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