How do I stop being a pushover with my sister? (a bit long but any help would be appreciated)
August 13, 2010 7:33 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop being a pushover with my sister?

I'm really tired of being treated badly by my sister. A little background?

We're polar opposites of each other. I'm soft-spoken and shy, she's loud and outgoing. She's very passionate about everything she does and if she has a problem with something, everyone will know. I, on the other hand, hate confrontation and tend to be more diplomatic. We don't get along very well because most of the time she'll bring things up and make me tear up or shut down and stop talking completely.

The one huge problem is that she has an extremely short fuse. Anything and everything can set her off. She's also very easily offended by the slightest things. If anything in her day makes her cranky, she will usually take it out on everyone... me the most, since I'm 10 years younger than her and I'm an easy target. Also, I usually put up with it rather than fight back.

She was out of the country recently and called with the phone number to reach her at. She told me to call the number immediately. I called and I couldn't get through so I dialed her cell phone to tell her this. She responded by screaming at me on the phone that I "fuck everything up" and that I don't know how to do anything right. It was a gross blow-up of a trivial situation. That's just an example of every day occurrences. She tries to justify it by saying that external factors make her mad and that I just seem to top it off. But I've never quite gotten an apology.

At this point, I'm tired of it and I just try to avoid her. But I know that's not how I should be dealing with the situation. It's just that any which way I word it, she makes me feel like I'm the one who's always doing something wrong and it's her job to point it out to me. Also that she's older than me so I shouldn't talk back. I'm just so tired of it and think I want to give up on us altogether, unless she gets some anger management classes.

Any thoughts or suggestions on how I can deal with this will be greatly appreciated. I haven't spoken to her since that conversation and she'll be back home tomorrow. I feel like I need to address the issue even though it'll be a couple days old, right?
I need to learn to stand up for myself, but I'm not sure how exactly to begin wording my sentences in a way that she can't simply justify being a bitch...
posted by picarosado to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you see others around your sister that manage her well? You might try watching for them and seeing how they manage her and try to follow their lead.

Otherwise, it comes down to saying a lot of dispassionate, "I can't be part of this conversation if you're going to talk to me like that." And then hang up or leave or otherwise make it clear that she really, really can't railroad you or treat you as a punching bag anymore.

You have a bottom line, and that bottom line is being treated with the respect and civility you deserve.
posted by ldthomps at 7:52 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

At this point, I'm tired of it and I just try to avoid her. But I know that's not how I should be dealing with the situation.


Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

But if you want to do something a little more confrontational, you could try ding training.
posted by flabdablet at 7:55 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I take it you live in the same house? If possible, move.

Whether or not that's possible, tell her that you don't like the way she treats you, or talks to you. Tell her that the next time she loses her shit and screams at you, or uses you as a punching bag because she's had such a hard day imagine tiny violins playing, you're going to leave the room/hang up the phone.

Then do it. Set your boundaries, tell her what they are, and then keep them. If she's not entirely stupid, she'll learn.

Don't get into specifics (e.g., "That time you told me to call the phone number"); it will only open the door for her to rationalize/justify/excuse her behavior/find some way to blame you for her short temper. Say "I don't like it when you scream at me/call me names/blame me because you had a shitty day." That's it.

Easier said than done, yes, but most things are.
posted by rtha at 7:55 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

At this point, I'm tired of it and I just try to avoid her. But I know that's not how I should be dealing with the situation.

Why not? You are under no obligation to put up with unpleasant people just because they're related to you.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:56 PM on August 13, 2010 [11 favorites]

Hmmm....just brainstorming here..

1. Show her this question
2. Read Dance of Anger--good book for extricating one's self from family dynamics
3. Simply say to her "speak to me with some respect" and if she doesn't, walk out of the room--no need to know why she does this--you just want it to stop

Whatever you decide to do, you can expect her to up the ante at first. It's like magic--she'll yell louder or say meaner things in an effort to enforce your present dynamic. Just calmly walk away, you're retraining her.

Also --- don't be hard on yourself if you can't change things right away. Just notice when you'd like to do something different at first.

And practice these sentences:

1. I can't help you with that
2. I don't know how to respond to that.

These two buy you time and put the effort back on her.

And, finally, if you feel you need to come on stronger try

3. What do you hope to gain by saying that to me? It's not going to get you what you want.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:56 PM on August 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

"I'm sorry, this conversation is finished until you can manage to treat me civilly."

