How do handle feeling patronized?
February 22, 2011 8:12 AM   Subscribe

How do I let someone know I feel patronized without putting them on the defensive, especially if that person may not realize that they're being patronizing?

My brother and I have not really known each other for years, communication in our family has been off. We get along and live in the same house, but somehow around high school we went our separate ways, only updating each other on our lives periodically. Our relationship has been very surfacey. We've had a good childhood but there were still unresolved family issues that nobody ever talked about (the "elephant in the room"). I'm not going to go into much detail because that's not the point of this question.

The point of the question is this. Yesterday he opened up to me about a lot of things. I asked him what his plans were for the future and he said he was changing a lot of things and trying to find himself and figure out which path he could take in life. He started sharing all of this self-help and personal development stuff he's been reading over the years and basically started talking like an expert on this stuff. I'm sure he does knows a lot about it and I respect that.

My problem is that I felt a smidge of patronizing when he was talking to me. I've also done plenty of research on self-help and personal development over the years. I've seen a counselor on my own initiative (i told him about that for the first time) and spent many hours with a buddhist meditation group while studying abroad. I may not have put everything into practice because I procrastinate (lol) but that doesn't mean I'm clueless. I've studied abroad, done a lot to improve myself and it's a journey. I'm not where I want to be yet, I still have a lot of unresolved issues to work out with certain family members and have a long way to go in developing self-confidence. Yet my brother was talking to me as though I was a complete novice when it comes to self-help, as though I never learned anything when I studied abroad, as though I'd never heard of any of the self-help techniques.

It didn't help matters when I broke down crying in front of him about some of the issues I've been having. I bottle up so much that when I finally start talking about things, my emotions flow. He was very nice and validating about that but I'm sure it only made him feel more superior and confirmed his suspicions that I'm clueless.

It's strange...I felt like he really was coming from a good place but he still talks and speaks with an air of superiority. It's not over the top, but it's there. Like he knows what's best for everybody and he has an answer for everything. He never considers the other person's true feelings or life, even though he *says* he does. I never get the *feeling* that he does. I could be wrong, but it's a gut feeling I'm getting, and my gut feelings are usually right. I've talked to other people who don't give off this air of superiority. With my brother, I don't get a sense of -- and I quote the Buddhist teacher Zopa Rinpoche -- "You don't have to believe anything I say. Think about it, check it logically and through your own experience before believing it." Instead, I sense (non-verbally), "this is what I've read, this is the truth, you've never heard of this truth, you're clueless, here is your problem, this is where you are now and this is where you need to go. You need to do this, this and that and you'll get THERE."

Let me be clear -- I'm not trying to make my brother out to be a bad person, because he's not. I love him and care about him, and am excited to restore our relationship. But I can't take the patronizing. I can't be around someone who acts like he cares about me but does so with a slight air of superiority. I know that when people patronize others, it's because of their own insecurities. And he does have them. He told me he's trying to figure out who he is and what he wants in life. I don't even think he knows he's being patronizing. It might even go back to how he might have felt overshadowed by me when we were kids. I was the studious, shy, introverted older sister and he was the more outgoing and playful (but still introverted) younger brother who struggled a bit more in school. Maybe he wants a turn to be the "one on top".

So how can I let him know that I sometimes feel slightly patronized when I'm talking to him, without sounding combative or without putting him on the defensive? How can I assert myself about what I already know? If I tell him, he'll probably become even more patronizing and condescending and start lecturing me on some psychobabble he's picked up from those personal development books he's read, instead of really *listening*.
posted by starpoint to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I grew up in a family where someone had to be up, someone had to be down. Weakness meant you'd be disrespected and trod upon/abused. My siblings and I were put into rigid boxes and pitted against one another.

I find myself slipping into that extremely defensive and competitive mindset when I'm overwhelmed, upset, and/or feel vulnerable. I read way too much into others' behavior and become intent upon proving that I'm smarter, stronger, etc. How dare someone think that I don't know something?

You and your brother can both be smart and knowledgeable about self-help. If the topic triggers emotional distress or competitiveness, consider avoiding the subject with him.

Remember-- respect, acknowledgment, and self-esteem are NOT scarce. You do not need to compete for them.

Good luck--
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:27 AM on February 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


You can tell him that you're happy with the way you're handling the problems under discussion, and say you're just looking for someone to listen right now.
posted by emilyw at 8:35 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Frankly, I'm getting a huge vibe of superiority and defensiveness from your post. It reads like you're actually the one who wants to judge your brother and bring him down a notch because he's encroaching on your territory. If you want to have a good, adult relationship with him, then don't get obsessed with his possible flaw of being "slightly patronizing." I don't read anywhere here where you actually shared your own experiences with him. Stop "sensing things non-verbally" and talk to your brother.

