Sat. Sep 18th, 2021

My childhood was overall a very happy one, and I adore my parents and get along very well with my younger siblings. However, my older (half) sister has been diagnosed with a number of mental health conditions.

In my early childhood, it felt as if most of my sister’s rages were directed at our mother, and sometimes our father (her adoptive dad). But as I got older, I became the target. My sister has always felt a sense of persecution, often bordering on paranoia, and she would often overreact.

These reactions have persisted into adulthood; they’re still shocking, but I expect and dread them. I am sure that I gave as good as I got when I was a teenager, but we are adults now. I wouldn’t tolerate this kind of hostility in any other part of my life, and for the most part I don’t with her, either. Perhaps this is what causes the friction?

Though there are moments of calm when the family is together, they require me (and often our mum) to walk on eggshells; if anything is said, she says it is a personal attack against her. It is exhausting. In some ways, it is my family’s behaviour that I resent more than my sister’s. There is almost always silence after one of her outbursts, maybe murmurs of how she is “not well”, or suggestions that I am the one at fault.

I hate it, and got as far away as possible as soon as I was old enough. We are now moving back to be close to my family and sister, and I cannot live like that again. What should I do?

I’ve edited out the specifics of your letter, but your sister did, and still does, use highly emotionally manipulative language, and I can see why you feel held hostage to her moods. However, whether this is because of her mental health issues or her personality isn’t clear. You don’t mention how official her diagnoses were, and I’m sorry that none of you were given better tools to deal with this.

You appear to have all behaved and interacted in a similar way for years, but it seems only you want it to change. Given that you can’t control the way the others react, maybe you could look at your place in this anew? I consulted family psychotherapist Joanne Hipplewith for help.

In your longer letter, you gave examples of interactions between you and your sister that ended badly. You mentioned a time when she wanted to give you a lift and you, instead, wanted to walk. Hipplewith wondered if you could look at that as maybe your sister wanting to spend time with you, but expressing it badly? If that were the case, you see how your rejection of her offer (albeit for valid reasons) would seem like a snub to her. We wondered how differently you’d feel if you imagined the subtexts of her outbursts to be about her wanting to be accepted by you. Could you find a way to respond less to the words spoken, more to the meaning behind them?

There does seem to be animosity from you towards her, and I wonder how much she notices this. Maybe you are justified, but at the heart of this may be a feeling of rejection (hers) and disdain (yours). I wonder what it was like for your sister being the only “half” sister in the family; maybe she feels less accepted, and perhaps your mother’s behaviour, which you see as indulgent, tried to redress that.

“You seem to be taking a very binary view,” Hipplewith says. “Your overall position seems to be that your sister is wrong, and the way the rest of the family is responding is wrong, but the way you are, is right.” Maybe, Hipplewith suggests, the family responds to your sister that way for a reason and it works for them, if not you? “How helpful is it,” she asks, “to always be right and not question your own position?”

I got the feeling that you might perceive being more indulgent towards your sister as giving in to her, or giving her power. Hipplewith says that often the need for power goes with vulnerability, as “a way of protecting ourselves”.

Given you have come to expect your sister’s responses, is there some way you could think about them retrospectively, and consider how you might have responded, and in future, respond differently? What would happen if you didn’t respond to every outburst and simply observed? Your family situation doesn’t sound easy, and you should not have to put up with abuse from your sister, but changing your response may open up a chance to allow her to respond differently to you.

• Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions

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