"I'm sorry, no one can make you mad, you can only choose to be angry."

"I'm sorry, I do not agree with your assessment of this situation. We will talk when YOU calm down and not until."

Lather, rinse, repeat, and walk away, if necessary. You don't have to argue with her. You just state your boundary and remove yourself from the aggravation. She will eventually learn.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:56 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

And I wouldn't bring up the phone situation at all unless she does.

PS. The ding training mentioned upthread is definitely an option if you are up for it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:58 PM on August 13, 2010

ps: you can still be shy and soft spoken while employing the recommendations people are giving here. You don't have to become like her. In fact, it can be quite delicious to be completely yourself while learning to do this.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:00 PM on August 13, 2010

You know (well, maybe you don't, and I don't either, but it is quite possible), that she needs you a whole lot more than you need her. In these kinds of family things that I've been in and witnessed, with one demanding and the other compliant, it is usually that the demanding one is also the very needy one.

So when the abuse becomes to much (and don't make excuses for her. It is abuse.), just say, "No", or "Latter", or "whatever" and walk away. This may be just a dynamic that only happens with you, but it is years old, and you are going to have to be the one that changes it, that let's her know that you won't put up with it. But listen, her behavior, her out cries and curses, don't really show what she thinks of you! It doesn't. That is really more about the ways she has learned to control you, than about her attachment to you. She will get mad when you stop playing her games, but that is not your fault; probably you have taken care of her too much and too long. Changing the relationship won't happen at once, but it can happen.

(Now; with my sister...!! Agh. OK, the advice here might have a lot to do with my sister, but I do seem some over lap.)

Good Luck, and don't forget you love her.
posted by Some1 at 8:05 PM on August 13, 2010

Good Luck, and don't forget you love her.

You are under no obligation to feel love for someone who treats you badly. You are not defective if you don't feel it.

You are also under no obligation to accept abuse from anybody no matter how many genes you have in common. (Sadly this last one is less true if you are not yet an adult. Do you mind telling us how old you are and what your living situation is? It could really affect what advice is appropriate.)
posted by fritley at 8:12 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just in case I'm dense, how old are you? And are we discussing pretty standard North American culture (I'm guessing?), or are there cultural complications?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:26 PM on August 13, 2010

Response by poster: I recently graduated from college and moved back home with my parents. My sister is married with a kid and we all happen to live in the same condo, 3 floors apart. We are Indian, so there's the whole cultural thing about treating your elders with respect, etc. So for that, I try to keep my mouth shut most of the time. I know she loves me because she's done a lot for me over the years. And she's always had a short temper but recently it seems to have gotten much worse. It's frustrating for me to be around her because I don't know what's going to set her off. She's like this with her husband but he'll fight back and they're on a more even ground.
I think the best thing would be for us to not live in the same state (I'm trying to move out asap) because we might end up being closer in the long run.
It's just frustrating that because we're FAMILY we have to get along. But I feel guilty to just give up on us or not try to keep close. Although now I'm learning towards just letting it go. Her bad mood infects my whole day!
Thanks for the responses :)
posted by picarosado at 8:37 PM on August 13, 2010

Repeat as often as necessary: family is not a license for abuse.

Some part of an imperfect upbringing can lead people to believe that your blood-related loved ones are not only there to love you, but take your SH*T unconditionally. This is NOT true - no matter how enforced by family members this may appear at times. Abuse is not justified by "love". We hear this in romantic relationships all the time; family is no less exempt.

The fact that she is older than you is a moot point. You are both adults. Other adults treat each other with respect as adults, regardless of age differences. Being sisters does not make your case exceptional. End of story.

As others have suggested, set boundaries.
    "behavior that needs to change" + "consequence for no change"
    E.g. "If you continue to yell at me [=behavior], then I will hang up the phone [=consequence]"
    No change in behavior = hanging up the phone/physically removing yourself from the situation
But for the more mundane stuff, I highly recommend assertive communication.
    I feel __________, because I __________, therefore, I need __________.
    E.g. I feel upset, because I tried to help you, and you yelled at me. Therefore, I need to know you're not going to yell at me the next time I try to help you.
FWIW my sister and I come from a fantastic family dynamic where my sister was the focal point of all family woes. Her siblings (including myself) believed for a long time that she really was the family fuck up, that she couldn't do anything right, and deserved less than respectful treatment. It took a lot of de-programming to address the damage learned. Assertive communication has been one of our tools for putting our bad behavioral habits back into check.

