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!