Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s associate editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
My family has always been close, through some great times and some hard ones, but recently, and much to my surprise, my oldest brother has decided that our closeness is actually toxic and co-dependent.
More specifically, he began therapy a while ago to work through some general anxiety and childhood stuff. This is great! I love therapy and I think everyone should probably go at some point. However, what my brother seems to have learned from therapy is that he needs to “set healthy boundaries” with our stepmom (who raised us from a very young age and whom we consider our mother).
While I concede our mom can be a bit draining at times, she is by no means an overbearing monster. Since our father passed away her health has declined, and all the siblings have pitched in equally to help care for her. But what my brother’s “healthy boundaries” look like in practice is basically… a slow ghosting of our family.
This has gone beyond his relationship with our mom to include bailing on birthdays, ignoring invitations to make plans, passing on the holidays entirely. On the one hand, I get it, because I too believe in healthy boundaries — but I can’t help but feel that this is a bit selfish and unfair. Almost every time I talk to my mom she asks if I’ve heard from him or mentions that she left him a voicemail but never heard back.
I wouldn't ever fault anyone for learning how to stand up for whatever it is they need, but... is there a line that has been crossed here? Because it seems like my brother’s self-actualization is making things worse for the rest of us. So my question is: do I have to respect someone's journey/“self-care” process if the impact of it on other people is kind of hurtful at times? What's the balance between someone standing up for themselves vs. boxing everyone else out? Alternatively: am I actually the jerk in this scenario, someone who disrespects others’ boundaries/process and expects too much from everyone? I don't know what’s real!
Of all the things likely to send me to an early grave — smoking, drinking, reading Twitter while crossing the street — the most likely of all is that I will die of an aneurysm after seeing one too many people mistake selfishness for “self-care.” While the broad acceptance of the benefits of therapy are a definite boon for society, this has also unleashed the phenomenon of assholes using the language of therapy to justify their worst impulses. I’ve written about this before and will continue to write about it because It is a scourge upon the world and needs to be eradicated from our culture.
Am I confident that your brother is simply an asshole weaponizing therapeutic language to his benefit? Definitely not. He probably did have the best intentions. The truth is, most people don’t begin a process of bettering themselves with the goal of sounding like a Scientologist calling their own mother a Suppressive Person. It happens slowly, in a way that is quite easy to empathize with. When you have spent a long time feeling bad, the little thrill of liberation that comes with shirking responsibilities feels very, very good. Everyone understands this — it’s the basis of every joke about how wonderful it is to cancel plans. But some people follow that feeling to places they didn’t set out to go.
Your brother is probably overcorrecting after a lifetime of deep entanglement with your family. It can be easy to assume that since refusing to help a sister move, or babysit a nephew, feels freeing, familial obligations are a trap. Most of us go through this phase in our late teens or early twenties, and your brother seems like an immature dick right now because he is behaving like this at a time when the stakes are much higher and your aging mother is suffering because of it. But the downside of our current affection for diagnosing all behaviors via the DSM-V means it’s more difficult to articulate normative judgments. If you call your brother a jerk, he will likely see that as more proof he needs stronger boundaries. The elegant trick of “self-care” is that is forecloses further conversation.
But a conversation is necessary, since the rest of you are being unduly burdened and feel justifiably hurt. Begin by telling him you want to support him as he establishes just who he wants to be and the role he wants to play in your family. Then ask about his goals for therapy.
When you ask someone why they are in therapy most people offer pragmatic answers like “I want to feel less anxious” or “I would like to be less depressed.” But what’s the goal of feeling less anxious and depressed? The ultimate and sometimes unspoken goal of therapy, or introspection, or any kind of betterment of the self, is to experience the fullness of the world unburdened by a voice that says you are unworthy of it. It is to love more, not less. To be good in relation to others, which is the only way goodness makes sense. Healthy boundaries can help with this. When a person is inclined to debase themselves or be overly accommodating strong boundaries are quite necessary — but only insofar as they enrich relationships, not diminish them.
If you live in the same city, you could even suggest going to therapy together. It would be a good way to jointly process the stress of an aging parent, and come up with a plan for equitably sharing the responsibility of her care. But be prepared for your brother to react poorly. It may simply be the case that he is unable to cope with your mother getting older, which is a terrifying prospect for all of us. He is opting for avoidance, and calling it freedom. But while you can’t force him to be the person you need, if he continues to fail everyone around him you absolutely do not have to support the person he’s becoming.
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