Any situation you fear from your sister, take a moment to write down in the framework of assertive thinking. Verbally rehearse (alone or with a friend) the statement that best suits your particular concern for a given situation. It will help you present your feelings in an incredibly reasonable manner, thus leaving the ball in your sister's court to carry forward as an adult. When assertive communication fails, fall back to boundaries. Repeat as necessary. Remind yourself that you have no control over the behavior of another adult, especially their choice to behave disrespectfully.

This will not change your sister overnight. But it will help you break out of the unhealthy pattern of submitting to her bullsh*t. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 8:39 PM on August 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, I should mention that we're Indian but live in the US. I was raised here most of my life, and she was raised in India most of her life (she wanted to stay in school in India) so there's THAT whole cultural divide to add to all this. She settled down at 23 and had a kid and I have no intention of doing that, even though she thinks I should. We just can't seem to relate, and the temper and attitude doesn't help.
posted by picarosado at 8:40 PM on August 13, 2010

Just read your response. Re: Indian culture. I really hear where you are coming from.

As with any culture, there is no one "right" way to act in a given situation. One sister may treat her younger respectfully, another may vent her anger. Surely there is room for you and your sister, as two healthy adults, to find the healthiest alternative together. Should your sister refuse to see this, surely there is room for YOU to protect your own mental health from an abusive family member.

Indian culture doesn't highlight this alternative. But it exists. You might have to be ballsy to pull it off, but it's possible. You are not disrespecting her or being a "bad" sister; you are stating your needs, like a mature, healthy adult. Bas!
posted by human ecologist at 8:46 PM on August 13, 2010

Just to mention possible approaches, I have seen people deal with this by always making sure to lose their own temper before the ill-tempered relative does. I don't personally think that's a very good solution, though.
posted by XMLicious at 10:38 PM on August 13, 2010

I have noticed that many people really do not like their siblings. I did not like mine and I always felt badly about it. (He was older than me and bullied me incessantly). Someone once told me something that helped me accept my dislike for my brother. They told me that adults really do not need their siblings for anything. Siblings are valuable to us when we are growing up because they teach us how to live with others and they are (of course) helpful should our parents die while we are young. Beyond that, once we reach adulthood, siblings are very unnecessary. If you embrace this philosophy suddenly it becomes possible to let go of of the idea that you and your sibling must be best buddies. You "need her" ......for nothing!
Now, obviously, some people really do enjoy their brothers and sisters--you and I have not been so fortunate.

(post script: My brother passed away in 1996...Just before he died we had some lovely talks. I love him and have many good memories of him. I don't regret the years apart from him, however. One has to learn how to protect themselves. To use an overworked (but accurate) term--one has to establish boundaries).
posted by naplesyellow at 11:38 PM on August 13, 2010

The whole being tired of it thing and wanting to avoid her? That IS your answer. And I think it's what you should do. I have a similar relationship with my (younger) sister, and trying to relate and set boundaries has only led to wasted time and energy. If you try to stand up for yourself, that's an invitation to fight, and it sounds like she loves fighting.

Stop giving her attention and focus your precious time and energy on your own pursuits.

You sound like someone who wants to have a good relationship with your sister. If she came to you, genuinely and earnestly, I don't think you would deny your sister. So don't worry about not doing the "right" thing here. You tried. Your sister has to try now. You don't have to have a relationship with her until she does, and you already know that if she does, you'd reciprocate. Sometimes that's all you can do.
posted by vienaragis at 12:33 AM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

because we're FAMILY we have to get along

That is incorrect. Being related to an obnoxious person does not make obnoxious behavior OK.

In any case, the reason you're not currently getting along is clearly due mainly to your sister's behavior, not yours, which means that the problem of Not Getting Along is not one you actually have the power to solve. I recommend settling for not getting treated like a doormat.
posted by flabdablet at 12:42 AM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You have mentioned that the things she does affects your whole day, do you feel like this when other people are difficult with you? If it is limited to your sisters behaviour then everything above, but if other people can affect you this way too then you may want to consider your own coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult people. This means attributing their behaviour to things going on in their own lives that you are not responsible for. Eventually you will not be taking someones unpleasant behaviour so personally that it will be detrimental to the rest of your day.
posted by lilyflower at 2:25 AM on August 14, 2010

So being from an Indian family complicates this situation. But it doesn't make it an unsolvable problem. Bossy elder siblings are bossier when they're from the subcontinent, because it is culturally acceptable for them to be bossy, even when you're 60 and they're 70. It is not generally acceptable for them to be abusive, however.

