Overcoming a Human Roadblock
June 29, 2008 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I guess the question should really be, "how to overcome a MENTAL roadblock that has taken the form of a person?" I guess my situation can be likened to those age-old stories of someone not being able to forgive a parent for a bad childhood, and blames the parent for his/her failures. But my story is about an unwelcomed competition from a cousin, one that instead of facing I've always cowered to, and have thus grown in resentment and have become stifled as I continue watcihng my life unfold in misery, Wondering how to reclaim a personal sense of power regardless of her presence in my life, even though it seems it keeps "haunting" me.

I guess the question should really be, "how to overcome a MENTAL roadblock that has taken the form of a person?"

I don't really know how to articulate fully this years-old dilemma of mine into a paragraph or so, but I will try, only because I honestly don't know what else to do. I don't know how to get past this and it's eating at my life, or more accurately, has devoured my life.

I have a cousin around the same age as me. Ever since I can remember, her parents have pitted her against me, competing on everything, especially educationally. I think this was a holdover from a competition between our moms, sisters also closely linked in age. I honestly never seriously considered the competition until it was continually brought to me. Like I vividly remember years ago, my cousin making snide comments about my scoring higher on the SAT, or when I had any semblance of happiness in my life on a social front, she would do these passive-aggressive things that showed her displeasure with my happiness! I really grew to resent her and tried to distance myself from her until unfortuately we ended up not just at the same college, but even as roommates. It was horrible. I increasingly grew self-concious of everything I did. It seemed every step I made toward trying to establish the kind of life I wanted that didn't include her, she would find a way to maneuver her way in. Following me to church, befriending my friends, joining the sorority she knew I wanted to (I ended up not joining for the sole reason of trying to avoid her!), and the list goes on. A few years ago, I found out that when I started grad school, she was asking around about what I was studying, "what's SHE doing there?" Not long after she enrolled. I quit. It came to a point where I looked back on my life and saw so many things I forfeited on, for the sole purpose of avoiding her, like her negative spirit was just daring me to succeed and be happy or something. It's weird I know, and it sounds strange. But after therapy for a year (yep I went to therapy over this ONE person!), trying to figure out how to be strong enough to just focus on me, after years of thinking and re-thinking, analyzing, turning to church and spiritual and self-help books, you name it, I still haven't figured out how to get past this.

I link all of my failures to her presence in my life. So many times I've thought about how free I would feel if I never knew anyone like her, if she was never born or something. I feel so weak, so beaten down. I wish my spriit was as strong as hers, but it's not. I wish I could be as aggressive at my life as she is at both hers and MY life, but I'm not. In theory, I know the answer: Just focus on your life. But we're first cousins in a tight-knit family. She is not someone I can just remove from my life forever. Even when I don't want to hear anything about her, people volunteer the info. So erasing her is not an option. I guess getting over my resentment towards her is paramount to moving on, but how? Every time I make a step forward, I start thinking about how that step should have been taken years ago, then I start thinking about why it wasn't, and there she is again, in my head, stifling my energy. I'm lost.

How do you get over someone you [rightly or wrongly] blame for your misery? Or better yet, how do you overcome the power you've allowed this person to take from you?
posted by GeniPalm to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The easy answer is that you need more therapy. The more difficult answer is to stop thinking about her and start doing for yourself.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:43 AM on June 29, 2008

Congratulations! You are related to a sociopath.

Move far away without telling anyone where you're going.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:44 AM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, your second question is wrong. Your cousin hasn't taken anything from you. You have taken it from you.
posted by MegoSteve at 10:44 AM on June 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

One thing that's always worked for me when I've given my power/initiative over to someone else's crap -- just think about how miserable it would be to be in their head. Based on your examples here, this person could be seen as equally obsessed with you, and unable to direct her own life except around competing with you and trying to make you feel small. How sad.

I'd have to ask, as I'm sure your therapist did, if maybe there's a little sumpthn' sumpthn' you get out of this whole drama? If you're still in the same dance, and not going to dance with someone else or in a completely different disco, chances are good there's something you like about your dance partner. You will continue the same moves until you get to the bottom of that, and decide it's worth giving up.

And you're right - just focus on YOUR life - even if that means going away for a bit, like physically moving for a couple of years - sometimes, especially when one is young, setting up shop completely independently for a bit of time is the only thing that will allow perspective later.
posted by pomegranate at 10:47 AM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You will be better than her at some things. She will be better than you at some things. This is true of anything you do. There will always be people who are better than you and people who are worse than you. So if she insists on following your every move and copying everything you do, there will be times when she will "win" and times when you will "win." The way to really win is to do what you really wanted to do in the first place, recognizing that she's going to copy you, recognizing that she's going to gloat when she does it better than you and sulk when she does it worse than you, and just enjoy what you're doing anyway.

