How to not be affected by sister's negative moods and outbursts?
January 22, 2016 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently living with my sister and mother due to financial issues. We are all adults. My sister has bipolar + Asperger's so I have a lot of sympathy for her, but I have a difficult time being around her when she's in a depressive state. It has a significant impact on my mood, and I can become resentful. She's the type to make sure that everyone knows she is depressed yet refuses to talk about it; if pressed, she can become emotionally volatile. How can I learn to walk on eggshells without being affected by her negativity?

My sister has bipolar and Asperger's. She is on a bevy of medications and is in therapy. She has low self-esteem and is sensitive to the point where she can be put into a bad mood if looked at the wrong way. Things were going well with her for almost a year, but winters seem to really suck for her. Although she's an adult, she's emotionally a child; she's told her therapist that she wishes she could stay a kid.

When she is even keel she is generally upbeat and fun to be around, although she is in my opinion rather selfish. Her interests and desires always come first; I attribute this to her being enabled by our mother, who takes care of all of my sister's finances and meals. I've chatted with our mother about this and she does recognize that she enables, but she appears to have as difficult a time not enabling as my sister does in being enabled. (My mom enabled my dad and me as well)

When my sister is in a depressive state she doesn't really talk, so I only communicate with her when I need something or to exchange pleasantries (good morning, hello, etc.), which are sometimes returned depending on the day. She sleeps a lot and probably wouldn't eat if our mom or me didn't make something. I've learned through trial and error that trying to make small talk when she's depressed is pointless as I only get one word answers back; doing so tends to worsen my mood, which is average-to-middling to begin with (I have depression and anxiety as well so I can somewhat understand what she is going through, but hers is significantly worse than mine.

She can turn into a bully when she's in a bad mood, and I have a hard time differentiating the bad moods from her depression. She often holds the upper hand in arguments since once she insists on something and doesn't get it, she can lash out and say hurtful things. For example, when in the car with her for my mother's birthday she demanded I turn down my already soft music and that it was "making her ears bleed" even though she had headphones on and was using her cell phone in the back seat. I didn't want to turn it off but offered to change the song to something everyone likes since I enjoy listening to music in the car and was the driver.

She got angry and said some pretty shitty things to me. I childishly responded in kind, calling her selfish for making an issue of this during our mom's birthday. This is uncharacteristic of me, but I had nowhere to go and calm down as we were in the car. My mother started crying, it was awful. Something similar happened last year as well, so two birthdays in a row were ruined by my sister (my mother's own words to me). She seems to be a lot worse during holidays and family occasions.

After fights like these, she basically ignores me for up to a week or two, which I find to be very passive aggressive. I must admit that I have a lot of resentment towards her due to events like these. I try to be sympathetic, but as you can probably tell I'm reaching my breaking point and have become quite cynical over the whole issue.

When I'm depressed I try my best to make sure it doesn't have an impact on other people whereas she seems to crave it, particularly from my mother. She does things like sit on the steps and just 'be there' which creates a very awkward and gloomy atmosphere in the household. I can tell it has a big impact on my mom and she often asks my sister what's wrong (To which she gets a one word response ). She seems to get better more quickly when my mom is ignoring my sister during these moments and not constantly prodding her with questions, but what else is one to do when she's sitting on the freaking stairs almost in front of us? I get the feeling as if she wants us to be as depressed as she is when she's in these moods.

She was depressed at Christmas as well, and was difficult to be around. She came to the family meal and everyone realized something was up; a lot of the family asked me if my sister was okay since she kept asking if we could leave soon. Yet when she left she met up with a friend and was happy as a clam; she barely spoke during the meal yet was a chatterbox with her guy friend, and was all smiles. I would somewhat understand this if she was a teenager, but she is over 30 now. I resent the 180 degree changes in her personality when she's around people she wants to be with, and makes me question whether or not she's acting more depressed than she really is for our benefit. I don't know how much of this has to do with my depression making me see my sister's actions through a negative lens.

My current coping strategy is to just be polite. As I previously stated, asking questions or making small talk or asking what's up is pointless when she is down and makes me feel worse. Also, I've decided to have birthday meals and holidays with my sister and mom separately, as having all three of us in the car together seems to be a recipe for disaster (although she'll probably take that decision poorly as well). I'm trying to exercise and get out of the house more during my free time. I'm in therapy and plan to have a talk with my counselor about these issues, but the appointment is next week.

