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Get Used to Your Family Being Crazy

More Bad Advice from Hannah - this week, on nutty sisters.

by
Hannah Sternberg

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June 5, 2013 - 10:00 am

Submit your questions about friendship, relationships, careers, family, or life decisions to PJMBadAdvice@gmail.com or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice, PJ Lifestyle’s new advice column every Wednesday!

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This week, one of my regular commenters asks for advice on his (or her) self-destructive sister. The situation is below:

Dear Bad Advice,

Please allow me to complain about my constantly-complaining sister!

Actually, I try not to buy into her mindset. The constant complainer “wins,” if you continually allow them to get under your skin.

Not only does my sister complain a lot, but she has made some very bad choices in her life: cheating on a good husband, refusing to reconcile with him, not doing anything about finding a decent job, constantly antagonizing friends and family, etc., etc. And despite all of her very bad choices, she always finds someone else to blame for her self-inflicted misery. She even blames our kind, responsible, loving parents, who did not spoil us, but who, according to her bizarre thinking, supposedly ruined her life by not preparing her for every possible situation which might arise due to her own mistakes. And if you get into a conversation with her, she will be sure to let you know this.

People like my sister seem to wallow in their own misery, and have a “grass-is-greener” attitude about other people’s lives, which is, of course, completely unrealistic. And, there are times when I just need to tell my sister what’s what, even though that always creates a firestorm, and there are other times when I need to break off contact for at least a while. My sister needs to take responsibility for herself, and until that happens, she will continue to inflict misery on herself and others.

- Not Into Sister’s Act

This is going to sound like bad advice, but don’t treat your sister like she’s crazy for going through some ups and downs.

Portrait of a family with a few...issues.

Portrait of a family with a few…issues.

Your sister does indeed sound like a piece of work. And I don’t doubt that she causes a lot of drama and pain in your family and is probably the source of many of her own problems. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a minute.

You say she cheated on a “good husband” and then “refused to reconcile with him.” I am no fan of infidelity but let’s focus for a moment on the “good husband” part. Whenever I see two people break up who were seemingly wonderful for each other, I remind myself that I can’t see into their hearts and know what was going on inside all along. The only two people who know everything about their relationship and the emotions and expectations between them are your sister and her ex. He might have seemed like a “good husband” to you but wasn’t a good husband for herwithout necessarily doing anything wrong except being the wrong person. That is not a justification for cheating, and it does not absolve her of responsibility for any of her other actions, but regardless it sounds like a painful situation.

And the breakdown of a marriage is no fun for anyone, even the most drama-seeking self-destructive train wreck of a person. Yes, even if her actions set it in motion. I know it’s a lot easier to feel pity from the comfortable anonymity of my Advice Columnist’s chair, but the point I’m getting at is: it sounds like your sister creates a lot of her own problems, but in order to tolerate her complaints, try to summon some pity for her. Sympathy (if you define it as the kind of pity that comes with respect) has to be earned, but pity is free. You might even pity her for the things she isn’t aware of — not just for the things that “happen” to her (which she might have actually caused herself), but also pity her for being incapable of exerting enough self-control, dignity, and self-respect to pull herself out of this mire.

You could get mad at her for being that way — but getting mad at her hasn’t gotten you anywhere, and has just pulled you into her whirlpool of destruction and waste and negativity. You’re right that the complainer “wins” in that situation. If you pity her instead, you start to acknowledge that she simply is that way, and you let go of that nagging feeling that you have to get her to change. Instead, when you start getting mad, just remind yourself, “Wow, that is a horrible way to go through life. I’m so glad I found my own, different path.”

Real change has to come from inside her. There are times for intervention: if she abuses drugs or alcohol, begins physically harming herself or others, engages in dangerous behavior, or starts bankrupting herself or your parents. But even in these cases where intervention is necessary, the only person who will make her change is herself. You can try your best to remove her from the situation in which she causes harm, but you can’t remove the impulses that make her want to wreak havoc on her life and those around her. Only she can do that. Until then, the most you can do is feel very, very sorry for her — but not for the things she’s complaining about. Feel sorry for her for being trapped in her own head.

This is going to sound like bad advice, but mend fences — don’t build bridges.

