How can I help my 32-year-old sister conquer her intense fear of interacting with people?
April 3, 2009 8:52 AM   Subscribe

How can I help my 32-year-old sister conquer her intense fear of interacting with people?

My sister has done her best to isolate herself for over half of her life. I know that she is lost and lonely and I would like to help her.

She graduated from high school early because she didn't like her classmates. She got a single room in college and spent all of her time studying, obtaining a 3.99 gpa, but not making a single friend throughout the 5+ years she was in school. Although she has a college degree, she holds down jobs that never pay more than $10/hour, and usually quits them after about a year. She finds interacting with her co-workers stressful, and she just gives up. When she has to interact with a new person, such as going to an interview or going to see a doctor, her anxiety manifests herself in physical symptoms - upset stomach, increased heartbeat, sweating, etc.

She reacts inappropriately when she is angry or frustrated, crying, stomping around, slamming doors. She has never had a romantic relationship - never even got to the point of holding hands with someone. She spends all of her free time with our parents, who are retired and in their 60s. She is even scared of online social networking, like Facebook. Online dating is definitely out of the question.

I haven't had that close of relationship with her. A large part of that is due to the fact that she seems so much younger than me just because she hasn't had the same life experiences - it's very difficult to relate to her. I feel like I am walking on eggshells around her because even the tiniest thing can "set her off" and provoke a tantrum.

I just want to help her take some small baby steps, such as interacting with people online, maybe picking up a hobby that involves other people, something. However, I'm at a complete loss as to how to accomplish this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Has she asked you for help? I hate to defer to cliche, but if she doesn't want help, she isn't going to get it.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:55 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

She needs therapy, period. You can't really do anything except help her find a therapist.
posted by desjardins at 8:57 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Anonymous poster, do you think you could get the moderators to post a throw away email for you? I've got some suggestions both as a person who sometimes has a hard time dealing with people due to shyness and introversion (although it doesn't approach this) and also because I've dealt with a sibling of the same age who struggles with mental illness (and the description of your sister flips into this domain). If you don't want to do that, feel free to memail me.
posted by Wolfster at 9:05 AM on April 3, 2009

You can love her, be open and try to understand her, be compassionate, not judge her or blame her, have patience, be persistent in always letting her know you're there for her (inviting her out and not taking her rejections personally, for instance), not make assumptions about her. You can try not to react to her behavior and try to be rational while being honest about your own feelings. You can be a good example.

However, you may not be able to help her in that we cannot ever force anyone to do anything, including change. This is made harder in that you're not close with her. This sounds like it's from trauma, maybe PTSD of some sort, and is a longstanding, serious illness that requires therapy and especially her own desire to conquer it. Unfortunately I don't think a hobby would help. If she's in NYC and has has a desire for therapy, I can recommend the great therapist I found here on mefi.
posted by scazza at 9:12 AM on April 3, 2009

Well, you can try running the NLP phobia pattern.

There are some interesting factors underlying why it may work, particularly the sub-modalities involved. Sub-modalities are descriptions of the process of experience or memory, without any content. There are some neat things that can be done by running patterns to shift sub-modalities.

I'm not a licensed therapist and I don't have any training in the field. But I have experienced some good personal results using NLP techniques. I have not used the phobia pattern myself, but I would say to go ahead and try it and see what happens.
posted by jefeweiss at 9:20 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

IANAD, IANAPsychiatrist, but another possibility is that your sister is on the autism spectrum. She sounds a lot like several people I know who have Asperger's. Again, not an expert, just an observation.

But everyone else is right. Unless she wants help and wants to change, all your help isn't going to make a bit of difference.
posted by cooker girl at 9:22 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try establishing a relationship with her, say lunch once a week. Keep it at the house if that's all she is comfortable with. Build from there. Don't stop suggesting ways to fix her, let her come to you. This may take years to do, so be prepared for the long haul.

She may need therapy or this medication or that treatment, but she isn't going to go for that unless there is someone she trusts and feels comfortable with. You may be that person, you may not, but it doesn't hurt to try to develop a relationship with your sister, right?

So I'd say this: Attempting to come in and fix or save her might be the wrong approach. Just focus on trying to hang out and get to know her and see if that's something you'd enjoy doing more of. From that foundation a system of support could develop.

Good luck!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:38 AM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has done wonders for an acquaintance and my husband's ex-wife- both have had severe problems with anxiety and behavioral disorders. There is nothing a lay-person can do except be supportive

BTW, don't approach it from the standpoint of "you don't fit in so let's fix you." Instead, let her know how much it means to see her doing well and let her know you'll be there if she needs you. Anxiety has nothing to do with ability- it is a set of physical and emotional responses to a situation. The feelings are very over-powering as you know - probably from seeing your sister- the feelings are hard to ration with although learning to work in spite of them can be accomplished. When there are physical symptoms it makes it worse- heart palpitations, chest pains etc. I was having panic attacks a few years ago that were so bad, I woke from a dead sleep thinking I was having a heart attack and spent a lot of time thinking I was dying of something or that I had done something wrong. Those who experience it know they do not think or act as they know they should- anger, quitting jobs when you are a workaholic on your good days, calling in sick, etc. Once she is on a road to recovery she can see the bad reactions diminish as she learns how to deal with difficult situations. It can be done- it just takes work! I know how hard it can be being on the outside and looking in on life, but she can do it- just go one day at a time :) Good luck!
posted by agentsarahjane at 12:25 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am stunned at how much this sounds like me.

I was very much like your sister up until my late 20s. The main difference is that instead of lashing out I would retreat even further from contact from people when I was upset. I didn't go to college but I'm sure I would have done the same as your sister (isolated myself). And I was your sister's age when I had my first (and last, he's now my husband) romantic relationship.

Oddly enough, getting a computer and haunting chat rooms really helped me come out of my shell. Later on, with my husband's help (I met him in a chat room), I was able to talk to my doctor about going on anti-depressants. I know that some sort of therapy would really help, but our insurance doesn't cover it.

If I were you I'd approach her as Brandon suggested. It might take a while for her to accept, but be persistent without being pushy (I know, it's a fine line). I wish someone had done that for me. There's no telling how much better my life would have been if someone before my husband showed they cared about my well-being.

Note: Since it was mentioned above, I thought I'd add that I also test very high, for a woman, on the autism scale, but don't quite reach into that territory. It's quite possible a doctor would see it differently.
posted by deborah at 4:04 PM on April 8, 2009

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