February 02, 2012

So you're in recovery. Now how about your sister?

Look at the picture. You probably noticed the same thing I noticed: the blonde isn't paying attention to her backside. We, her viewers, are privy to a broader view of who she is and what she stands for. All she can tolerate seeing is her limited reflection in the mirror held aloft by an angel likely being paid minimum wage for maximum services because you wouldn't want angels to overvalue their role. Besides, any narcissist worth her weight in nickels knows she must reinforce servants' fears that they are expendable, valuable only to the degree they minimize, take responsibility for, or deny the hideous truth of the narcissist's ugly backside.  

I'd imagine every full-length mirror in her castle has been shattered, painted over, or secreted beneath dust covered sheets. Like the mirrors in haunted house stories. Take one gilded mirror and put it in a ballroom in a shadowy mansion. For a two-day camera rental fee, you can make your own B-rated movie for which there will be a predictable audience. People are afraid of mirrors, even if they don't know it consciously. 

I watched a horror film as a kid. I think it played on Boris Karloff's Thriller series, about a ghost seducing passersby into her mirrored abyss. If they went back to the mirror for a second look, a third look, and stared too long at their reflection...yank! She got 'em. So I tied my sister to the tub and dared her turn off the lights and peer in the mirror until the egg timer ran out. If she fell in, I'd pull her out with the rope. We've never seen her since. I am only kidding. Maybe my fear-of-mirrors happened fifty years ago when childish superstitions reigned supreme. But lucky me today, cognitive therapy, positive affirmations, and tapping points reduce my anxiety when racing by mirrors in the dark of the night. "Even though I am scared medieval right now, I fully and unconditionally accept myself as good enough, nice enough, and gosh darn it, people like me." It's called Midnight Evacuation Tapping Therapy. I used to make the sign of the cross during nightly treks to the bathroom and called myself religious. Now I tap my way to the 2:00 a.m. toilet and call myself psychotherapous. I dare you to sort out the difference. Here. Take this rope and....

Before plowing into the reason behind this post, I'd best tie myself to the tub. Whenever I write about, or even think about sibling relationships, the abyss comes to mind as a metaphor. What could be more terrifying than staring in the abysmal mirror of family dysfunction and seeing your whole self, not just the prized bits you're proud to claim as your own? Trust me. Seeing your reflection in your sister's ass IS terrifying and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're using a hand-held mirror and pretending it's full-length.

It has taken years to install a reliable rear-view mirror rather than limiting myself to a cameo appearance...in my own life, for heaven's sake. I now take a step back and observe myself from behind. My new tolerance for imperfection has required successive, resilience-building exercises in dimple-desensitization. Yes. I have an ass. Yes. It's best left covered. That does not mean it doesn't exist. Now my sister on the other hand, she insists we deny the fact that she has an ass which leads to all sorts of preposterous behavior pretending her ass don't dimple like the rest of us do's. As far as she's concerned, what's reflected in her handheld mirror is all there is to see. So I, the sweet cherub who selectively reflected what she wanted to see (or could bear to see), have put down the mirror. I put down the mirror. Did you get that last bit? I PUT DOWN THE MIRROR.

Which means in message board lingo: I Let Go. Detached. Rescinded control. Abdicated birth order rules. Bit the bullet. Hit the road. Refused to play the blame game, the name game, ride the shame train. Gave space. Grew up. Never blew up. Took the high road Jack, and only looked back at my own hind part in the holiday mess left behind and I'm not talking about Christmas ribbons and glitter. I'm talking about residual ego defenses lingering around family reunions like bad fruitcake nobody wants to claim has been stashed in their pocket for decades. We're smart siblings though. We can follow the smell and figure out who's still packing great grandma's moldy raisins.

