Help me love my jerk brother
October 28, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

My brother is kind of an arse, and not very empathetic. Can you help me to not overreact to this, and get less wound up by him?

My brother and I are quite different people. He is a professional musician, and still lives with my parents. I am five years older than him, and have had my own place for a very long time now. I work in healthcare IT. My younger sister is five years younger than him, and also still lives at home. He frustrates me a lot. Some (miscellaneous, disorganised) examples:

- He has always been very self-obsessed. He talks about himself and his feelings a lot. Because of this, his needs have often dominated the agenda in our family.

- He has a real sense of entitlement, and as a result has an odd combination of quite right-wing views on welfare and taxation and also beliefs that e.g. the government and the record industry are not doing enough to support young musicians.

- He thinks less of me because I have chosen a career that doesn't pay particularly well and carries very little glory with it. (I like my job very much, and find it personally satisfying) He dismisses my opinions, saying that I have 'no desire to succeed at all'.

- He is always talking about his 'depression', but when my little sister got actually, clinically depressed last year, he dismissed it and said that she 'wasn't depressed, she was just lazy', and told her not to take the antidepressants she was prescribed. She was definitely depressed, but didn't take the antidepressants. She's improved with therapy, but is still not great.

- At the same time, I know he has given her drugs on multiple occasions.

- When we have disagreements, and I try to make a reasoned case for my position, he tells me that I am too 'logical', and that if I had taken more drugs I would be able to 'loosen up a bit'.

- Growing up, he was a very stressful child who threw tantrums several times a day until he was quite old. From when he was small, he had a habit of hitting and biting other children, including my little sister. He still has regular, screaming rows with people (including my parents and sister) in which he swears at them and calls them various unpleasant things.

- We give my parents lots of Christmas presents all together (it's supposed to be a kind of reverse Father Christmas). He won't join me and my sister when we go shopping, always spends much less than us on gifts, and gets them 'joke presents' that are funny to him but that he knows they won't actually enjoy.

Basically he is a bit of a jerk. But at the same time, it would be good for me and my family as a whole if I could not let him get quite so far under my skin. Sometimes, for example, I worry that he's so narcissistic that his capacity for empathy is substantially impaired. Sometimes he frightens me. I get really worried about the effect he has on my sister. Basically I am finding it very difficult to like, let alone love him at the moment, and sometimes I feel pretty resentful at the idea that I have to keep on giving affection to someone who is so fundamentally selfish. I'd like it if I could stop feeling this way. Ultimately, it isn't particularly helpful. I think I need some more common sense and a bit of perspective on this. Are there things I could read? Ways I could think about it?

(I have tried meeting up with him on neutral ground/doing fun things together. It always starts OK, and then he comes out with something like the line about my sister's depression. I try to be diplomatic, then go home to my friends and rant for a few hours about it)
posted by La chaussette, c'est moi to Human Relations (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I feel pretty resentful at the idea that I have to keep on giving affection to someone who is so fundamentally selfish

Sez who?

Seriously, you are a grown adult. You do not have to like him, or even love him. The Human Decency Police will not come banging down your door and drag you away if you decide that this person is not worth your time. You will not suddenly turn into a horrible creature unworthy of affection yourself if you withdraw from him.

You want to do a good thing for the family? Take all the time you would've spent with him, and spend it with your sister instead. Be the angel on her shoulder to his devil. She needs someone, and he's made it abundantly clear that spending time with him gets you nowhere but angry and resentful.
posted by griphus at 10:15 AM on October 28, 2011 [28 favorites]

There are a lot of intertwined issues here.

You know you can't change him, you can only change the way you react to him, but that's hard. You love him because he's your brother, but you don't have to give him tons of affection. He's a jerk, and it's hard to spend a lot of energy loving jerks.

I would take what you know about him and have low expectations. He won't help with Christmas, he will mooch of your folks, he will have selfish political ideas. Accept that, and try to find the parts you like about him for a little filial bonding once in awhile. Distancing yourself from him otherwise will help you realize that you can't fix the way he is or interacts with your parents.

