How do I deal with this relative? It's complicated.
August 27, 2016 12:21 PM   Subscribe

My mother's (much younger) cousin V is a doctor. She moved to the US from Britain this year. When my father was hospitalized, she and another couple of my mother's cousins spent a week with us. I'm grateful for what she did for our family during that time, but V's behavior towards me was sometimes humiliating and condescending. I need help figuring out how to manage my relationship with her going forward because now that I live near my parents again, I'll see her more regularly than I'd like.

First I have to say that V was very helpful and I feel like a total jerk for asking this question.


backstory When I was young, my mom complained about me to our extended family a lot. My relatives have written me off as a result.

My poor high school performance drove my mom nuts. Thankfully my college intervened before my ADHD exploded in my face and I graduated with honors. Though I’ve decided not to pursue further studies, I’ve found my career niche. I’m happily married, I own a home, and was just chosen by a beautiful kitty two weeks ago. Left to myself, I’m at peace with what I’ve got in life.

But my mother never lets me forget that our relatives are all high achievers with multiple graduate degrees from prestigious universities. On some level I feel like I deserve their scorn — I’m the least accomplished person in my entire family by a mile. I’m chill with that if I don’t have to be near them, but when I am, they talk down to me. My mom worships the ground they walk on, so as long as I’m around her, I have no choice.


An hour after my father was rushed to the hospital, we made the difficult decision to intubate him.

My mother asked her relatives to come over and help. They did. V, in particular, coordinated care with our recalcitrant nurses and doctors. I’m grateful, especially she was five months pregnant.

Meanwhile, I landed a new contract a week prior to this and my clients sent a bunch of equipment to my apartment. I had to cancel the contract to focus on my family. My clients understood, but they wanted me to return the expensive equipment ASAP. I told my mother I needed to make a trip to the city to do this. My mom seemed OK with it as she had help. I stayed in my apartment overnight and returned the next day.

V greeted me and then led me to an upstairs room and closed the door. She told me that I had been very irresponsible by leaving my mother alone. I had to remain in constant contact with them. V then told me the things “you’d read in books” — a reference to my love of reading, a habit I developed to cope with my childhood — wouldn’t help me now. That I had to get over my discomfort and whatever issues I had with my mother and do whatever she’d asked me to do. Then V accused me of being defensive when I explained the situation with work and why I had to leave. She gave me a list of things I need to do and to learn (“It’s shameful that you can’t drive,”), and told me that I needed to stop being so egotistical. She told me not to take any of this personally. I did. I felt ashamed. She was helpful, after all. I didn’t resent the advice as much as I did the way she gave it. It was also clear that she'd pre-planned this talk with me and that others also signed off on her assessment of the situation. I felt gaslit.

Didn’t end there. My relatives became very impatient with me as I slowly realized what it would mean for my father to be in the hospital for a long time. I was in a fog, thanks to repeated overnight stays at the hospital. I started becoming clumsy, misplacing things. V kept telling me that I needed to just suck it up. She’d pulled up all nighters when she was in medical school, and I should learn how to deal with this crisis situation. But lack of sleep disrupts my already compromised ability to function and I was an emotional fucking wreck especially as it soon became clear that my dad would be on a trach forever. I’d have to give up the apartment I’d abandoned in the city and move back to the town I hate and fought hard to leave to help my mom.

I was/am OK with that. I love my dad. But it was hard.

When my husband had returned from India late in February. We made the decision to move back to my parents’. V tagged along with us to our first house showing. She hated the house, a hundred year old Arts and Crafts ranch in good condition. She then took me aside and lectured me why, based on her own experiences, buying this house would be a horrible idea. She left the next week, but not before telling my mom her thoughts on my house.

My mother insisted I should listen to V because even though she's only five years older than me, she’s a landlord with Oxbridge and Ivy degrees who has done more and better things than I ever could. She reminded me how I made bad decisions in general and how I should listen to someone who makes good decisions.

My husband and I bought the place anyway. We moved into the house a week after my dad was released from the hospital. I help take care of my father every day and around my parents’ house. Our plan is to fix our current house up and convince my parents to move back with us to the city we left.

V hasn’t visited us since February for obvious reasons. She gave birth to her adorable daughter. But her husband has connections in the town I live in, and now that her baby is a little older, they’re making trips up. She’s coming over this afternoon, and I may see her every weekend for the next month.

V is very popular in our family and well-loved in general. She has so many friends and connections around the world. I feel like a freak for not liking her. But I get anxious and panicky, which she’d noticed before and pointed out. I should be grateful and I am. I don’t know what to do and I realize I’m being way too sensitive. How should I handle being around her?
posted by orangutan to Human Relations (38 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm so sorry about your father's declining health. You are amazing for being the family member to step up and take care of him, and there is nothing shameful about having an emotional reaction to his hospitalization.

This being said. You need to get out. You are being scapegoated here, cast in a hard role as the family fuckup (especially if you are a lower-achieving woman with no children yet) whose penance is to take care of your aging parents at the expense of having a life of your own. I've seen this happen to countless women and your post is terrifying. I know you love your parents and the thought of leaving or de-prioritizing them in any way is horrible, but it might be something you just have to do. The verbal abuse and monitoring from V is not an accident; it's a manipulation tactic: make you feel worthless and shameful enough and you'll readily give up your own life and time to do whatever she and your mother ask you to do, to be that family member, almost always a woman with no nuclear family of her own, whose life is reduced to unpaid medical labor. They're furious that you have a house, and I bet they were also mad you got married, called you "selfish" for having a job, whatever. Any moves towards establishing your independence and a life of your own are selfish and wrongheaded and hurting your family, right?

