My sister is an overbearing know-it-all

I feel so small when she's around

By Cary Tennis

Published April 18, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My sister -- I'll call her Natalie -- is leaving tomorrow and I'm ashamed to say that I'm relieved. I was so looking forward to her visit but after living with her for one week, I find myself exhausted and feeling beat down. She knows something about everything. Name it -- Greek mythology, health, medicine, American history, archaeology -- it doesn't matter, she's an expert. If I make an observation or convey a tidbit of information, I'm either corrected if I'm wrong, or am immediately given additional information on the subject. If I do know something that she doesn't, she immediately changes the subject or challenges me. When I'm with her, I feel like I'm in a sparring match.

When we have a family get-together, everyone invariably looks to her for answers to political questions, health problems, tax information or whatever. On one such occasion, Natalie was talking with authority about a city that she'd never been to. I announced that I had been there four times, but no one seemed to care. She continued to be barraged with questions about the town, and I received not one. It left me seething and feeling like a child.

Natalie is a breast cancer survivor and has had poor health for most of her adult life. She turned to religion for strength and has become a member of a wonderful and supportive church. While I'm proud of her, she's now become the expert on Christianity with an air of arrogance about it. A favorite subject of hers is how important she's become to friends and relatives that have illnesses and she doesn't hesitate to tell me all that she's done for them and how her faith and spirituality helps them. Whenever I say something about illness, she quickly lets me know that since I haven't been through it, I couldn't possibly know what she's learned. When I talked about a friend who recently lost his wife and mentioned that he seems to be doing OK, she proceeded to let me know what he was going through and how, because I'm a mere underling, I couldn't possibly know what he's going through, even though she's never met the man. When I talk about my beliefs, she must point out that I, too, might become a born-again Christian if only I went through what she's gone through (never mind that I have a son with autism, my husband left me with two young children for another woman, and I have no relatives near me to help).

I love my sister deeply and have a lot of respect and admiration for her. She can be very generous, caring and kind. But I can't stand being around her and I don't know how to handle my feelings of inadequacy when I'm with her. I live a thousand miles away from her and the rest of my family and I am very lonely for them, but I feel invisible when she's around. My parents are getting older and I so desperately want to be there for them, but I already can see that she will take over and prove more competent, compassionate and necessary than I ever will. I'm not sure what to say when she takes over a conversation and I don't know how to deal with these feelings of inadequacy.

Thanks From the Insignificant Sibling

Dear Insignificant Sibling,

I've had this hunger for recognition that you describe. The only way I've been able to live with it is to finally recognize that it is an old, old hunger that can never be satisfied by anyone, not in the present, not ever, not even by a lover, not even by a god, and certainly not by a sibling.

The only thing to do is to sit with the hunger. Sit with the hunger and let it gnaw and scream and cry until it settles down, or until it gets what it needs from you.

But that's OK. This thing you think you need -- this attention from someone, this respect, this whatever it is that you want so much from your sister -- you don't really need it.

You're just in the habit of thinking you need it.

Your sister is the one with the problem. It's a problem you can't do anything about. Her hunger is so much deeper and all-encompassing than yours. All you can do is regard her with hard-won compassion, and try to get out of the room.

And then turn to getting your own needs met. Your own needs are considerable. You are lonely. You have been hurt. Your family is no help. They don't see you. They can't help you. So do not turn to them for help. Instead, seek out good friends among your peers. Spend time with people who are not overbearing know-it-alls.

It's too bad, really, because people such as your sister not only are not so interesting in themselves, but they drown out other voices we'd like to hear. But to fight for the floor is pointless. In your family, your role has already been decided. They can't hear you. You can't change that. If you want an audience, join Toastmasters. Seriously. If you want an audience, blog on Open Salon.

Just remember: The need, or the hunger, behind this wish for a warm relationship with your sister is something deeper and more primal, something only you can satisfy, by taking care of yourself.

Yes, there's that promise of family togetherness, isn't there? There's that hope that it will be warm and cozy and safe. But it won't be. Your family is fixed the way it is. This is how it's going to go. You're not going to change anything. So take care of yourself.

Oh, and better yet: Be prepared for the ultimate insult when you try to take care of your parents and are first rebuffed and later blamed for not taking enough care of them. Expect it.

Think about your sister. She is a breast cancer survivor. She has been in poor health all her life. This is no picnic for her. And yet there's nothing you can do to console her. You may wish you could break through to her. That would be normal to think of, to think how great it would be to have an honest conversation in which she lets down her defenses and tells you of her despair and her fear, how she trembles in the night.

But that is not going to happen.

The way to handle your feelings of inadequacy when you are with her is to handle them when you are not with her. Get to know these feelings of inadequacy better. They may arise from your relationship with your sister but they are yours.

Many people have these sibling relationships. We are tempted to say, Well, I just want my sister to listen to me and show some respect and have some self-restraint. Really? What is it that you really want? Isn't there a voice in you that is asking for something else, something that does not concern your sister at all? What is that little voice of need saying? Let it speak to you. Try to hear what that voice is saying.

Keep in mind this is not the voice you think of as your voice. This is the voice below the surface. This is the voice that wants something from your sister, or from you. What I suggest you do is let this voice address you, instead. Tell it, "I'm here. Whatever you want, you can ask me. Don't ask sister. She'll never give it. Ask me. I'll get it for you."

Then let this voice ask you for what it wants. Maybe it just wants to lie down for a nap. Maybe it wants to tell a story. Let it talk. Listen to it with compassion and interest.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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