So far in this series on toxic relationships, I created 10 questions designed to help you identify if you are in a toxic relationship in addition to effective communication tools as well as 5 steps to dealing with toxic relationships. Today's post will take a deep dive into how to set boundaries in difficult relationships with family members through Christine's story.
Christine came for counseling due to anxiety and feeling stuck because of a challenging relationship with her younger sister, Sarah. She had two sisters and was very close with her other sister, Mary, whom she considered a best friend. After spending time with Sarah, she would feel drained and emotionally exhausted, but she could not put her finger on why. Our sessions helped her understand that her anxiety was a symptom that was masking her real emotion of anger toward Sarah.
She felt guilty for preferring spending time with Mary over Sarah. Christine hesitantly admitted, “I leave my time with Sarah feeling hurt and confused. I just don’t enjoy her company.” She felt trapped because she believed she had to make the sacrifice and spend quality one-on-one time with Sarah as she did with Mary. This is because Sarah would constantly compare the two relationships and say, “Why do you always answer Mary’s calls and not mine?” “You text Mary more than you do me.” “You have not invited me over to your place in a while, but Mary was there last week.” “Why do you tell Mary things about your life and not me?”
Out of guilt, Christine would make excuses because she knew Sarah was right, but she did not know how to handle it honestly without hurting Sarah’s feelings. Even in our session, Christine was taking responsibility for Sarah’s emotions at the expense of feeling her own.
Sarah had recently lashed out at Christine for spending time with Mary. When Christine responded by sharing her feelings in a respectful way, Sarah ignored her feelings completely and lashed out again saying, "It hurts me that you would say that." "You don't care about me or you wouldn't feel that way."
It was then that Christine realized Sarah was not a safe person; she only cared about her own feelings, and this was a long-standing pattern. Christine felt a tinge of anger.
Due to their woundedness, difficult people filter interactions with you through a lens of rejection. They are extremely defensive and operate from a position of shame, usually from earlier wounds that have nothing to do with you, so they can go on the attack and do not take responsibility for themselves.
They twist the truth and avoid dealing with facts and become accusatory, critical, or irrationally emotional when you point it out.
If Sarah wanted to initiate a conversation with Christine and say something like, “I notice that we are not as close as I hoped we could be, and I would really like to understand why our relationship is not as close as the one you have with Mary,” Christine might feel safe enough to be honest and explain her experience in a loving way so they could begin to make amends. However, Sarah made comparisons and sly, critical remarks to get her emotions across without caring about Christine’s feelings.
Sarah preferred to blame Christine instead of take responsibility to examine her own behavior and how she might be contributing to the breakdown of the relationship. Sarah adopted a victim mentality.
Recognize that people who do not respect your boundaries do not want to understand them and therefore cannot honor them.
Be strong. Stand your ground, no matter what reaction you receive or how selfish and guilty you might feel.
Christine felt confused because she understood Sarah’s feelings of rejection and said to me, “I feel guilty because I know she just wants to spend more time together. Shouldn’t I just make the sacrifice? She is my sister, after all.”
Christine made plenty of sacrifices over the years, and it was never good enough for Sarah. Her extended family was also quite close and would get together often. Christine was making sacrifices such as spending time with Sarah at family gatherings, showing an interest in her life, and occasionally inviting her to group activities such as brunch. But Christine could not see that.
It is important not to sacrifice your time for someone if there is no trust, no mutual respect, no reciprocation, or no compassion for your feelings. Honor your emotion of anger to motivate you to set a boundary, use your voice effectively, be honest, and take care of yourself. The other person is most likely not lying awake at night thinking about you, considering your feelings, or experiencing inner turmoil over how to communicate with you. Ask yourself: Does this person genuinely want to do the necessary work to change? Or do they want all the benefits of a one-sided relationship?
Prior to counseling, Christine was not using her voice or setting the appropriate boundaries. She was making excuses, trying to protect Sarah's feelings, and carrying the emotional responsibility for the relationship and called it "sacrifice" when the reality was that she was not honoring her own needs and feelings in the relationship with her sister.
The relationship proved to be hurtful and exhausting; it was always about Sarah’s needs and Sarah’s feelings.
Christine was turning her anger back on herself by believing she was selfish rather than giving herself permission to be angry with Sarah. She never once considered her hurt feelings. “Do you think Sarah is spending the time and money in counseling concerned with your feelings the way you are with hers?” I asked Christine.
“Absolutely not,” she replied. “She would never do that because she only thinks about herself.”
I said, “So it sounds like you are saying Sarah does not take your feelings into consideration, and she operates from a place of self-pity and criticism when she talks to you?”
Christine was able to see how her anxiety and feeling of being trapped in the relationship were masking her anger. It took her some time to allow herself to feel the anger toward Sarah because she was protecting Sarah’s feelings even in our counseling session.
We did a role-play scenario in which I was Sarah. “Well, you just prefer Mary over me,” I said and then asked Christine, “What would you want to say back to Sarah honestly, without fearing her response?” Christine said confidently, “Yes, there is truth to that because you have broken my trust many times and have never sincerely apologized. I also don’t feel safe to share my feelings with you because you shut me down. Therefore, our relationship is not mutual since you dump all your feelings on me and do not give me the same respect.”
Christine felt freedom and relief acknowledging the truth that her relationships with her sisters were not at all the same. She felt newfound permission to pursue her relationship with her other sister, Mary, free of guilt and without taking responsibility for Sarah’s reaction and feelings.
At a deeper level, she realized her thoughts about Sarah were stealing the joy from her beautiful relationship with Mary. She also was drained from having to continually make excuses and hide her plans with Mary. Christine chose to spend time with Sarah solely during family functions and holidays because the relationship was not one of mutual respect and she could not trust Sarah with her heart. Furthermore, she followed her instincts about who she wanted to have a deep, meaningful relationship with and she no longer felt guilty or selfish for not pursuing relationships in which she felt hurt, used, or misunderstood.
If you need help navigating through a difficult, painful relationship and need help setting boundaries, then I invite you to apply to work with Andrea one-on-one now.
**The content for this blog post has been taken from chapter 2 (Stuck in Cuckoo Land) of Andrea’s book, The Cuckoo Syndrome: The Secret to Breaking Free from Unhealthy Relationships, Toxic Thinking, and Self-Sabotaging Behavior
**Christine' story is a fictional composite based on the author's clinical experience with hundreds of clients through the years. All names are invented, and any resemblance between fictional characters and actual persons is coincidental.
The photo accompanying this article was sourced from istock and is in the public domain.