In short, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" The correct question here is really embodied in the title to your post: "How to handle feeling patronized." This is first and foremost about you, not about your brother.
posted by yarly at 8:46 AM on February 22, 2011 [25 favorites]


Here is what I would do, for what it is worth: Don't worry about it. He wants to feel like an expert in the field, let him. Him thinking he knows more then you, true or not, does not diminish you in the least unless you let it. I mean it sounds like he is being open and caring, right? Some people just come across that way. And try to participate honestly in the conversation. Like when he says, "to do this you should do xyz." you can say "Oh yes, in my meditation studies they talked about doing xyz and also suggested abc."
posted by d4nj450n at 8:53 AM on February 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


It sounds like the aftermath of the "elephant in the room" is still giving you a lot of pain. Both of you need to talk to one another without judging.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:09 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


I concur with Yarly. Based only on the content of your post, it seems like you're holding your brother responsible for your emotions.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:09 AM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


Why is this a big deal? You feel like he's coming from a good place and with good intentions, so accept that and along with that accept that he's into this self-help thing and wants to share with you. I try to weigh the intent/heart more heavily than the action.

Whatever history your family has, it seems to me to be really affecting you and your relationship with your brother. No disrespect, but I think this is more something you should work on about you and less something that you need to address your brother on - because at the very least, that old cliche is true, you really can only control your own feelings and actions, and other people really do only have as much power as you let them when it comes to making you feel a certain way.

I would meet him halfway - when he starts to talk about something and you get a vibe you don't like, see if you can redirect him, and maybe say "yeah, I know what you mean - when I studied xyz I felt like abc, what was your take on that?".

This makes me sound old, but are the two of you near college age? Because I know that around that age I and my friends sometimes got that way when we got into and learned a new topic, and it was totally unintentional - I didn't even know it until my parents laughed about it with me years later.

And there is sometimes a sibling dynamic where you want to be an expert on something - especially if you feel like that something will help out your sibling.
posted by mrs. taters at 9:12 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, sometimes when people discover something that helps they feel it is so important for everyone and thus they get preachy about it. And that gets in the way of them actually listening to others. I've done that.
You are excited about sharing stuff with your brother. You are glad you can talk to him. But you need him to listen to you in a different way. Think about how you would like him to have reacted to you. And then make yourself vulnerable and tell him. "I need this from you. Can we try that?"
You and your brother are still new at discussing private things. You'll both adapt. But share with him what you want from him and don't dwell on what you didn't like about him.
posted by Omnomnom at 9:21 AM on February 22, 2011


Does your bother actually KNOW that you've done a lot of self help stuff too? You don't mention that he does, but you do mention that you guys don't talk, hence the question.

Also, does this feeling of being patronised come from just one conversation? If it does, perhaps you're feeling threatened, rather than patronised. You seem to be sure that he's going to act a certain way if you do X, even though you never seem to have done X around him. He might well behave that way, but you don't know that until you try.

If you want to assert yourself, you could try on of two things: a] say directly to him that you know about this stuff already, or b] mention that you actually have something in common, perhaps that you both read the same book or that you're both interested in the same thing, and try to find some common ground.

It seems to me that he's trying to reach out to you by showing some variation of vulnerability ("here's something that is important to me"). He might just be excited to share it with someone.

Finally, you feel the way you feel because of your own choices, in any situation. Another person has no control over your emotional state whatsoever.
posted by Solomon at 9:23 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


You are both adults that live in your parent's home? Not judging, just trying to figure out. And there is some sort of huge looming family secret that can't be talked about? Work on that elephant in the room thing together.
posted by fixedgear at 9:35 AM on February 22, 2011


Just dealing with the question that you asked (and not imputed motives). This is about assertiveness and how you express that. Something like "when you say xxxxx, it makes me feel y". You have a right to how you feel, whether it is rational or not. It is what it is. You can express how you feel, without blaming the other party. Hence it is assertive, not aggressive. You also need discuss it when you are both calm and have time to deal with it. You have to watch your body language and especially your tone of voice, so that it is more calm and matter of fact. If you are all worked up and intense, your brother will only register the emotion and not really hear what you are saying. I would also think about what you will say if he asks you how he should modify his approach.

If this is a broader issue affecting your dealings with other people, I suggest you read "Your Perfect Right". Very good, easy to read, good suggestions about assertiveness. Aggressive people are often not assertive; you don't have to be a "floor mat for others" to benefit from studying assertiveness.
Good luck.
posted by PickeringPete at 9:36 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It reads to me like your brother isn't trying to be condescending; rather, he's just had a self-help conversion experience, and it's made such a significant impact on his life that he wants to preach it to everyone. Often when people first discover something that really changes their perspective, they go through a phase of well-meaning but short-sighted evangelism: they assume that none of their friends has ever heard of this wonderful thing, otherwise their minds would be totally blown too. He may be acting not out of smugness, but out of a desire to share something really great with you, not realizing that you don't share his enthusiasm.

