A couple of years ago I wrote a blog entitled ‘My Estranged Sister’, which got hits on my blog site every day, comments from other women who were in similar sibling situations who shared their stories and thanked me for sharing mine. Until I recently had to privatize my blog because of my husband’s sister and her daughter, my blog “My Estranged Sister” was the number one recommended resource on a ‘Google search’ for the topic of estrangement.
I was so glad that I was able to share my story and to be trusted by so many other women who shared their stories with me. It surely does help to know you’re not alone in going through such difficult relationships and situations.
I’m currently reading, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? : Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Karyl McBride, Ph.D. Through all my therapy, the term ‘narcissistic’ was never discussed when we worked on trying to understand the mother/daughter dynamic in my family of origin. We talked about selfishness and jealousy, but never narcissism specifically, so reading this book has been a powerful experience for me and I’m only about 70 pages in.
Last night I read “The Sisters Extreme”, a subsection in the Chapter Where is Daddy? found on page 67. It was as if a light went on over my head, like a curtain was thrown open.
Let me provide a little background, then I’ll share this passage and I hope you’ll see why this had such strong meaning for me.
I am the older sister, by 2 years. As long as I can remember my mother was sharing personal information with me about her relationship, or more accurately her lack of a relationship, with my father. She told me he’d been cheating on her since the year after they’d gotten married, and she spent a good bit of time trying to convince me that he didn’t care for us, preferred other family members to his own children. She used me as a confidante and later I would understand, after leaving home, that she was actively creating a story that she thought would solidify and guarantee loyalty and devotion from her children.
Fast Forward… as the older sister she told me it was my responsibility to ‘step up’ once she divorced my father. I was now responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundry, yard work, helping her to budget our family’s income, do minor repairs around our home, and to watch my sister between the time we got home from school and she got home from work. I was expected to accomplish all of this while maintaining honor roll grades and if I could find the time for friends, they had to be friends my mother approved of. I found that I couldn’t take a walk without her accompanying me, everything I wanted to do, she wanted to do, even going so far as to try to roller skate with me.
My mother demanded perfection in everything I did. She expected the house (a mobile home in a trailer park) to be immaculate. Dishes had to be done every night after dinner, laundry done every Saturday (including bedding) and hung on the line as long as the weather was good. She expected everything to be in its place, our things, mine and my sister’s had to be in our rooms, not the living room, not the kitchen. I was to dust everything once a week, run the vacuum as often as it needed to be done, scoop and/or empty the litter pan weekly and I was required to mop the floors weekly. My sister was supposed to help out with these chores, but she struggled to accomplish the simplest of tasks to my mother’s specifications, so there would always be yelling, tears, sometimes physical punishment, abusive language and ultimately I would be asked to do or fix whatever my sister didn’t/couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
My sister struggled in everything, she had difficulty in school, she hadn’t developed any social skills – as throughout her life I can’t recall her ever having friends who came to the house to visit or invited her to their house – and she had a great deal of difficulty following directions. My mother always accused her of learning at a young age that if she screwed up she wouldn’t be asked to do things, therefore deliberately messed up everything she was asked to do to get out of having chores and responsibilities.
My mother had always been physically abusive. She would start out with emotional abuse, mind games, escalate to verbal abuse in the form of name calling and insults and eventually would resort to physical punishment. She would lash out with whatever she had close at hand, flyswatters, yard sticks, a belt, etc., and when she was in a rage would use her closed fists to batter the object of her anger. She would strike us with objects that always left welts, usually in places where others couldn’t readily see the marks, but when she used her fists, she hit us about the head, neck, shoulders, back, wherever the blows fell and hit us so hard and for so long she would break the blood vessels in her own hands, bruising them and then stand before you, as you were crying, feigning tears of her own saying “Look what you did to me.”
My sister, because of the difficulty she had complying with most anything that was asked of her, was the recipient of these attacks often. She didn’t seem to make the connection between compliance and less abuse. The more that was asked of her the less she complied, the more she resisted. She began to look for acceptance elsewhere, through spending time with our Grandmother and older cousin Tom.
When I was kicked out of the house my sister appeared to be so pleased with herself. She stood by the door, so smug, watching me taking my things out of the house. She would remain with my mother until she was 34 years old. Insecure about taking care of herself, being on her own.
