Advice From the Trenches

Psycho Sister: Dealing with the irrational

Dear C and Dr. B:

My sister is an inflexible person and she flies off the handle if we are discussing a topic and I don’t agree with her. She tends to have very negative opinions based on her own social prejudices, like, “EVERYONE on unemployment now is just a lazy freeloader, there’s tons of jobs.” If I try to offer perspective, she always ends up getting angry and yelling. 

I used to get angry back, but I have been making an effort to remain calm instead. I thought this would make things better, but it is weirdly backfiring – the calmer I am, the nastier she gets. She’ll end up calling me a bitch and accusing me of acting superior. 

I guess that when I deliberately control my anger and remain calm when I really feel like slamming her head into a wall, I am in fact acting. But what am I supposed to do? I’m getting sick of constantly placating her to keep the peace, and I refuse to engage in a fight.    – Not Mother Teresa

Dr. B says: You can’t reason with an unreasonable person.  It isn’t about the information for her, it’s about the emotion, so you aren’t ever having the same conversation anyway. She may communicate via intense emotion but it will only ruin your own health to try to meet her there. It is better to have other people in your life you can communicate with on a reasonable level. Inflexibility can be deadly – I have some clients dying at this very moment because they refused to get vaccinated. No amount of reasoning or scientific data could overcome the emotional hold that Fox News and the Conservative media had on them.

If you want to keep up with your sister’s life you can just let her talk, but you will get emotions, not a data narrative, so you will need ask others to tell you what’s really going on. It is probably unrealistic, but conversations with this type of person would work better in song. Music is emotional and doesn’t need to be data driven.

There is no need to argue with her, certainly no need to “educate her.” There are now places you can go to either throw paint, break things, or even shoot stuff. These might be good family activities for you both.

C says: I too have an inflexible sister. She’s bipolar and a paranoid schizophrenic as well, and she’s nearly impossible to deal with. I’m not sure how extreme your sister’s reactions are, but with mine, If you push the wrong button, she practically froths at the mouth. When we’re in the same room I feel like I am trapped with a rabid animal. I do my best to never let her in my house.

I used to try very hard to be the better person and yield to her idiosyncrasies because I felt sorry for her. After all, she is a lonely old cat lady, living in a one room apartment in NYC. But I finally realized something – she’s alone because she’s a nasty, critical bitch, and trying to be nice when she’s mean as a snake doesn’t change anything. She will still seize any opportunity to jump all over me and criticize. She’s a bully. Your sister is a bully too, and letting her have her way to keep the peace only convinces her that being a bully is the best way to win. 

Life is too short. From now on, keep conversations on the phone, and tell her that if she starts yelling, you’re hanging up. Just say NO. Don’t try to reach her with music, don’t placate her, don’t let her get to you. Nothing will make her change if she doesn’t want to. Simply tell her that you don’t want to get yelled at every time your opinions differ, and if she keeps it up, you two won’t be talking anymore. Just because she’s your sister, it doesn’t mean you have to be friends. Would you put up with this crap from a friend? Don’t put up with it from her.

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