a black sheep by my own design
May 28, 2014 2:03 PM   Subscribe

How can I be gracious, kind, and supportive when I feel like a fuck-up compared to the rest of my family, particularly my younger sister? Messy wall of text below.

About me: High achieving student, graduated from college in three years, worked in TV production, was miserable, left the job, started to try to make it as an actress, currently struggling, single (But still: attractive, smart, very social, healthy)

About my sister: Just graduated from college, got a good job right away, has a nice boyfriend (But I'm not saying her life is a perfect bowl of cherries, and in some ways I have had an easier time getting through life)

I am trying to be good and gracious and kind, but I am feeling really shitty about myself and dreading the questions and comments at a family wedding coming up later this summer. People who aren't in the arts don't know how hard it is to break in, and I get sick of answering the same stupid fucking questions over and over again.

Then there's the issue that my sister and I have a difficult relationship. She's very moody and kind of . . . unpleasant to be around a lot of the time. She obviously is a nice person to her friends, her boyfriend, and her coworkers, but she is still stuck in a teenage mindset in which she can act like a total asshole around the family. My family, including me, caters to her moodiness more than I think is probably healthy, but I want to maintain a relationship with her and I'm not sure how else I should act. Even though I'm the family wildcard working in the arts and living far away, I get along really well with everyone. This is another question for another time, but in general, I think if I had less complicated feelings about my sister, and my family's different treatment of us, I wouldn't feel so . . . competitive? Lacking in comparison?

For the most part, I don't really care about meeting conventional expectations of success. If I did, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing! But I feel pretty sensitive about this stuff around my family. I'm not dating anyone, I don't have a "real" job, and I have no money. Oh, and I am sad and stressed out because my dog is dying.

There are things that you know, and there are things that you feel. I know that life is a long journey and I will figure things out eventually. I know that my sister and I are apples and oranges, and I am proud of her and that she deserves all the success she's found so far. But I feel like such a fuck-up right now and I know that my family, especially my extended family, are like, "WTF?" My parents insist that they are proud of me, but then they say other things that show that they have some very reasonable misgivings about what I'm doing and hope that I'm taking a short detour from life's plan, or whatever.

What are some strategies for being the broke artist who isn't getting married any time soon and getting along with your family? How can I be supportive and loving toward my sister, even when I often feel jealous about her grown-up life milestones and that my efforts to reach out to her are rejected, and I find her kind of a frustrating person to deal with?
posted by ablazingsaddle to Human Relations (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Pretend like these people are all strangers who might have some kind of connection that will help you later in life. Focus on leaving a good if superficial impression so that they'll think kindly of you later when the hypothetical opportunity arises. Most importantly, pretend like your family members are not relatives you've known all your life, but merely slightly addled but well-meaning strangers and that you have no reason to stir them up, so when they ask questions that are uncomfortable for you, you deflect and laugh it off (because they're well meaning) without having to be honest or make them understand your reality (because they're slightly addled).

Play a game with yourself where you give yourself points for every nice thing you say to or about your sister. Compete with your parents to treat your sister best.

When your parents give you any form of WTF, warmly thank them for their love and concern. It's a parent's job to worry about their children, and nothing you say or do will stop that, even if you were president of the united states and a brain surgeon who also happened to be a billionaire investment banker. They just do. It's a well meaning but slightly addled way of saying I love you. Love them back and disregard any advice they give you. That's what I did, and it made my life way easier.

I am so sorry about your dog. That is so hard to deal with, because dogs never ask stupid questions and they just love us.
posted by janey47 at 2:13 PM on May 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Could she be jealous and feel inferior to the smart, social, cool, artsy, independent, exciting, daring big sister? If so, could that explain (though not excuse) how she treats you?
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:16 PM on May 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind is that you are probably a very focused, ambitious person, so if you wanted the things that your sister has, you would have gotten those things. But what you want is something else.