If you can draw up the rock hard boundaries to be in this situation intact, and with your marriage intact, try. I hope other mefites are going to be able to give you advice about how to do that. But please be aware: these people do not have your best interests in mind. They are trying to prep you for a very specific thankless role, and that process means grinding you down until you are mentally nothing but the aggregate of shame and feelings of worthlessness for minor grievances (like your high school performance) they want you to be. I hope I am totally crazy paranoid and wrong in my read of this situation, but if not: Please protect yourself here. You are a worthwhile person. You deserve a life.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 12:41 PM on August 27, 2016 [106 favorites]

I feel like I don't understand most of this. What are you getting out of these relationships? Are you being entirely used? Or do these people love you?

You should not have to lay down boundaries with your mother and V. If you want to, you can. If you don't want to, let your mom hire medical caretakers for your dad and move back to the city and just move on with your life.

Are they really treating you like a servant? If so, ditch them. Who cares what they think when you restart your own life on your own terms if they are not contributing to your wellbeing in the slightest. Really.

i'm not sure how you manage things with your father, but your mom and V sound horrible. If they are truly horrible, disengage.

Treating you poorly seems to be normalized by your family. You don't have to stick around for it. You really don't.
posted by jbenben at 12:49 PM on August 27, 2016 [18 favorites]

Wow. moonlight on vermont said it even more plainly than me. I missed that the mistreatment was likely manipulation.
posted by jbenben at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Start making friends and connections outside your family, if you can.

You need someone in your life giving you different and better information before you start believing these people. Maybe a therapist?
posted by amtho at 12:55 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I couldn't even get all the way through that, it made me so angry on your behalf. Fuck that awful woman and all her "advice/abuse." If it were me, the next time any family member began talking to you like that I would calmly hold up a hand and say that this conversation is over. Also, there will be no further conversations like it. You are an adult. They will treat you with respect and courtesy from now on. The way you choose to use your time/prioritize your life is NONE OF THEIR FUCKING BUSINESS. They are entitled to their opinions but you don't want to hear them ever again.

Hold your head high when you have to be around these horrible assholes. You are a perfectly wonderful person! You do what you need to do to keep your life running. Your father is your mother's responsibility. It's great for you to help out, because it's your Dad (I'm assuming he doesn't treat you as badly as your Mother's side of the family) but if people like your relatives are going to harass you I would only involve myself in things that required no contact with any other family members. Do all communication with them through email. If they continue to behave like total assholes just stop communicating with them entirely. Really, that's just beyond the pale.

Good luck. I'm really sorry you got stuck with such awful relatives!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:09 PM on August 27, 2016 [23 favorites]

On preview, yes, what moonlight on Vermont said is spot on! Please listen to them!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I’m the least accomplished person in my entire family by a mile. I’m chill with that if I don’t have to be near them, but when I am, they talk down to me.

These people are deeply insecure assholes who need tons of therapy. They should have compassion for the fact that you have an actual disability and respect the fact that you have worked really hard to make your life work anyway. But all they can do is crap on you. Because they are crappy people.

Our plan is to fix our current house up and convince my parents to move back with us to the city we left.

You may not be able to convince your parents. You need to accept this and start laying down some boundaries. Let mom know that you will give them some of your time, but your plan is to move back to the city at some point. Define that point -- "When dad is (x)" or "After about a year, give or take, depending upon (dad, the house, whatever)" -- and keep taking care of dad and helping mom while fixing up the house and planning to move back.

Let them know they are welcome to join you. If they opt to not do that, return to the city anyway and wish them well and do not ever again contort your life out of shape to this degree for their benefit.

When V does her usual crap of being as sweet and loving as a pit viper, tell her sincerely how much you appreciate her being there during your dad's crisis (because you do -- that is an honest statement), but don't just roll over for this awful person. If she is really pushy, you might give some pushback in the form of "I am sure you don't really mean to be so awful. You are probably just hormonal and short of sleep because you are a new mom."

But don't let her just crap all over you. If you can sidestep it, great. If she just won't let you, I would start letting her know she has no right. You moved back. You are taking care of your dad. You are doing all that is humanly possible. She needs to just stop this.

I was one of the top three people in my graduating high school class. I also am medically handicapped and I had kids young. When I was home visiting and someone was giving me shit for failing to be a millionaire by age 30, I pointed to my kids and said "I created them and they take all my time."

When your mom or V give you shit for how "accomplished" V is, you might start saying "Well, good for her. It's nice she wasn't born with ADHD." or something like that. People who accomplish that much aren't merely hard working. They also have a lot of support in some way and they are typically just very fortunate, if only to be more functional by an accident of birth, not because their virtues are greater than yours.

When people who have that much privilege and good fortune crap on people like you who got screwed by life and are doing all in their power to do the right thing anyway, they really have far fewer virtues than someone like you. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

I suggest you start playing songs like "Hold your head up" on repeat until you no longer buy this toxic message from your ungrateful, asshole relatives.

posted by Michele in California at 1:20 PM on August 27, 2016 [15 favorites]

These people are awful and you owe them nothing. Seriously. If you're happy with your life except when you are with your family, then stay away from your family. Visit your dad, because it sounds like you want to and that is wonderful, but extract yourself from the rest of these toxic people.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

Best answer: At first I thought this was going to be some cultural difference, but its not. V is an asshole and you should stop listening to anything she says.

