The plane is a time machine
February 22, 2013 9:58 PM   Subscribe

I act childish and feel patronized whenever I go back home from university to my parents and (much) older sister. I think this is a known phenomenon. What can I do to minimize this? (Snowflake details inside.)

So I went to a university across the entire country away from my hometown (I'm in Canada, so this was a long way to go), and I've been absolutely thrilled with the things I've learned and the ways I've developed through fending for myself for the past few years. I grew confident, I learned to love my own skin, I learned how to interest and be interested in others, and I developed a personality that I've been proud to call my very own.

And then I fly home, and it all dissipates.

It feels like the moment I step off the plane, I get thrown into a time machine where I relegate back into my old self: awkward, lacking social grace and manner, immature, sheltered and uncomfortable with who I am. To complicate matters, I may end up spending an entire 16 months rather than just a summer back at home this year due to a thrilling academic job prospect that's developing nicely - while the opportunity is absolutely amazing and cannot be passed up, I find myself dreading having to deal with my feelings of immaturity and discomfort for an extended period of time.

I know that this is a common thing, but some of the advice I've found on the topic doesn't apply to me. Even back home, I'm not financially dependent on my parents, nor do I lodge with them except for a few weeks when they come back home from overseas. The majority of the time, I'm cooking for myself, living by myself, doing my own laundry, cleaning my own living spaces, and so forth. So it's not as much as it is about physical dependence, it's just something in my nuclear family's style of interacting with me that forces me into a pattern of immaturity.

The snowflake that I want to mention here is that it's less of an issue with my parents as it is with my older sister, who is nearly a decade older than me. My parents are generally overseas the majority of the time, so the few weeks that they're actually present, I actually find it relaxing to be pampered by them and to be their kid again for a short period of time. My sister, being so much older than me, is as much as a pseudo-parental figure as she is a big sister figure. Unlike my parents, I have to be exposed to her for much longer. And unlike my parents, who have a generally relaxed (with some exceptions) attitude with me at this point especially given how well I'm striking it out independently, my sister exhibits a lot of personality traits that I find encourage the immature mannerisms that I end up exhibiting around her:

- She frequently adopts a very patronizing attitude around me. We're both adults, but she often talks down to me as if I were a child. Part of this has to do with my late-blooming - I only stopped being socially inept when I went to university and took some hard knocks for myself, and she hasn't yet witnessed that transformation. I've called her out on this (although not firmly), but she simply asserts her right as my "big sister" to always treat me as the "little brother."
- She is extremely overprotective: she refuses to let me make my own mistakes whether socially, academically, career-wise, or in any area of life I can think of. Her belief is that since she's walked the path ahead of me, it's her duty as the elder sibling to prevent me from falling into any of the pitfalls that she did. She often doles out advice with the explicit expectation that I will follow it, and pushes me constantly to do so. This frustrates me because not only is her advice often wrong given that we're on different career tracks and that we have different personal values, but also because I realize that this trait of hers (to some extent my parents do this too) resulted in a lot of delayed growth for me because I wasn't able to make risks and learn from them, something I realized when I struck it out on my own.
- Any time I do make a mistake, she takes it personally. I've learned to view mistakes as learning experiences, and I openly embrace the consequences of them (because I'm the type who learns from pain), but she always chastises me for making them in the first place, and encourages me to fight back against the consequences.
- She is extremely prideful, and whenever we have an argument, she's always quick to attribute blame. For this reason, I find it absolutely impossible to bring up any of the things I would like to see her change with her, because she instantly pushes it back on me.
- Her rhetoric and persuasive abilities are insane. Given how uncertain I end up feeling around her a lot, she easily exploits this by nature of her personality to coerce me into even unconsciously going along with what she's saying/urging even when I know it's not the best option for me. I end up feeling like I have no opinions or free will of my own around her a lot. I find myself struggling to even articulate myself around her.

Which isn't to say that I don't love her, but dealing with her is exhausting. I do confess that her personality has its positives and negatives, as I do enjoy it at times and like how she takes charge of things, but it forces me into certain patterns. And unfortunately, spending time with her throughout the year is unavoidable.

To complicate things even further - I came out as gay this semester, and when I told my sister, she was thrilled and wanted to take me to Pride this summer with her, as she has been frequently involved as an ally in the LGBT community in the past. But I'm worried about how she'll end up influencing me in this regard: I'm afraid that she'll force me to follow a certain path of experiences that she regards as correct given her over-confidence in the issues, but I want to treat these experiences as more of an exploratory thing. I want her there, but I don't want her to constrain me!

So in summary: how can I condition myself to act maturely and assertively at home, as I have been doing all this time living independently at university?
posted by Conspire to Human Relations (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, oh, I was just recommending The Dance of Initimacy over in another thread about difficult family members and here I go again... seriously, it is a good book. This is definitely a well-known phenomenon and one of the psychological tasks of adulthood is to disentangle yourself from the time machine effect. Good luck! You will do it. It just takes some practice.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:29 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

I know someone EXACTLY like you describe (in my case, maybe yours too, they would actually negate the experiences I had because it did not fit into their rigid black and white/I am always right worldview).