Boundaries (as you’ve probably already figured out) are very important when dealing with a whirlwind relative. I said in the comments a few weeks ago that dealing with this kind of behavior in a family member is very different from dealing with it in a friend — this is one way. You can’t just cut off a family member or discard your relationship as easily as you would a friend’s. I understand that sometimes a period of no contact is best for everyone — but ultimately you’re doing it to repair the relationship and reestablish boundaries, you’re not letting the relationship perish entirely.

Establishing boundaries includes making sure your sister won’t impose on you in any way that would hurt you, or enable her self-destructive behavior. That might include not lending her money, or not letting her crash at your place. Just try to communicate those boundaries with patience and compassion — instead of shooting a firey refusal to her if she asks for money, tell her you can’t right now but you saw an opening at the local Starbucks or you heard someone was looking for a babysitter. Then, if she cuts back with a refusal, drop the discussion entirely. You know she’s a fireball, so don’t go out of your way to stoke the flames. Much of life is about choosing your battles. Do you really want to start one with her? Even if you’re in the right, how much energy do you want to sink into fighting her when you could just as easily deflect her? If she gets angry and says hurtful things, just change the subject or shut it down. You don’t have to prove anything to her. Boundaries are also emotional. Sometimes defending your emotional boundaries means standing up for yourself, but sometimes it also means letting something roll because your boundary, in this situation, is your refusal to engage in a discussion on something she’s said just to provoke you.

That’s the fences part. And bridges?

Go ahead and try to maintain a relationship with her if you want, because she’s your sister and family is important to you. But don’t feel caught in the middle of her relationships with the rest of your family. If she insults your parents, go ahead and defend them if you want, but don’t feel like you have to try to make her get along with them. Whenever family members fight and you’re caught in the middle, remember they’re the ones who have to make a reconciliation. You don’t have to build anyone else’s bridges for them. And you really can’t — just as you can’t know what is inside the hearts of a fighting couple and just as you can’t make a person change if she doesn’t want to, you can’t know the full extent of the collateral damage (emotional or otherwise) that your sister and your parents inflict on each other, or what depth of atonement either requires in order to be “on good terms,” and you can’t even make any of the parties involved want a reconciliation or work toward one if they don’t, first, want it on the inside.

Every family fights sometimes. Even the ones without a wildcard, self-destructive, vindictive relative in their midst. And just as every family fights, every family tends to draw the other members into the middle, intentionally or not. In cases like that, remind yourself it’s not your job to make everyone get along. All you have to do is find a way to love them all separately. So as much as you might long to make your sister realize just how unfair she’s being to your parents, and bring everyone together again in mutual respect and self-reliance, you just have to learn to be okay with the fact that you can try to comfort your parents, and help (or at least tolerate) your sister, but you can’t make them get along if one or more of them doesn’t want to. And that’s not your obligation, either.

So, all this could boil down to my favorite advice: if you want to send someone a message, set an example. If you pity your sister, show her how much better life can be if she works hard, supports herself, makes responsible decisions, and makes an effort at maintaining respectful and healthy family relationships, by doing all those things yourself. If she never gets the message, that’s just one more reason to feel pity for her, but at the end of the day, the best you can do is focus on living your own life.

Submit your questions about friendship, relationships, careers, family, or life decisions to PJMBadAdvice@gmail.com or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice, PJ Lifestyle’s new advice column every Wednesday!

Hannah Sternberg's first novel, Queens of All the Earth, is available on Amazon, BN.com, and bookstores near you.

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Thank you Hannah! I appreciate all of your advice. Pity is one thing that I need to work on. I feel it for some people, but there are other difficult people for whom it has been hard to summon much pity.

I also think you are right that boundaries are key. I've found that sometimes one can associate productively with difficult people--sometimes!--and I suppose that boundaries are essential for that. And at 51 years old, I've seen that in many situations in life, choosing one's battles is very important. It allows one to focus on the battles that must be fought. Jesus taught a lot about these issues, and His teachings have a lot in common with your advice. It helps me to strive to use Him as an example, although I stumble and fall a lot in those attempts.

Thanks again Hannah! And I enjoyed Cheap Trick a lot--they got my feet moving again like they always used to do!
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