As far as your sister's moodiness around the family, I don't think that changes. The reason why everyone is stressed about coming home for holidays is that everyone reverts to their "family roles" they had growing up. I don't think there's much you can do about this except disengage from that dynamic.
posted by deanc at 2:23 PM on May 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

There is no need to be jealous, especially no need to be jealous of your sister or any family member. Easier said than done, I guess but that's not how families should behave. There is no reason to feel like a "fuck-up" either. Be kind. Be pleasant. Make nice conversation and ask your sister about her life. Practice loving thoughts. If your sister is being moody, ignore her. When family members ask about your life, be honest, keep it short if you wish and be positive.
posted by Fairchild at 2:23 PM on May 28, 2014

Best answer: I think now would be a great time for you to try to form a real, adult relationship with your sister.

My younger brother and I fought mercilessly growing up, and fought right up until I left for college (at which point we stopped fighting because we barely saw each other). It wasn't until he was about 22 that we really started to relate to each other as adults, but now we're best friends. And it's so weird sometimes, because there is no way my brother and I would be friends in real life. We have completely different viewpoints on things and he's dramatic and loud and unpleasant, but somehow it works out. We're such completely different people, but the one thing that's constant is that we know we're best friends now, and it's become such an immutable fact that nothing else really matters. It really helps when we're visiting home and the family gets crazy and shitty because at least we're not like that to each other anymore.

How did we go from a crappy non-relationship to sibling best friends? Life kind of kicked us (separately) in the ass and we admitted it to each other instead of letting the rest of our family trick us into a battle of one-upmanship.

I would call your sister and just say something like:
"Hey, sister, listen. I know we've never been close, but I really want to talk to you. I feel like such a fuck up right now because of [reasons] and also I am sad and stressed because my dog is dying. I think I've always tried to compare myself with you, and I see how happy you are and I feel jealous, and I hate that I keep doing that because you're my sister and I love you. I'd love if we could start talking more regularly, especially with this wedding coming up, because haha you know how crazy mom and dad can get, and I think it would be really good for us if we could help each other avoid all that nonsense."

And then see what she says. I basically called my don't-have-much-of-a-relationship-with-him brother a few years ago unemployed and freshly dumped and crying because I didn't have anyone else I felt like I could call and cry to, and his response was "wow, that sucks, here's some shitty stuff that happened to me that I didn't tell you about." Many long phone calls later, and something finally clicked with us. I'm sure your sister is not as perfect as she seems. Hopefully she'll feel comfortable sharing some with you.

The most important thing is that you try, though, and keep trying. And be honest and open. Visiting my family has become so, so, so much less stressful for me (no matter what else is going on in my life) since my brother and I became friends. If you guys can make it work, that will be your best tool for dealing with your family.
posted by phunniemee at 2:32 PM on May 28, 2014 [13 favorites]

She obviously is a nice person to her friends, her boyfriend, and her coworkers, but she is still stuck in a teenage mindset in which she can act like a total asshole around the family. My family, including me, caters to her moodiness more than I think is probably healthy, but I want to maintain a relationship with her and I'm not sure how else I should act.

Almost everyone I know tends to regress a little when they're around family. It's weird and annoying, but it happens. My sister and I act this out every time we go home, and all we can really do is be aware of it and try not to do it, and shrug when we fail to act like adults.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:32 PM on May 28, 2014

Response by poster: I think now would be a great time for you to try to form a real, adult relationship with your sister.

Dude, I know. I've been trying.

I'm glad things worked out with your brother - gives me hope!
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:35 PM on May 28, 2014

Best answer: My sister and I became a lot happier with each other as we outgrew our parents who, we both realized, were sort of really into conflict and judginess and being right more than getting along. We decided to get along. We are not that similar and I think we're both good at some things and bad at others, but we decided that harmony is more important than "Oh you're wearing THAT to the wedding" (which is some fucked up thing our parent would say). We als, as we aged, passed the fuck-up torch back and forth between us. She had it in high school, I got it in college, she had it after college, I had it for a while... etc. She's more normal, I'm more "outside the lines" and the important part is that neither of us is "right" and we're also not bad versions of each other. The important thing, for each of you, is whether you're on the path you want and whether you're happy/successful/whatever YOU want.