I had family mediation with them and a very experienced social worker. Her advice (privately to me after she had seen the dynamic and realised that no, I really wasn't exaggerating how dysfunctional they were) was to basically treat them like a child and use positive reinforcement only. So if they said something critical/untrue/contemptuous towards me, to completely ignore it, and either change the subject or end the conversation. This was hard because I was so used to them just steamrolling over my voice (literally and metaphorically) and there was so much baggage I was carrying from their abuse over the years. If they were treating me as an adult, then be positive and continue talking to them. Basically, never raise to the bait they kept throwing out like the bullies they are. The social worker also told me, in my specific case, that the patterns/coping strategies/behaviour in them were so ingrained that I (or anyone) would probably never have a fulfilling relationship with them but could certainly be cordial and superficial with them a couple times a year. In my case, once I stepped up for myself against them, they had no interest in a relationship with me and have now completely cut me out if their life, not responding to my last dozen emails etc. I still send an occasional email with a picture, as my social worker said, it gives me the high ground because they were looking for any reason to blame me and make the relationship breakdown all my fault. I hope you don't have a similar challenge.

Because you are still young (sorry!), it may just mean you have to wait it out a bit before your sister mentally kicks in "oh, they ARE an adult, like me". I would say it actually is a hopeful situation for you (in my case they were elderly and did not have the memtal flexibility your sister probably still has in her early thirties). I would recommend being busy with your own life, ground yourself with things like yoga or mediatation, move a slightly inconvenient distance away (or be out of the house 99% of the time if you can't move), and never, ever discuss any of your challenges/problems with her. She can't handle hearing them because it triggers her insecurities/inadequacies (as she perceives them). Instead, only discuss the successful solutions you have found/used after the fact so she can see you are competent, and it will hopefully reduce her need to control your actions. Be proactive, so like in the case of Pride, get involved in a committee or three so you just don't have time to go with her "but I'll spray you with my water gun from the float!" There is no such thing as "spending time with her is unavoidable", you can take ownership of your life - use the library to study, hang out in coffee shops, be a social butterfly, or just close your bedroom door. I think a "hard reset" of the patterns you have always had at home for a few months with help her adjust from the relationship she's had with you in her head while you were physically gone will be replaced with the actual relationship she has with the newly confident and independent you.

Tl;dr. Give up on he idea of changing her, change yourself and how you interact with her

Good luck!
posted by saucysault at 10:44 PM on February 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

How much information about your life do you share with your sister? I would begin by not discussing things with her that you do not want her opinion on. I still do this with my family. I am a younger and older sister. I can be bossy without really meaning too and so can my older sister. My sibling group is probably the age of your parents so we have had plenty of time to disengage from one another and become separate adults but when we were in our twenties and thirties it was tough. It was work to set boundaries and learn to accept that they had them as well. We all made it through and are very close. I had 5 siblings and I think sometimes that makes it easier to hide out. With only you to focus on it will take more time for your sister to let go. But you can do it!

For what its worth, sometimes all of our adultness goes out the window and we act like tired 6 year olds. We get over it.
posted by cairnoflore at 10:49 PM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Even back home, I'm not financially dependent on my parents, nor do I lodge with them except for a few weeks when they come back home from overseas. The majority of the time, I'm cooking for myself, living by myself, doing my own laundry, cleaning my own living spaces

If you're going to be around for the next 16 months, make this all (100%) of the time.

I think what's helping you at school is that there's a boundary (of about 3k mi) that separates the adult you from the child you; I strongly encourage you to maintain some semblance of this boundary, even if you end up living within the same postal code.

It sounds like your family sees you as they've always seen you, which is as a child. I don't see how you can change this unless you keep some (figurative, emotional) distance from them and obviously grow, thus forcing them, by circumstance, to change how they see you.
posted by charlemangy at 11:58 PM on February 22, 2013

I'm afraid that she'll force me to follow a certain path of experiences that she regards as correct...
There's the irony of attending Pride with someone who is forcing you to act a certain way.
How would you deal with this if you were back at university and someone else was 'forcing' you?
How is it any different for you?

Commonly, we don't have many responsibilities or leadership roles when returning to our parents it's easy to fall back into past roles. Try to change that dynamic. Maybe there is something you could take on...inviting the family out to dinner, cooking a meal, or leading some event. Find a leadership role.
posted by artdrectr at 12:33 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seems like your problem is actually just your relationship with your sister, not your parents.

* First off, it sounds like you're living in the family home --- move out. Don't ask for advice about it from your parents or sister: find your own place, furnish your own place, pay for your own place. Don't discuss it with them; as an adult, it is entirely YOUR business where you live, and how as well as how much you pay for it. If they ask, cut them off, do NOT let your personal business become a topic of family conversation.
* "She refuses to let me make my own mistakes, whether socially, academically, career-wise or in any other area" --- How? HOW is your sister making these decisions for you? Apply for jobs YOU are interested in, go out to events and places YOU choose. Stop letting your sister make plans for you, and when she does? Don't cooperate with plans she makes for you, and don't tell her about your own plans. Just because she makes an appointment or an interview for you, just because she tells people you'll be at a social event, does NOT mean you have to do it! When she promises that you'll be somewhere/do something and then you don't show up, SHE'll be the one to look foolish, not you.
* The Gay Pride Parade thing --- good grief. It's nice that she's supportive, but once again you're letting her run your life..... do you even WANT to participate in a parade, ANY parade? This is an excellent chance to tell her No, and stick to it --- what is she going to do if you won't go, physically tie you up and carry your there?!

