Ask The Therapist: “I have an older sister who is overbearing…how do I get her to give me much needed space?”

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In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I have an older sister who is extremely overbearing. She wants to know who my friends are, where I am going, what I wish to do with my life etc. She is only two years older than me, but is constantly making me feel like she’s my third parent. How do I get her to give me much needed space? I am 21 so not a kid anymore, but she refuses to treat me like an adult.”

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

Having overbearing parents is one thing, an overbearing sibling is another. Sometimes a sibling can take on the role of a parent for several reasons – the most common one generally is that they may have felt like they needed to step in for parents, either because they were unavailable or unfit. While it usually comes from a good place, and a place of care, they get so caught up in that role, that it becomes second nature for them. As you grow older, and begin to create your own identity and sense of independence, they will still feel like you need to be protected. Which, again, might be coming from a good place, but at this stage it can come across as overbearing and controlling, which I imagine can be really frustrating!

It’s important to recognise that while they might be parental, they are not in a position of authority as your parents might be. In this case, what needs to be emphasised is the introduction of boundary setting and taking ownership of that power – let’s see if we can look into this a little more.

Transition From Child To Adult

Anon, as you grow older, that transition from being a child to an adult begins to make itself known. It’s completely natural to crave that sense of individuality, independence and agency. A lot of times, people in your lives who have taken on parental/protective roles find it difficult to break out of them – in this case, your sister. 

What does need to happen now is communicating how you feel, and taking ownership of your growth. This might not be a one-off conversation, and it may take a few talks, but the more it is spoken about, the more your sister will understand and integrate this new change, and perhaps take on a different role in your life. Take it one day at a time and be patient with yourself and the process. It’ll get there.

Communicating The Importance Of Boundaries

Oftentimes we’ll have people in our lives – be it family, friends or co-workers – who find themselves invading our personal boundaries. When this happens, it not only feels uncomfortable, but if left unaddressed, this can turn into resentment and frustration overtime. Boundaries therefore need to be set in place in order for there to be a healthier, closer relationship. This can be challenging, especially if this is something that hasn’t been modelled or taught – but it can be done. 

  • Settle on a time to speak to your sister privately: these conversations are best done one-on-one, so either catch your sister at a time where she’s alone, or ask if you can spend time with her later, just the two of you.
  • Bring up how you’re feeling: when setting up boundaries, it’s best to bring up your own feelings in the matter, and avoid blaming the other person. Recognise that you know their actions come from a good place, and that you appreciate that. Proceed to talk about how you feel about some of their actions, and tell them that you need space in certain situations.
  • Stress the importance of the necessity of space in the relationship: if your sister begins to get defensive, bring it back to how you feel that it’s important to set these boundaries in order for your relationship with her to improve. Remind her that you really care for her and love her and that this would bring you guys closer, rather than tear you apart.
  • Taking ownership of your feelings: accept that these feelings are yours, and that your intention is not to blame your sister, but to simply bring in what might be coming in between you two. It’s important to recognise that sometimes people may not know the repercussions of their actions, and that you can’t blame her for not knowing how you feel. This might help bring down any defences she might be feeling – people sometimes feel like they’re being attacked so the more ownership you take of your role and feelings, the less reactive they’ll be, and the more receptive they’ll be towards what you have to say.

Anon, having these kinds of conversations can be a little challenging, and I fully acknowledge that. It almost feels like a choreographed dance, and it definitely can feel that way if it’s something that is new. Remember, you are allowed to ask for space and boundaries, that’s your right. It’s coming from a place of self-care, as well as doing what is best for your relationship with your sister. I hope it all works out for you and her. I wish you all the best on your journey. Best of luck and stay in your power!

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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