You can't control what she does, and you can only control to a very limited extent what other people tell you about her. What you can control is the degree to which you let other people's behavior control your life. Just do what you wanted to do in the first place. And when she copies you, just remember that she (and the family members who encourage her) are behaving like pathetic losers, while you're pursuing your goals and dreams like a rational, happy adult.
posted by decathecting at 10:49 AM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I looked back on my life and saw so many things I forfeited on, for the sole purpose of avoiding her, like her negative spirit was just daring me to succeed and be happy or something.

I link all of my failures to her presence in my life.

I still haven't figured out how to get past this.

Ask yourself honestly, "Who do I blame for failing if my cousin wasn't in my life?"
posted by jamaro at 10:55 AM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your cousin has become the receptacle of all your disappointment and self hatred. Everything that you don't want to face about yourself, you have placed on her. No one deserves the onus that you have placed upon her. Accept this. There are going to be a lot of things that you are going to need to take responsibility for, and it's become so easy for you to put the blame elsewhere that it will take a serious act of will on your part to do so.

Have you taken any time for yourself away from your family? Do you have a life that is not attached or dependent on them in some way? If not, this is your first step. Like an alcoholic that can't be around drink, you will need to stay away from your family until you learn to become emotionally self-sufficient. Remove your access to an easy scapegoat and learn to live life on your own terms, failures and all.

Learn to focus on what you do have - not on some mythical accomplishment that might have happened if the stars had aligned differently. Stop living in the past and look to the future. Learn to be grateful and accept yourself unconditionally and you will lose this pathological resentment. I strongly urge that you continue your therapy - but that you find a therapist that refuses to accept your fixation on your cousin.

Good luck - life is far too short and too full of wonderful opportunities to burden yourself with so much negativity.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:30 AM on June 29, 2008

How do you get over someone you [rightly or wrongly] blame for your misery?

I forgave them. I realised that they too were only human, and no more or less messed up that I myself was. They were given a hand of cards, and played a game with them. So did I.

By resenting them and hating them, etc, I put all the attention back onto them. I gave them power over me, if you like. Once I realised I was doing this, I took steps every single day to get them out of my head (getting them out of my life wasn't all that practical). Every time I felt myself getting angry about them, I'd STOP and do something else instead.

I guess getting over my resentment towards her is paramount to moving on, but how? Every time I make a step forward, I start thinking about how that step should have been taken years ago, then I start thinking about why it wasn't, and there she is again, in my head, stifling my energy. I'm lost.

This is two different things. You feel resentment towards her, but you also feel resentment towards yourself. Stop treating them as being the same thing. Forgive her AND yourself. You've developed some habits, but you can also develop new ones.
posted by Solomon at 12:17 PM on June 29, 2008

A relative of mine who had a very hypercontrolling mother found it very helpful to move about 1000 miles away from her and all of his other siblings, aunts & uncles, etc. They didn't do anything like severing all ties--in fact they made a point to visit home once a year or so, come to periodic family functions, invite their parents to visit for a few days, and the like.

But just having that large geographic separation helped him to find the space he needed to build his own life and find his own friends while still having a relationship with his other family members, but one that was not dominated by his mother the way he felt it certainly would have been, had he lived in close proximity.

Your mileage may vary!
posted by flug at 12:31 PM on June 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I feel for you as I had similar stuff to deal with growing up from both my immediate and extended family.

Firstly, forgive yourself for all of the things you withdrew from in the past. You were coping in the best way you knew how at the time.

Secondly, start to focus on the many ways in which you and she are different. She, obviously, goes about her life with a different emphasis than you do. She seems to choose classes, friends, pass times on the basis of wanting to best someone. Maybe you make those same choices for different reasons, go about them in different ways, and with different expectations. Start pointing out these differences to yourself, and when you have an opportunity, note your differences to others (in a subtle way). For example, regardless of who is doing better at X activity, you can point out how much you are enjoying it for the fresh air and the fabulous people or whatever. If you begin to perceive your experience as being different than hers, others will too in time. Do the things that you want to do but refuse to compete.

Thirdly, I think people like your cousin are of a type that need a lot of attention. This is very wearing to be around, and some people will have been filtering her out for that reason. Seek these people out, as they are likely to be non-competitive types. They may be the basis of a new social system that is supportive and accepting of you and your approach to life.