What else could I try? Please give me some ideas and coping skills for dealing with a high-maintenance, depressed family member.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You are quick to place all of this blame on your sister's lap, but it honestly sounds like you don't really like her. This post is full of judgement of her moods, relationships and coping strategies.

Is your mom paying the bills? If so, you are SOL until you can move out. Sounds like it'd be the best next step for everyone's mental health.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:50 AM on January 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

There are coping tools for people who live with people who have bipolar or related issues (such as borderline personality disorder). From the sound of it, some of these might help you interact with her better -- a video that I found useful is Understanding Borderline Personality.
posted by Mogur at 12:11 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the strategies you are looking for might be good, but can I offer an alternative view?

None of this is any of your business to fix or address now that you are an adult. My advice is to re-focus on yourself and put this stuff into a category labeled "Not Worth Paying Attentioon To."

I don't know why you think you have to live with your parents, but I promise if you doubled or tripled your efforts to move out, you could in short order. For example, if you were working a second job or whatever, you would not be around to see your sister sitting on the stairs sulking. Know what I mean?

This was a lot of text about something that is none of your business and that you can not fix, anyway. You are not a child any longer. Sucks that this alters whatever picture you had in your mind about "family" - but that's reality. Sometimes things are not "ideal." Do you want the ideal family you have in your dreams? Then get out there, work hard, do self-work and put tools in your emotional tool box for relating to adults outside of your family of origin, and create a Life and Family of your own. On your own. Because you are a grown-up now, and you can do that if you want to.

You seem to want to. So do it. That's my advice.
posted by jbenben at 12:22 PM on January 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

You can't control how your sister feels, reacts or interacts with you. All you can do is control your reactions.

Be a blessing to your mom and try to be kind and polite. If your sister is out of sorts, don't provoke her or argue. Simply bow out graciously. Would it have killed you to turn off the radio? Even if she was in the wrong, be the bigger person, for the sake of your Mother. There was no reason to argue with your sister, EVEN IF SHE WAS WRONG!

Who cares if she's happy or sad with other people? Those are her friends and her feelings and they're none of your business. If she's choosing to sit on the stairs, shrug it off, that's hers to deal with. Your Mom buys into it, but there's a pay off for both of them in their dance macabre. That's their pathology. Ignore it.

Your sister may not like you, just as you're not a fan of hers. That's okay. Just because you're family it doesn't mean you have to like each other. You do, however, need to get along and live together because you're under your Mother's roof and you're required to be civil for your Mother's sake.

You are a grown person living with your Mom and your sister. For good or for ill, it is THEIR home you're in, and you are held to a higher standard of behavior. Your Mom owns the home. Your Mom has infantilized your sister and is her guardian (for all intents and purposes.) You are an adult, with the ability to act as an adult.

It sucks, which is why you should move heaven and earth to get a place on your own. But as long as you're living with your mother, you're an interloper and tensions will run high. Your sister wants you gone, so it can get back to being just her and your Mom. That's why she's moody and sullen and unpleasant.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:24 PM on January 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

PS - this is a normal and healthy step on the road to maturity and a self-actualized life and you should not beat yourself up for getting distracted by this drama. Recognizing that this is dysfunctional drama is a good thing! Recognizing that it is not your problem to resolve is the next step. You're OK! But yeah, go out there and create your own Life. Your family of origin already has whatever they are comfortable with. Leave them to it. Leave the nest emotionally and physically. Get going!
posted by jbenben at 12:27 PM on January 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

The one word answer: compassion.

The longer answer: detached love.

You are really judgemental of where your sister is in life, and you have a lot of internalized abilism about how she should be and what she should be capable of. Every second of every day, she is doing the best she can. It sucks for her that this is the best she can. The sooner you can have compassion for how much it sucks for her, the easier a time you're going to have. Detach your feelings from her state. It's not healthy for you, and it's not helping her.

She is disabled, and that is an ok thing to be. Your mother is not enabling her by taking care of her. That is appropriate and kind and good. You might benefit from reading what adult autistic people have to say about their struggles, and how rven when they look high functioning they're dealing with a whole host of invisible things. Stop judging your sister from a neurotypical set of standards, and you'll remove a lot of stress from yourself.
posted by stoneweaver at 12:47 PM on January 22, 2016 [19 favorites]

It sounds like your family has a lot of enmeshment going on, on all sides. Your own mood isn't your sister's issue to work out-- she has plenty of her own, including illness and sensory sensitivities, sounds like-- it's yours, and to your credit, writing this question is the first step to addressing this. Do some reading about strengthening your emotional boundaries; this will help you begin to separate your own needs, moods, and thoughts from your sister's (and mother's), and as your sense of self gets stronger, you'll feel more inclined to be kind to her as well.
posted by thetortoise at 12:51 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Compassion and detachment and learning about codependency, yes. Also maybe read up on cognitive behavioral therapy - you may find some techniques there that help you reframe how you respond to your sister's moods. There's a lot here about the details of your sister's behavior, and I think that's not the most helpful frame for you.

