Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I love my sister dearly, but her behavior can be very negative and manipulative. Whenever she is discouraged, she develops passive aggressive behaviors and withdraws from me while simultaneously blaming me for our momentary dysfunction. Often, her perspective of self-loathing advances to the point of suicidal threats.
In these crucial moments, I struggle with what to do. I feel that I enable her because I cling to her in an effort to prevent the threatened outcome. However, I also feel manipulated because she is using me to fill an internal void. I desire to help her, but I feel stuck in our relationship. I’m trying to set boundaries, but her manipulation and threats directly attack the boundaries I’ve set up. Please help.
The biggest obstacle we face in life is making wise decisions in the face of overwhelming emotion. It’s impossible for most of us to imagine how hard it would be to think clearly when a loved one is threatening suicide. I sympathize with your plight. You’ve tried to set clear boundaries, but when holding your boundaries seems like it could result in your sister making such a cataclysmic decision, it’s natural for you to second-guess your decision to hold those boundaries firm.
Since your question involves very sensitive mental health questions, I asked Jodi Hildbrandt, a licensed clinical social worker I deeply respect, for advice. Here are some important principles to keep in mind as you hold crucial conversations—both with yourself and with your sister.
1. Get professional advice before proceeding. You need to describe your sister’s specific symptoms and behavioral patterns to a professional to determine whether she is at immediate risk of harming herself or others. If so, your response should not be to cave into her demands, but to get her compulsory help. If, after consultation, you are confident a significant portion of the issue is behavioral and not purely neurological or chemical, the following advice may be helpful.
2. Your sister’s problems are more about bad skills than bad motives. She has developed some maladaptive habits in order to manage her legitimately painful emotions. Withdrawal, self-loathing, threats of suicide, and passive/aggressive behavior are ways of escaping emotions she has no other skills to deal with.
The only way those who love her can help is to help her—perhaps for the first time in her life—develop clear, concrete boundaries that keep her from using others as a scapegoat for the emotional pain she is dealing with. Please be clear that these boundaries are not just for her, they are also for you. Sometimes, the best way for her to learn to better care for herself is to experience others who are willing to courageously take care of themselves. Establish and hold boundaries for your own emotional health and to give her the option of improving her own.
3. Your belief that you can control your sister’s behavior is what is keeping you stuck. Your sister’s threats of suicide have persuaded you that your actions will determine her choices. This is not true. What is true is that your sister may use your actions as justification for decisions in her life, but that is her choice, not yours. The instant you choose to believe it is true rather than her choice, you become an enabler. You empower her to manipulate you and reinforce her own belief that others are responsible for her emotions.
She is unlikely to become mentally healthy so long as you reinforce this belief. You are not responsible for your sister’s choices. You cannot control what she will do or will not do. Continuing to believe you can does not decrease the chance of her making a terrible decision. If anything, it increases it by distracting her from the work she will need to do to become more healthy.
I’m guessing we’re not telling you something new here. I sense from your note that you already understand these ideas. So I hope by stating them here to simply bolster your confidence that this is an appropriate way to view the situation. With that said, here’s how to proceed:
1. Firmly and lovingly request time to talk about your relationship. I say “firmly” because she may want to avoid this kind of honest exchange. If she does, then be firm—create safety for her by clarifying your positive intentions: “I want to talk because I want a healthy, wonderful relationship with you. That is not what I believe we have right now. I am happy to wait until you feel okay having this conversation, but in the meantime, I will need to keep some distance from you to maintain my own health and peace. I hope you understand that.”
You are not responsible for whether she takes you up on this now or decides to wait a while. Do not water-down or apologize for the request. In fact, this firm and loving request is your opportunity to model for her the way she needs to care for her own emotional well-being.
2. Communicate clear, written boundaries. Carefully consider each behavior your sister enacts that is unacceptable to you. Let her know the boundary you will maintain if it happens again. Explain why you need this boundary—not as a punishment for her, but as a way of caring for your own needs. Help her understand how you feel when she does these things.
For example, you might say, “When you said you were planning to kill yourself, I felt hurt, terrified, and angry. I felt resentful that you would put that responsibility on me when it is not mine. If this happens in the future, I will need to distance myself from you. It is not that I don’t care, it is that I will not allow you to manipulate me in that way. Instead, I will notify mental health professionals that you are at risk for harming yourself, and then will not have contact with you until you have gotten help.”
Helping her understand the natural consequences to you of her actions—if done in love and patience—can help her feel much differently about her choices. In fact, it is the only thing that can motivate her to change. She is likely so caught up in her own emotional world that she has no idea how her actions are affecting you and others.
1. Acknowledge her emotions, but don’t own them. While discussing these boundaries, be careful to listen to and validate any emotions your sister shares. Just don’t accept responsibility for them. For example, if she says, “You call yourself a sister and you will cut me off when I need you the most!” you could respond, “To you, my decision to not stay close when you threaten suicide seems hurtful and disloyal. Is that right?” Simply affirm that you understand the feelings she’s having and what she believes is causing them. Don’t argue with her logic or tell her she’s wrong. Just ensure she feels heard.
2. Focus and surrender. The hardest and most important thing to do is to be willing to accept whatever will happen in the future without feeling responsible for it. Do this by focusing on what you really want. You don’t just want a sister who is alive. You want a sister who is happy and healthy. You can’t get there from here. You will have to take uncomfortable steps into new habits and responses to do the only thing you can do to increase her odds of getting there. From there, you must surrender the illusion that there is more you can do. You cannot guarantee she will not take her own life any more than you can guarantee that she will become mentally healthy. All you can do is maintain the unhealthy status quo by continuing to do what you’ve been doing.
It’s clear you love your sister. My hope and prayer is that some of these ideas will give you greater skill and resolve to do so in an even better way.