Family weddings are stressful because there are the inevitable comparisons that arrive and the people that drink too much and are weird or unpleasant but the worst wedding you can imagine in your head is probably a lot worse than what's actually going to happen. Your dread of the thing for your own reasons is different than whatever you're worried about with your sister and I'd separate the two. Deal with your own social anxiety (don't want to talk to people about your life? You don't have to. Worried about your dog? You can tell people that in an event-appropriate way.) as one thing. Deal with "How to get along with your family" as an entirely other thing.

I agree with phunniemee, now may be a great time to buddy up with your sister and be all "Fuck weddings amirite" and not fall into your same "I'm a kid!" patterns where you feel like other people's needs and desires are somehow more important than your own. Wear something nice, go an be pretty and "from away" and wow them with stories about the big city and whatevertheheck you're up to and then realize you made a choice to not be there so if things do turn sour you can just walk right back out again. You got this.
posted by jessamyn at 2:36 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

About me: High achieving student, graduated from college in three years

See, I think you are going about this all wrong. When I was probably in my mid to late twenties or so, I went home and some friend of the family, who knew I had graduated at the top of my class and won a spiffy scholarship and all that, gave me crap about "Why aren't you a millionaire yet? You are so smart. We figured you would invent something and get rich by now." I was a homemaker and full time mom. I pointed to one of my kids and said, essentially, "I invented him and it takes all my time."

You graduated college in three years. I assume this is a course that normally takes four? If so, the right way to handle this is to kind of raise your eyebrow at people and very nicely explain why they are being not only unreasonable and buttinsky but also stupid. There is a recession on. Your previous job was so miserable it was probably going to kill you. Money is not everything. Etc.

People who are that judge-y and snippy are usually very not happy with their own lives. I try to not rub their noses in it (in part because that would be cruel, in part because I don't want it to come back to bite me in the arse), but if they want to give me shit, I will delicately try to put a mirror to their face and hint at "Hey, maybe you are the one doing it wrong since you are the one who isn't happy with anything ever. Because my life works pretty well in the things that are important to me, given the shitty hand I was originally dealt, thanks."
posted by Michele in California at 2:46 PM on May 28, 2014

phunniemee's answer was what I was going to write, but better. I'll tackle something else - I know when I see people I haven't seen in a while, I use stock questions, because I hate small talk and am not very good at it. This means I usually ask things about people's jobs, and pets, and so on, because I am grasping at anything to make a conversation. So, practice rehearsed answers to all of the things you are feeling a little uncomfortable about ("Oh, you know, it's hard to break in to the arts, but I am doing my best, and learning every day,") and then also have a bunch of things that you want to talk about, to steer the conversation. Things like new hobbies you have picked up, or maybe a funny story from where you live, or anything safe and interesting. The people at weddings, especially relatives you don't see much, want something to connect you to - and things like boyfriends and jobs are easy - but make it a plan to give them something else to help form these connections.

And if your efforts to reach out are rejected again, take peace in that you tried your best, and maybe for right now your sister is ahead "on paper," but you did a very brave and wonderful thing.
posted by umwhat at 2:52 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

These events are full of having to answer the same questions over and over- there's really no way around it. I've found that if I go on the offensive by immediately asking questions about the other person's life, at least 50% of the people will gladly end up talking about their own lives instead of asking me about mine. And, when asked about my life, I steer toward topics I like to discuss - hobbies, trips, books, movies, whatever. Topics I'd rather not dwell on get a matter-of-fact and happy "nothing to see here" answer and a re-steering toward a topic I do want to chat about. It's a bit of a politician's approach, but redirection and talking points can be effective. Figure out what you want to chat about and then steer people there. No need to dwell on topics you find uncomfortable.