As someone who lives with someone with bipolar and gets how hard the mood stuff can be at times - place the focus on you. How can you take care of yourself, how can you choose to respond to her behaviors, how can you build up good boundaries about what issues are simply not your circus and not your monkeys?

If you can find a support group in your area for family members of people with mental illnesses, that may be a great resource for you, and a safe place to vent or talk through specific issues.
posted by Stacey at 1:15 PM on January 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

It sounds like she really just wants to be left alone. Not looked at, not talked to, etc. So do that. Just leave her alone and avoid her. She does not want you all to be depressed. She is not acting. She probably really is much happier when she isn't interacting with her family, for whatever reason- just or unjust. Respect that. Give her space.

Her "childishness" and your mother's enabling of her are not your concern. It's a problem, and one you have seen and identified. But that's it- you need to detach and let go of the outcome and any need for control over it. The music thing was shitty of her, but is really a very small and petty thing in the grand scheme of things. You should have just cut your losses, turned off the music and stopped talking to her.

Stop being a martyr. Just stop. Refuse to engage. You're getting something from being the longsuffering bigger person. You need to stop getting whatever you're getting out of that. Laugh, disengage, stop caring.
posted by quincunx at 1:26 PM on January 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

Use this time to reevaluate your childhood in this house. Disempower your misunderstandings, about your sister that are built on sibling striving. Figure out how to enjoy what you can, from a fresh perspective. Stay upbeat, always radiate from the heart. Also, find a home away from home spot, with cheap coffee, and good music. Work the old stuff out while you have the opportunity. You can't fake it with people like your sister. Being love doesn't make you a victim, but it is an active promise that will allow you to be important and beloved in her life, as you come and go.
posted by Oyéah at 1:38 PM on January 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

When I was depressed, I hated to be alone, so I can understand why your sister is sitting close to you even if she doesn't want to talk. I also get super sensitive to noise the worse I feel, and I guess this must be even worse for someone on the autism spectrum, so I guess in the car, when she asked you to turn off the music, you could have done that? Maybe it was selfish of her to expect that from you, but it was also selfish of you to keep the music going (who knows what a soft volume is for you and for her?) and you are just as much to blame for that fight as she is, so I don't think she was being a bully in that example.

I get that you are frustrated, really. But I also feel a lot of empathy for your sister. My own younger brother could have written this about me, so maybe I'm projecting a lot here. She's always gloomy, she's sooo sensitive, she tells me to make less noise... Since you're actually asking this question and are on MeFi, I'm assuming you're not a giant jerk lacking empathy, but actually a pretty good person who just spiraled into feeling super irritated. Could you try to leave your sister be for a while if she's in a bad mood, and when she comes out again, try to commiserate about both of your depressions? Find some common ground?
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:54 PM on January 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

I live in a very similar situation. A lot of people are putting your feelings and judgement on trial here. I know exactly what it is like to live with a sibling with mental health issues that prevent healthy relationships and family dynamics. I don't see judgment at all here, but rather a person recounting how they are treated and the emotional fallout from it. The combination of mood/anxiety disorders with selfish or narcissistic traits is a sure recipe for lots of serious disappointments and degrading treatment. It may take a breaking point in you to get to this place, but detaching emotionally and jettisoning expectations is how you cope. This doesn't mean you don't love her and can't become closer in the future as things change, but it is a recognition that it's not possible to have an active relationship with her right now.

Another thing that lessens the blows is to realize that the sibling in question is not very capable right now. There is a mental health issue that is preventing a lot of ways of interacting and relating to each other from being possible; just like if someone fractured their ankle, there would be many activities that they just couldn't physically do. While the mean things that are said, the insensitivity, or disappointments still can hurt, recognizing the idea of the "broken ankle"- that there may be real gaps in her abilities to empathize and communicate while grappling her issues- this can take the power out of these painful episodes and make them register less personally for you.