Consider this an exercise in restoring a healthy relationship with your brother while resisting defensiveness and oneupsmanship. Treat him with the patience and compassion you'd like him to give you, and assume good intent on his part. If he does say something that sounds overly patronizing, gently deflect it with an acknowledgment ("yeah, I heard that's a good approach") or even an invitation for him to talk it out ("how's that working out for you?") - if you let him get all this out now, he might not feel as great a need to share later. If he offers you unsolicited advice when you're telling him about a problem, you can reply with "I appreciate the advice, but I'm just talking about this to give you an update. I'm not looking for advice right now."
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:39 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I could be wrong, but it's a gut feeling I'm getting, and my gut feelings are usually right. I've talked to other people who don't give off this air of superiority. With my brother, I don't get a sense of -- and I quote the Buddhist teacher Zopa Rinpoche -- "You don't have to believe anything I say. Think about it, check it logically and through your own experience before believing it." Instead, I sense (non-verbally), "this is what I've read, this is the truth, you've never heard of this truth, you're clueless, here is your problem, this is where you are now and this is where you need to go. You need to do this, this and that and you'll get THERE."

One thing to keep in mind: the fact that you do not perceive this air of superiority from other people does not necessarily mean that he is in fact much more patronizing than other people-- it may instead (or also) mean that you are more sensitive to perceiving him in that way than you are to perceiving other people that way. (Not saying you may not be right that he is in fact more patronizing to you and neutral outside observers would conclude the same. Just reminding you that you're not a neutral outside observer. Which is totally, totally understandable.)

This is partially hard because the evidence you've given seems to have missing information ("Yet my brother was talking to me as though I was a complete novice when it comes to self-help, as though I never learned anything when I studied abroad, as though I'd never heard of any of the self-help techniques"-- did he actually know this? did you mention some of your knowledge on these techniques, and if so, how did he react? "It didn't help matters when I broke down crying in front of him about some of the issues I've been having. I bottle up so much that when I finally start talking about things, my emotions flow. He was very nice and validating about that but I'm sure it only made him feel more superior and confirmed his suspicions that I'm clueless."-- Was there any evidence from his response that your crying made him feel more superior and think you're clueless?)

This is not to attack you for feeling patronized-- but if your goal is to improve your relationship, then the way to solve the problem of feeling patronized may not just be to try to ask him to stop it, but may also or instead be to figure out why exactly you're feeling patronized and how much of that may be you jumping to conclusions and/or being oversensitive, both of which you can address and then end up feeling less patronized all on your own. (And plus, the more you can isolate what exactly he does that makes you feel patronized that's actualy problematic on his side, then you can talk to him about those specific things and ask him if he can try to stop, rather than generically "Stop acting like you're better than me!" which is unlikely to be too productive.)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2011 [7 favorites]


Maybe he wants something to be about him and his experience, and not about you and yours. A journey of self-discovery always seems special and fresh for the person embarking on it. Be gracious and let him have that energy of discovery. If you've done so much work, you should know his attitude is no threat to you.
posted by griselda at 10:28 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've [...] spent many hours with a buddhist meditation group while studying abroad. I may not have put everything into practice [...]

Well, here's your chance! Seriously. Meditation is perfect for this kind of situation! It trains you to let thoughts pass through your mind without judgment and to still the mind so that you can see things clearly. From this comes compassion for yourself and others.

But you know this already.... :)
posted by desjardins at 10:37 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Family roles and relationships take a long time to change. Lots of people could sound patronizing when they discuss their favorite self-help theories. Try really hard to assume the best, and act accordingly. My role in my family is "Little Theora" and my siblings don't always take me seriously. So, I learned to make sure I take myself seriously*, give myself credit, and have self-respect. Once I changed how I see myself, it changed how other respond to me.

