behaviors because of Diagnoses (like the Captain’s ex-boyfriend example, or the time Parent got upset with me because Person With Whom I Share DNA (but not a brain, I hasten to add) forgot her birthday, upset in a nasty-gram, “You and Person never show proper appreciation for all I’ve done for you!” kind of way).

        I was thinking the other day of an iPhone app (or Magic 8 Ball, or fortune cookie dispenser, or…) that would cycle through the Captain’s bon mots of wisdom, returning ever and often to “use your words!” If I were able to invent/create such a thing, I would definitely be adding “Your _________ is not my fault, and you don’t get to use it as the reason you treat me like crap” to it!

        • I was thinking the other day of an iPhone app (or Magic 8 Ball, or fortune cookie dispenser, or…) that would cycle through the Captain’s bon mots of wisdom, returning ever and often to “use your words!” If I were able to invent/create such a thing, I would definitely be adding “Your _________ is not my fault, and you don’t get to use it as the reason you treat me like crap” to it!

          I’d totally buy a CA Magic 8 Ball!

          • karinacinerina said:

            SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!

          • RocketFullOfHoles said:

            *lines up behind karinacinerina, cash in hand*

          • JenniferP said:

            You guys are familiar with calmingmanatee.com, yes? An Intern Paul Joint.

        • Britt said:

          Coming from a family of people with what we call “interesting brain chemistry” and having that same interesting brain chemistry myself, I cannot agree with this more. Sometimes knowing the diagnosis can help understand the why, but it doesn’t change the behavior, and the behavior is really the important part. Also, using the diagnosis to either explain away someone’s unacceptable behavior or to brush off someone’s legitimate emotions is incredibly hurtful and erasing, in that it makes that person entirely a function of their diagnosis.

      • Olivia said:

        Totally. My MIL displays a lot of the same behaviors that the LW describes in her sister. MIL is also a screamer, who will make up accusations about you that are total falsehoods just to engage you in an argument with her, and will later admit (with an evil smile) that she made them up just to upset you.

        The bottom line is, even if the person ends up with a Diagnosis and gets into therapy and gets help and gets treatment or medication or whatever else they need, it still doesn’t mean that they will stop treating us like crap. MIL is in therapy now, she is taking medication, and overall her mood is much better and her depression seems to be lifting. She is nice as pie to everyone but my husband, his uncle and me. She has convinced her therapist that we are the enemy, and it makes me so mad when people try to excuse her horrible, hateful behavior by saying, “Well, she’s got XYZ.” The only thing I can do to mitigate the effects of her behavior is to avoid her whenever possible.

        • Stray said:

          Ugh, I hear you. My mother is the same way and that’s why we no longer have a relationship. I have illnesses myself, and although I have a lot of compassion for her and probably understand better than most, that is no excuse.

          If you have an issue and you know about it, and have the resources to deal with it, then you have to take a modicum of personal responsibility.

          And in the meantime, other people are in no way obligated to put up with you if you are being awful.

          You have a responsibly to keep yourself safe, and if that means keeping away from toxic people, no matter what excuses they have, then you can only do so much. If you can handle someone who is getting help but not all-the-way-there-yet, then all the power to you, but you shouldn’t feel like you HAVE to.

          I think this comes down to the difference between an “explanation” and an “excuse.”

      • Vicki said:

        Definitely.

        If I know that I am stressed by X events, that can help me deal with the stress, because it makes it easier not to focus on the trivial thing that has brought it up again. But that’s something that works in the first person singular.

        I can think “if I were feeling better in general, this minor thing wouldn’t be getting me upset about something that happened last year.” But that only works if I have made that connection, and think it’s valid. And even then, I think I can reasonably tell a partner or friend “I’m upset about thus-and-such again, and I know it’s out of proportion, so I would like a hug/please make me a cup of tea/would you go for a walk with me?” I don’t expect them to walk me through “it’s okay, that person does care about you, and you got an apology at the time.”

  2. RodeoBob said:

    “C. You are not acting like yourself lately. You seem really upset and sad, and I really want you to see a counselor or therapist of some kind. I asked my doctor and a few friends who have had good luck, and they gave me a couple of names. Would you like some help in making appointments?“

    I like this, but I’d actually space it out a bit more, because these kinds of remarks have to be part of a conversation, and even then it’s tricky. If you jump too quickly to “do you want to see a shrink?”, it can be percieved as hostile or critical. And this sounds like a person eager to interpret remarks as hostile or critical. Concern (and a little confusion) is the best angle to take in this exchange; “I’m worried about you; I don’t remember you always being this unhappy”.

