A Pit in my Gut about Turkey Day!” -How to Cope with your Challenging Sibling Relationship over Thanksgiving.







It’s November, and Thanksgiving is just around the corner.  Are you ready?

Hopefully, you have some gatherings or events that you can look forward to:  Seeing family or friends, preparing for a big feast, or maybe a simple day spent at home. Maybe you are on call at work, and you are planning around that.

Whatever your situation, this holiday can also trigger all sort of intense situations and feelings. Even beyond the extra planning and extra work of food and home prep, there is the people stress. It seems we all have at least the one person in our life that we love, or is attached to someone we love, who will be coming. Or wants to come.  And can be really difficult to be around for too long. And we are trying to figure out how we can have them over and still stay sane during Thanksgiving and the weekend. Do you have a pit in your gut when you think about seeing them on Turkey Day?

Maybe it’s your adult sister, Jules.  You’re not that close to her for any number of reasons, and normally, this is ok because she lives far away and you don’t see each other all that often.  But, suddenly, you learn that she will be in town, and your parents want her to come over.  You are torn:  She’s your relative, and our families, everyone, it seems, tells you that you are sisters, so you should be grateful to have each other and make an effort. Because Thanksgiving is about being thankful!   You get that.  Of course, gratitude in life is important.  But when it comes to this sister and you, it’s not just not that easy.  You have probably had a challenging sibling relationship for a long time, now.  It seems to you that she just sucks all the air and attention out of the room with her issues, her stories, her emotions. And you end up feeling put upon and resentful.

You may not even want to talk about it, because other people give you pat answers, like “well, just ignore them”, “it’s just one weekend”, or “you don’t have to get hooked into an argument”. It would be great if that sort of advice made things better, right? But you can’t just wave a wand and change your feelings.

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re lucky, you have friends and family that care about you and that you do want to spend time with. So if it helps, by all means, set up time now to hang out with them and talk about this or anything else that feels supportive.

But if you have a challenging sibling relationship, you may feel you need more.  This is where it helps to talk to someone who has empathy AND training.   Sibling issues can feel especially sticky, don’t they?   If you have issues with your sibling, sometimes you can only discuss so much with your mutual parent or siblings. They have their own relationship with this relative, after all, and their own strong feelings about them, so in talking to them, you are aware of what to say (or not) because of how how they feel or react.   With effective therapy, that’s not an issue. You can pretty much lay everything out on the table and work through it.  Even a few sessions of therapy can help you sort through what you want and need in dealing with this complicated relationship, and in what led to it being complicated, either since childhood, or over time.  Maybe there was trauma involved:  A betrayal of trust between you, bullying, or feeling the effects of how your parents may have treated you, the effects of which can still linger.  If this feels like the case, seriously consider working this through in therapy.  Because even if you don’t see this sibling, you may still be carrying the emotional baggage around, and it rears its head in your life when you don’t expect it to.  Therapy can help you work through these issues and help you see what’s going on, and make some changes that feel helpful in dealing with your sibling.

But in the meantime, Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away, and here comes your sister Jules!  So here are things to keep in mind till then.

Be honest with yourself.  Do you really WANT to see this sibling?  Maybe not.  That’s an ok thing to feel.   You don’t have to share this with anyone until you are ready to do so, but allow yourself to the space to feel it.

 Or maybe you would want to see them sometimes, just not at this big holiday gathering, where there is enough intensity going on already.  I think we need to dispel the myth that everyone needs to be together specifically during the holidays.  If that happens for your family, and folks enjoy that and are able to do it, great!  But it may not work for you, and if that’s the case, it doesn’t mean you or your relationships don’t measure up.  There’s more than one way to do a Holiday.

So on that note, it helps to be open to other options that will help YOU feel more calm and relaxed.

First and foremost, remember that you cannot control someone else:  Not Jules, not your parent, not your spouse or kids.  You can only manage your own behaviors and responses. 

So start with yourself, and make a list. Before the event, get a notebook (or start a folder on your iPhone/android, computer, etc., and jot down the following:

  1. Five things I am thankful for.  (Yes, this does help you feel empowered.)
  2. Five people, groups, or interests that are my biggest supports.
  3. Five of my great qualities. (I am creative, good at math, good cook, caring, etc.)
  4. Five cool things about sister Jules. (This might be tough, but it will help you see them as a whole person instead of “all bad.”)
  5. Five things I wish I could say to her about what is hard or hurtful about this relationship.
  6. Five things I would like to have more of when we interact. (Instead of “I want no yelling”, think, “I’d like more of talking calmly.”)