As for your sister, you don't want what she has, so don't fixate on it. You want your apple life and she has her orange life. Be happy for her oranges and call it a day. As for her moodiness and being unpleasant to the family, I don't know if it's comforting at all, but people with great lives that make them feeling happy and content don't usually act like moody, immature jerks. She has her own issues, even if she doesn't choose to share them with you right now.
posted by quince at 3:06 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't speak entirely to your specific details but I've found that, even when it comes to nit-picking extended families, this is one of those situations that nobody thinks about .001% more than you do. Most people who love you don't give a damn about the intricacies of your life path as long as you are happy and healthy, so presuming you are healthy, if you are truly happy with these choices, your only responsibility it to show them that.

(If you are questioning these choices, I'm not sure what to tell you -- I would pull the "fake it until I make it" as far as putting on a happy face, but that's not for everybody.)

However, while people, again especially nit-picking extended families may think they know better, and parents especially might feel like they are "just trying to help" when they support you but undercut your confidence when they communicate their, as you put it, "reasonable misgivings"; both of these suck. It also sucks to live in a world where we, no matter how hard we try, are judging ourselves by others more accepted goalposts. Trust me, as a gay guy in the 90s who was just figuring out how to love without hating myself, the weird feelings of jealousy at the weddings of my similarly-aged friends and family, even though I was never single during any one of these events, I understand this particular brand of self-hate. And that's what it is -- it's society's pressures and it's family comments but the most damaging part of this is when you're hating on yourself.

How to stop that? Probably different for everybody, but I'll tell you what I told a friend feeling the same thing at the time -- which actually helped me quite a bit too. You aren't on anybody's path. It sounds like you don't want anybody's path. You'd probably be fucking miserable on somebody's else's path. Quit being jealous that their grass is greener than yours when you don't even want a yard.

I think it helps if you can do your best to not fall into old roles with your family. It's hard, nearly impossible in some ways. But if you define yourself as a happy adult (again, this may be a "fake it until you make it" situation), they can't define you in the "kid" role just as easily. Be kind to your sister, but don't pamper her. Don't do this by Taking a Stand, but by treating her like you would expect to be treated as an adult, which leads to my particular personal story:

About 10 years ago, or so, I was going through Some Shit. It was obvious Shit. It was "you couldn't hide it from strangers, let alone family, even family to whom you are not close" Shit. But with a few exceptions, I tried to act like everything was normal. One day before Thanksgiving my brother and I were driving down to my grandmother's to meet the rest of the family; it was about a three hour drive, and half way through, I can't even remember what the trigger was, but I was treating him like the little brother who should heed my advice, and he, not feeling like he needed advice from somebody who was going through Some Shit, went off on me. And I did not take kindly to it. And the rest of the car ride was dead silent until we plastered smiles on our faces and sniped at each other for the next 12 hours until we blew up again right after Thanksgiving dinner. Things were said that needed to be said but they also shouldn't have been said that way and certainly not where they were. (This all sounds very dramatic but it was quite a subdued Quaker style kind of fight like the WASPs without money we were raised to be.)

Anyway, we did not speak for a while but we weren't speaking that often to begin with, so it wasn't something that affected my day-to-day life. But it was something I thought about a lot, and as I figured out my Shit, I realized that we were bringing 30 years of baggage to what was essentially a new relationship. I love him because he's my brother who I grew up with, but the man he is now is a completely different person than the one I used to spend every day with. Once I stopped expecting him to be that way, and once he stopped expecting to get that from me, we were able to communicate as adults with a shared past (and shared love and frustrations with our other family members) and that has made all the difference -- not only with our relationship but with the relationship I have with my entire family.

It's something that has taken a lot of time, but it's worth it and worth not beating yourself up over in the meantime. And hopefully with advice you can get their the short way round and not the scenic route we took. That said, you can see from posting history here a specific question about my relationship with him that was only 4 years ago but feels like it was written about a totally different relationship.