    If the other person doesn’t want to admit something’s wrong, or doesn’t want to change it, mentioning therapy or medication or counselling or a gym membership or anything at all will be percieved as hostile criticism. Which is where the Captain’s other suggestion (“get out of the house. Keep busy. Find a second job or volunteer. Run errands for your parents”) is good. Live with an unhappy person and you too will find yourself unhappy. As they say in the airplane safety videos, put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.

    • Christen said:

      Also, sometimes people recommend “help” instead of saying, “I don’t like how you are acting and I want you to try and stop.” It seems like the polite, emphathetic thing to do, but it can feel really patronizing and dismissive, like asking someone if they “have PMS” when they’re lodging a real complaint. And if C. senses that the LW’s recommendation is a veiled complaint about her behavior, it won’t go well.

      The LW needs to confront C. about her shitty behavior and she needs to recommend help, and these sentiments need to be expressed distinctly so that one is not confused for the other. “I really don’t want to be dragged into your conflicts with other people anymore, and I expect you to respect that” can be expressed alongside, “I admit to feeling irritated sometimes, but I also worry for your sake. You seem unhappy a lot of the time and I don’t think it has to be that way. What do you think about getting some help?” Or, for that matter, “I understand you worry sometimes about what other people think of you, but talking about it all the time wears me out and I think you should find a different outlet for it.”

      • JenniferP said:

        I agree with this 100% and thanks for clarifying the separation between “get help” and “in the meantime, knock that shit off.” Very important and I’m sorry I didn’t catch it and make it clearer in the OP.

        • Stray said:

          It’s nice because it also puts responsibility on them.

          Instead of making excuses for her, you’re saying “Hey, I thought you were better than this. Shape up, because I have no doubt that you can.”

          If someone is having problems related to hating themselves, acting as if this “self” is out-of-character gives them a place to go and a standard to live up to.

          This can take away some of the negative reinforcement they may be giving themselves about how much they suck if this “isn’t them.”

          It may be less of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  3. thegirlfrommarz said:

    Hello! New commenter here, but long-time reader and lurker. I feel sad reading your letter, because I have an awesome sister who is always there for me. So I’m going to say what I hope she would say to me if I were in C.’s position, and in fact what she has said to me in the past when I’ve been in a whole “I’m so worthless and I don’t have any friends!” self-pitying phase.

    It sounds to me like C. is very, very unhappy. As the Captain says, she is deliberately seeking out situations and reactions that validate her perception of herself as worthless and hateful. I love the Captain’s response to your first question, because it’s true that right now that C. isn’t great to be around and you shouldn’t (for her own good and yours) tell her that she is. But you can tell her that you love her and you want to see her happy, and that how she is right now doesn’t seem very happy to you.

    In my experience of times when I haven’t liked myself very much and have felt very sad and low, sometimes I have been desperate for someone who cares to take a good long look at me and realise how sad I am. I find it very hard indeed to ask for help, so I need them to tell me that I don’t seem very happy (this may be a personal quirk, but I need them to tell me, not ask me – if they ask me, I will of course tell them that I’m fine, because it’s so important to me to be seen as in control of my life). Once they do that, I feel able to talk about it with them.

    I think your bluntness is actually a good thing, because you are not putting up with her bullshit. And it is bullshit. People don’t hate her because she’s an awful and terrible person – people don’t want to be around her because she’s got a hair trigger and is making them feel horrible about things that really shouldn’t be a big deal. In other words, they don’t hate her – they hate her behaviour. Sometimes the most supportive thing you can do is not allow someone to carry on with their self-hating narrative.

    Something else I learned from managing someone who would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation was that there is always something in the behaviour for the person exhibiting it (in that case it was that she always got her own way because people were scared to challenge her). It looks like the whole house is tiptoeing around your unhappy sister right now, and she is at the centre of the drama. I can’t imagine that she’s getting anything particularly positive from it and it may not be a conscious thing at all, but there is some reward she’s getting from the behaviour – even if it’s as basic as attention from your family (even negative attention is attention). If you can figure out what that is, you might be able to figure out a way to show her that she can get that reward from behaving in a positive way.