As adults, my sister views me as the ‘favorite’, as someone who ‘bonded’ with our mother, who ‘kissed her butt to get special treatment’. She has been unable and/or unwilling to do any serious examination of our family dynamics, of her role within our family, of the effect abuse has on children and later, in their adult lives.
Even though I have reached out to and reconciled with her on three separate occasions through the years, including helping her move out of our mother’s home into her own apartment, which my husband and I helped her furnish, getting her a job working from my home when she lost her job, including her in family gatherings, meals, etc., she has been unwilling to accept my offerings of love, desire to be family. She sees all my efforts as ‘rubbing under her nose’ the things I have. She honestly thinks I’ve been married for 27 years to spite her, have a nice house to make her feel ‘small’ about her apartment, have a child to ‘show her up’.
Nothing I can possibly do seems to break through her resentment and jealousy. She’s alienated her friends and many members of the family. She can’t keep a job because of her behavior toward others, she can’t even find a church home because she’s become a ‘fundamentalist Christian’ and measures everyone as ‘doing Satan’s work’. Like our mother, she’s convinced everyone is out to get her. She’s self-isolated and tells people routinely that she’s thought of suicide because she’s so lonely.
The last time she turned away from me she hurt my son terribly. She returned, in the wee hours of the morning, something he had given to her, yet she could not fathom why he was hurt by her doing so.
Reading this book provided me with the answer I’ve been looking for, as to why two people can be raised in the same environment, under the same stress, but can react in completely opposing ways, experiencing completely different effects of that environment.
“The Sisters Extreme” contains the following passages:
”When two daughters are being raised by the same narcissistic mother, I found that, more times than not, they take on very different roles. Both girls internalize the same message that they are valued for what they do, rather than who they are, but they behave in opposite ways. One sister may internalize the message and say, “Okay, I will show you what I can do and how worthy I am” and become an overachiever and a perfectionist. The other sister may internalize this message of inferiority and give up, feeling that she can’t make the grade anyways, she becomes an underachiever or engages in some kind of lifelong self-sabotage.”
“The most important part of this to remember is that even though the external landscapes I describe seem like polar opposites, the internal landscapes are strikingly similar. In other words, the lifestyles of the women may appear quite different, as the high-achieving daughter will look more successful on the outside, but on the inside, both sisters hear the same negative, internalized messages and struggle emotionally.”
“What causes a daughter to take the high-achieving path versus the self-sabotaging path? I have wondered a lot about this. According to my clinical study, the high-achieving daughter usually had someone special in her life who gave her unconditional love and support, typically the father, an aunt, grandmother, or teacher. The self-sabotaging daughter either had no one to nurture her or had only limited access to an adult who served that role during her childhood.”
“Daughters of narcissistic mothers seem to related to extremes in all aspects of their lives and seem overly tolerant of aberrant and unusual behavior, which of course their mothers often exhibited.”
This analysis reads as if it were written about my sister and I. I strove for perfection in everything I attempted, because that was what prevented me from enduring my mother’s wrath. I worked hard to learn things quickly and to excel, to give my best effort. My sister struggled and ultimately ‘gave up’. Even now, 28 years since I left home, my sister too has clung to her self image as ‘inferior’ and has most definitely engaged in ‘self-sabotage’.
I had my Grandfather, who took special interest in me, teaching me, listening to me, spending time with me. He passed away on my 10th birthday, but he was most definitely my source of validation and encouragement. My sister was closer to our father, but he was almost never available to us as he sometimes worked two full time jobs, and after the divorce we hardly ever saw him, so I’m inclined to think that was the relationship she tried to establish with our older cousin in her teen years. He listened and included her in things, gave her a sense of value, most likely because his life was one similar to my sister’s, in that he had never learned to be self-sufficient, didn’t have the where-with-all to be independent and felt as if his parents didn’t have time for him, having bought a home with only 2 bedrooms (one for each of them) when he turned 18, telling him there was no room for him, effectively putting him out of the house. They were able to ‘commiserate’.
This section of the book also explains why I continue in my adult life to accept such aberrant behavior from the people around me. I’m used to it, it’s what’s ‘comfortable’ in a twisted way.
I’m anxious to continue reading this book, it seems to have been written about my childhood, about my mother, my life as her daughter. I feel like a ‘light bulb’ has gone on for me… I now have an understanding of why/how two people can live in the same situation and be affected in completely different ways. This feels like a great BREAKTHROUGH of understanding.