Those of you who have followed my blog, know me as a stable, approachable, forgiving and validating type of woman. The kind who gets left for a bitch and wonders if she should have been less creative magnifying her husband's good traits, while forgiving his worst. You know, holding hand mirrors to magnify other people's positive virtues while fully expecting them to resolve their negative traits in private. I have deep respect for shame you see, and our human vulnerability to imperfection, to failure, to criticism, to flaws. Flaws like "feeling" jealous because parents spent more time with one sibling than they did with her. Flaws like "feeling" ignored and rejected the way she felt as the middle child in a large family. Flaws like "regression", not realizing her feelings and perceptions are out-of-sync with reality. She's defensive now. Who wouldn't be? Nobody likes being childish when their age expects them to be sage, smelling of frankincense and myrrh---not fruitcake. 

I've played a waiting game, choosing to believe sibling sanity was achievable; hoping we could coach the dysfunction out of each other's lives; believing the best service we could offer one another would be attending to each other's wounds without making them worse. I still believe this. My focus has been on seeing the good and building my siblings' confidence. As they often do for me. When people feel loved, supported, and accepted by at least one person in this tough ol' world, they're more tolerant of their own dimply backsides. I believe this and don't figure my behavior will be changing anytime soon because of that. I practice positive reinforcement. I believe in human connections, even difficult ones. Much of my maturation has resulted from relationships that challenged me, shattered my assumptions, and not-so-gently pointed out my (unrecognized) expectations. So I hope to Peter's Piper that there's never a point in my life when all my relationships make me happy, contented, and comfortable with myself. What's there to learn when all is well, all is swell? 

What I learned this holiday season and am still learning as I type this is: I am not my sister's mother, her therapist, nor her teacher. It is not my job to magnify her goodwill and ignore the harm she causes because she won't or can't turn her head around and see the ass the rest of us see. When childhood feelings reign supreme over reality, it's time to call in the experts. She won't do that. Her pride won't let her go to therapy. Fine. Don't go. Pretend it's everyone else that's irritable, not you. Seduce yourself with the lie that intentions matter more than behavior. Don't, for heavens sake, blame yourself that people are walking on eggshells, timidly suggesting you see a doctor, a therapist, the pharmacist. We're desperate.

The point here is that even though my sister can be heroic, people are not expendable in the service of her illusions. Not even this old broad and I'm willing to go great lengths supporting people's healing. I know people can get better. I have. I know we can improve the quality of our lives. I have. I know the transforming influence of supportive relationships. But this is a lesson learned from my marriage: you cannot help people if they will not help themselves. You just can't. It's hard to leave a marriage behind when a partner shines his backside in your face, insisting you call it Mister. When a sibling is struggling with narcissistic defenses, that's different. You try harder. At least I think so. If I could tie a rope around my sister's waist and tell her to "jump into the abyss, you'll be okay", I would. It's frightening reclaiming yourself from a shameful past. It's abusive to others not to.

This year, I spoke plain with my sister. I put down the gilded mirror and encouraged her to turn around because the view wasn't nearly as bad as she feared.

She called a doctor to schedule liposuction and a tummy tuck.

I am not kidding.



  1. Great blog, CZ. I can certainly relate as I struggle with my own sister. Enjoyed your writing, as always:)Some of your lines made me laugh:)


  2. Hi Lisa! Thank you...it's a relief to know other people are struggling like myself. I do not want to end my relationship with my sister although I'm questioning whether or not it can be as 'intimate' as I'd like it to be.

    You know how it is when someone is unable to restrain their impulses OR recognize that 'they' are the eye of their own hurricane. You must protect yourself. You really must.

    I have learned over the years that even as 'strong' as we might think we are---resilience has a shelf life. You cannot be subjected to intermittent explosions without eventually wearing down. I fear this recent episode is the last straw, at least for me.

    I won't cut her out of my life, o heavens no. But I am taking a good hard look at 'what is' without lofting into idealistic notions of 'what could be.' And I refuse to put up with pouting, stonewalling, blaming and envious backbiting any longer. If my sister wants to relate to me as an ADULT, fine. We can restore our friendship. As you know, I am a serial forgiver.

    Until then though, I'm watching lots of lifetime movies and catching up on my blogs. ha! (We used to spend lots of time together).