    • AllegroFox said:

      All over this. I have been depressed, and it was SO SO hard to admit that something was wrong and that I was unhappy. I could be crying on the couch and my boyfriend could ask “are you upset?” and I would be all NO, WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT I AM FINE even though I clearly was not fine? When the question changed to “can you tell me what it is that is making you feel sad?” it gave me permission to be sad, and complain about what was making me sad, and get a handle on what I needed to do to feel better (even when the answer was “I’m not really sure why I am sad”.)

      • Stray said:

        I can really relate to the “permission” thing. When I am depressed, I desperately want to please everyone, because I feel like such a burden and a downer and a waste of space in general.

        The last thing I want to do is “be a problem” by worrying people, and the more I would try to please them by being normal and happy, the more frustrated they would become (of course).

        Then, I would internally freak out because here I was, trying not to be a Drama Queen and they were “getting mad at me for Being An Issue” anyway.

        It relates to this whole theme of “self-loathing becoming a vicious circle and self-fulfilling prophecy” thing really well.

    • PomperaFirpa said:

      In my experience of times when I haven’t liked myself very much and have felt very sad and low, sometimes I have been desperate for someone who cares to take a good long look at me and realise how sad I am. I find it very hard indeed to ask for help, so I need them to tell me that I don’t seem very happy (this may be a personal quirk, but I need them to tell me, not ask me – if they ask me, I will of course tell them that I’m fine, because it’s so important to me to be seen as in control of my life). Once they do that, I feel able to talk about it with them.

      GET OUT OF MY BRAIN. Holy cow, this, a thousand times this. I often get into this spiral of feeling– inaccurately– that admitting I’m hurt means that I have screwed up somehow, that I should not let things get to me and I shouldn’t be hurt and I shouldn’t be upset and that the (perceived) fact of I DID IT WRONG means that telling someone about my hurt feelings is worse than being hurt in the first place.

      • Stray said:

        Yeah, wow! I tried so hard to be perfect, and was always told that I was just Being Dramatic.

        Even when I was hurting myself- I was always very ashamed of that, primarily because I was told that I had nothing to be sad about. And the last thing I wanted to do was prove those people right by telling friends or talking about it in general.

        But, I got myself into therapy and my therapist saw my injuries and didn’t treat me like a puppy that had messed a rug.

        She held my hand gently and said “Wow, those look like they hurt a lot. You must be in a lot of pain inside too.”

        Those words saved my life in that moment, quite literally.

    • “In my experience of times when I haven’t liked myself very much and have felt very sad and low, sometimes I have been desperate for someone who cares to take a good long look at me and realise how sad I am. I find it very hard indeed to ask for help, so I need them to tell me that I don’t seem very happy (this may be a personal quirk, but I need them to tell me, not ask me – if they ask me, I will of course tell them that I’m fine, because it’s so important to me to be seen as in control of my life). Once they do that, I feel able to talk about it with them.”

      OH YES. Another bonus to saying “You seem sad” is that it makes the recipient feel noticed. Not that C seems to have any problem getting attention, but a lot of folks with low self-esteem (like me) just want to feel like someone is looking out for them.

  4. karinacinerina said:

    Agree with internet diagnosis: SOMETHING is askew with that girl, and professional help would not be wasted on her.
    That sucks. Definitely protect yourself, LW.

  5. “The C you describe is not so great. Paranoid? Completely self-centered? Throwing tantrums and looking for reason to take offense? Turning every imagined slight into a reason to take sides and proof you don’t love her? Making you always feel like you have to apologize?”

    It’s really, really hard to convince someone that they’re great and that everyone likes them when their behaviour is decidedly not great and people do not like them for that reason. We have a really frustrating fallacy in our culture that we are all awesome and if anybody doesn’t like us, that makes them horrible terrible people. Maybe we all have the potential to be awesome, but that doesn’t mean everyone will or should like us, and it doesn’t mean that we actually are awesome all the time. Your sister needs to take some responsibility for how her behaviour affects her relationships with others. You can help her with that, but you can’t take responsibility for it.

    I think the Captain’s scripts will work really well, and you should use them (or variations) whenever you need to. She might push you for explanations or for validations that you think she’s awesome and you’ll have to do your best to change the topic and walk away. Good luck!