Lastly, don't slag her to others. Be confident enough in your own strengths and abilities that you wish her well in her endeavours. You are doing so because you are on your own path for your own reasons. Your path may cross hers several times but it is emphatically not hers.
posted by lunaazul at 12:48 PM on June 29, 2008

Being a big believer in the power of music to be both amusing and cathartic, I would suggest, in addition to the excellent advice you've already received, that you listen to this song. Repeat as necessary.
posted by scody at 1:05 PM on June 29, 2008

Also, are you sure you don't play the same role in her life that she has in yours? Maybe you're her perfect cousin. That may be some comfort. As you say, it wasn't a game that the two of you started.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:23 PM on June 29, 2008

About once every few months I used to get the shock and awe attack on my self-esteem from one of the parents. Pitting my performance in this, that, or the other against whatever relative or childhood friend they could dredge up was just par for the course. The last one came at a time when I had other issues going on in life and just didn't have the force of will to deal with another damn tirade, so I finally just let go and told them exactly what I thought of their opinion. I believe my exact words at the time were, "fuck off, die and burn in hell." We have not spoken since.

For a while there was a pretty profound sense of loss and I'm not exactly endorsing this as a plan of action. But without a cheerleading section reminding me that I am the most inconsiderate, stupid, lazy and generally horrible person on Earth my ability to get things done in life has gone way way up.* Still, "Most Horrible Person on Earth" really does spice up a resume.

I'm kind of with sonic meat machine in one regard. Put some physical distance into the equation. Is there a city a few hours away that appeals to you? Do you have friends there or are you involved in any hobbies or organizations that would get you involved with other people once you got there? You have built yourself a set of coping strategies that may have worked in the short run, but in the long run you've sabotaged yourself. Break up those patterns.

If she moves into that city after you have, I'm in full agreement with sonic meat machine. Change you name, dye your hair and quietly move again.

*Note to those endorsing a doctrine of forgiveness - I'm all for it and do my very best not to carry this shit around with me. But it's kind of like my cat: I don't resent that he's an obligate carnivore. I have a limited sense of humor regarding him biting my legs and feet when I'm trying to sleep.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:40 PM on June 29, 2008

N'thing the advice to move far away from your extended family for a while and live life on your own. Independence is scary at first but you will gain confidence in yourself as you realize you can cope with various challenges. You'll mostly be too busy to brood about Perfect Cousin, since setting up a new life in a new city takes a lot of time and effort. You will also meet people who don't know your cousin and won't compare you to her, or even mention her at all.

I was struck by your mention of the competition between your mother and your aunt. You and your cousin were proxies for the rivalry of the grownups, which is a sucky thing to do to children. Walk away from that game and tell yourself you don't have to play it any more. You can be an independent, interesting, self-sufficient person in your own right and you're not your mother's pawn. The first step to emotional independence is physical independence, so find a job and an apartment far far away (or go back to graduate school, or join the Peace Corps, or whatever), and find your own two feet.

You don't have to cut off all contact with your family, but at least you won't get a daily dose of Perfect Cousin. You're an adult now and you are entitled to feel like one without somebody else's emotional baggage echoing in your head.
posted by Quietgal at 1:49 PM on June 29, 2008

Why don't you move? Is that possible?

It's like trying to heal a broken ankle while still being forced to run an obstacle course every day. It takes a long time to learn different ways of thinking and acting. But this situation hurts you and keeps you from being at your best. It probably even caused you to develop these habits; those habits are your way of adapting to the situation. If you're still in that situation, the healing will never happen. You can try to puzzle out what exactly is causing the hurt, and how to change the bad patterns, but nothing will allow you to unlearn those patterns and learn new ones better than a lot of distance.

You need to heal by being in a situation without any of this. The ways you behave in reaction to them will stop making sense in the new context, and eventually, you'll unlearn some of those patterns in your new life. You'll still fall back into the patterns when you go home, for a while. Then eventually, you'll be able to see clearly what your pattern had been with them. By then, you're starting to be a completely independent person. You might confront them angrily, or you might realize you have to cut off all contact, but most likely, you'll just learn to react differently, making yourself somewhat immune to the problems. You'll have learned emotional skills and attitudes that they don't have. And you'll be able to relate to these people in an entirely different way than you did before.
posted by salvia at 2:38 PM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Screaming really loudly can help too.
posted by Furious Fitness at 2:40 PM on June 29, 2008

You are using her as a crutch for your own actions. She cannot force you to quit your graduate program, she didnt prevent you from joining that sorority. Thats all on you, and you need to realize that the only person who is preventing you from doing these things is yourself. You are the only person who can give her power over you, remember that.