You can add or subtract items in each list as they occur to you.  This list can be a great compass in helping decide how you want to spend Thanksgiving, and in fact, your relationship with Jules going forward. 

Delegate:  I am a big proponent of delegating tasks. This can mean anything from ordering a prepared Thanksgiving meal, to asking another friend or relative for help. Is there a supportive friend or relative who can distract Jules during the time she is there, maybe by taking her out for a walk or engaging her interest? That can help, too.

Set some limits for yourself, too. What energizes you, and how can you build that in to the Holiday?  Maybe it’s alone time:  Block out time to go for a long walk or watch a fun movie over the weekend, or on Thanksgiving.  If you are feeling triggered around sister Jules, building in some good breaks for yourself during her time there will help you relax.  It would be healthy for you to do this.

 What is it you want to get from having Jules coming over?  Maybe you just don’t want to upset the other people coming.  Your parents really want to see sister Jules, and you don’t want to upset them by saying she can’t come.  Is this a typical pattern in your family relationships? You play “good child”, while helping to manage the “challenging one”?  This can be about your personalities, but how much of this is due to your parents’ expectations of both of you? Most important:  How is it helping you or your adult relationships to keep doing what has been expected of you since childhood? This book will also help you see how this happens, and how to make effective changes for yourself.

 Think about what you are willing to confront, even gently?  Do you feel bullied, manipulated, or super anxious in their presence?  If so, this relationship definitely needs changing.  If a conversation starts getting heated,  just saying “I prefer to discuss something else”, can be powerful. If the other person insists, you can say, “well, I already said what I’m willing to discuss, and the answer hasn’t changed”.  If it keeps going, you can calmly excuse yourself for a walk. That, in and of itself, is a powerful change.   They may tease, criticize or cajole, but maybe this is how it’s always been with this person, or maybe even your family. You can still go for that walk, even if they do this.    And that’s change.   And here is a great book to help you hone those skills and stay calm and focused: The Dialectic Behavior Skills Workbook.

And as you are ready, do think about talking to someone who can listen and help. If any of this hit home with you, chances are that you have been wanting to work through this for a while. You will know when you are ready to look at this more.  At that point, contact me or someone with whom you are ready to do some good therapy.

In the meantime, all the best to you for a meaningful Thanksgiving, no matter what happens with your sibling!

Finding a therapist

Finding a good therapist

How do you find a good therapist?

Most people don’t know, if they’ve never been to see one. 

And even if you have, you might be in a different place in your life right now, with different issues, than the last time you were in therapy.

So how do you decide? Here is a brief guideline to figure it out.


What problem to do want to work on?

Let’s start with you. What is the main issue that you want to find a good therapist to help you with?

Are you going through a difficult life issue right now?   A rough patch in your relationship/s?

What is the main thing causing you stress? Your job, your significant other, an elderly parent or child with health needs, and you are the main caregiver/helper to this person?

One way to narrow it down is to figure out what you DON’T want.  Are you up to your ears with people giving you advice and problem-solving?  Do you just want an outside person to lend an ear to what you are going through, especially at the start? Then you probably don’t want a person who comes off as pushy or giving you yet more recommendations before hearing you out. 

Or is it the opposite? You need to make decisions, you are very anxious about something, and you really could use an objective party to listen and help you lay out your options.  In that case, you might want someone directive.

But it’s hard to figure out someone’s personality and treatment approach before you’ve even met them.  That’s where it can help to talk to people that you know have done counseling already and find out who they have seen. If it is for a similar issue, that might be a good person for you, too.  (Keep in mind some boundaries here, though. You might want to avoid seeing the same therapist that your mom, brother, or close friend has seen, especially if you are having issues with that person.) 

Having said that, another good place to look is on therapy directories online, such as Psychology Today.  You can look at the professional profiles of many therapists, as well as what insurance they take (if any), where they practice, and what is their area of interest and expertise.  This will save you a lot of legwork in trying to find someone who fits your needs.  It might be good to jot down the names of three therapists you found this way, and call them to set up an appointment with each of them, before deciding on the one for you.

Expectation management:

Keep in mind one thing:  No matter what, a therapist is there to listen to your situation and help you come to decisions that work for you.   But they will not make the decision for you. At least, they are not supposed to.  That will be up to you.

 50 warning signs of bad therapy shows a pretty complete list of what to look for and what to avoid in a therapist.  And so does 25 signs of a bad therapist: You deserve better.