  6. AmyJ said:

    LW, It might be helpful when talking to your sister to distinguish between the inherent person (awesome!) and the behavior (decidedly not awesome). When I’ve been down on myself, it’s always been helpful to have someone say, (roughly) “I love you and think that you are great and inherently worthy of all good things, but you’re behaving shittily.” Behavior I can do something about, inherent lack of worth is insurmountable.

    • Christen said:

      Agreed. Also, problematic behaviors can feel intractable because they are linked to personality traits that are hard to change, so separating the unchangeable trait from the behavior is helpful too. In this case, C. is really sensitive about social situations and it’s making her act like an asshole, but being really sensitive isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you can think of any laudable, constructive behaviors that are linked to that trait can help. For instance, maybe C. is way better than you are about remembering birthdays or is the first to step up and help in an emergency. Or maybe not, but you can still say, “It’s cool that you pay so much attention and think so much about other people’s feelings and reactions to you — it’s way better than just being callous and indifferent. However, it can get out of hand sometimes.”

      • AmyJ said:

        I’m fond of saying, “our strengths are our weaknesses.” Partially because some people call me tenacious, and others call me stubborn.

  7. kellicat said:

    For a few moments there, I thought that the LW was writing about me. I, too have a name that starts with C and I also spend way too much time on the computer instead of socializing or going out and doing other things, analyzing social situations from a paranoid perspective (and no, it is not because of BPD. It’s a combination of severe depression and an anxiety disorder). I think that the Captain’s advice is really good and I would like to add to it.

    1. Do Not Try to Fix Your Sister

    I know you love her and you want the best for her, but please do not try to fix your sister. Even if you were a qualified therapist, it would not matter because the only person who can fix your sister is her own damn self. No one else can do it for her. Trying to fix a person with mental disabilities that you love is a terrible idea on so many levels:

    1. You are not an objective observer because you’re too close to your loved one to see them on an objective level

    2. The person being “fixed” will not appreciate it one bit so any effort you might put in will be a waste of time and energy

    3. It’s an act of supreme arrogance. By trying to fix another person, you set yourself up on a pedestal above them and take agency away from the person you want to fix. In other words, people with mental illnesses are not damsels in distress and you are not their knight in shining armor.

    I know that it’s hard to watch your sister spiral down the endless drains of self-loathing and social paranoia, but you cannot rescue them. Your sister has to rescue herself.

    2. Treat Her Like a Grown Woman and Do Not Indulge Her Bad Behaviours

    In other words, don’t play your sister’s mind games with her. Use all the boundary-setting advice that the Captain’s given you and apply that to your sister. In my personal experience, the more you indulge a mentally ill person’s bad behaviour, the more they think it’s okay and it’s all the other person’s fault for reacting badly to it. Let her suffer the consequences and that might break through the fog and tell her that that behaviour is not okay. I’ve had that happen to me and while it was painful and humiliating at the time, I learned some valuable lessons from those experiences.

    Don’t be surprised if the boundary-setting gets a hostile reaction at first, but stay firm and let her live with the consequences of her bad behaviour. She may or may not change her behaviour if she has to live with the consequences, but she certainly won’t if she never has to live with the results. Treating her like a grown woman is the only way she might behave like one so let her face the consequences like one and see what happens. In other words, don’t tell her she’s being awesome when she’s really not.

    These last two pieces of advice I have is for your sister from one C to another:

    People do not obsess about you nearly so much as you obsess about yourself. Your diseases may be telling you that they are, but that’s a total lie because the vast majority of human beings are far too self-centered to spend more time thinking about other people than about their own selves. Whenever I catch myself stuck in a paranoid loop thinking everyone hates me and is obsessed with me, I remind myself that other people are not as obsessed with me as I am and that lets me leave the house. If I fuck up socially, it’s not the end of the world because nobody else will get as obsessed with my fuck-up as I will. If somebody else does get that obsessed and thinks that your fuck-up was all about them and their hurt feelings, that person is also suffering from the delusion that everyone else is a bit player in their own story, and that’s simply not true. If other people think you’re weird? Better weird than boring! Not everyone will like you and that’s okay. Other people will like you and the only way to find out is to get out of own heads and go out into the world and talk to people outside your family. It’s easier said than done of course, but from one shut-in to another, you’ll feel better if you can make yourself leave the house.

    One last piece of advice: please go to the doctor and get some help and a proper diagnosis. You could have a thyroid problem or mental disorders and even if you can’t afford therapy right, it does help to know what you have so you can recognize the symptoms of the disease. It could literally save your life.

