My sister Eva is two years younger than me, but you’d never know it by watching us interact. Everyone assumes that Eva is the older sister, not because she looks old, but because she just seems so much more mature, confident, sophisticated, and worldly.
From a really young age, somehow Eva got things that I just didn’t, and I found myself respecting her and going to her for guidance. For instance, when our parents were fighting and I’d be scared out of my mind, Eva, who may have been all of 3 or 4 years old at the time, would come over to me and tell me not worry, that everything would be all right. And I trusted her and believed her.
When we got a little older, she’d tell me how to wear my hair, or what skirt looked best with which blouse, or even who to be friendly with. And when I started dating, I desperately wanted her reactions to the young men who would come around, more so than the reactions of my parents. Somehow, I always completely deferred to her.
I’ve always considered Eva my best friend. But lately I’m questioning our relationship and wondering whether it’s healthy. I started questioning our relationship when I realized that Sid, my husband, didn’t really like Eva very much and was never excited about getting together with her. Sid is a really nice, non-confrontational kind of guy, so you have to dig a little to get information out of him. Finally he told me that he hated seeing how Eva bossed me around so completely and how I just took it. It hurt him and he didn’t want to be around it.
I told Sid he was overreacting and that she wasn’t bossing me around. But recently my oldest daughter, who is 7, asked me why I let Eva bully me all the time. That question really shocked me and sent shudders through my body. Was I being bullied without even realizing it?
I tried to pay more attention to what Eva was saying to me. Last week, when she dropped in at my house, in the span of probably ten minutes she told me that the vase of flowers would look much better on the other table, that my winter shoes really weren’t working with my summery-looking skirt, and that I could use a haircut right away.
What I realized, though, was that Eva was right on all three counts! The vase did look nicer on the other table. I really should have packed away my heavy black shoes from the winter and transitioned into something lighter. And my hair had lost all its shape and was looking rather limp and unattractive. And that’s the thing. Eva just knows these things. She has always been so smart, both about emotional stuff and about physical stuff.
I’ve always been insecure and lacking in taste. Whereas Eva can walk into my closet and know immediately which top would look great with which skirt, I struggle over knowing what works. Or, more importantly, if I’m rattled because my son has started behaving in ways that upset me and the family, Eva will have a way of explaining what’s happening, making me feel less alarmed, and giving me some helpful tips for how to deal with him.
She’s a winner! And I’m not. I depend on her quite often to give me all sorts of advice, and I’m grateful that she is there for me. Frequently she gives me advice when I don’t ask for it, but I just figure it’s part of the package, so I’m OK with that.
How do I explain this to my husband and children? I don’t want them to think that I’m a total loser and that I desperately need Eva to keep steering me in the right direction so that I don’t fall flat on my face.
On the other hand, I don’t want them to dislike Eva and think she is a bully and someone to distance themselves from. It’s a real problem for me and I’m not sure how to proceed.
Before addressing your question, I think it is relevant to note the name you’ve chosen for the sake of this column. “Needy” is an interesting and telling choice of language. Clearly this is all about your feelings of being unable to navigate this confusing world of ours on your own and constantly needing your sister’s advice for important as well as unimportant decisions. This is a problem in and of itself.
Some people are just born “geshickt.” Everything seems to come easily to them. They are born with confidence, style, a great eye, and an ability to make decisions easily. Eva sounds like an individual who has been blessed in this way.
You, on the other hand, seem to be more sensitive and therefore less secure in your decisions. Between Eva’s confidence and your lack thereof, it was a match made in heaven. From an early age, you had someone to lean on, thereby giving you a pass in so many areas, while Eva was able to nurture her strengths, gaining power—perhaps too much power. Though you started out feeling like two pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly, eventually the inequity between the two of you became unhealthy. It enabled you to easily fall into the role of the damsel in distress and enabled Eva to become a bully—at least with you, but something tells me she might be bullying others too.
The first exercise I’d like you to practice is to sit quietly by yourself and figure out in what areas of your life you shine. You may not be a fashionista, but I’m sure you have talents and assets; everyone does. What are you good at? What are you able to give to others that they might not get from anyone else? In what areas have you excelled? It doesn’t have to be anything world-altering, but you need to get in touch with what makes you special. Yes, Eva is indeed special in her ways, but so are you. And it’s important that you channel those sparks of greatness that reside within you. They are there. You need to connect with them and treasure them.
Secondly, you need to build up your confidence and realize that you’re OK with or without Eva’s input. Maybe your choice of clothing will be more fashionable if Eva puts in her two cents, but big deal. So you’re not the belle of the ball. It’s more meaningful that you begin to value your own choices, because independence is ultimately more important than getting it exactly right. This would be a second exercise for you to start practicing: making decisions on your own and owning them, for better or for worse.
Finally, I have no reason to suspect that Eva isn’t coming from a good place. Certainly, she’s acting out of a habit that hasn’t ever been challenged. And I know she’s helped your enormously during your lifetime and has been a source of security that should not be minimized. However, a worthwhile goal would be for you and Eva to work together to reevaluate the way in which the two of you interact. There is a kind way to speak and a sensitive way to give advice. If both your husband and daughter observe behavior that looks like bullying, obviously she is not respectful in how she tells you what to do. In fact, she shouldn’t be telling you at all; she needs to learn how to make caring suggestions and also to check in with you and find out whether you are even interested in those suggestions.
So besides lots of work that you have to do on yourself, you have lots of work to do with Eva. Validate that you’ve always been grateful for her support and great advice but, as an adult, you realize that the way she is giving it to you is not appropriate and that you both need to figure out how to continue being best friends, but best friends with mutual respect.
My guess is that there is an abundance of love between the two of you. Stay grounded in that and the rest should follow.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.