Its time to start standing up for yourself. You're not being too sensitive, she's being a bitch. You've given up a lot to help look after your dad, the fact that you were expected to shows how little they respect you and your choices. My parents love me and even though they don't agree with all the choices I've made in my life, they want the best for me - which means they would never expect me to give up my life to take care of them. How much longer is your dad expected to live? How many years of your life are you expected to sacrifice for him?
Its very nice of you to help but remember they need something from you, not the other way around, they should have been the ones to move nearer to you if they wanted your help and they should have gratefully accepted whatever help you were able to give without you having to quit your job or significantly alter your life plans. This isn't you having to give up a hobby - its your job and your future you've had to sacrifice, you need to realise how big of a deal that is. They should be thanking you every day for what you've done not giving you shit.

Next time she tries to take you aside for one of these little chats, you need to make it clear to her that how you conduct your affairs are none of her business and that if she doesn't like how you're doing things, she can do it herself and you'll go back to your life in the city that you love. Same goes for your mother. Any attempt they make to put you down, tell you you're selfish, or egotistical - you shut it down straight away. This is not a conversation you are willing to engage in, if they wont leave it alone, you pick up your things and you leave. And you keep doing that as many times as you need to until they get the message. You are an adult and you are her equal, V has no right to talk to you that way and you don't need to put up with it, no matter how much the rest of your family loves her. The fact that she has multiple degrees and multiple properties does not make her better than you.

TBH, I think your relatives are probably jealous of you. Their whole lives, they've done what they were supposed to, they've lived up to the expectations of the generation before them, they've been sold on the lie that you need to do these things to be successful and happy and then here's you, living the life you wanted to live, by the sounds of it you're happy and successful enough, you have a house and a husband and you didn't have to go through what they've gone through to get it.

(also, seriously - she said it was "shameful" that you don't know how to drive?! inconvenient maybe, but shameful?! That's insane)
posted by missmagenta at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2016 [12 favorites]

A little more. When I read this I think about a friend of mine, one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, who is struggling with that family scapegoat/caregiver role. Her brother was the one the family selected to send to the UK and be the professional success. When her father became terminally ill and it became clear that the brother wasn't coming back to help, the family, who had previously wanted her to pursue a higher education and recognized how gifted she was, started to devalue and abuse her: the same pattern you describe of berating her for not magically having a better education/career and threatening suicide if she ever leaves to try to pursue something better, because how dare she be so selfish, after all the failures, after all the terrible things she's done? And how much they need her?

About a year ago, she told me about going with her mother to visit relatives who lived on the other side of the city: an elderly couple, their elderly sister, and the unmarried younger (middle aged) cousin who had been basically set aside by the family to take care of them until they passed away at the expense of her own life. Before my friend's father passed away, he talked to her about this pattern, how he wanted more for her, how he didn't want her to fall into that trap built for women. Unfortunately, my friend's family didn't have the financial resources not to lean on her for medical care, and the Oxbridge sibling basically refused to send them monetary aid, although, like V, he did make return visits to the country to take on a family supervisor/junior patriarch role and lecture his sister about how poorly she was taking care of their parents, because she does everything poorly, because she's a bad person who makes bad decisions, etc.

My friend doesn't deserve this. She knows what's going on; she sees all this very clearly. But her family doesn't have the finances to make other arrangements. If your mother has a huge family with the kind of money the world traveling and doctor's salaries and Oxbridge education and landlord status implies, they can find another solution to their elder care than sucking you back into their home as the penitent/sacrifice daughter. Please take care of yourself. You deserve so much better than what your family is beating you with.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:25 PM on August 27, 2016 [38 favorites]

Would you be willing to consider seeing a therapist? Not because there's anything wrong with you, but because a good therapist could help you with setting boundaries and could be a good sounding board in what sounds like a very frustrating situation. And most women can use some help with boundaries, myself included, because we are too often taught to consider everyone else's feelings and needs first.
posted by bunderful at 1:26 PM on August 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

Your mother is healthy and able to handle her basic needs? V is out of line.
posted by brujita at 1:38 PM on August 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

You need and deserve support. Everyone above is spot-on and reading through your question filled me with righteous anger directed at your so-called family and the cruelty they are committing against you.

How is your husband handling how poorly his wife is treated by her own family? Does he tell you how much and in what ways he values you and loves you? Does he reinforce the fact that you deserve respect and kindness? Even if you think it's silly or frivolous asking him to give you a boost and a reminder that what you're experiencing isn't okay can be a big help.

Talk to your father's medical team and ask about his options for assistance and long term care. You absolutely do not need a higher education to understand this stuff; hospitals have staff specifically trained to interface with family caretakers who can help you make good informed choices. If guilt about leaving your father in a lurch is keeping you from asserting yourself with the rest of your family, educating yourself on what he really needs and the options available to him (that aren't trapping his daughter in an abusive environment) could be the thing that helps you make good boundaries.

Do you have friends near you? Try to find a community to join that has nothing to do with your family. A book group or a gym buddy or something that appeals to you, so you have somebody to get you out of your head and focusing on something that makes you happy. And, if your friendships grow strong, somebody to reiterate to you that you deserve respect, kindness, and love.