    • “People do not obsess about you nearly so much as you obsess about yourself.” This same sentiment has gotten me through a lot of prolonged anxieties and embarrassments. It doesn’t always work completely, but it helps.

      I’m just glad to see a lot of other recovering C’s in this thread. It’s hard to not be a jerk when your brain works like that. Keep up the hard work, fellow C’s.

    • alphakitty said:

      Another suggestion for the repertoire of things to say when C is trying to start a fight: “Clearly you are not enjoying my company right now, so I guess I’ll take myself off.” If the sister tries to pick a fight about how *that* is offensive, repeat: “As I said, clearly you are not enjoying my company! So I will take myself off.” And then do.

  8. Dr. Confused said:

    Oh shit, I’m C.

    I mean, not literally. I’m not living with my parents or my sister right now, so I am not actually the person being referred to in the letter. But I have an uncomfortable amount of things in common with her. I don’t start fights with or hold grudges against family, but I do take everything extremely personally, obsess over tone and facial expression, become convinced that people (even strangers) despise me, etc. I constantly seek reassurance from my husband and my few friends.

    I was actually thinking I should write in to the Captain sometime, about how I really don’t know how to make friends other than by fucking people, and while I really don’t mind fucking lots of new people, I’d rather learn some more conventional friend-making skills. But I think perhaps my problems run deeper than that and I might just need to deal with this self-loathing thing. Not that I know how to do that.

    But this isn’t about me. I want to say something about the “get help” advice. People seem to think it’s that simple. Tell someone to get help, they get help, end of problems. It is nowhere close to simple. There are many obstacles to getting “help” in the first place. Many people who need help are very anxious when dealing with new people, especially authority figures such as doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, receptionists, etc. And then if you think the receptionist once gave you a dirty look? Or they really are rude to you? Can NEVER go back there again. In addition, depending on your life phase and such, “help” can be prohibitively expensive. Then, even if you do find help, and can approach it, and can , it is often the wrong help, or inappropriate help, and the persistence to keep looking until getting the right help doesn’t tend to be associated with the types of issues one might need help for.

    I have been told in my life, by people from boyfriends to casual fucks to professors, to “get help.” It’s condescending. I’m trying to, and it’s not succeeding. Do they really think they’re the first to ever suggest it? I’ve been seeing mostly-ineffective shrinks off-and-on (with the very occasional more effective one that disappeared thrown in, plus one so ill-suited for me I walked out of his practice significantly more suicidal than when I walked in) since I was 14. If it were as simple as “get help” I’d be fixed by now.

    Anyway, just a random observation from someone constantly on the other side of this kind of situation.

    • JenniferP said:

      I answered you (somewhat) at length here.

    • The captain had her whole response to your getting help recommendation thing. I just wanted to recommend this cognitive behavioral therapy website: http://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome

      It is free and I found it very helpful with my social anxiety and tendency to over analyze the reactions of people around me. (I also found that certain types of birth control can exacerbate that anxiety to the point where I am convinced that my whole family secretly despises me, that was a fun vacation.)

      Anyway, It’s not a substitute for actual therapy, but it might be a nice stepping stone? Just a thought.

      • Ethyl said:

        I second the moodgym website. I too found the thought of getting in-person help daunting, expensive, and basically un-doable, and this is definitely better than nothing.

  9. Eden said:

    I can (kind of) relate. I used to have a friend who behaved almost exactly like the LW’s sister. She cycled through friends pretty quickly, picking fights with them and then using those fights to gain sympathy. She’s still on good terms with some of my friends, so I still have to interact with her. Not wanting a hug from her suddenly became a Huge Thing That Had to End Up All Over Facebook About How I Am a Mean Bully Who Hates Her. Fortunately, most people have figured her out by now, and they know I am not a bully. I have taken to ignoring this person whenever we’re in the same room. I’m not cold, and I’ll answer politely if she talks to me. I just don’t initiate any conversations with her.

    Unfortunately, I doubt you can use my strategy of ignoring her on a sister you live with :(. The thing is, there will *always* be something that will upset her, because she wants to be upset. When she says that people hate her, what she really wants to hear is that she’s actually awesome and wonderful. And as long as people keep saying, ‘People don’t hate you! You’re great!’ then her strategy is working and she’ll keep using it.

