Updated: Jan 20, 2022
By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on October 4, 2020
By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.
Q: I’m trying to prepare ahead for the annual family reunion we’ll be having at our cottage home this coming summer. I anticipate lots of fun hiking and cooking together. Here comes the ‘but’. My one sister, Alma, (name changed) is exhausting to be around. No matter what we plan, or even if we include her in the decision-making process she will find many problems. She finds fault with everything. Here are some ‘excerpts’ from past Alma-encounters. “This cake is not nearly as tasty as it was last year.” “That walk was fun but I just hope we don’t have bush ticks crawling around in our hair.”
My brother reminds me that Alma has always been a ‘glass half-empty’ type of person. He just shrugs it off and seemingly turns a deaf ear. I know my stomach will get into knots and I’ll want to bop her on the side of the head before the visit ends. What can I do to get her to change so I can enjoy our family reunion and not just endure the time spent with Alma? – Ellie
A: You can wish your sister to be different all day long and even into next century, but the only thing that you can be sure will change is you. And it won’t be in a good way, because the more time you spend stressing about her behaviour, the more anxious and unhappy you will likely become.
Ellie, you have no power to change your sister. You may be able to ‘influence’ her, but you cannot change her. What you are succeeding in doing, however, is giving your displeasure more power over you by resisting reality. The truth is, Alma is who she is and no amount of wishing otherwise, or worrying and thinking negatively about your sister’s behaviour will change this fact.
If you can consider the possibility of being okay with imperfect portions of your time with her, I believe you will find some of the stress that results in your inner chaos dissipating. Instead of planning a perfect scenario, look for and focus on the positives your sister brings. I’m not suggesting this so as to minimise the hurt you experience from perceived thoughtlessness of her comments. Rather, I want to ensure that you’re not giving your power away when these situations occur.
I realise this is easier said than done. A process commonly referred to as reframing can help change your perspective about what you think and feel about Alma. When reframing, the facts are the same, but you change the meaning of these facts, which enables you to feel differently about them. Following are a few suggestions on how to use reframing to your benefit.
1. Look for the good in Alma. Write down the positive things she says and does and keep the list close at hand. When you’re finding your tolerance level dropping with Alma you can take out the list and review it.
2. Remove labels. Labeling Alma as ‘glass half-full’ can be damaging to your relationship. She’s much more complex than just the negative statements she makes. By being less judgmental you won’t risk bringing negative energy to the family gathering and you will be less likely to spend so much time focusing on behaviours that irritate you.
3. Stop catastrophising. Consider, in the big scheme, the relative importance of some of her negative comments. Ask yourself if her comments are really creating a problem.
4. Keep a big fat rubber band loosely around your wrist. When you get annoyed at her comments, snap that rubber band – hard but don’t sustain injury. Remind yourself that you are the one hurting yourself with the rubber band, and you are also the one hurting yourself with your anger towards Alma.
5. Change the end of your sentences. Say what you want to say in your internal dialogue, but balance the negative dialogue with positive statements. For example: “I don’t like it when Alma criticises my chicken as being overcooked. But I also know that she cares about me, and that is her way of helping improve my cooking skills.”
6. Think about how your sister might feel when receiving negative comments or looks from you. How might your feelings bring about negative energy to the family gatherings? Creating compassion for your sister and other family members can result in a reduction of you being judgmental.
7. Laugh. Instead of getting upset when Alma makes negative comments, laugh. You may find your tension lessening rather than getting ratcheted up.
Hopefully choosing to reframe your thinking will help reshape your view and expectations of yourself and your sister. Remember that none of us are perfect. Not you. Not me. Not your sister. On the flip side, perhaps there are some behaviours, thoughts and feelings of yours that annoy her from time to time and can be modified?
A benefit from doing this work may be discovering that you don’t need to have a perfect family gathering after all; that it is common for a group of people who are together to have moments of tension. Your group is unique and at times can be more challenging because it is comprised of family members.
Emotional baggage from childhood is often carried years, even decades later into adulthood, and can be re-enacted again and again at family gatherings. Is it possible that the underlying reason your sisters’ behavior irks you is because it stems from an unresolved childhood experience? If this idea resonates with you, then it can provide you with an opportunity to examine it and let it go.
And finally, remember that your sister came, at least in part, because she wants to be with you. Cherish that. I believe that in doing so you’ll be able to focus on the happy moments of your family reunion rather than focusing on perceived shortcomings. And here’s a little secret: when you stop worrying about trying to control your sister, you’ll feel a lot more in control.
Wishing you well,
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