Finally, (as you have already indicated) carve out your own alone time, activities, and life outside the house. Are there any lessons or courses that you've always wanted to take? Go do them! Do you live in a dense area with lots of Meetup groups? Go see if you can make new friends! Invest more heavily in your relationships that are going well. Do your best to enrich your life as much as possible, so you have more "emotional reserves" to fall back on what things get tough at home. I wish you all the best and hope things get better as soon as possible for you.
posted by incolorinred at 2:06 PM on January 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

Wow, some judgey answers here. My sister is similar. After a while you get tired of acting like a doormat, especially when the parents are enablers. Being depressed is one thing; trying to make everyone else miserable is quite another.

OP, what works best for me is to absolutely minimize my interactions with my sis. Ignore her and her moods as much as possible. If she starts acting up, say "whatever" and walk away. Keep to yourself as much as possible, and put all your effort toward moving out of there. Give up the notion that this can be fixed; it's not likely to get better.
posted by phoenix_rising at 2:07 PM on January 22, 2016 [13 favorites]

Walking on eggshells is the price of admission when it comes to living with your mom and sister. If you don't want to pay, you need to find a new living situation. Yeah, that sucks and it's unfair. It sucks that my condo fees are going up. But that's the price of admission.

One expression my siblings and I use frequently is "don't poke the crazy." When you insist on making small talk with your sister when she clearly doesn't want to talk, you're poking the crazy. Don't poke the crazy.

It doesn't matter whether your sister is acting like a bully because she's depressed or because she's in a bad mood. Either way, the best way to deal is to remove yourself from the situation. She wants to sit on the stairs and glare at you? Okay, well, you've got a book to read, walk to take, friend to call, etc. Family members are asking you what's up with her? "I really don't know. But tell me what you've been up to! We haven't seen each other in so long - how's your thing?"

You can't change your sister's behavior or your mom's behavior. You can change your response to it. The easiest way to do that is to remove yourself from the situation, by walking away in the moment and working towards an independent living situation in the long term.
posted by kat518 at 2:40 PM on January 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Here's a link on the drama triangle for you to read and consider as well. It sounds perhaps like you are used to "rescuing" your mother from your sister's moods and managing her emotions for her, and that is part of why your sister's behavior gets on your nerves. But this is not your responsibility. Things like this

two birthdays in a row were ruined by my sister (my mother's own words to me)

make me think she is the big unacknowledged factor in the dynamic between you and your sister.
posted by thetortoise at 2:41 PM on January 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Well, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say, hell yeah, your sister sounds like a selfish, miserable person and I'm not surprised you feel negatively towards her. I think all the "just be nice to her and forgive her" responses are a little naive. Someone who is determined to create drama will create drama no mater what your response is. Really the best thing you can do as others have mentioned, is really double down on your efforts to become independent. Some families are just toxic and the only solution is distance. It's up to you to determine how much distance you need, but I guarantee living in the same house isn't going to cut it. Ignore your sister as much as possible when you have to be with her, but do your best not to be home as much as possible. Find a way to move out asap.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:01 PM on January 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have similarish issues to your sister that have flared up periodically. While reading this, I remembered a fraught time my own adult sister and I spent living under my mom's roof due to financial hardships, which, despite the rallying cries of the privileged, are not just going to magically disappear for most people if they try hard enough, especially when mental health issues are involved all around.

I agree that your family is enmeshed in unhealthy dynamics. That doesn't mean that you caused it, that you can fix it, or even that it's your responsibility to try. Families run a long way down a course established in initial conditions that are typically well beyond the control of the offspring.

The best you can do here is:
a) make a note of what you're learning about the situation so that when you stoke the fires of initial conditions with your own family someday, you won't just repeat the same cycle

b) focus your energy on not taking your sister's behavior personally, because even though it feels like she's attacking you, her pain has likely little to nothing to do with others

c) be as pleasant and non-committal to her as you can, and no more (for example, if you have it in your heart to smile and say good morning, do it; if not, choose silence over sarcasm)

d) be as honest as you feel safe being when your emotional boundaries are crossed ("I know things are rough for you right now, but they are for me too and when you say/do x it triggers me. I really want to get along and I care about you a lot. Can we work something out?")

e) if you do all this and your quality of life is still suffering so much that you can't live there safely, assess the possibility of other options like subsidized housing, temporarily staying with friends or other family members, or even going into debt to get housing if things seem dire

I have empathy for you. Things with your sister may not always be this bad, and the whole situation may help you galvanize your own safe space that you can take with you wherever you go in life. Life is significantly better for both my sister and I today, even though that didn't seem remotely possible a few years ago.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 3:20 PM on January 22, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yes, the judgeyness here from the commenters is bullshit. The rest of you should come back after you have been subjected to relentless screaming and disruption from someone with bipolar and a helping of cluster B personality disorders.