However! It sounds like he's a bad influence on your sister, who isn't a grown-up and probably could use your intervention. This is where you talk to your sister and, out of the place of loving your brother but clearly seeing him for the jerk he can be, tell her not to listen to him when he's telling her bad things about herself.

Oh, on preview: what griphus already said in fewer words. Take care of yourself, your sister, your folks. Limit the damage your brother can do to you and your sister.
posted by ldthomps at 10:18 AM on October 28, 2011

My brother did the same thing to me. About 15 years ago I just stopped trying to please him and life got a lot better. We have not talked since. Sad to lose, but I just felt it was better live without the negativity and constant judging about my choices in life which had no effect on his life. I felt bad for my parents about the rift, but I just put my foot down to the verbal abuse.

There comes a point where you decide whether you want to deal with it anymore. That is a decision that only you can come to. Sounds like your brother is pretty set in his ways and not likely to have some sort of epiphany about changing it any time soon. Maybe now, it's a good time to start a new version of your relationship with your sister and parents that, as often as possible, does not revolve around his issues.

I know....easier said than done.
posted by lampshade at 10:41 AM on October 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you actually want to like him, or do you just feel obligated to? You don't actually have to have anything to do with this individual at all, if you don't want. Being related to someone is not an obligation, other than that which you create for yourself. It's perfectly OK to just walk away. I did this from a relative years ago, and haven't regretted a single moment of it. In fact, the times I do have to interact with them just prove that I made the right decision.

With regards to liking him more, I found that thinking about compassion, in the Buddhist sense, helped me in a similar situation. I still don't like the individual but I am definitely more patient with them and don't let them get to me as much. Which is an interesting concept, "letting someone get to me". Another person doesn't have control over my emotions at all. Retraining one's emotions isn't necessarily a quick process, but it can be done.

When you find yourself becoming intolerant of him (which is what you're doing, just as he's doing it to you), remind yourself that everyone processes experiences differently, everyone has their own path to walk and that you haven't walked a mile in his shoes. Remind yourself that it's OK for him to be different, even if you don't personally agree with his choices or attitudes.

When you find yourself becoming impatient, take a deep breath and move your thoughts away from whatever angry response you've just composed in your head. Take a moment to relax and find the space inside in which you can be patient, and then come back to dealing with him.

He does come across as something of an unpleasant character, but nobody is all bad, nor all good. Perhaps try to look for his good points? Also, you can't enforce someone else's boundaries for them. If your relatives won't stand up to him when he's rude to them, that's their choice.

My life got so much better when I realised that another human being or situation is completely incapable of pushing my buttons. Those buttons are inside my own head, where even the best technology we have is incapable of invading. Substituting more pleasant, helpful or beneficial thoughts when finding myself wound up with another person really helps. It doesn't change things immediately, but over time, it really works.

I also found some CBT techniques to be helpful. Unfortunately I can't find any available online, but the ones I used were in the book Feeling Good.

I do agree with the other posters that helping your sister in this is important. Her age isn't mentioned, but I get the impression that she's in her early-late teens? She could probably stand to benefit from the input of a calmer, more rational person if she has to deal with your brother a lot.
posted by Solomon at 10:47 AM on October 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

and told her not to take the antidepressants she was prescribed. She was definitely depressed, but didn't take the antidepressants. She's improved with therapy, but is still not great.

At the same time, I know he has given her drugs on multiple occasions.

I get really worried about the effect he has on my sister.

Your parents need to know about this, if, as I understand, your sister is a minor.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:17 AM on October 28, 2011

I'm not saying this is the case, but consider reading this book?

You're not going to change him, of course, but understanding that he has, perhaps, some hidden and unalterable reasons for his outward behaviour, by gaining some perspective with an articulate inside view of someone (who sounds a bit similar, frankly) else's workings might provoke some compassion.

This is not an internet diagnosis from a stranger, but a consideration: His behavioral conventions (sure, which may be part of an undiagnosed disorder) have affected your family for years, and there's a lot to unwind and labelling it won't help. But, whatever the case, you might find some support and coping skills in the support groups for people with a diagnosis who exhibit similar behaviours that will work for you too.

