Dear Dr. Norquist:
My sister and I have always been close. We are four years apart (she’s younger) and we have always turned to each other for support, especially growing up in a family with an alcoholic father. Now I’m 42 and married with a beautiful daughter. My sister is single and seems to have inherited our father’s addictive tendencies. It’s been very painful for me to watch. I try my best to help her but I feel helpless. There is really no one else in the family who would be supportive. I worry so much about her that I can’t sleep at night and I’m jumpy during the day. I don’t know what I’d do if anything happens to her.
In a way, she’s like another daughter to me because I was often left to care for her when we were growing up. My husband gets upset that my involvement with my sister sometimes affects my mothering – I end up too tired, too anxious or too distracted or have to leave my daughter with someone else so I can go rescue my sister. I’m so worried that something terrible will happen to my sister – I think about it everyday – where is she? Is she safe right now? Is she making the right decisions? What if she loses her job or gets involved with someone who takes advantage of her? I’m obsessed with her safety and its hurting my family and me. What can I do? I feel helpless here.
Dr. Norquist responds:
Your anxiety is palpable and understandable. Your approach to this situation leaves you feeling helpless – like something terrible is going to happen and you have absolutely no control over preventing it. Research has shown this to be one of the most unbearable of situations.
The key issue here is that you do not have and can not have control over your sister’s decisions and behaviors. She is an adult now, living her own life, and you cannot keep her safe. She has her own life path. You can love her, you can be as supportive as possible, you can send her prayers, protective light and good wishes, but you cannot make her decisions for her. You must detach from your compulsive attention on your sister. It is distracting you from and diminishing the quality of your own life.
Your job is to attend to your own life. Bring your attention back to your own health; your own mental, emotional and spiritual state. You are responsible for your own experience. You are also responsible as a mother and as a wife to the family that you have created with your husband. Focus your attention on that which you do have control over. You’ll find it much more satisfying!
Accessing an inner experience of stillness and peacefulness would be most healing for you. It will also serve as a source of strength and stability that you can rely on – like a boat slip or an anchor that allows you to weather emotional storms. This inner experience is there for anyone who commits to developing the practice of accessing this state. There are many ways of doing this: prayer, meditation, guided imagery, yoga, certain body-oriented relaxation practices, and mindfulness. These are but a few of the possible pathways to that powerful, centered and grounded state of inner stillness.
This state will serve as a healing balm for your nervous anxiety, your unsettled mind, and your constant vigilance regarding your sister’s safety. It will help you to detach and to refocus on what you do have control over. Whenever you jump to anxiety-creating thoughts regarding your sister, stop, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you cannot control her life. Say a prayer for her well being, and then rest in that inner experience of stillness and peacefulness that is always there for you.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2012 Chaitanya Counseling Services