    Nice to hear from you,


  3. A few things in this wonderful post I want to respond to re: siblings. My sisters have become the spokeswomen for "intentions" over behavior. Narcissists depend on the dictum "I meant well." But the other dictum is of course, 'the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.' I've always believed that if there is little correlation between a stated intention and a behavior, that someone's lying.
    It's entirely possible to phrase things in such a way that no one can mistake what you're saying for passive aggression. But narcissists rely on 'plausible deniability,' and their enablers do the dirty work of insisting that their "intentions were good" despite deplorable behavior, timing, callousness, selfishness, etc. My siblings have complicated reasons for enabling our narcissistic parents. With one, it's money she gets from both parents, whose business difficulties mean they repeatedly have to "bail her out," as my father has often said about her. With the other, she just has not found a purpose in life other than being the "most loving" daughter. This gets worse as our parents age, but it's always been there. There is just no way to get them to look at what the parents do, honestly. Once I asked the Golden Child why she got so upset whenever I said anything critical about our NP. She said "it's like someone saying 'your baby's ugly'." I replied, "they're not your baby." Didn't make any difference.

    1. Great comment, anonymous! Narcissists and their enablers always say the narcissist's "Intentions were good."

      "Excuse me. I may have stepped on your face and I'm sorry you're mad at me for doing that, but I can assure you that the intent of my heart is pure and unconditional l-o-v-e."

      Notice that this is not a sincere apology. People hear the narcissist say "I am sorry" and assume it means they regret their behavior. No. They said they were sorry you felt the way you did. Stepping on your face was unavoidable since you were in the way of what they wanted or needed. It's too bad you're still complaining. ha!

      The narcissistic family is a tangled web, woven so tightly that few, if any siblings escape in time to spread their wings. You're lucky. You can see it. Some siblings never get out...never. Whether they're the family scapegoat or golden child or the kid who was never seen nor heard, they may not have enough resilience to wriggle free of the web.

      If you ARE able to get out, you might feel guilty because your siblings can't. It's terrible, isn't it? The legacy goes on and on from one generation to the next until someone has enough resilience to break free.

      I don't know how well you get along with your siblings but sometimes we can't share our wings. We'd like to...but we can't.

      Unless the dynamics between siblings are extremely dysfunctional or abusive, compassion for their inability to get away is definitely in order. (NOT to minimize the life-long journey it might require in order to feel compassion for siblings that use and abuse each other to win their narcissistic parent's favor!)

      It's rough...don't ever hear me preaching! I don't know how to accomplish this---if its even possible. Sometimes your family is just screwed and that's all there is to it.


  4. I do not have a relationship with my sister. I may do, when N mum goes - but doubtful. She has 'chosen' to go along with The Family View which is that I am/was/will be the problem from which all problems sprang. All of our fathers many verbal cruelties, put-downs and random violence toward her (and me) - WAS ACTUALLY ME. Yes, I was the one that came home every night and told her she was thick, stupid and not worth bothering with. I was the one who threatened to punch her head in if she didn't sit down - I mean we were good kids - we lived in fear of our father and wouldn't have dared to behave in any way that might upset him - and then there was narc-appeaser mother - enabling him to carry on as Mob Family Boss.

    She has simply denied any of it happened. She had some counselling (mother was very against it because 'they put ideas into your head') but she needn't have worried - because sis 'just told the counsellor what she thought she wanted to hear',AND she was paying - for that! says mother with a sneer. And then carried on talking about the price of mince. My poor sister, I just sat there marvelling at this creature who calls herself mother. Her complete lack of compassion or empathy for her daughter. She hates ME and has let me know it a myriad of times and in many ways - I get it, but my sister is Golden Girl. SHE's getting all the goodies. She has been a willing henchman for my mother and actively sought to abuse on the last three times I had to meet her - and one of those occasions was my father's funeral. I cannot look her in the face again. She is WORSE than my parents, because she was there, and she KNOWS, and she went through it too - but she is ready to take the mantle off mother when she goes - and keep on doing it. I cannot look her in the eyes because she is a liar, and I find her unbearable now. I also find my mother unbearable - so I have walked away from her too - early days, nearly six months. Thanks for your excellent and insightful blog.


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