Good luck and congratulations on taking this first step where you realize you aren't happy with your relationship before it implodes under the pressure.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:07 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think one of the things that will help is trying to imagine the kindest possible motivations for people's dumb questions. For example, I have asked my cousin's husband what his job is, on multiple occasions. This has probably come across as rather rude, as he's a PhD candidate working on his thesis. But I wasn't asking him this question when I saw him every year or two because I thought he should be working at some job. I was asking because I honestly couldn't remember what he did with his time at all (and was pleased with myself if I remembered his name). So when people pester you, try to remember that they like you and can't remember much about you.

Also, it's generally rude to bring up how much money people are earning, so you can fail to mention anything about that, and only talk about whatever projects you've been working on that sound neat (no matter how brief or nonpaying).

And if people ask after your love life, and you agree that it would be nice to have one, you could just be super wistful when they bring it up and agree how great it would be if you were dating someone. Because at that point, there's not much left to talk about, so you can move on to something more interesting. (And if you don't agree with them, maybe more of a "well, you never know what'll happen" kind of response.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:52 PM on May 28, 2014

MCMikeNamara is right - most of the time people ask those dumb questions because they want to answer those dumb questions. So turn it around on them - find out all about their lives and what they're doing.

Remember that you are awesome! And unless your family is in entertainment they will probably be amazed by hearing about what you do, even if from the inside it is not a glittering bowl of stars. As far as your sister goes, she sounds spoiled but she's at least functional. Try to treat her like an acquaintance and remember it's not for long.

Whenever I have a wretched social occasion to live through I pretend to be someone else who is unflappable and suave. That might help, too.

I am really sorry about your dog. I know that is very hard.
posted by winna at 4:26 PM on May 28, 2014

Best answer: I could have written most of this. My sister and I are close in age. I'm the high-achieving student, went to a good school, in a creative field, currently struggling, single. She just graduated from college, just got married, has a decent entry-level job. Pretty much all our lives we were either directly or indirectly seen as competition for each other - it used to fall pretty cleanly under "the smart one" / "the pretty one" and "the fuckup" / "the popular one," although I guess it's more complicated now. I think to a certain degree this is something that just happens with close-in-age siblings. My sister can also can be an incredibly selfish person, and we were never really that close, especially not after an incident at her wedding, the sort of heartbreaking thing she's never going to apologize for and I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to fully forgive her for. She's not a bad person, I don't think, not really, just selfish. And it's pretty much the same thing: she has a wedding reception thing coming up (long story), and I'm lowkey terrified of it, because she has a job and a husband and she can be anything, and I already am something, and what that something is right now is broke and single and one step from unemployed.

So I guess it helps to remind myself of a few things:

- There are two participants in any relationship. With my sister and I, we're not that close, but I'm not going to delude myself and say it's entirely her fault. I never really tried to be close to her either. Right now she Facebook messaged me, something really nice and congratulatory, and I haven't answered in a few days, and that is entirely my fault. It's not that I'm avoiding her, it's that I just... haven't. And I feel awful about it. I don't know how she feels about it, but my mother insists that she feels bad and she's trying to repair our relationship. And you know what? She probably is. So there's a good chance she feels the same way but hasn't said so, or can't say so. Maybe it hurts too much to say so, or at least hurts her pride.

- Public perceptions can lie about a lot. While this sucks most of the time, sometimes this can work in your favor. I bet a lot of people back home see you as the person who moved(?) to LA and became an actress and has this glamorous life. And when they ask how work is, it might be because they think it's really cool, and the cynical interpretation, even, might just be that they're jealous and wish they were the Hollywood actress or whatever. And even if you're not, if you spend most of your time at cattle-call auditions and doing shitty temp work, they don't know that. With acting there's even a sort of mythology about the grind, of breaking in, that a lot of creative fields don't necessarily have. Which, again, sucks in a lot of respects, but it can be really, really useful for this.
posted by dekathelon at 4:39 PM on May 28, 2014

Can you find a way to answer those questions that denies the narrative you're worried about? Like,

FAMILY PERSON: so what are you doing these days?
YOU: I'm having an adventure!