Basically, you need to stop telling her what is going on in your life, and stop doing what she tells you to do.
posted by easily confused at 3:04 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Her rhetoric and persuasive abilities are insane.

I would bet that her rhetoric and persuasive abilities are based on aggression -- does she force you to make a decision RIGHT NOW instead of actually trying to convince you of something and letting you consider it and come to your own conclusion? So don't let her do that. Take time out of the equation. Tell her "I'll think about that. Let's discuss it again tomorrow." If that doesn't work, you are allowed to walk away. Just turn around and leave when she starts in on you. If she follows, keep walking. If she tries to stop you, tell her -- loudly and directly -- "I DO NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS RIGHT NOW." If that doesn't work, you are allowed to be "unreasonable" in getting away -- run, scream, call for help... whatever it takes. Up the ante. Make her realize that she is fucking terrifying you.

She is extremely prideful, and whenever we have an argument, she's always quick to attribute blame.

Two things:
First is the "Time Machine" approach: when you find yourself arguing about blame or why something happened instead of how to solve the problem, I pause, I take a deep breath, and I say, "Sis, as soon as I get a time machine, that will be the third thing I do. Right after I kill Hitler and save Lincoln, the very next thing I do will be to go back in motherfucking time and follow your advice. However, I do not yet have a time machine, so let's work on something we can do right now."

Second, make sure you're not having an argument about the argument. This is a fairly predictable pattern once you start seeing it:
1) You and X get into an argument.
2) X realizes (consciously or not) that you will win the argument, whether because of verifiable truth or just because you're more stubborn.
3) X turns it into a meta-argument, taking offense at "how you talk to me" or "you're dismissing my point of view" or somesuch.
4) X hammers away at the logically unwinnable meta-argument until you cave, whether because you're emotionally drained or you just give up.
5) (if necessary) X goes into emotional overload -- crying, screaming, or otherwise manipulating you into caving because you're "hurting" X.
6) X claims victory in the meta-argument and the original argument.
If your sister does this, when you get to step 3, walk away. Don't let her get to step 5.
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on February 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Etrigan makes a good point, but I'd just like to briefly add that if and when you walk away at step 3, you'll probably get some sort of smug "that's what I thought" type response that's basically saying "by disengaging from this conflict, you're letting me win by default and/or saying that you're incapable of winning this battle with me"

Ignore the hell out of this feeling.
posted by emptythought at 10:08 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I end up feeling like I have no opinions or free will of my own around her a lot. I find myself struggling to even articulate myself around her.

There's no reason why you have to make major desicions right there in her presence. You have a hard time thinking clearly around her? Then don't. Think later, when you're alone. You can't articulate your thoughts to her? Then don't. Articulate them later to yourself. You need something to say? Maybe rehearse some generic phrases ahead of time to fall back on, maybe something along the lines of "Thank you for your advice, I'm going to seriously consider it." Or "Thanks for looking out for me, good to know that you care," or something like that.

Her rhetoric and persuasive abilities are insane

Are you sure this is true? Can other people (non-family memebers) verify this? I ask, because in my experience childhood authority figures tend to take on larger-than-life status in our psyches: the good things they do are the blessing of heaven; the bad things they do are the tortures of hell. But in reality these folks are not angels or devils, but just regular human beings like me and you. If you're anything like me, coming to terms with that fact (that these folks who had so much power over you are just plain old people) could have a dramatic impact on the way you view the actions of your sister.

she refuses to let me make my own mistakes

afraid that she'll force me to follow a certain path of experiences that she regards as correct

But how is she going to actually force you to do anything? It's not like she has power of attorney over you or something. I know it doesn't feel this way, but in reality she has no power over you. She can talk and badger and coerce and argue all day, but when all is said and done nothing is actually going to happen until you make it happen.
posted by MrOlenCanter at 11:08 AM on February 23, 2013

Specifically on the Pride/etc. issue: my parents used to give me a lot of input about my dating life. At one point, when beginning the relationship I am currently in, I realized that all that input had been making it harder for me to identify what I wanted as opposed to what I thought they wanted me to want.

So I stopped giving them any information about what was going on other than the most basic ("I am seeing X, things are going well, he's very nice, you can meet him later.") When they pushed me for more, I said explicitly, "In the past, I have had some difficulty finding the best course because my desire to do what you would like got in the way of my thinking for myself. So I am not angry with you, but I have decided not to share that part of my life any more for a while." They mostly respected this. Occasionally they would make passive-aggressive hints about not knowing what was going on with me, which I ignored. If they actually brought it up again, I repeated my explanation. After a while, they got that I wasn't budging and that it was okay, and they backed off.

Possibly you could do some variation on this script to clear space for yourself on this topic.
posted by shattersock at 2:08 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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