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Carolyn Hax: Sister won’t stop criticizing, even after being repeatedly asked to stop

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: I have repeatedly asked my sister not to discuss certain topics with me because I find her approach offensive and insulting. For example, she has no children of her own, but she often criticizes how I parent my children and tells me what I’m doing wrong. When I try to establish boundaries, she blows them off, and tells me I have to accept the way she likes to talk about everything. And she will psychoanalyze me, telling me I have mental problems.

I didn't ask for her advice on my parenting and certainly did not ask if I have mental problems.

I’ve stopped communicating with her because I simply do not know what to say. I love my sister and want to reconcile, but she ignores any terms I have, and yet is requiring me to accept her terms. We are at a standstill. How do we move on from here?

— Standstill

Standstill: Your boundaries aren’t working because you’re setting them for your sister, when they need to be for you.

This is a common misconception. It's natural to think of boundaries as a kind of fence we put up to keep people out. “Here is my new fence,” we tell people. “Do not go over it!” You want to keep your sister out of certain topics, so you built your fence and told her to stay on her side of it.

The thing is, we can't make people stop saying what they want to say. Your sister keeps teaching you that the hard way. Some people will be polite or respectful enough to drop a subject on request, sure, but they're not the ones we really need our boundaries for; they have and respect their own regardless of what you do. (As in, they don't go around giving unsolicited advice or diagnoses, their standing to criticize notwithstanding.)

Since your sister is going to do what she wants and climb over all your fences and you can’t stop her, your fence won’t be effective unless it’s about your behavior.

So, “I will not discuss my parenting with you.” It’s a tiny rephrase with a massive effect. I will not discuss. I.

Because that, you can control. She can criticize you as usual, every day, alll dayyy, and in response you can: change the subject, ignore her text, delete her email, hang up the phone, leave the room, put in ear buds, crank the TV, practice your kazoo, start speaking in tongues. You can employ whatever means you have available to ensure she's talking to herself.

Bliss. Right?

This is disrespect-proof. Who cares if she “ignores any terms I have,” because your terms are for you and you will live by them no matter how badly she takes it when you leave her in the kitchen talking to herself. You can be available to her again, to have a relationship again, sure. You just won't be there to listen to her [stuff].

Dear Carolyn: I recently got a cancer diagnosis, and I don’t want to tell my family. My husband knows, and he’s being just what I need at this time.

My mom is in her 1980s mind-set, where anybody with cancer created their bad reality. One sister panics, and I don't want to spend my energy taking care of her. The other sister's version of support is telling long stories about what people she knew did in the same circumstances and giving tons of unsolicited advice. My brother is great and would be supportive, but wouldn't keep the news to himself.

I want to spend all my energy healing, and this diagnosis is for something so easily treatable that they will probably never even find out. I’m inclined to keep this news between me, my husband, and my doctor, but I’m open to hearing alternatives.

— Should I Share?

Should I Share?: Not telling them sounds smart — and strangely gratifying.

Credit to them, though, for how comprehensively they represent how not to support someone sick. Blaming the patient, check; burdening the patient, check; sick-splaining, check; blabbing, check.

Anyway — I have only two suggestions. First, make sure secrecy doesn’t create even more emotional work for you. It seems straightforward, but once you have to come up with neutral responses and keep track of what you tell whom, it can feel like extra work, which can get heavy. Not to say you should tell them just for this reason — it’s just something to watch for. You can always tell them later (and let your husband screen them fiercely) if that becomes easier.

Second, and more important: Make sure you empower your husband to get the support he needs. He's there for you, and you're so lucky to have him; caregivers do their best work, though, if someone outside the circle is there for them. Locking information down too tightly can limit or cut off his options for relief, so make sure he has the outlet(s) he needs.

Take care, and fingers crossed your prognosis is on the mark.