    With the person I know, her husband eventually persuaded her into therapy, which seems to have helped. It sounds like your sister could benefit from some therapy, too. Sometimes a good way to describe therapy to someone who might seem resistant to going is that all a good therapist really does is help you identify and break thought patterns that are making you unhappy. Perhaps you could also make it a dual thing – since you two keep getting into fights, there’s obviously some communication issues going on, and maybe she could help you out by going to a therapy session or two to learn better ways to talk? At the very least, even if she doesn’t get her own therapy, you could probably benefit from some facilitated communication in a counselor’s office.

  10. MorkaisChosen said:

    Kinda feeling the need to comment on one particular sentence here:

    “I’m supposed to be on my sister’s “side”, but it’s hard to do when she’s being so completely unfair for no reason.”

    You don’t have to be on your sister’s side. Won’t be obvious from where you’re sitting, but it’s not something you have to do. Questions of the necessity of loving one’s family aside, I reckon that, assuming you want the best for your sister because she’s, y’know, your sister, you’re best *not* trying to take her side when she’s being completely unfair for no reason. I don’t think it has to be your problem at all, but even if you *do* want it to be your problem, apologising for your sister’s arbitrary and unfair behaviour doesn’t seem like the Good Thing To Do to me; getting through to her that she’s being arbitrary and unfair would seem better.

    I think it’s worth reiterating that I don’t think you have to do that either.

    All in all this basically boils down to “Um, there are lots of things you don’t have to do,” which doesn’t actually seem that helpful, though it does match one of the Commander’s comments (“Aunt Bea is not angry with you and did not do anything rude. That is YOUR perception, and it’s a skewed one. This is why I want you to see a counselor so badly.”). Looking back at what I’ve written, counselling does seem sensible- I have zero experience with it (oher than knowing someone who said it was a Really Good Thing and suggested it even if you don’t have any huge problems), but persuading your sister to get help from someone who knows how to help is likely to be more effective than trying to help when you have no idea how, right?

    Just one last thing after the wall of what may be useless waffling:

    *Jedi hugs*

    • Nomie said:

      This is a really, really good point. I lived at home for three years with my parents and my sister, who was… a typical teenager chafing at rules and restrictions and basically waiting for the opening chords of “I’ve Got A Lot of Living To Do” to start up. And I said then and I say now, I’m not taking sides. I love everyone involved but I absolutely do not have to pick a side to be on when they’re fighting. Sometimes my parents were being jerks! Sometimes my sister was being ridiculous! Still not something I wanted to be in the middle of!

      And also, being on her side CAN mean encouraging her to get help in whatever way that means, to be less full-bore miserable all the time. It doesn’t mean defending horrible behavior.

      • Britt said:

        I’m currently living again with my much younger teenage brother and parents, and absolutely, being on Team Brother has sometimes meant encouraging him out of bad habits or helping him make the good but difficult choices when faced with them, and not just endlessly telling him he’s wonderful and right no matter what.

  11. In a weird way the various Dr. Commenters point out something a lot of these letters have in common – many of the people who write in are acting as a difficult person’s therapist.

    The central problem isn’t actually anything to do with the difficult person – it’s that a friend (worse still, a sister) makes a shitty therapist. The LW should fire herself from the therapist role, as should we commentariat. We’re lousy therapists!

    • JA said:

      i just cross posted essentially the same thing! :)

    • staranise said:

      Well, except for me. *g* I’m an actual therapist, though a pretty new one.

      On the other hand, my friends from Therapist School and I do jokingly cut into each other’s tl;dr with “Oh, go tell it to your shrink!” because the actual demands of therapy are pretty incompatible with the demands of friendship or family. There’s a reason almost every code of ethics for counsellors says thou shalt not (or really, really SHOULD not) counsel ANYONE you have a relationship of any sort of outside the counselling relationship. No spouses, no friends, no sisters-of-your-best-friend’s-boyfriend. Nada.

    • Christen said:

      high five dude

  12. solecism said:

    I just started therapy! I thought I would stick with it longer than 2-3 visits this time, and I have some concrete issues and goals this time too. Plus this one was a referral from a friend as opposed to random pick from providers covered by my insurance or whoever was staffing clinic that day. Anyway, last time my therapist directed me to this resource by Lynn Forrest on the Drama Triangle to help me think about some problematic family dynamics, and it might be useful for the LW too. Or it might not, YMMV.

