Advice Column: Stressed out Sister

Dear Hailey,

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to give advice, when it’s asked for, to my friends and family. I enjoy helping my loved ones out when they’re having issues. The problem is that my sister comes to me several times per week for hours long sessions that exhaust me. I love my sister and want to help her but I always end up feeling drained after consoling and advising her. 

A little backstory, I am the middle child of 3. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I am 5 years older than my sister and as a child, she was often in my care. Our parents are divorced and we were raised in the 80s when it was “normal” for the older female child to care for the younger sibling. I am like a second mother to my sister even though I was 5 when she was born. Now, I am married and child-free and my sister is newly divorced with a 4 year old daughter. 

She was in a mentally and sometimes physically abusive relationship and we are all very proud of her for leaving the situation but she is a mess. She comes to me for advice and when I give it to her, she argues with me or makes excuses why she can’t do this or that. She often just repeats how hard it is to get divorced or she’ll be focused on what her ex is doing or whom he’s seeing etc. I have noticed that my niece appears to be unhappy and her teachers have said the same thing. I’ve tried to convince my sister to not speak ill of my niece’s father around her because I think she may be internalizing their conflict but my sister just wants to complain about how her life is not what she wanted.

She’s resentful of her ex husband because she wanted more children and never wanted to be divorced and he “ruined her life”. I tell her that he gave her a beautiful gift of a wonderful daughter but she just wants to be angry and bitter. I get it, being angry and resentful for a time but she filed for divorce 15 months ago and it was finalized 7 months ago, at that time, her ex finally moved out of the house. 

I don’t mind being there for her during this difficult time but it’s not just every now and then that she has bad days. She has them many times per week, sometimes per day. She’s coming to me almost daily to console and advise her and it’s taking it’s toll on me. When I’m at the end of my rope, I’ll usually send a text to my brother that he needs to deal with her and he will take over for me for that day at least but she comes right back to me. I don’t want to tell her that she is a burden to me because I don’t want her to feel bad but I can’t keep going on like this.

She has a therapist she sees every other week. I’ve tried to tell her she needs to up that until she can process her emotions better but she just makes excuses. How can I put up boundaries with a person who I have a complicated but loving relationship with without hurting her or pushing her over the edge?

Thank you. 

Sincerely,

A Stressed out Sister

Dear Stressed out Sister,

Identifying that boundaries are what you need in this difficult situation is an important first step, and you have already recognized that. That is a very self-aware and informed decision.

You have already stated that you don’t mind talking to her, but it’s the frequency of her venting/sister counseling sessions that is causing you this level of distress. Totally fair. Middle children often play the “peace maker” role and are uncomfortable with telling people they care about that they can’t help as much as expected. That coupled with the complex history of your childhood add more layers to grapple with when setting boundaries.

Your recommendation that she should consider increasing her therapy sessions per week is spot on. The fact is, therapists are a neutral third party who not only have the skills to effectively help people through a variety of concerns; but because they don’t have the same level of care and connection as people in their personal circle they can provide treatment without causing themselves distress.

As a therapist myself, it’s phenomenally easier (and frankly more effective) in an official therapy setting with a client that I strictly meet with in that setting, than with a friend or family member to address concerns and make progress. 

This is because I love my family, and I don’t love my clients. I care about each and every one of them, and want to see them succeed, but it is certainly not the same level of connection, concern, or stress. That separation (and boundaries) in therapy is what allows the therapeutic process to work as well as it does. 

As far as how to set the boundaries in a gentle but firm way: I would recommend something along the lines of, “I love you so much. I know this has been a really hard time for you. I am so proud of you for leaving that situation. However, I’m starting to get overwhelmed, and it’s becoming too much for me. I’m not sharing this to make you feel guilty, this is simply what I need. If we could limit these venting sessions to 2 times per week, I’d love to talk to you more often than that about other things. I think it could be really helpful for you to meet with your therapist more often about those concerns as well”. It’s up to you if you want to address the fact that she asks for your advice and then doesn’t follow it. 

The important elements to this conversation are:

1.Express your love for her.

2. Validate her difficult situation.

3. Share the toll this has taken on you.

4. State what your limits are, and be as specific as possible.

5. (Optional) Offer alternate solutions. 

It’s important to remember that after setting this boundary you may need to remind her. That is ok, and also perfectly normal. If this happens, she may have forgotten, or she could also be testing the waters to see how serious you were about this boundary. In my opinion, maintaining a boundary is even more crucial to the overall success of a new boundary than the initial establishment. She may also express some anger or hurt towards you, but this will be temporary so to be sure to hold your ground.

After you have done this, it’s normal to feel some guilt. Recognize this, sit with this for a moment, and then remind yourself that you did nothing wrong. You did what you needed to maintain your mental health, it’s not mean or insensitive. Your sister is lucky to have you, and you might even inspire her to set healthy boundaries in her own life. You’ve got this.

I wish you luck,

Hailey

Posted in Q&A

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