Also move away, and cut her out of your life, she deserves no part in your future success.
posted by BobbyDigital at 9:50 PM on June 29, 2008

Wow. She's really trying hard to do everything you do, instead of thinking up independent goals for herself.

Remind yourself of that when your self esteem gets low and ask yourself: if she's so great, why is she riding your coattails?
posted by Lou Stuells at 10:09 PM on June 29, 2008

I guess getting over my resentment towards her is paramount to moving on, but how? Every time I make a step forward, I start thinking about how that step should have been taken years ago, then I start thinking about why it wasn't, and there she is again, in my head, stifling my energy. I'm lost.

Dear GeniPalm, my sympathies. on preface - wow, your post got to me. Responding was like writing to a younger self. That head space is a really frustrating place to be in. But you can move on out of it, remember that. It can be done.

My 2c in 800 words: Forgive and congratulate yourself. Congratulate yourself for finally understanding that you have a toxic relationship in your life and forgive yourself for not understanding earlier. Yeah, sure, you think you should have seen through things earlier. But you couldn't because you did not understand things as you are now (see congratulations). It's totally OK. Everything takes time to mature: whiskey, butterflies, you. It's Ok. You've gained a lot, believe it or not. On this journey of discovering who you really can be, all those years of apparent powerlessness and missed opportunities can become great fodder for learning and understanding. Trust me on this.

When she is in your head, pull her out, put her on a chair, or next to you on the park seat / beach / whatever and tell her, tell her strongly about the things you are going to do in your life despite her obsessive interference. Explain to this imaginary her how you are not going to let her influence your behaviour one second more. You are stronger than her. Really. Tell her. You are changing your responses to her and there is nothing she can do to stop you.

Reading between the lines it appears that family connections are close and important to you. I imagine you worry about how to keep family approval while asserting your independence from this close family member. I think resolving this problem (and reaping the humongous rewards for doing so) will require some sacrifices. I bet you didn't want to hear that. Sorry. Yet some of us older hearts love the word sacrifice. It portends great change, growth and gain. For example:

1. Security. Change has to happen and change is inherently insecure. Do not mistake security for good sense or appropriateness. Use your brain to imagine and plan for the changes necessary to achieve what you want. Most of the change has to happen within. Be open and aware of how those changes develop and where they lead. Real security stems from the confidence that you are in control of your own your life.

2. Approval. You will need to give up your attachment to family approval. However that is not the same as giving up your family or closeness. Don't second guess your family as to what's at risk. Sometimes we get caught in thinking our family won't approve of our change. Make sure you are not assuming family reactions. Talk. Ask. If you can't then take yourself away from their influence until you can. You can't be dominated by your need for approval and have freedom. It don't work like that.

3. Peace. You will need to give up any keep-the-peace habits and argue for your right to be heard as your real strong self. Especially within yourself. Your role in your life is not as anyone's yes girl. Stand up. Stop being submissive. Learn assertiveness skills. Here's a random but respectable link from La Trobe University on learning assertiveness.

4. Fear. You are going to have to sacrifice the excuse of giving in to fear. But you don't have to give up fear itself. Courage is feeling fear, but doing it anyway. Think you have regrets now? Do nothing about this for another twenty years and then check out the size of your regrets. You'll be county champ. Sacrifice the fears you have about being true to yourself. Sacrifice your fears of maturity and change.

5. Your small world. Everyone's world is small, but somes is smaller than others. If you think everyone in your world wants things to remain the as they are in regards to you, then your world is too small. Make your world bigger. Some posters say 'move'. Maybe that’s an answer (personally I’m a fan of Richard Bach's saying There is no problem so big it can't be run away from...) Bottom line: Nothing is too big a sacrifice, be it approval, security or fear, when it comes to living a life true to yourself. Make your world bigger and you will naturally grow to fit it.

Keep your eye on the prize, GeniPalm. You can become the person you want to be despite her actions. Best of all, you don't have to consider her at all. You just have to think of yourself and what's important for you to be yourself. Accept the sacrifices it's going to cost and more importantly accept your worth and strength. You think her spirit is stronger? Well yours is as big as your imagination. Know what you want, know who you want to be, act on it, and it will become. If not now, when? Go for it.
posted by Kerasia at 1:17 AM on July 2, 2008

I know no one will probably read this as it's an old post, but I just had to come back and thank you all for the responses. I cried when I read them because reading them was so liberating! I can't emphasize how good it felt to feel free for once in seemingly forever. Just knowing I'm not alone is so comforting. I just want to thank you for your great advice. Gracias!
posted by GeniPalm at 12:26 PM on July 20, 2008

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