*take myself seriously in a positive way, not a need-to-get-over-myself way. At least that's my plan.
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on February 22, 2011


Hmm, I guess I didn't get my point across too well with my post. But your advice is all very good. The only thing that was bothering me was I just wished he would not assume I'm clueless about everything. I guess the real root of the problem is the fact that I feel like I've failed as a big sister. As the oldest, i was supposed to be the one setting the example and leading the way, but that really hasn't happened. I feel like I can't give him any big sisterly advice. If was the younger sister and he was the older brother, I wouldn't have this problem at all. It's not about him and it's about me, and it's something I need to work on. I know it sounds stupid, but it's real. This has all been a wake-up call and I'll have to start working on overcoming it.
posted by starpoint at 11:09 AM on February 22, 2011


There's nothing stopping you from setting an example in some other way. But really, being older doesn't mean that you should set an example. If you want to, that's fine, but there's no rulebook that says you have to.
posted by Solomon at 11:27 AM on February 22, 2011


For what it's worth starpoint, I think I know what you're talking about because I get it from one of my brothers as well. All accounts of his own growth carry the implication "How sad that you haven't reached this plane of understanding!" and all interactions carry a "I'm so enlightened and if you knew what was good for you, you'd listen to me and be enlightened too" tone. It makes it very difficult to talk to him, as he assumes motivations and reasons for my actions that do not exist, and doesn't really understand who I am as a person or what I've gone through. Exposing emotional vulnerability is out of the question, as it serves as ammo for his "proof" that I'm an unenlightened, immature creature.

However--a large part of this reason is our lack of closeness. He hasn't interacted enough with me over the years to see how I've changed. To him, I'm the same person in my childhood. Perhaps that's the case with your brother, as well. He's got the "you" of your childhood, the bits and pieces of updates, and that's it. There isn't enough information there to see your growth.

I don't know if the patronization is something you can openly address, as its basis is likely in the lack of history between the two of you. I've chosen to eschew a relationship with my brother entirely. If you want a relationship with him, devoid of this acrimony, you'll likely have to remember to breathe when you feel patronized, and continue to share your life and experiences with him in order to give him a better idea of who you are as an adult.
posted by schroedinger at 12:26 PM on February 22, 2011


@schroedinger - You described what I tried to convey exactly! What you say about lack of closeness rings true, also. He really doesn't know the extent of what I've done or researched, because we've never talked about it before. I will definitely keep this in mind while moving forward. Sorry about you and your brother though.
posted by starpoint at 12:58 PM on February 22, 2011


This might be your situation, and it might not, but I often find it maddening to interact with people who don't fit my definition of "A good conversationalist". This includes individuals who are interested in (my definition of a) dialogue, and an exchange of information (where people speak approximately equally), where there is a lot of curiosity about the other person's perspective, which is evidenced by asking questions of the other person. There is also the sense of trying to fully understand someone else's perspective, rather than the seeming goal of proving someone wrong. The absence of these features (which I described as know-it-all-ish-ness, as if I'm just a foil for to unfold your genius) seemed disrespectful, as if a person was "talking down to me".

I've discovered that I am ridiculously rigid about this definition, basically because this is not how my family dynamic was when I was younger. It was more 'competing monologues with proclamations, and the only question was, "Why can't you see that I'm right?"

It's taken me a while to realize that my definition of "A good conversationalist" doesn't really fit other people's definition. And that their definition isn't necessarily wrong - it's just not mine.

So I finally, when in a conversation and I would start to get triggered - just started asking why by reflecting my experience back to the people I care about who engage differently. In short, I started having conversations about conversations. For example, if I has asked several questions, but they just monologued at me, I started asking them why they weren't asking me any questions, because I perceived it as them not being interested in my experience. I noted that that wasn't necessarily an accurate assessment, but I really didn't know how they viewed a 'good conversation'.

For some people, I think this was frustrating (I mean, a conversation about conversations?), but I personally found it helpful. For example, the whole "why aren't you asking me questions" thing....I had some really good conversations where friends shared that asking questions was like having to repeatedly invite someone to talk. They thought I would just jump in with my comments. I've had others point out to me that they consider conversations like debates, so "Knocking down" my arguments and having theirs "knocked down" by me wasn't a chilling conversation killer, but a bracing, refreshing exchange. I have had others consider that they appreciate the space I give them to speak by asking questions, and have actually changed their way of communicating with me. Other people just got sort of defensive.

In short, rather than cutting people out of my life because I think their conversation skills suck, or feeling like they were patronizing or disrespecting me, i just got all anthropological observer about it, which gave me the distance to reconsider how I was experiencing the conversation.

Perhaps your brother isn't conscious of how he is communicating with you, or how it's being perceived by you. Perhaps you could discuss this, when it happens, and get some feedback - not to change his behavior, but to test your assumptions, and gain more awareness?
posted by anitanita at 2:23 PM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


As the oldest, i was supposed to be the one setting the example and leading the way, but that really hasn't happened. I feel like I can't give him any big sisterly advice.

These seem like good insights. It may be that he wants to change the dynamic and not receive advice? If so, perhaps you could further support his goal by asking for advice from him. That would reveal your own experience in these areas ("when I'm meditating one challenge I have is...") without challenging his desire to feel like an expert. At minimum, you'll have a conversation topic for growing closer. At best, after several discussions like that, you might start to relate more as equals.
posted by slidell at 10:53 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


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