You don't have to like, or even love him - but you do have to cope with him. One shouldn't have to use techniques just to relate to a sibling or family member, I know. But the grace with which one little kid in our school says of their sibling, depersonalizing issues like why they sometimes have to leave an event or the playground, "Oh, that's just her Autism". Whether or not your brother has something that's not Neurotypical, you can still use the same coping skills that their family members do.
posted by peagood at 11:34 AM on October 28, 2011

Hi there. Thank you for the answers. Unfortunately, my brother doesn't show any of the signs of Aspergers other than the lack of empathy. He's like the opposite of an Aspie - incredibly sociable and big on emotional reasoning. I think I would find someone with Aspergers easier to relate to, to be honest. Sometimes I get worried that he has NPD, but I think that I'm probably just overreacting there. If anyone could point me to information that would help me to debunk this fear, I'd be very relieved.

I would really like to have some sort of rapport with him, if nothing else for my parents' sake. They know about all his behaviour (and more - he has this weird lack of shame which leads to him telling them everything that comes into his head in a pretty unfiltered way), but they don't really distinguish it from the things my sister and I do that they disapprove of, like being untidy or 'secretive' (since my brother has set the bar for openness, this covers anyone with a normal desire for privacy). I wish they were more protective of her, and I have come close to arguing with my mother about it several times, but it's not going to happen. I have a good relationship with them aside from this. My sister idolises him, as you would expect of someone living in the same house as their soon-to-be-rockstar older brother.

I also think it would be better for me if I could feel more open-hearted towards him. I don't think contempt is healthy, and my attitude to him at the moment is getting close to that.

Solomon, it's funny you mention Buddhist compassion. I have tried compassion meditation as a way to deal with this, but it never really seems to 'stick'. I know I should keep trying, but I'm worried it isn't ever going to do what I want it to do.

I don't really believe, in a philosophical way, that there are bad people. But I do find myself thinking about my brother that way, and I'd really like to stop.
posted by La chaussette, c'est moi at 12:10 PM on October 28, 2011

Solomon's wisdom abounds here.

Most people who act out towards others and seem overly selfish are themselves in pain. This is probably not news to you, but it is easy to forget in the moment while you are the recipient of someone else's obnoxious behavior. Reminding yourself of their pain in the moment can help you find the compassion that Solomon advises. When you are away from that person it can also help to privately and actively wish well for them, even if your heart may not really be in it. It will help you to find compassion for them and in so doing help you to let go of your negative emotions towards them.
posted by caddis at 12:43 PM on October 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Dude, kick him up the ass with a big and very pointy reality stick. "I am uninterested in your views on welfare and taxation when you've never had a need not met by mom and dad. I am not interested in your view on the value of my job when you've never had to pay rent. I have no interest in taking drugs if your greatest endorsement is that they're going to make me a free-loading loser like you."

FWIW, while my sister had a very different set of issues, she shared a few qualities with your brother. Among them, a very extended, very difficult teenagerhood that lasted well, well into her 20s. I loved her but didn't like her all that much for a number of those years, but she did eventually outgrow that and now I am literally her biggest fan.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:52 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is your sister of an age where she could move in with you (in a roommate way, not a parent/child way) and see how, like, more normal adults live? I suspect you would give less of a flying' eff about your brother's stupidity if he weren't able to pour it down your sister's throat 24/7.

I mean, don't approach it like, "hey sis you're totally naive and wrong to like our brother, you should come live with ME because i'm MATURE." I would approach it like, "hey sis, if you want some more independence, it would be cool if you moved in with me for a while. I would love to have some company."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:17 PM on October 28, 2011

My guess is that he's not happy with himself - he might not even feel so great about living at home and being in a profession that doesn't have a ton of job stability (this is probably why he criticizes your job). I mean, that must not look that great to his friends, and what if he wants to bring a romantic interest home or something? He may demonstrate a lack of shame externally, but who knows what really goes on in his head when you're not there? Also, there may be some dynamics at home going on you don't know about, like, parents being enabling, or something. It's admirable that you want to have a better rapport for him for your parents' sake, but I really think you should take a break from trying so hard at this. Breathe a little and let go of this "must" that you've put on yourself. It's not about cutting him off or never talking to him, it's just about being civil and staying on easy surface-level topics with him.
posted by foxjacket at 2:54 PM on October 28, 2011