Now they can't be like BUT IS THAT RESPONSIBLE because it's AN ADVENTURE! You know, for youths! A youthful adventure! What a story this will make one day!
posted by prefpara at 5:17 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

First of all, here is a great opportunity for you to practice your acting skills! It's always better to act gracious and kind at any event, and especially a family event. So write yourself a script and stick to it, dear! Never let them see you sweat.

One family wedding is not enough to work out years of angst toward family members. So don't even try. Just go, and practice your script.

"I'm involved on a project with Robert DeNiro," and yes, that's a lie, but seriously. That's what people expect. Next time someone asks, you can say, "oh, it fell through." How do they know? They're not in the business! It's a wedding, not a job interview.

Practice loving your sister. Practice it with friends. Kiss, kiss, sister! I love you! I am so proud of you! And you know, maybe that will stick! And she will feel like her sister loves her and is proud of her. If people make you mad, don't show it (use your acting skills!) and go home and thwomp on your pillows later. You need to practice serene queen-ness. Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, etc. Do it every day, in front of the mirror, with friends.

You can do this! Just keep at it. Practice makes perfect.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:14 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

People who aren't in the arts don't know how hard it is to break in

People who aren't in the arts mostly haven't the foggiest how anything works in the arts - they've got no idea how the sausage is made and most have never really thought about it (and celeb gossip stories don't count.) Good-looking people suddenly appear on their TV and theater screens and new music pops up on their satellite radio stations and as far as they're concerned, it happens by magic and fairies and unicorns.

And y'know, there's no real reason they should know anything about how the arts/entertainment sausage is made. I'm just pointing out that this is something you will probably have to deal with to some degree or another your entire career in the arts, and you'd probably have to deal with it even if you'd stayed in the production end of things. Hell, I'm rapidly approaching 50, and I'm still pretty well guaranteed to have some version of a "You do what? For a living? Really?" conversation almost any time I meet a new person.

So, two techniques for dealing with this:

1) As suggested above by more than one person, work on turning the conversation around to them and what they're doing with their lives. Personally, I find this pretty easy, because I'm shy/introverted enough to feel generally kind of uncomfortable talking about myself, and because since I just lived through whatever it is I've done for the past week, talking about it to someone is like a horrible boring deja vu. Plus I'm generally omnivorously curious, so I'd rather listen to someone else explain what it is they do (and ask them questions about it) working for the marketing department of our regional water and sewer authority. (Which is a conversation I genuinely had this past Memorial Day at a BBQ, because really? Our sewer department has a marketing arm? Who knew? I think stuff like this is totally fascinating.)

2) Think about how to couch whatever it is you've been doing in terms of "insider expert information" - not phony stuff about "Cruise just signed a six-picture deal with Paramount", but short bits about auditions you've gone on, and how the audition process works, and progress you've made towards getting your SAG card, and acting classes you've taken, and techniques you've learned in those classes, and what the teacher's credentials are, like that. You shouldn't make their eyes glaze over, but you want to let them know that you're actively participating in establishing a career in the arts, and this activity has given you knowledge and experience about How Things Work that your listener doesn't have.

This can (maybe, somewhat) help in re-assuring family members that you're not just hangin' around looking pretty and hoping to be discovered like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, that you have agency and participation in your own life.

This may also help you feel like less of a fuck-up. I know from experience it can be really tough to establish and maintain a career in the arts, and being broke is never fun for anyone. So you've got a lot of stress right now (and I'm so sorry to hear about your dog), and it's understandably taking its toll on your sense of self. But thinking about how to explain what you're doing in practical, active terms may help you get a better picture of how you have been active in establishing a career, and possibly lead to ideas for things you could or should do to further your career.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:04 PM on May 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

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