‘I am worried about my sister. She seems to have given up on life’

Tell Me About It: ‘I’m proud I have rebuilt my life and realised my life ambitions, but worry my sister is left behind’


I am worried about my sister. She seems to have given up on life. She has not worked in several years. I know she wants to be a mother, but that hasn’t happened either.

From being a parent myself, it opened my eyes to the toxic childhood we both had. Our mother was a bully behind closed doors and emotionally immature. We were expected to “be seen and not heard”. We weren’t allowed to have needs – emotional or physical. I’ve broken free from my family. Gone no contact – to preserve my sense of peace and to protect my own kids from the childhood abuse I received behind closed doors.

I became an over-achiever in life to get my parents’ approval, but never did. I feel my sister has listened to my mother run her down and destroy any ambitions. She now is self-sabotaging herself and not achieving any life goals. She is wallowing in a daily routine with very little social contacts.

I live far away and we only see each other every few months. I want to help her but I know she won’t be honest. She will gloss over everything as if life is a fairytale. So I won’t get the real issues discussed if I bring it up. If I send her any self-help texts or books, she ignores them. She doesn’t respond. She feigns helplessness in several areas of life, as if she will never understand technology or cooking or other life skills – because we were never taught by our mother.

I’m proud I have rebuilt my life and realised my life ambitions, but worry my sister is left behind. One part I feel guilty about is that I can’t help motivate her. I feel the clock is ticking. She is in a rut. Especially her biological clock. We are all obese because we turned to food to fill the emotional gap our mother left in us.


You are clearly very angry at your mother, even though you have created a good life for yourself. This anger is compounded by frustration that your sister is withdrawing from life and “wallowing” and the one way both of you demonstrate your distress is through food.

Your story demonstrates very clearly the huge importance of the role of parents and how the legacy of poor parenting can be all-encompassing. You say your mother was a bully and perhaps your sister responded to this by becoming quiet and retreating to a make-believe world. It is possible that she responds to your efforts at showing her the way to a better life in a similar manner.

In other words, you will not find success in telling her how you think she should break free from her past. Your sister has been wounded by life and if she is to be encouraged back to engagement with a world that is messy and challenging, she will need to trust that she can take risks and not be devastated in the process. Can you tell her of your journey, indeed how you yourself achieved the sense of peace and equanimity that was so missing from your early life?

If you are to influence your sister towards a more fulfilling life, you will need to demonstrate happiness and wellbeing yourself and this requires some management of your own anger. The sense that someone (eg, your mother) is making us feel belittled or small, long after they are not in our lives, leads to the belief that our happiness can only happen if they repent, acknowledge their wrongdoing, and seek our forgiveness. However, this may never happen, and we can get stuck in a cycle of resentment and frustration that invades every part of our lives.

The fact that you and your sister were so young when your mother mistreated you makes the recovery so much more difficult, but it is clear, from your observation of your sister’s unhappiness, that this path is necessary and needed.

In the same way that you can see your sister’s dilemma clearly, she may also be able to offer you clarity and wisdom about your own situation, and asking for her help might open up some conversation about your joint past. If you could tell her of your resentment and ongoing struggle with food, she may emerge from her withdrawal to offer you support. This development may tentatively offer your sister a sense of contribution and if nursed this could encourage her to participate more in life. This involves both of you reversing your usual roles so that you become the seeker of help and she becomes the giver of wisdom. This approach will need patience and perseverance, but it is driven by your love for your sister and your own need to break free from anger and blame.

Despite growing up in a family devoid of approval or unconditional love, you and your sister have managed to nurture hope; you in your care for your sister and she in her hope for motherhood.

There is enough fertile ground here to risk vulnerability, so open up to new pathways of connection and self-compassion.