Confessions of a Recovering Helpaholic Part 4

One of the areas we helpaholics get caught up in is FAMILY.  Invariably there are one, maybe two people in any given family that seem to have an uber sense of responsibility toward the family as a whole and whether they stay connected, get along, etc.

Which brings me to our next step:

Step 4:  Set clear boundaries with family members.

It took me so long to learn this!

We used to call our mother “the benevolent dictator.”  She looked and acted like the sweetest person ever, but when she wanted something done, she was masterful at getting her daughters to cooperate.  Well, a couple of daughters anyway.  My youngest sister, Diann, and I were the ones who were the family people.  My two other sisters not so much.

If I tried to talk to my mother about things between me and my sisters that weren’t working, she would say, “I’m not going to discuss that.”  Which translated to me, “suck it up, we don’t talk about feelings in this house.”

So I spent the better part of the last 60 something years letting things slide as I dutifully went about arranging holiday dinners, staying in contact with my sisters about whatever was going on with our parents (especially during the twenty years of their failing health) and keeping the peace by keeping my mouth shut as much as possible.

My dad died in 2006 and I spent the next 12 years being my mother’s “person”—and we actually connected on a much deeper level than every possible during the “nuclear family” years.  I learned to be direct and honest with her and when she would give me those “don’t you go there” looks, I simply plowed ahead anyway and actually helped her face her own stuff about the way she treated me.  I was just tired of being criticized and demeaned because of her habit of speaking to me.  And glory be she actually changed!  She became more honest and less manipulative.  We became good friends!

That friendship bled into her relationships with my other sisters to a degree, although I don’t really know how close they felt to each other, because by then I figured it wasn’t my responsibility to keep fueling the fires, so to speak.

And now your boundaries with your sisters are clear?

Not exactly.  I had to learn a very bitter lesson about that right after my mothers memorial service.  My older sister had been staying with me (she lives in California) when she would come to visit our mom, and we actually took some trips together during the last several years of mom’s life.  I had gotten great at being clear with our mother, because we spent so much time together, it was actually a necessity!

My sister came infrequently, and at most we saw each other maybe 3 times a year.  With her, I had such a habit of putting up with attitudes and behaviors that I didn’t really appreciate that I just kept doing it, not speaking up, not letting her know I was frustrated with her.  With her I slipped into the family pattern of keeping the peace, usually at all costs.

After the service, as I drove her to the airport, the dam finally burst and I started telling her things that I was uncomfortable about, that bothered me.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t trying to break our relationship, I was actually trying to build it to be more honest and thereby stronger.

The result was a complete blow up and what seems to be the end of whatever friendship we had.  She was so angry and hurt.  After she got back home, a month or so later, I tried again to talk to her, which resulted in a very unpleasant shouting response from her.

I can fully understand why she was so angry.  She was horrified that I had not been honest with her in all the years up to now.  And she was right!  It was a passive aggressive move on my part–even though I didn’t see it at the time.

I don’t know if we will ever be able to create an actual friendship.

Setting boundaries means being honest, and doing it as soon as possible!

My wrong was to keep my mouth shut for so long.  And it isn’t even a problem that I have with people in my daily life.  We have great give and take, and don’t feel uncomfortable telling the truth about what works and doesn’t work for us.

But with my sisters, because the family pattern was so deeply etched into me, I kept my distance and kept the peace—which turned out to be war when the truth finally came out.

My third sister doesn’t have any problem lashing out at me to tell me all the things she holds against me—and it actually helps because it is clear to me that we have no reason to hang out together.  If I run across her or spend time around her due to family circumstances, I am careful to steer clear of any alone time with her.  I appreciate knowing how she really feels about me because I don’t feel compelled to make something happen.  It sets me free!  We didn’t have the closer connection that I had with my older sister, so I don’t miss anything.

With my older sister, I miss the connection.  We do communicate by email from time to time, very polite, passing information about the dismantling of my mother’s estate (for which I’m the executor).  So possibly enough time will pass that we will simply start over, or something like that.

I’m grateful that I am still deeply connected to Diann, who has definitely moved into the family of choice category.  We have somehow managed to be honest and forthright with each other for years.  And we really enjoy each other!

So do you think it is right, not to be close with all your family?

For me, that depends on what family you’re talking about.  I am very close with my family of choice—the people I have built deep, fulfilling relationships with over my adult life.  I can’t imagine my life without them!  I rely on them for all the challenge and support that true friendship provides.

So the point I’m really making here is this:  family, after you grow up, is a state of mind, not an obligation.  Where we come from is important, but it is more important to be here, today, relating to and connecting with the people that make a positive difference in our lives, even during times we disagree or weather difficulties.

I think redefining our concept of family is the key.