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Can’t change sis, so change self

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My older sister and I have always had a tense relationship. While she was very protective of me as we were growing up, she was also a big bully. Everyone used to say that after college she and I would get along better. Well, I’m two years out of college and our relationship is still fragile.

She thinks she always knows better and I think she doesn’t have a clue. We both just want to be respected. We’re incredibly different. I’m family-oriented and I’ve given up a lot of my personal dreams to help the family out while my sister is goal-oriented. I’m open-minded and she’s very focused on success. She doesn’t know how to sympathize with others and I don’t have any ambition. We can’t understand each other’s choices. I, at least, admit this. She just thinks I make poor decisions.

Well, our family is big on … family. So I’m going to visit her for two weeks abroad. I’m really nervous. My parents joke, “Only one of them will come home alive.” How should I approach this “vacation” so she doesn’t resent having to host me and I don’t beat my brains out? – Younger Sister

Aside from your passport, the most important thing you can bring with you is a deep appreciation for futility. Your sister is not going to come around, she’s not going to “get” you, she’s not going to pat you on the back and say, “Hey, you really turned out great.”

You may not “get” her, either, but that’s not the problem. It isn’t about all the items you list that each of you brings to the table. The problem is what each of you expects from the other.

You’re both seeking: approval, acceptance, the right answer in response to “Mirror, mirror, on the wall …” but when the mirror gives the wrong answer, you strike back by judging back. At your lower moments, when you’re tallying your sacrifices and she’s sizing up her success, you’re both looking to win.

And both of you are probably going through with this visit because neither of you wants Mom and Dad thinking you’re the one who isn’t “big on family.”

You have 20-plus years of butting heads with your sister to help talk you out of this respect-me-or-else mindset. Please heed the message: The respect worth earning is your own. Period. You’ve made your choices, and what your sister thinks of them is as irrelevant to your station in life as your opinion is to hers.

You can’t make her stop judging you, but you can train yourself to stop judging her, stop reacting when she judges you, stop dancing to her or your parents’ tune. It takes tremendous will and commitment to change a lifelong emotional habit.

E-mail Carolyn at, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at
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