And lastly, yeah, therapy. You perceptions are so skewed right now! You are not overly sensitive and what has been committed against you is awful. A therapist can help you unravel these things, but they can also help you assemble a strong mental toolkit of sorts to use when you are being forced into bad situations, or when you need to get back to center afterwards. Therapists are for so much more than severe mental illness, and can be vital in building up your own network of support. You might also work with one who suggests other types of professional help after getting a better picture of the challenges you face.

I'm so sorry you are having to deal with this.
posted by Mizu at 1:49 PM on August 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

There are people in my family like this. I have no problem telling them to fuck right off which is what you need to do to V. With your husband, or he can do it for you if you prefer. She needs to be told in no uncertain terms to butt the hell out and that she's way over the line and acting like a fool. You are not this woman's maid or the designated family nursing crew.

If she doesn't seem to be getting the point, despite you and your husband being openly hostile you probably need to escalate it a bit. I guarantee there is something she is sensitive about. Throw it in her face, then tell her to Fuck the Fuck Off. Your husband needs to help you here, be physically present and let her see his contempt or anger. It really is the only way to get people like this to back off, they only respect one thing and that's someone's else's ability to hurt them. Then forget all about her. Treat her like furniture.

And tell your mother that she needs to stop with the comparisons or she can look after your father all by herself (or that you'll take him away). She should be thankful to you for the HUGE thing you've done to help her, not treating you like this.
posted by fshgrl at 2:00 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

moonlight on vermont absolutely nailed this right out of the gate. Your cousin may have been very helpful but she was also absolutely awful to you. You owe these people nothing. Take care of yourself and the life you have made.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:00 PM on August 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

Other people have good advice about family. One thing to add: when people start throwing all this careerist garbage at you, remind yourself that most people do not have Oxbridge degrees, most people are working class, most people are not super-duper "professional" landlords or whatever...and if your family feels contempt for people who don't have the degrees, etc, then they have contempt for most of humanity ever and are kind of awful. Also, consider the degree of sheer, arrogant privilege it takes to assume that only people with multiple professional degrees are smart and worthwhile - they should be ashamed of themselves.
posted by Frowner at 2:02 PM on August 27, 2016 [37 favorites]

She told me that I had been very irresponsible by leaving my mother alone.

V is wrong and was a jerk. Disregard all of this.

It really sucks when people dump on you for things they don't understand, or which were outside anyone's control. But you're not required to put up with it.

Also, jesus christ, your family sounds very judgmental. Writing you off forever because of things your mother said about you as a child? Dropping you because you're less materially successful? It's perfectly understandable for you to dislike these people, and you're not in any way obligated to see any of these people or behave warmly towards them.

Also, I wouldn't let V "tag along" to anything anymore. What house you buy is none of her business. And you get to control who you spend time with, which includes not seeing people you dislike any more than you're strictly required to.

Oh, and because I'm sure it's going to be brought up by someone: ALL OF THIS HOLDS TRUE NO MATTER WHAT CULTURE YOUR FAMILY IS FROM.
posted by Sara C. at 2:33 PM on August 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

I have Oxbridge degrees, and I do hereby decree that V can fuck off.

Also, I am not married and don't own a home, which makes me an underachiever in the eyes of, probably, most people.

You know what's worse? I live with my MOM. Then again I'm incentivized to live with my mom because she is actually nice to me. That's where your mom is going wrong. She's recruited V to help her grind you down till you think you deserve to be Cinderella.

and what moonlight on vermont and fshgirl said. Actually I wouldn't bother with ands, ifs or buts because your mom is going to go on talking like this to you if you give her an ultimatum, she'll just change her style, and you're so acculturated to it you won't know it's happening.

So maybe don't give anyone any ultimatums, just tell your mom that if you're as worthless as she says they're better off without you, and then just leave. No arguing or discussing, none, leave first and send them a voicemail later, the end. Or else if you want to take your father away, warn them once and then do so with as little preamble as possible.
posted by tel3path at 2:38 PM on August 27, 2016 [20 favorites]

I also want to say (sorry for spamming this post) that my OMG GET OUT answer doesn't mean, like, I'm telling you and your husband to put your new house back on the market immediately and pack up and move back to your home city and never speak to your family again. It sounds like your dad is in the middle of a serious medical crisis or lifetime transition, and you want to be there for him and that's good. I'm not trying to convince you to make some kind of traumatic split from your ill father/family during this kind of crisis. But I think it would be helpful to apply that "get out now" mentality to the way you approach cousin V, your mom, and your extended family right now, and to really hang on to you and your husband's plans to move back with both hands and your teeth-- take control of his medical options by informing yourself and by recruiting home care personnel, make monthly or yearly plans to coordinate a return move to your city, set up boundaries about which activities V is allowed to participate in and take steps to remove her from your life (like, don't let her know about things like the house hunt so she doesn't have the opportunity to "tag along" and sabotage you, and don't tell people like your mom who will let her know.) Like people have said upthread, your mom and dad may not want to move with you; they might force you to either choose between basically giving up your birthright as their daughter to V or other more successful cousins and staying in this weird subordinate/servant position indefinitely, or moving away without them. And I think you and your husband might have to prepare for that last eventuality. Good luck. You're going through some incredibly hard times and I wish the very best to you and to your dad.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:56 PM on August 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

Screw V and the horse she rode in on! She is not nice, not a lovely person, not kind or helpful or anything else useful --- what she is is a self-centered, over-indulged, entitled pain in the ass, and I feel sorry for any child who will be raised by her.

