how can i help my sister?

I need your help to help my sister. The problem is that she is a psychologist herself – So, she thinks she knows it all and doesn’t see that she has any problems in her thinking, or how she responds to people, especially those close to her. She has had to deal with many issues growing up, including step families, being the oldest sister of three and sexual abuse. These are affecting her even now that she is in her late 40’s.

I have been the one person in her life whom has tried to make up for her emotional losses and always supported her since I can remember (from age 6 or 7 – and I am 6 years younger). I know she is aware of her problems, and we have discussed these to certain extent – but she doesn’t know what to change and how to change (i.e. practical steps), while refusing to accept she needs specialist help to do so. Her views and how she deals with issues in her life (such as discipline) has meant that her family is mostly a dysfunctional one, as every time I have seen her, they are shouting and fighting – and she is the butt of jokes to every one I know – here is a psychologist who needs help herself.

Our relationship is on egg shells all the time (in the past 20 years) as there are always a word, an action or something that brings us back to issues of contention. But I have continued to support her when ever and where ever I could. I have lent her many hundreds of pounds (even though I needed it myself), which I never get back. I have helped her practically, intellectually and emotionally. I have even turned a blind eye when I found out she had made a pass to my husband (when her marriage had broken down). In fact our relationship seems one way, where whenever I needed help – I have found her in more need than myself. But now I have got to a stage that I think that I really can’t help her – and I have realised that I am not prepared to help her or be there for her if she is not prepared to help herself. She says that I should love her unconditionally as she is – but I say though love is what she needs – and not more crutches.

I would like to ask if you would be prepared to visit her (similar to your program Stepfamilies), but privately, as I believe this is the only way that she and her family can see what they are doing and really get out of their habits that is ruining their lives and those close to them.

Cost is an issue, but I am prepared to borrow, as this is seriously the last thing I am going to do for her.

I’m going to have to say no to your suggestion about being the one to help your sister, for several reasons. One is practicality and cost; I could really only work in the way I did on the Stepfamilies programme with a tv company behind me. I spent something like 30 hours in a very short, very intense period, with each family – a long weekend to begin with, another a fortnight later, and then a day to finish a fortnight after that (in some families I also had an extra day somewhere during the process). We’re talking travel costs, B&B costs as well as my own time. And the issue is for it to work in such a short and overwhelming period, everyone in the family has to be on board. If you saw the fourth programme in the series you would have seen what happens if one key person simply doesn’t want to know; ie bugger all!

Your sister could well get help from someone local to her, and if her partner were the one to ask for help initially, the fact that she was reluctant at first would be less important. I’ve seen many families where one person resisted but as the others worked and made changes, the reluctant one got drawn in.

It’s really interesting that you say your sister is a psychologist herself and so doesn’t think she has any problems. When I did my training, it was a running joke that most of us took our new found skills and ideas home and practised them on our own families and either came back energised, or came back in tatters! In a sense, you have two choices when you get involved in such a profession; you walk the talk and take the consequences, or you separate work and personal life and refuse to see the join. Me – I took the stuff home and while it caused mayhem at first, it made me and my family immeasurably better.

But I had to learn a few things about how you use such insight and experience and number one is never offering it to people who don’t want it. And you take responsibility for yourself, but not for others; that’s their business.

I can’t comment on your sister and her family, your sister and her professional skills, your sister and her own needs. I can comment on your responsibilities and needs and boundaries. Like all siblings, you have grown up with a flexible idea of the boundary between you – and I note, boundaries and their being broken would have been a big issue in your family. She is older than you but you seem to feel you should look after her, or are beholden to her. Because she took the brunt of the abuse and protected you and you feel, or were told by her, you owe her?

She probably went into her profession looking for the healing and control she needed as a result of her childhood experiences. Maybe she found it, maybe she didn’t. But in a sense, you have always given her a reason NOT to look for a new relationship with you because you have always taken the position of the one to take control, take the responsibility between you. Lending her money and not getting it back is very kind. It’s also very controlling and very disenabling – she has no incentive to grow up and take the reins herself from you because you endlessly give her the opportunity not to need to.

You may feel she needs counselling herself. I may agree. But unless she agrees, nothing is going to happen. But as long as you function as her safety net, she never needs to. My advice would be to tell her you love her unconditionally, but that you are going to stop supporting her unconditionally – and thus actually holding her back in holding her up. No more money, no more support except to say “Seek professional help.” As I said, sensible counsellors walk the talk – we’re not afraid to say when we need support and seek it and we don’t see needing outside support a reflection on our skills. On the contrary, it’s an assertion of the need and the value of such help. I have, I do.

One last thing you can do for her is buy her my book Stepfamilies – surviving and thriving in a new family (pub Simon and Schuster – see the books page on this site). Give it to her saying you feel it might help…and then leave her alone except for giving her sisterly love and sisterly company. You’re not her therapist, not her mother, not her partner so stop functioning as one. Once you let go, she may take up the torch and start doing something for herself. Good luck!

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