Your problem is that you're trying to "save" your mom and have a certain vision of what your mom should be doing and are kind of resentful that your sister, who treats your mom poorly, is getting "rewarded" while you are getting the shaft.

People can argue back and forth about whether your sister is choosing to act the way she is acting or not. But what is certain is that your mother is choosing to do what she does. And you have to accept that reality and your mom can only come to the decision to do anything differently on her own. So not only do you have to distance yourself from your sister, but you need to distance yourself from your mom. Tell her that you don't want to hear about the problems she's been having with your sister anymore. And figure out a way to put even more distance between them both by moving out.

And absolutely abandon any idea of having pleasant "family togetherness activities." Interact with your mom on her own, rather than activities where all of you go out together. Your sister will just have problems that bubble up, and you will just end up feeling resentful.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 3:39 PM on January 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

What else could I try?

Do you have a definite exit strategy? I mean have you sat down and worked out the exact financial situation you need to move out? How much will you need for rent? How much for transportation? Food budget? Misc expenses? Get as much detail down on paper including a time frame.

My current work situation is pretty awful but having a definite plan for career change has made a huge difference in dealing with the day-to-day grind. When I get stressed out and so completely aggravated with my co-workers and clients and managers and all I can think is OMFGIHATETHEMSOMUCH, I pull out The Exit Strategy and feel a little better. I can look at the time frame and specific steps that I need to take. It's something tangible that I use to remind myself that my current situation is not permanent and I will be in a better situation sooner rather than later.

Good luck! You can do this!
posted by Beti at 5:25 PM on January 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

It is with knowing sadness from personal experience that I second Bright Colored Sock Puppet's recommendation to "abandon any idea of having pleasant 'family togetherness activities.'"

When your 30-year-old sister interrupts family events to ask when it's time to go because she values other things more than family time on Christmas... That's just who she is. You can't change her values. So, don't take it personally. Just respond at face value and try to find a compromise that meets your needs and accommodates hers. Tell her that people are enjoying their time together and that you won't be leaving for at least an hour, but that she is welcome to take a break if she'd like.

Some things are not in the future for your family. That's... just how it is. But other, positive, wonderful things are. Your sister probably brings perspectives you wouldn't have otherwise. Seek those out and leave behind the image of the congenial family, because for some people that is not in the cards.
posted by samthemander at 5:41 PM on January 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

"Yes, the judgeyness here from the commenters is bullshit. The rest of you should come back after you have been subjected to relentless screaming and disruption from someone with bipolar and a helping of cluster B personality disorders."

I did not see a lot of judgement or pile-on in these answers, but just for reference, here is a description of my childhood and the fallout. There was no privilege....

And it's OK now. Because that's not my reality any more. I gave up trying to change something that (a) was hurting me, and (b) was none of my business. It was hard. It was also very very worth it!

I say often I wouldn't wish my mom's inner life on my worst enemy. OP, would you trade your place for your sister's life experience? Of course not. She's struggling and miserable. That's a lot of pain you describe in your Ask that your sister is holding.

I know you think you see ways your family might be happier - if only, if only, if only. And I know you want to help them. And I know you wish holidays and get togethers would not be as fraught with drama as they are. You are deeply disappointed. I know.

That's OK. They're on their path, you're on yours. Like I said in my other comment - it's a great thing that you are realizing this is happening and that you're not agreeing with it. The trouble is, your mom and sister do agree, this is their choice as grown-up people, this is their path. At least for now.

Sometimes you lead by example. If you yearn for an idealized happy family, like I said, make that a goal and start working on ALL of the ingredients you think are necessary to make this your daily existence. Financial security, physical health, emotional skills, healthy relationships in your community. You know, that kind of stuff. And then, you know, see how it goes. Maybe seeing you happy and successful will spur your mother and sister to strive for themselves in ways a thousand conversations with you would never inspire them towards? That's often how that can work.

It's hard to talk adults in a dysfunctional family dynamic out of their misery. Ask me how I know!

Everyone telling you to pull back and focus on yourself isn't judging you, we're just folks who have been in fraught family dynamics ourselves. Compassion and detachment was the tool that worked. It would be so awesome if you could sprinkle fairy dust and make people happier, but like all drugs, that would probably wear off, anyway.

Lasting happiness comes from inside, and that's true for your mom and sister, too. If they want better birthdays and holidays and daily experiences, they have to do their own work. You can't do it for them. The only work you can do is your own.
posted by jbenben at 9:24 AM on January 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

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