Recovering from Childhood Sibling Bullying

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Reader’s Question

I am a 49-year-old female who has come to realize that I grew up with a sibling (sister) who was and still is a bully. I can recall being bullied by her when I was as young as 6 years old, and it continues to this day. My parents would simply tell me to ignore her, or would separate us. It got worse as we got older.

I have learned that it’s in my best interests to keep my distance from her, and have been doing so for the past seven years. I no longer allow her to bully me when I am in her presence, but she still manages to find sneaky ways to bully those around her (including our parents, her children and her husband). Her forms of bullying include verbal (insults, humiliation, name-calling, taunting), social (shunning, exclusion, dismissive and mean looks, ignoring, spreading rumors) and cyber (texts upon texts, Facebook, emails) tactics. I now ignore it all. Her latest was to block my 13-year-old son from being able to talk to her 12-year-old daughter (and then finding some word-twisting way to justify it to our parents).

My question is this. I am fully aware that growing up with this has created a hardened shell for me, so that I have trouble allowing myself to be vulnerable and soft. I am always guarded. To quote my husband: it’s like I wear armor, and bullets just fly off me. I also realize that I am missing out on a lot in life because I am ‘hardened.’ Do you have any advice or suggested reading that can help me overcome this?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you emerged from an emotionally damaging family situation as a strong woman with enough self-esteem to refuse to be the target of further abuse from your sister. Good for you! However, your struggle has left you with some deeply ingrained habits and behaviors which are no longer working for you in the life you’d like to be leading now. In your family situation, high defenses against emotional and verbal attacks were a natural way for you to cope, especially given the lack of support you felt from your parents. Your ability to ‘harden your shell’ against these assaults was a valuable resource then, as it gave you the resilience to survive your childhood, but such defenses are no longer necessary now that you are an adult, with the ability to cut yourself off from your abuser. Your task now is to find a new way of coping with situations and people who feel emotionally threatening to you. At present, even if you intellectually understand that you are not in danger, your old coping strategies are automatically brought on line in response to your perception of this type of threat. However, I think a deeper understanding of this ‘hardening’ will be important in order to achieve change.

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It is not uncommon for adult survivors of childhood bullying and emotional abuse to experience symptoms of depression. This could include emotional numbing and anhedonia, or an inability to enjoy pleasurable experiences. Anxiety disorders are also found to correlate with this type of trauma. Substance abuse, perhaps to self-medicate these types of symptoms, can also be common. While you do not mention any symptoms of anxiety or substance abuse, I would encourage you to take a look at this depression checklist to see if perhaps there are more ways in which you might fit this profile. Even if you do not meet the criteria for a depressive disorder, you may be experiencing more symptoms than you realized.

Since resolving your symptoms will involve a conscious effort on your part to change the way that you perceive and interpret your relationships with others, you could benefit greatly from seeking out a Cognitive Behavioral therapist. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an approach to psychotherapy which addresses maladaptive emotions, behaviors, and cognitions using systematic and goal-oriented treatment methods. With your therapist, you would map out a plan for how to identify and address the maladaptive ways you are thinking and feeling in your relationships with others. There are also several high-quality self-help books for people who want to work on their own to overcome depression, for example, Mind Over Mood: Changing How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. If you do choose to go this route, you might consider including your husband, son, or other trusted people in your life as you progress through the book. Inviting them to join you on this journey, even if they are just reading along with you, is a step you can take in breaking down some barriers and practicing the trust and vulnerability you would like to claim for yourself in your relationships.

Editor’s note: See also Sibling Bullying: Just as Damaging as Peer Bullying, published this week over on our main site in the Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life section.

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