Next time V tries to take you aside like that to berate you, frankly: refuse to go with her. If she starts her abuse anyway, literally walk away from her --- just leave her standing there, spouting her hatefulness.

And further, stop sharing your plans (house buying, decorating, vacation, work, whatever) with anyone in the family: not your mom, and certainly not V. Telling them what you plan to do just gives them time and ammo to abuse you; for instance, do not let either of them know you have something like a house showing coming up, and definitely do not let them tag along. Do not try to explain to either of them why you are doing/going to be doing something (such as returning the equipment to your client): it's none of their business, and again they'll only use it to abuse you.
posted by easily confused at 3:05 PM on August 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

You need therapy.

Not because you're bad, or wrong, or a terrible person - you are NONE of these things and your mom and V can fuck off - but because years of manipulation and abuse have completely fucked up your sense of normal, healthy relationships.

I'm speaking from experience, having grown up bending over backwards to accomodate a mother and grandmother who thought nothing of gaslighting and emotionally blackmailing me until I barely knew which way was up. Having a therapist who could say, 'no, this is not how normal human beings act,' or, 'yep, your momma has a point in this one instance,' was SO HELPFUL to me in terms of just figuring out what healthy relationships with other people looked like, and in teaching me that boundaries are a good and wonderful thing, and it's not my sacred duty to set myself on fire to keep other people warm. Even my mother.
posted by Tamanna at 3:22 PM on August 27, 2016 [19 favorites]

If you're thinking it's a cultural thing, maybe it is, but some cultures (maybe all cultures) choose certain people to victimize and certain people to celebrate -- neither group really "deserves" that fate. We all just do the best we can; participating in this cultural scapegoating doesn't necessarily make someone evil, but it does mean that the scapegoat has to either get away, change roles, or accept fate.
posted by amtho at 3:54 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's definitely a cultural thing - all you've written sounds perfectly normal to me, but I come from a culture where women are expected to be caretakers of the family. But I do think it sounds like you don't want to be part of this cultural framework anymore. You frame this as being about V, but it sounds more like you're rejecting that kind of traditionalist lifestyle, and struggling with your family's response to that. That's perfectly okay! But it helps to look at it with clear eyes, and see this isn't about a person but a way of life.
posted by corb at 4:44 PM on August 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's also about high achieving bossy families where everyone thinks they are super right all the time. Sometimes you have to sit them on their ass a little bit to get them to back off. I guarantee you that V is not as functional in her own life as you think. I have 173 siblings and cousins and in laws just like V with god-alone-knows how many graduate degrees between us all and a whole lot of problems playing nicely with other. Not that my family isn't wonderful but they have been raised to be competitive and "take charge" and to take over for people who aren't overtly organised and take charge types some of them cannot tell the difference between using that at work and being a big nosy rude jackass in their personal life.

You think V is wonderful because you've been told she is but she doesn't sound too great at dealing with people or being a good relative to me or most people here. You, otoh, sound amazing. I love my Dad but I'm not sure I'd make that kind of sacrifice for him.
posted by fshgrl at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

V then told me the things “you’d read in books” — a reference to my love of reading, a habit I developed to cope with my childhood — wouldn’t help me now.

As a person with a BA, MA, and MD, I applaud your love of reading. I think it's suspect that someone with more formal higher education than you would use this as something to berate you on. Perhaps she is sad to have lost her own love of learning and is jealous this is something you can still find joy in.

I wonder if your husband can be helpful given the cultural context and provide more insulation for you from your family.
posted by eglenner at 6:31 PM on August 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, some of the most judgmental people are barely holding it together themselves.

It will be interesting to see what she's like now she's had the baby - this could really go either way (either she gets worse or she eases up entirely).

Either way, as others have said, the best way to protect yourself from her is to just not share much with her - only share with those who've demonstrated that they have your back.
posted by heyjude at 7:34 PM on August 27, 2016

Cultural difference is often brought up here on metafilter. I am in favor of respecting people's cultural choices (to the point where no being is actually made to endure prolonged suffering because of them). However, I'd like to point out that neither culture nor religion are genetic. Assuming you live in a country that has laws and resources in place to protect your personal rights and freedoms, participation in a culture is a choice and one can choose to live one's life in a way that is more in line with one's personal beliefs and morals, if the culture you were born into doesn't respect them. Culture is not law. It has been, is, and should always be, fluid to accommodate our evolution as human beings. Humans change, ideas change, knowledge grows, culture changes. It is OK to advocate for change within your culture or leave it behind entirely.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:51 PM on August 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Just wanted to say that when you're next in a position of having to talk with your cousin or with anyone else who treats you like that, don't do it with the expectation that they'll ever see the error of their ways or apologize. (Wonderful things happen sometimes in the world, but don't hold out for it.) I think it can help a lot emotionally to work out different ways these conversations are likely to go and practice them - not just in order to practice the words but also to practice handling your emotional responses to their stupidity. Because it's painful to talk with people like that. Your cousin, at least, sounds like someone who's really internalized your family's attitudes about hierarchy and power and kind of relishes her position therein. I think if she feels that you want or need her approval or respect, she'll probably withhold it just for the power it gives her. So try to get to a place where if you feel anything in regards to her, it's pity. She may have gone farther along the academic path but it sounds like you've gone much farther in learning how to treat other people and how to see other people. Her professional approval might have some value to someone involved in her specific field. Her personal approval doesn't sound worthwhile at all.

