The Art of Gentle Confrontation

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Reader’s Question

I have been very concerned about my brother lately. My parents always had a hard time when it came to his schoolwork. Now that he is older, I honestly think that things have gotten worse. His room is a mess with clothes, books, bank statements and a lot more all over the floor. He has been sleeping on the floor lately and he takes showers once every two days. He also doesn’t know how to manage his money. He is late for payments and sometimes he does not even have enough money to pay his bills.

He has an associate’s degree in aviation administration, and I have been encouraging him to find a job in that field. I even helped him with his resume, but it looks like he does not care. He has been working in the same pizzeria for the last five years and I think that he likes the fact that the job does not require a lot of responsibility. I admit that he does not like responsibility.

Both of my parents are engineers, and my dad in particular has always emphasized the importance of an education. My dad is my brother’s hero, and whatever my dad says he does. He does not live in this country but they talk on a daily basis. My biggest concern is that he has been lying to my dad about some things. When I recently spoke to my father I realized that my brother has been telling him some stories that are not true at all. For example, my brother is in the Navy Reserve, and recently he told my dad that he traveled to a town that was hit by several twisters, and that he rescued a six-month-old baby and his mother. I know for a fact that this is a lie because I live with him and he did not go anywhere. I did not say this to my dad, so as not to worry him, but every time I speak to him it seems like my brother always has a new story to tell him, and the worst part is that they are all lies.

I don’t know if he is doing this to make himself feel better or to impress my dad, but the amount of detail in his stories is just crazy. It is like a movie, and I am afraid this is becoming a habit. I have noticed that the lies are directed more towards my dad and towards people who do not live with us. It is like he is aware of what he is doing, and he only tells these stories to the people who cannot prove if he is lying or not. I want to confront him, but at the same time I do not know how he is going to react.

Psychologist’s Reply

The good thing is that it seems like your brother is in touch with reality — at least enough to know who he can lie to and who he can’t. However, the bad news is that it seems like he either doesn’t like his reality or he is worried that other people, namely your father, may not accept his reality. He also could be depressed. While they are not included in the official criteria for depression, the disorganization, lackadaisical attitude, and change in hygiene may indicate a problem.

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I understand that you’re worried about confronting him, but all confrontations don’t have to be unpleasant. There are such things as gentle confrontations. In fact, I use them all the time in counseling! All it takes is a caring and nonjudgmental attitude, combined with a willingness to listen. For example, you could start by letting your brother know how worried you are about him and then ask how he feels about things. Is he satisfied with the way his life is going? Where does he see himself in five years? What goals does he have for himself, and can he believe that he can obtain them? If it sounds like he’s dissatisfied and hurting, you could then suggest that he get professional help.

However, you must be prepared for the eventuality that you may not like what you hear. Your brother may be perfectly fine with his life. All this could be more about not living up to the expectations of his family than his own dissatisfaction, especially since it sounds like you all are much more invested in his success than he is. Not everyone wants the same things out of life, and perhaps it is easier for him to lie than to let you all know how he feels. A frank conversation about what he wants out of life may give you more understanding about your brother, or it will give you an opportunity to help.

Either way though, it sounds like you may need to set some limits. If his disorganization bothers you, then let him know what is expected of a roommate. I also would not continue the fiction of his lies. While you shouldn’t interfere with his relationship with your father, if asked, I would tell the truth. As long as your brother has no consequences for his behavior, he has no impetus to change.

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