My guess is that if you don't make an attempt to maintain at least a reasonably civil relationship with your sister, you're going to get a lot of grief from parents and probably other family and/or community members. So you do have to think about that kind of fallout should you choose the "I don't have to continue my relationship with my sister and that's ok because we don't really need siblings once we're adults" route.

I'm going to assume that you do, in fact, wish to maintain your relationship with her, but without the yelling, etc.

The advice about stating politely, that you're not willing to have a conversation until she can speak to you civilly, seems apt. The trick is to choose your language so that it doesn't fall into the "disrespecting your elders" territory. rtha's and StAliaoftheBunnies' suggestions above would seem appropriate; something like "Later" less so.

The fact that elders are meant, in Desi culture, to take care of and look out for those younger than themselves means that the expectation that she'll be reasonably kind (in the best sense of that word) to you is pretty deeply ingrained. You yourself say that she does do a lot for you, so clearly she buys into that obligation. So you're well within your rights, even in the cultural setup, to say "I need you to speak to me without yelling/swearing/etc/etc."

As far as making different life choices goes, that is just every individual's right. Recognize that culture means that the choices you want to make (marrying "late" or not at all, etc.) are skewed away from the norm (For some reason your question makes me think you're female. If that assumption is incorrect, the pressure to stick to the norm is a little less intense). You will have to deal with the fact that the elders in your life, especially those of them who have made more conventional choices, ARE going to keep telling you that you should also do the conventional thing. You can perfectly politely ignore this. You say you're quiet and soft-spoken. That can be a tremendously powerful way to do the unconventional. I know that I have gotten away with many more unconventional choices than my elder sister, simply by virtue of not arguing with my elders, and then going my own way quietly.

I'm firmly in the "family sticks together" camp, but that doesn't mean that you need to put up with her being just downright nasty.
posted by bardophile at 4:40 AM on August 14, 2010

Okay, this may be slightly silly, but I recently read "Between Parent and Child," which is about how to cope with fractious children shouting things like, "I HATE YOU BECAUSE YOU WON'T LET ME HAVE ICE CREAM FOR BREAKFAST!" To my surprise, it works equally well with fractious adults.

The basic premise is that you actually VALIDATE the shouters -- their underlying emotion. Even when it's totally out of proportion. Because (being toddlers ... or at least emotional toddlers) they're not able to control the level of frustration/rage they feel or understand how to moderate it. So you say, sympathetically, "It must be very frustrating when the phone doesn't work as planned." You don't say, "My fault," you don't say, "Stop yelling," you don't say, "You're upsetting me," -- you simply acknowledge the other person's frustration and refuse to let them get a rise out of you.

It is VERY HARD TO ESCALATE when someone is being sympathetic towards you. (One example the book gives is if you burn the toast, what do you want your spouse to react with: "Why can't you do anything right?" "Great, just let me do it," or "Oh, how frustrating, you're having such a rough morning and now the toaster isn't working right!")

Now, it does require you to be the bigger person and not to point out that this person is behaving like a toddler and that adults don't scream like that, certainly not at a person who isn't the source of their frustration. However, I have discovered with a couple of fractious adults in my life that it is almost like magic -- it basically immediately cuts them off before they can get their rant on, before they can start a fight, and frequently they apologize because suddenly they're calming down.

It's not a great strategy if you want her to admit you're right (and it sounds like you are, and she's out of control emotionally). But if you just want to stop the arguing? Works awesome.

(Personally I would probably go with the, "It must be very frustrating when the phone doesn't work," and then after she calms down a bit, say, "I don't appreciate being yelled at like that when I haven't done anything wrong." But you know best if that would just start another fight.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:46 AM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Instead of reacting emotionally to hurtful things that she's saying, try to take a step back and react to the way she's acting and respond accordingly. In your example, her response was totally crazy. How would you respond if she were wordlessly screaming? I'd say something like "Are you hurt?! Are you in danger?! I can't understand you when you're screaming, calm down and call me back if you need something!"

Yes, I'm saying that you should pretty much ignore the words coming out of her mouth when she gets like this, because those words are irrelevant; they're being slung at you just to get a response and keep you defensive.
posted by desuetude at 10:11 AM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

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