It's obviously much harder when one has to do that with a parent or someone you actually love and who's opinion you actually care about. If that's how your relationship is with your mother, I wish I had better advice about how to deal with knowing she'll never change. It's a sad thing, when someone is so disabled by a worldview that it doesn't let them see the good right in front of them.

When these interactions make you feel bad or weak, don't feel bad or weak about that. It's part of being a human being with feelings. But even a deeply ingrained feeling isn't necessarily the truth, and it sounds like you're a much better person than they're even capable of imagining.
posted by trig at 8:21 PM on August 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

On the question of how to deal with things like visits, I'd say ideally spend as much time as you can with the baby. Maybe take notes for a satirical comedy of manners. Maybe practice thinking "poor V" every time she says something V-ish. Imagine what her childhood must have been like. If your father isn't up to joining the company, volunteer to be the one who sits with him. Is V's husband nicer than she is? If so, work up a friendly relationship with him. (If he isn't, it could make for a richer comedy.)

See if you can carve out a regular two hours or so away from your family after such visits, and on weekends in general, for you to do things you enjoy. (If people give you a hard time about it, smile and say 'yes, I'm a selfish ingrate.' If you can pull off saying that lovingly and/or gleefully, so much the better.)
posted by trig at 8:40 PM on August 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My mother did this kind of thing to both her AFAB kids. We were called difficult, she talked negatively about us to her family and friends, she groomed us (me especially) to be her caretakers as she had terminal cancer, and she would tear our self-esteem to shreds in order to keep us feeling like we owed her or had to prove our worth to her. We are also learning disabled (autistic spectrum) and a lot of your backstory resonates. You might be interested in the concept of "emotional flashback", it probably reminds you of when you were in high school because it's the same cruel tactics.

You have been treated with an astounding lack of empathy by your family in what is a really hard time for you. There's that idea of "dump out, comfort in" and as the kid of the person in crisis you're definitely much closer to the center than your mother's cousin; she is being hugely inappropriate here.

Even though they make you feel small, you are an adult. Even though you feel powerless, you have agency. They cannot legally force you to do anything you do not want to do and when the guilt and the gaslighting hits you need to remind yourself of that - they do not control you, they do not own you, they cannot force you to do anything, and you are allowed to make decisions that they disapprove of because you are your own human being. You need solid boundaries with these people because they are going to try to bleed you dry of as much free labour as possible (not because they are evil, some people do it as a displaced guilt thing, others out of being really cheap assholes, and I get the feeling your family might see it as "well she doesn't do anything that's super important career-wise anyway so she may as well do this intense emotional labour that needs doing").

Set limits on the amount of time you are going to spend with draining family members like V for a given task/day/whatever and then disengage (use any reason, it doesn't matter, they won't find any of your reasons satisfactory, fall back on "I'm sorry but that won't be possible"). They'll talk, because they're petty and they're stressed and you're the scapegoat, but there's absolutely nothing you can do to please them so don't exhaust yourself trying. Help out as much as you feel comfortable doing, get a therapist to help you with the crushing guilt you'll surely feel for daring to put yourself on the list of "people who's well-being and happiness I should prioritize", and do your best to continue to live your life. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. Be kind to yourself.

I would honestly not spend any time with someone like V outside of time with other family members because it's a fucking waste of energy. You're never going to prove to her that you're a worthy person, not because of some inherent fault on your part, but because she has such a warped perception of what makes someone worthwhile. She's going to test you, though, to try to validate her contempt for you. Absolutely not worth your time. See her at family gatherings or when you're at your parents' place, otherwise just be too busy for her.

I thought setting boundaries with my family would be the worst thing ever, that I would be torn to pieces with guilt every single day, that I would be so miserable, that my life would fall to ruin, but now that I have been doing it for several years it is hands down the best decision I have ever made. It is so much easier and healthier and happier for me to engage on my own terms rather than playing guilt roulette and trying to please people who cannot be pleased ever. They still talk about me behind my back (my sister enviously tells me I am considered a "lost cause" now) and I am annoyed by this but it doesn't affect my life at all because I am an autonomous adult. If they want the privilege of my help and my company, they can treat me decently. I don't owe them a damn thing, especially considering the complexes I have developed from their shoddy attempt at raising me.

I will note that it took my mother sort of kicking me out for me to begin to disengage so I understand that what I am advocating for is really hard to do, especially when someone you feel responsible for is in crisis, but it's still worth doing. SOMEONE needs to be on YOUR team during this crisis and it sure as hell isn't going to be V. Be as selfish as you need to be.

(Sorry for the novel! I clearly have a lot of feelings.)
posted by buteo at 11:33 PM on August 27, 2016 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Hmm, I think we come from similar cultural backgrounds. My extended family is also very Achievement Driven, very argumentative, and everyone thinks they know best... I love them but they're very difficult to be around for long periods of time.