Even with this, keep in mind that what works for someone else may not work for you, and vice-versa.  It doesn’t mean that one of you is right or wrong, just that you are individuals with your own needs and likes.

Another thing:  I once had a client who was looking for a marriage counselor for himself and his wife.  He had a history of substance abuse (now clean), and was having intimacy issues, along with trauma, which he was actively treating with an individual therapist.  So I referred him to an excellent therapist who works with intimacy issues.

He didn’t want to see this person because he wanted someone well-versed in couples work and sexuality, but also someone who worked with trauma and substance abuse.  I don’t think he was aware of it, but this was a pretty tall order. 

It’s understandable that you would want someone good at what they do, and it’s good to do your homework and find out if this person is well-respected and has experience in your issue. But if you find that you are passing up every therapist you come across, it could mean that, at some level, you are afraid that your problem will not be understood or handled well.

Think of looking for a doctor.  The more specialized they are, the fewer specialties you can demand of them. So if you want a cardiologist, you can narrow down what KIND of cardiology they do (adult/child, surgical/non-surgical). But it is unlikely that you will find a cardiologist who is also an orthopedist and a gastro-enterologist.  Likewise, you might find a therapist who works with teens on anxiety and does substance abuse, but they might not have too many other specialties than that.

That’s ok.  The main thing you want to focus on is, what is the BIGGEST issue for you right now?  If it is your relationship with your spouse, and you both want to see a marriage counselor, then that is the top “specialty” you need:  Someone who specializes in, and likes to do, couples’ work.   

If the next pressing issue is that one of you has trouble focusing, and that impacts your relationship, then that person may need to get screened individually, by a doctor and by an individual therapist, for any underlying conditions, like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder 

(ADHD).  Once you have a diagnosis, they can get individual treatment for the ADHD, and then the two of you can do couples’ work around communication with someone who has some familiarity with ADHD, too, and its impact on relationships.


It isn’t always about their degree, but their passion.

Nowadays, a therapist should have at least a Master’s Level Degree in Counseling, Social Work, or Marriage and Family Therapy. Sometimes they will have a Doctorate (PhD, DSW, or PsyD), which are all varying levels of expertise.  Someone with a Doctorate is often able to do or has done research in their area of expertise. They can also provide extensive diagnostic testing, which a Master’s level therapist usually is not trained to do, for example. That’s important if you need your child tested for school accommodations, but maybe not so much if you are looking for talk therapy.  And definitely, any mental health professional you see should have a current, active license to practice in the state where you are seeing them.

Beyond that, you’d want someone who has an interest in your particular issue. For instance, it’s much better to get a  Masters Level clinician who has a special interest in couples, than a PhD professional who does not particularly like working with couples, if you and your spouse want help together.  If you find that therapist who is familiar with and loves working on issues related to ADHD? That person will likely give you more meaningful help than the one who is not all that into ADHD.


The relationship is important.

It took courage for you to come see this person, and to tell them what’s going on with you.  Did they seem to be listening to you? That’s important. Did they seem to care?  Also big.  Are you not quite sure?  That’s ok.  You also may want to give it about six sessions with someone before deciding that they are or are not for you, unless something they said or did seemed so judgmental or irrelevant to what you are working on, that you really have no desire to come back.  Even if that is the case, do you think you could tell this person how you felt when they said that?  Therapists are human, too. They might not have realized that what you said hit them that way.  And how they handle your upset will be important. Did they dismiss it, or did they at least acknowledge that you got upset? If they did the second part, well, points for them.  If not, it may be time to look for someone else. 


Make therapy a priority. 

I really do get it. Life is busy.  There are a million things that need doing, and sometimes it feels like coming in to talk about yourself is the one thing you want to put on the back burner.  But trust me:  Therapy is like working out. The more you stick to it, the more your chances of success and effective changes. You went to the trouble of coming, so keep it going! Come to your appointments regularly, and only cancel if you really had an emergency, which yes, does happen on occasion.   And think about it:  If you are not willing or able to prioritize therapy, how can your provider do it for you?

If you have issues that make regular sessions difficult, talk to your therapist. Perhaps you can both agree to postpone sessions until that big exam, trip, or operation is over.  Or, if you have chronic health issues or a situation that makes coming into the therapy office difficult, look for a provider who does teletherapy, which is becoming more available.   Whatever you do, most providers would prefer that you are honest about your situation than habitually miss sessions or keep cancelling. No shame, no blame. 


All this being said, congratulations on thinking about what you are looking for in therapist. It says a lot about you, that you are giving this some thought.  So, best of luck, and may you find a good therapist for you!