    • jkvitz said:

      thank you for the resource link, solecism.
      thank you for the post and for the website, Captain
      (and thank you Cary Tennis for leading me here)

  13. JA said:

    in addition to suggesting therapy, here’s something i’ve had to say even more bluntly, which may be relevant to the LW:

    -i want to help you, but i think you need the help of a professional. i can’t do that. i can not be your therapist.

    in a balanced relationship, lots of problems are shared, of course. but there’s reciprocity, rather than one person dumping their emotional woes on the other.

  14. staranise said:

    I don’t even know if this is useful, but it’s a thought. It seems to me that a lot of people who are really down on themselves tend to do it almost as a protective measure–if THEY don’t say it, someone else will, so they’ll corner the market first. The LW’s sister manages to spot negativity MILES before it actually shows up.

    And then she gets people falling all over themselves proclaiming they don’t hate her, she is a good person, and all kinds of other nice, supportive things.

    It’s a neat bit of interpersonal judo, in the short term. It just tends to poison relationships because people really dislike being yanked around.

    I think this means Captain Awkward’s advice is especially useful here. It means the sister may freak out if she loses that connection–when you’re dancing the Masochism Tango, at least you know where your partner is. When your partner has gone to another room and is listening to music, then the world is uncertain and terrible. But the solution isn’t to re-engage with the sister when she starts flipping, because that means getting back into the dance. It means keeping your cool, bacing off, and implicitly sending the message, “We are not going to do that old thing we did. We are doing something else now, or else I am not spending time with you.”

  15. trotula said:

    It is way too late and I am typing this…I was a C for a really long time. I’m not sure this will necessarily apply directly to your situation, LW, but as an ex-C I feel like I can talk about how I changed.

    My family was fukt but I always had a best friend who served in the “sister” role: smoothing things out for my crazy paranoid social nightmare ass, someone who I was completely dependent upon. It didn’t stop until I was living in a new city and the best friend I was living with moved to another state out of the blue, leaving me in a new house with a bunch of amazing brilliant people who would not put up with my shit. I spent a year feeling totally ostracized and lonely and horrible but slowly learning how social skills work – how to communicate with people instead of making assumptions about why they acted some way towards me, figuring out what kinds of ways people like to be engaged in conversation and interacted with.

    Self-loathing and paranoia do this funny thing where you think everyone hates you so you treat them horribly and then they respond by actually not liking you. If you’re paranoid about your interactions with people I know it seems counterintuitive to work on how to have better interactions, but the fact of the matter was that I was really alienating a lot of people by the way that I was dealing with my self-loathing. If you can’t get rid of self-loathing, you can at least mitigate its effects, which I feel like is where you and C are at at this point.

    I got called out enough times by no-bullshit motherfuckers that I learned how to start a conversation, how to ask polite questions, how to not make every social situation ever about me and my soul-sucking awkwardness. It wasn’t anything about me, per se, it was the weird paranoid defenses I put up at the first inkling of anything negative being sent my way. I had to hear that other people had feelings that had nothing to do with me and that in fact I was capable of hurting other people’s feelings too.

    This kind of shit is really easy to pathologize and I feel like sometimes that makes things worse than better. The social skills needed to live with other humans are just that, skills, and not having them makes interacting with humans fucking terrible and painful. The cool thing is that they are something that you can actually learn.

    I know that “when you, I feel” statements are totally cliche, but I had to learn that there were specific behaviors that I did that pushed people away from me. Simultaneously, hearing that from other people made me more comfortable with learning to communicate my feelings, instead of internalizing them and lashing out in inappropriate ways. Communication is kryptonite for paranoia.

  16. Bev said:

    This is pretty much what was said when I went to the counselling service asking how I could help my friend, who had similar problems (plus a couple more). Their advice was to stop trying to help him, and let him hit rock bottom so he’d motivate himself to go. And also that if he came to me for help, to tell him to see them.

    It sucks to be told that you should let someone continue in a destructive pattern, but sometimes letting them make their own mistakes is the kindest thing you can do. Also, you might benefit from some therapy to help you through this.

  17. Letter Writer said:

    This is really late, but I wanted to thank everyone here for the advice. C has just started a course (vocational training), and she seemed much happier when she was studying a few years ago, so I hope she sticks with it this time.

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