Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Case of the Obnoxious Sister-in-law

For those who care to see where therapy goes off the rails, I cannot do better than to report an exchange between a letter writer and therapist Lori Gottlieb.

The letter writer, who dubs herself Anonymous, does not like her sister-in-law, her husband’s brother’s wife. The woman is arrogant and obnoxious, almost a caricature of a woke pseudo-intellectual. She hectors people. She talks down to people. She sees everything in black and white terms. She imposes her tastes on everyone else. She is an academic, thus, politically correct, multiculturally woke...the kind of person you would never associate with voluntarily. 

So, Anonymous does not like said sister-in-law. You will think, as I think, that she has a perfect right not to like someone. She has a right not to like someone who refuses to compromise on anything, who talks down to her and who attempts to impose her opinions on her.

This sounds perfectly reasonable. At times, people are angry for a reason. Even for a good reason. In fact, I would say that emotions often represent a response to something real, not a repeat of some long forgotten trauma.

And yet, therapist Gottlieb looks at the case and decides that Anonymous has a problem. She suggests that sister-in-law must be reminding Anonymous of someone in her past. And that she should pick through her past memories to discover what has made her so intolerant and judgmental.

So, therapists Gottlieb wants to disembarrass Anonymous of her adult judgment. She wants her to think that she is wrong not to want to deal with her insufferable sister-in-law.

This is disrespectful, to say the least. It is manipulative, to say the most. 

So, here are some excerpts from the letter:

She is an honest, trustworthy person and has never done anything to hurt me or anyone else in the family. Unfortunately, I can't stand her. Everything about her rubs me the wrong way. She sees the world in black and white, while I see infinite shades of gray. She’s quite accomplished in her academic discipline, but has zero emotional intelligence, which is the main characteristic I appreciate in people. For example, she’s always asking whether things are “good or bad,” even when we’re discussing a topic like an interpersonal relationship, which doesn’t usually fit into such binary categorization. She is also extremely health-conscious and has a list of things she doesn’t eat because “they’re not healthy.” It’s always absolutes, even about subjects for which there is no scientific consensus. I used to try to make special foods when she came over, but I always ended up doing something wrong and she wouldn't eat them, so I gave up.

I never know what to say to her—whenever she comes out with an absolute question or statement, I find myself either dropping my jaw, saying something that sounds condescending, or both. I feel so uncomfortable that I try to avoid being with her altogether, but that isn’t easy to do in intimate family gatherings.

I’m usually fine at maintaining a conversation with people with a wide range of interests and personalities, but with her, I just find doing so impossible.

I feel like bringing up the issue with her wouldn’t be helpful, because the problem isn’t something specific that she does, but rather her basic personality and emotional intelligence.

A woman who thinks in black and white terms, who defines everything in terms of absolutes might well be suffering from what the clinicians call depression. Sister-in-law has no grace or tact. She rejects what she is offered and speaks at, not with other people. Obviously, her husband and her brother (the husband on Anonymous) take every occasion to avoid her… and to foist her on Anonymous.

The solution is to stop trying to get along with her. The solution is to ignore her rants. The solution is to walk away from conversation with her. Perhaps that will bring sister-in-law to her senses.

Anyway, we, possessing a few last shreds of empathy, feel Anonymous’s pain. We would ignore such an individual, no matter who she was.

Anyway, Gottlieb thinks that Anonymous has a problem. Here is her remarkably wrong headed response:

Clearly she isn’t someone you’d choose as a friend, but what strikes me about your letter is the intensity of your feelings toward her. You say that she is honest and trustworthy, and has never done anything to hurt you or anyone in the family. But because she lacks “emotional intelligence” and holds what you consider to be less nuanced views on things like relationships and food choices, you “can’t stand her.”

Strange thing, when people have intense feelings, when they know what they feel, a therapist considers it a symptom. Gottlieb herself has completely missed the point and is refusing to see the sister-in-law as an abusive individual who talks down to Anonymous and who is constantly making her small.

Gottlieb misses this point completely. So completely that we start wondering about her.

She continues to offer her absurd advice:

When people have very strong reactions to others, I wonder how much of that vehemence is a direct response to the qualities of the person who triggers it, and how much is about something else.

You might want to get curious about how much of your reaction belongs in each category, because figuring this out will accomplish two things. First, it will help you see your sister-in-law more kindly, which in turn will diminish the intensity of your feelings and make the difficult relationship run more smoothly. Second, it will create more self-awareness, which will come in handy in all of your relationships, now and in the future.

Anonymous has no reason to be kind to a woman who demeans her. Yet, Gottlieb thinks that she ought to introspect, to dredge up unpleasant memories, because her reaction is not a function of her sister-in-law but the result of an unprocessed trauma:

To start, I suggest asking yourself, Who does this person remind me of? In other words, even if you didn’t grow up around someone who, on the surface, seems like your sister-in-law, do the feelings that come up when you think of spending time with her feel at all familiar? Maybe in some way she reminds you of a parent or your own sibling. Or maybe—and this generally takes people by surprise before they see the truth in it—she reminds you of you.

But many of the things that irritate us most about others are disowned parts of ourselves—the parts that are inconsistent with how we wish to view ourselves. 

Fancy that, disowned parts of ourselves. It does not cross Gottlieb’s mind that perhaps Anonymous, who gets along with everyone else, might be offering an objective appraisal of a woman who possesses some serious character flaws.

I’m sure you know that a key aspect of emotional intelligence, a quality you value so much, is the ability to create a pleasant relationship with someone with whom you don’t always agree or share a worldview—like your husband manages to do with his sister-in-law. Instead, you drop your jaw or say something hurtful and condescending when, as you say, your sister-in-law isn’t trying to upset you and means no harm. You might ask yourself why an otherwise emotionally intelligent person gets so thrown off by this one individual to the point of rudely insulting her.

As it happens, Gottlieb descends into confusion. She does not recognize that the person who cannot have a pleasant conversation with someone who does not share her worldview is the sister-in-law, not Anonymous.

So Gottlieb is telling Anonymous to become a sponge for abuse. And she suggests that the sister-in-law’s bad behavior is being provoked by Anonymous herself.

You may never become best friends with your sister-in-law, but once you figure out what’s getting in the way, you’ll be able to appreciate her positive qualities, see her through a more generous lens, model a warm extended-family relationship for your children, and, though you can’t imagine it now, enjoy her love and support and whatever else the relationship brings when you’re less “binary” in your feelings about her and able to see the gray.

If you want to understand why therapy is often so counterproductive, this response tells it all. 

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

"...when, as you say, your sister-in-law isn’t trying to upset you..." SIL doesn't have to "try", she just DOES.

Kinda reminds me of my sister... But I just let it all flow by me.