What people like V say are compelling because they're objectively possible: one could have stayed with your mother that day, one could learn/do that laundry list of things she gave you, one could pull repeated all-nighters with no reduction in cognitive function (although I think this is bunk, there've been numerous studies that show that overworked med students and doctors make stupid mistakes), and so on. But they're also incorrect, because they don't take into account the very valid constraints you're working with. Your clients wanted their equipment back - would V have, say, returned it for you in your stead? (Would she even have been able to?) I bet what she had to say about the house also didn't take into account the price of the house, or the opportunity cost involved in leaving it and continuing to search. I also bet that if you'd chosen not to buy that house and continued to look, the next thing they'd berate you about was that you were spending too much time house-hunting.

The problem with listening to people like them -- taking their advice, trying to do what they say -- is that the goalposts always move, because you're being measured against an objective standard of What Is Possible that doesn't necessarily take into account what is realistic in a 24-hour window, let alone your personal circumstances. So if you're doing it to get their approval (whether V's or the family's approval in general) you're not going to get it, because there is always more you could be doing. And that's hard.

What I found important to realize, with my family, was that the asshole behavior was the price of their help/advice/involvement. There was no getting one without the other. But framing it that way let me cheerfully ignore their input when I don't want it, and when I do need it, at least I've decided in advance that I want it enough to put up with them for it. You could see if that works for how you think about V.
posted by Xany at 11:39 PM on August 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Hi V, [closes the door] I'm sorry to have to do this but you've been been very irresponsible by neglecting certain things in your life. I'm afraid you'll have to get over your discomfort as all “you learned in school” won’t help you now. I know your achievement and external validation is important but please, don't get defensive. Here's a list of things you need to do and to learn (“It’s shameful that you can’t empathise with people”). If you notice at the top is says STOP BEING AN ABUSIVE FUCKING PSYCHOPATH. Please don't take any of this personally. I've had a chat with the rest of humanity and we're kind of on the same page about this.

Oh and V, you need to do this for your daughter. I couldn't give a fuck, you can die in a fire for all I care. But V, if you carry on like this, you'll be lucky if she just hates you.

Oh yeah I nearly forgot, go fuck yourself.

orangutan, you are worth a thousand million Vs and they will never understand. Fuck 'em. Be happy with your life in a way she is literally incapable of and thank the stars that you're not like her.
posted by fullerine at 3:39 AM on August 28, 2016 [13 favorites]

Your family is verbally and emotionally abusing you, full stop. They've been doing it your whole life. What they're doing is not acceptable in any way, it's dysfunctional. It's bullshit. It's especially bullshit because your mother neglected you by failing to to EVER address your ADHD. She literally ignored the fact that you had ADHD and went so far as to never, ever investigate the cause of your poor grades in high school or get you the treatment you needed. And she did so because it allowed her to instead bully you, verbally abuse you and castigate you to the rest of your family. Your family, who instead of asking what the hell is wrong with a parent who emotionally and verbally abuses her daughter, became verbally and emotionally abusive as well.

Your college, people who barely even know you personally and have only the most basic interest in you as a human being (basically strangers), had to intervene on your behalf because they literally cared more about you, your health, your well-being and your education than your mother or your family. That is extremely dysfunctional behavior on your mother and family's parts.

Your mother literally ignored your need for medical treatment and it's just a bad as ignoring any other medical need. Do you think it would be acceptable if your mother had neglected to provide medical care if you had the flu? Food poisoning? No, it wouldn't, and the fact that your family sees you as tarnished or a lesser person because you needed help and all your mother did was trash talk you rather than caring for you properly...they're just as bad as she is. Your cousin V, a medical professional, is failing to uphold her oath to do no harm.

You have to set boundaries with these people or they're going to continue to ruin your life, maybe even ruin your marriage, by convincing you that you're a terrible person for being happy and living a good life. You need therapy, not because you're a bad person or there's something wrong with you, but to give you the tools you need to interact with these people without allowing them to continue to harm you. You may have to associate with them because of their proximity with your father, but you don't have to allow them to treat you this way. Walk out out of the room when they start treating you poorly or talking down to you. Don't accept the bullshit they try to feed you, they're wrong. 100% wrong. Never invite your cousin into your home, never go anywhere with her, never let her take you aside, never be alone in a room with her. Ditto for the rest of your family.

Do they act like this in front of your husband? If not, that's very telling that they know how awful they're treating you and don't want a witness to their behavior. Recruit your husband as your support team, explain to him how abusive they've always been to you. He can help you by never leaving you alone with them and standing up for you if you feel powerless or stymied because they've conditioned you to react a certain way. He can cut them off if they go on tirades against you and help empower you by asking you for your opinion on things or looking after your needs when they treat you poorly. If they get passive aggressive, he can do the thing they "forgot" or get you the thing they brought everyone else but "forgot" to serve/give/get for you. If he can help you reinforce your boundaries, it will really help you make it through this trying time.

Let me also suggest r/RaisedByNarcicissists on Reddit, because your family displays many of the traits of nacissistic families. The golden child/scapegoat dynamic, the parent who neglects their child's needs and uses the child's medical condition as ammunition for abuse, the constant bringing up of your high school grades years later when it literally makes no difference to anything now, sharing the trash talk with the rest of the family who also engage in the bullying behavior, just on and on and on.