Hm, well, step #1 for me in reconciling myself to people I'd like to tolerate is understanding them. So, just to throw it out there, he seems like a very passionate, "artistic" (stereotype) person who experiences internal reality by externalizing it. It sounds like his feelings are always on display, and they take up a lot of the 'room' in your family. Unsurprisingly (if he's a musician), this type of personality is not uncommon among musicians and actors, so if you read up on some famous examples (Bette Davis comes to mind, but I'm sure there's male versions among 70s/80s rockstars), it may help put his behavior in some perspective. He's acting like he's larger than life, and if he's successful, he's good at making other people believe it as well. Thus, your sister "isn't depressed" if she internalizes pain rather than externalizing it and yelling and screaming and playing angry guitar, for example.

So yeah... don't necessarily try to fit him into a psychiatric/psychological narrative, or a family-based narrative, since I doubt that's relevant to his own internal narrative. It's like speaking different languages, where some concepts don't quite translate. From what I know of people like that, it's probably impossible for most people to be 'close' to him especially if he's still young, because he's got such a volatile personality and self-experience. As an artist, I feel it's less than helpful to call someone with these issues 'bipolar' even if he actually fit the diagnostic criteria-- it seems more useful to understand that there's this teeming ego-based conflict, a rawness to him. It's probably something like the world rubs him (his ego) raw the same way he rubs those around him raw. This rawness can be translated into really affecting music/art at its best, because people relate to music in a totally unself-conscious/self-protective way and want to be overwhelmed. As you've noticed, overt logic/defensiveness has opposite effect of creating blockages in your ability to communicate with him. If you conceive of him as a sort of avatar of his Id, a manifestation of desire/art/dream/primal ego, then it makes sense (at least to me).

Of course, this doesn't make the problem of his influence on your sister and your family go away, which is why others' suggestions about being a balancing force with her to the best of your ability are good. But in general (assuming that in a few years your sister will move out, probably), 'jerk' doesn't seem helpful simply 'cause it treats him like an ordinary person, I guess. Well, you're his sister, so of course you would treat him that way, but if I had to make my peace with such a dramariffic individual for a brother, I'd have to see him as just an individual, an artist, a being of fury and madness coupled with a drive for expression. Artists are scary, aren't they! When they're extroverted. To think that all this crazy is sitting inside most introverted artists, but we never see it! Amazing. So just sort of imagine you're seeing his skin inside out-- freaky-- but it makes him a sort of beautiful freak rather than a garden variety asshole. That would help me a bit, anyway (considering I couldn't 'fix' it-- maybe seeing that, I'd want to a little less).

On the bright side, this will all normalize as soon as he make some money, moves out and focuses his drama on his adoring fans/bandmates/etc and/or deflates and gets a job (though then he might find out the real meaning of depression, and it could get ugly, so supporting his ambitions is a better option).
posted by reenka at 2:57 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have tried meeting up with him on neutral ground/doing fun things together.

You have to really stop this undercurrent of desperation to be friends with your brother and get him to like you. He can sense that desperation.

Let's look at the facts here:

o He doesn't respect you because of your professional choices
o He yells at and insults your parents and sister (both of whom "like" him)
o His influence is interfering with your sister's medical treatment

Judging from his behavior with your parents and sister, if you build a rapport with him, he will insult you, say various unpleasant things to you, and actively try to undermine your medical treatment. I like the advice about how you should redirect the energy you pour into trying to get your brother to like you into building a stronger relationship with your sister. Your brother might outgrow his attitudes and behaviors, in which case you can pour our energy into building a better relationship with him, then. Or he might not, in which case, you will be thankful you spent that time building a strong relationship with your sister.
posted by deanc at 6:36 PM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

He's definitely not happy with himself and doesn't know how to be, in my opinion. It's not your job to show him the way and it's not your job to love him just because he's your brother. Feelings are real and closely aligned in our brains to the center of pain. The more you force yourself to like him, the more pain your brain signals. Stop. Breath. Gather yourself and walk away from only him. If you have to be in the same room as he, recognize this is temporary. Yes him to death and revel in the fact you don't have to live with him. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:30 AM on October 29, 2011

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