Carol has started therapy because of her concerns about her younger sister, Kaitlyn. Carol is 33 and is a bank branch manager. She has been married to Fred, 35, for 10 years. They have one child, Douglas, 8. Kaitlyn, 29, is recently unemployed and living back home with her parents. Carol and Kaitlyn are the only children of Rob, 55, and Cathy, 54. Rob is also in banking. He would like to retire in 10 years, but at the rate things are going, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to. Taking care of Kaitlyn is expensive. When she’s out of work, which is often, she depends on her folks to support her. Sometimes she moves back home, but usually she asks for help paying rent so that she can live with whatever boyfriend she has at the moment.
Carol was always the “good one”. Good grades, nice friends, after-school activities, the works. She tried hard and succeeded at making her parents proud. Even so, she never felt like she got as much attention as her messed up sister. She tries to be understanding; after all, Kaitlyn has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been in and out of hospitals since she was 13. But still, Carol knows she can get quite resentful when her parents go on and on about Kaitlyn’s problems and forget to even ask about Carol and her family! Carol worries about Kaitlyn, and her parents, too. What will become of Kaitlyn when her Rob and Cathy get too old to help? And what will become of her parents if Kaitlyn keeps sucking them dry the way she has? Fred doesn’t like it, but she herself has “loaned” her baby sister more than a few dollars over the years. What can she do? Have her turned out into the street? Leave her parents with the whole burden?
So Carol has come in to find a way to help her sister and help her parents. I guess I had to disappoint her when the first thing I told her is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to change the relationship between two (or more) other people. That’s just a rule of life. In fact, the more you try, the more stuck the system will become; because the people you are trying to change will focus on you instead of on themselves.
So, rather than coming up with solutions for her family, I asked Carol to imagine her brain as a pie chart. I suggested she put the topics she normally thinks about into slices on the pie, and asked her to tell me how the pie is divided. With a look of uncomfortable surprise Carol said, “About 60% of my brain is focused on my sister and my parents, I’d say 25% is on my son, and 10% is my husband”.
“What’s the other 5%, I asked?”
“Divided between my job, the house, and hating my weight! “
“Well, what do you think about that?”
“I think it sucks,” she announced. “No wonder my husband is so impatient with me lately, and no wonder he’s become such a workaholic. I don’t make him my priority at all.”
“Well, who else is getting short-changed in this deal?”
“I don’t know, my son?”
“You, that’s who! You’re doing just what your parents did-ignoring the one who isn’t the
squeaky wheel. I’ll bet you have a fantasy that if you can fix your parents and your sister, then it’ll be your turn to get taken care of. But Carol, no one’s waiting in line to do that for you if you won’t do it for yourself. The same thing is true for Kaitlyn, too, by the way-no one’s efforts toward her will work as long as she thinks it’s their job instead of hers to improve her life.”
“You know, you’re right. I’ll think more about that. I’ve been putting off starting a yoga class. Maybe I should do that.”
What’s your brain pie chart telling you? Do you like the way the slices are divided?