Dear Dr. Cohen,
In the past 10 years, I've come to realize how hurtful my interactions with my siblings have been to my self-esteem. No matter how hard I tried to have a respectful, loving relationship with them, they responded with arrogance and disrespect. I've never done anything hurtful to them, and I feel I don't deserve this hateful behavior from them. There have been some of the same behaviors in my husband's family.
I feel upset about not having any family ties. Then again, I tell myself it is too hurtful to continue to try to get along. What is the answer to this dilemma? You can't just lie down and be a doormat. Do some people take out frustrations on relatives, because they think they will just take it? Why all the hateful comments and ugly looks when you have not done one thing to deserve them?
You wonder, “Why all the hateful comments and ugly looks when you have not done one thing to deserve them?” But whoever said that this world is always just and that people always get what they deserve? People not uncommonly behave badly toward others. It is human. What motivates such behavior is manifold. In your case, it might be sibling rivalry or, as you suggest, displacement on an easy target; and it may well have its origins in your siblings’ own lack of self-esteem.
This is because people who habitually mistreat others are typically not secure about their own self-worth. They may demand perfection of themselves and damn themselves for falling short. The flip side of this same misguided “philosophy” is to mistreat others because they too are imperfect in some way. Thus, the problem that you are experiencing may be double-edged. You perceive rejection by your siblings (or by some of your husband’s family) as reflecting on your self-esteem and feel hurt by it. Not so differently, your siblings strike out at you (or others) because they too are demanding perfection and fail to find it in you or others.
You ask, “What is the answer to this dilemma?” Presumably, your perceived dilemma goes something like this: “Either I try to have a loving, respectful relationship with my siblings or I don’t. If I try to have such a relationship, then I will be treated like a doormat and this will be hurtful. On the other hand, if I give up trying to have a loving, respectful relationship, then I will feel upset about cutting off ties. So either way, I end up getting hurt.”
One problem with such a dilemma in thinking is that it tends to lock you into procrastination. You keep telling yourself that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and as a result fail to be proactive about your situation. So you keep yourself feeling badly about things rather than doing something constructive about your situation.
You say, “I feel upset about not having any family ties.” First, this statement appears to be an overgeneralization. Even if you did not keep in contact regularly with your siblings and (some of) your husband’s family, are there not still some family members with whom you would still have close ties? Is your husband “family?”
But why would you feel upset about not maintaining close family ties? What particular emotion are you referring to here? I would venture to say that it is guilt. So perhaps you would feel guilty about giving up trying to get along with your siblings.
Now, guilt is a moral emotion. This means that the perception of guilt assumes the violation of a moral principle. For example, a person might feel guilty about having broken a promise because she believes that it is morally wrong to break promises. However, would you truly be transgressing a moral principle and doing something wrong if you stopped trying to gain their affections or respect?
“Oh they’re my siblings—my own flesh and blood, so how could I not try to have a close relationship with them?” The answer here is that you have no such moral requirement, for you have no moral duty to let yourself be mistreated by them in order to maintain family ties.
Quite the contrary, philosopher Immanuel Kant would admonish that you have a duty to respect yourself as an end in itself; that is, not to use yourself as a mere means to some other end—in this case, maintaining family ties. So, such guilt is, in a sense, false because you wouldn’t have done anything wrong in the first place by giving up on having a close relationship with your siblings. Yes, it’s too bad that they’re acting this way; and it would, under other circumstances, be preferable to have a close relationship.
If you stopped trying to gain your sibling’s love, approval, or respect, it is not unlikely that they would feel uneasy about it. This is because they too might take this as a sign of their own diminished self-worth. Thus, they might at some point try to get you to re-engage with them; and they might resort to the same mistreatment once again.
However, by making it clear that you are not going to engage in such game playing, this could lead to some re-decisions on their part about how to treat you. In the end, your siblings would need to decide whether or not to act civilly to you. Either way, the decision is not yours to make. As Epictetus reminds us, we should try to control only those things in our power. This means your own feelings, not the feelings or the decisions of others. Give up trying to do so and you will live with considerably less stress.
Your husband’s family could present some further complications if your husband insists that you be part of his association with the family members who are mistreating you. Here you might find useful an idea advanced by the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. He tells us that we can have a disinterested perception of people, things, and events.
For example, imagine peering at a shark swimming around in a large glass enclosure. It is easy to observe its massive, powerful jaws without fear because it is no threat to you. Now if you were in the tank with the shark and were overcome by your fear of being attacked by it, then you would not have such disinterested knowledge of the shark; and indeed it would be a stressful situation for you.
Here’s a suggestion. When you visit your husband’s family, you can observe them—including the way they react to you—with disinterested knowledge. In so doing, their words and mannerisms could even be amusing. It is only when you perceive these mannerisms as in some way a threat to you that you will experience stress. On the other hand, if you remain disinterested, then they are powerless over you. Like the proverbial Freddy Krueger, it is only when you are afraid of them that they will present a threat.
Thus the hurtful feelings you are experiencing regarding your siblings and your in-laws have the same root. If you stop demanding that these family members love or respect you; if you stop trying to control how they respond to you; and if you stop devaluing your own worth when you fail to get the preferred response, then you will not get hurt. And, inasmuch as you have no moral duty to let yourself be mistreated for the purpose of maintaining family ties, you don’t have to feel guilty if you stop trying.
Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.
If you have a life problem question or issue for which you’d like a philosophical perspective, you can post it as a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.