You are a good person, you live a fulfilling life that you enjoy. There's no better measure of success than being happy.
posted by i feel possessed at 6:42 AM on August 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

Just in case any part of you still thinks that this might be a UK cultural issue, or just a thing that doctors do: I'm a UK trained doctor (and from a much older and better-regarded med school than Oxford!). She sounds like a complete bitch. Her behaviour would be seen as workplace bullying if she tried it with any of her colleagues, and would potentially have her placed on supervised practice if she tried it with a patient.

As for saying you couldn't go home because she's done night shifts in the past - so what? Does she want a prize? I regularly work 72 hr shifts. Does that make me six times better than her?

I always send families of sick patients home to get some sleep if the patient isn't imminently dying, because they are of far more use to the patient when they are rested. I don't need to get into pissing contests with families about who's had the least sleep.

The liaising with the doctors thing is not a virtue on her part either - doctors find it deeply discomfiting to be patients and relatives, and find it reassuring to become the liaison because it gives us back a sense of familiarity and control. It is something that I specifically do not do, even though sticking my oar in would make me feel better, because it is really high-handed and intrusive when I am not the patient or next of kin. I would see this as further evidence of her selfish and bullying nature.

She comes across as very angry about something, and very insecure. Perhaps the relocation to the US has been harder on her than she likes to admit? Was the emigration entirely voluntary? Lots of junior doctors have difficulty obtaining jobs in the UK at the minute, and have had to move overseas to find work. Perhaps that's why she's so pissed off with the world. Still, that's no excuse to take this out on you.
posted by tinkletown at 8:20 AM on August 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so, so much for your responses. They were all extraordinarily helpful.

So I actually missed seeing V yesterday because I had to buy cat litter! And groceries! And cleaning supplies! And...and...yeah. V plus husband and baby stopped by my parents' for an hour or so and then left. Phew. (If V visits next weekend, my kitty might just need litter again. Eevee is a charming little poopster.)

I've just started seeing a therapist, which I should've mentioned in the Ask itself. She's super helpful. We'll have a lot to discuss during our next session. I also have friends outside of my family, and I'm trying to step up to see them more. Most of them tell me over and over again that my expectations are not normal, and I'm trying as hard as I can to listen to them.

Nthing the r/raisedbynarcissists recommendation, I read that every day and it's one of the things that keeps me going.

I also want to thank you all for being so validating. I honestly believed others would affirm what my family has told me about me my whole life.

It just goes to show that self-loathing is a helluva drug, and that hate always defies logic. The crazy thing is that objectively I'm no slouch. I do some tough cutting-edge work in my (incredibly fast-growing) field. It's just that I work from home and stare at a computer, so it must NOT be anything important... sigh.

I talked to my husband today about setting some hard deadlines for our renovations and move back to the city. He's been supportive and he knows about these dynamics. Hell, his family is almost exactly like this. He's the one who gave me the confidence to back the heck out of seeing V.

Sometime this coming week, we'll speak with my mother re: the move back to my city and give her our options. Either she moves with us, or we leave as soon as the house is done. Without her and my dad. I'm nervous but it's a thing that needs to be done.

Moonlight on Vermont's comment(s) terrified me. This can't be my life.
Wish me luck.

Thanks again. <3
posted by orangutan at 12:34 PM on August 28, 2016 [22 favorites]

If it's helpful: I recently went through a variation on this - the "it's your daughterly duty to assume caretaking your father because you don't have any kids" dump - and my response was a plain No. It took a good while to work up to it, and I had support from a family member, but oh my word was it difficult. It was also the best thing I could have done. The relief is/was tremendous. I will help with my father's care, within parameters that I define, but I won't be in charge. My reasons aren't viewed as valid, of course, but I know they are.

Another thing I did was to tell the most abusive and insistent member of my family that I will not meet with him alone. He really bucked at this, of course; he needs to be seen as the good guy, the achiever, the reasonable one, and witnesses to the kind of crap and manipulation he shovels at me belie this image. I won't even email him without cc'ing members of my family designated as our mutually agreed-upon third party. And when he emails me without cc'ing them, I cc them in a reply that includes his email. He's learned, now, that he has to watch what he says to me.
posted by goofyfoot at 3:40 PM on August 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

You've been answered superbly already, and I've no superior advice.

I just wanted to tell you that my daughter has ADHD and asperger's and if she achieves what you have achieved I will probably burst with pride and make a terrible mess. I wonder if you were diagnosed late (in college?) because as a parent helping a littler kid going through something like you must have gone through, I am gobsmacked by the unbelievable lack of love, compassion and understanding your family extend to you. I will never, as long as I live, be able to look at my daughter and gloss over the struggles she has faced and conquered. I can't believe how dismissive your family are of yours. When I read that V was getting on about your compromised functioning when sleep deprived and emotionally overwrought I thought she MUST be a shit Dr if she really doesn't understand what that does to HUMANS let alone those with ADHD. I mean you on your worst day mid-crisis is my ex in his best days! It's bloody HARD when your brain won't do what you need it to. And I hate that they get to tell you how shit you are at life, but yet you're somehow capable enough to take on all the massive and complex responsibilities and caring duties amirite?

Anyway that was all. Just a mom, sadlynot yours (you don't deserve the lack of understanding one bit) telling you that you are amazing and deserve immense respect and consideration. I hope you find it. x
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 6:01 PM on August 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also, have you asked your cat's opinion of you lately? It's probably more accurate than V's. Since your cat sees you every day.

I think your cat is probably in favour of you.
posted by tel3path at 5:06 PM on August 31, 2016 [5 favorites]

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