Every time I’m on Facebook, I’m always struck by how many “You’re the best sister in the world” memes I see. And I think, “Does everyone have such a superstar sibling?” Because… I don’t think so. I’m lucky that I really love my big sis, but sadly not everyone has a first-rate rapport with their family members. In fact, I’m willing to bet money that a lot of you out there will recognize these signs of having a toxic sibling — despite what social media would lead you to believe.
So what exactly constitutes a toxic sibling, from, say, a pain in the butt brother or sister? “Anyone with siblings has personal experience with sibling rivalry,” says Laura Ann Elpers, MS, LMFT, RPT, a marriage and family therapist and author of Little Worm: A Story About Worry. Siblings can frequently disagree and fight with each other. Which is why your kids might seem to spar many times over the course of the day — or even the hour.
But where sibling rivalry ends and a toxic relationship begins comes down to how it’s handled. “Traditional sibling rivalry is generally countered by periods of making up, cooperation, and affection for one another,” says Elpers. Difficult sibs, on the other hand, don’t follow that pattern. They will continually prod and poke at you until you crack. “Having a toxic brother or sister presents unique challenges because these people are piece of the family system and likely a significant part of one’s life story,” says Elpers. And since you might not be able to completely cut ties with them, it’s important to know the signs so you can protect yourself, both emotionally and physically.
1. They're Overly Critical
Sure, you can expect that your sibling might take a pot shot at you from time to time, but a toxic one takes it to the next level. “A toxic sibling might criticize your parenting, your choice in partner, or how you respond to a share life event,” says Elpers. “This can feel like constant judgment and negativity without a productive outcome.” You might end up feeling like you can’t do anything right no matter what, since your sib might often be critical about your choices and even your feelings.
But before you write them off for good, see if you can find the underlying reason for their antagonism. Maybe they're harboring a grudge over a long-ago fight that was never resolved? Or maybe they just don't know how to express themselves well enough to talk through the issue. Take the time to sit down with your sibling one-on-one, and try to find the root of the problem. It might not be that they're entirely toxic, per se, but have fallen into a bad pattern of behavior that they need to break, as Bustle reported.
2. They Can’t Accept Responsibility
The blame game is alive and well when it comes to a toxic sibling. They might fault you for anything (and everything) that goes wrong in their lives, even if you have nothing to do with it. From losing a job to the end of a relationship, their go-to is to accuse others for their own choices. “They don’t demonstrate accountability or show responsibility for their role in their own life circumstances,” says Elpers. And if the finger is pointed at you often enough, you might actually start believing those lies. Speak to your sibling and show them, without blaming, where their culpability lies, and how they can improve their life without being too judgmental.
3. They're Not Supportive
Let’s say that you got passed over for that promotion at work. A normal brother or sister will empathize and rally behind you to make you feel better. Not the toxic sibling, who’s probably doing a not-so-secret happy dance due to your misfortune. “They’ve likely never shown warmth or understanding toward other family members during challenging times,” says Elpers. “Rather, they are more likely to highlight additional problems than offer a thoughtful gesture of support.” So if you’re having trouble at work, they’re quicker to make you feel like it’s your fault than to help you find practical solutions.
Still, it's important to remember that if you want them to support you, you have to support them first. So even if it's painful, try to be a pillar of strength for your sibling during their time of need. Hopefully, by mirroring positive behavior, they'll see how they should react in similar situations.
4. Lacks Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings or emotions. Unfortunately, a sibling who doesn’t have your back won’t be able to do so. On the contrary, he might look to pour more salt in your wound, or twist the situation around so that you wind up feeling worse about your life. And he’ll do it in such an insidious way that you may not realize that it’s even happening. An inability to empathize is equated with low emotional intelligence, reported Very Well Mind, and can be hard to handle when it’s your sibling who’s dishing it out.
Sure, it's hard to be empathetic to a person who isn't good at showing their emotions. But someone has to be the bigger person here, and that's probably going to be you. You can highlight current events in which someone exercised empathy, and see what your sibling's reaction is. If it's a little lackluster, try to guide them towards a more positive response.
5. They Get Defensive
Gained a few pounds? A poisonous brother or sister is sure to point out that your pants are a little tighter than normal. “A toxic sibling can easily offer criticism but rejects any feedback that comes their way,” says Elpers. For example, your brother might pass judgment about how you haven’t made a visit to your parents recently, but the moment you realize that he hasn’t seen them since last spring, he’ll become more agitated and defensive.
When you get defensive, walls are built that are often hard to tear back down. Most likely, the last thing you want to do is isolate yourself from your sibling, so even though it's much easier said than done, try to not get defensive even if they do. And if the situation gets too tense, just walk away for a while and take a breather to gather yourself and your thoughts.
6. It’s All About Them
Look up narcissism in the dictionary and you wouldn’t be surprised to find a pic of your toxic sibling there. While having a healthy ego is normal, narcissists are consumed with their lives — and no one else’s. Being around this level of toxicity can be draining, especially if it’s your own sibling, reported Psychology Today. That’s why you should set limits as to how often you interact with your brother or sister, especially if their presence makes you feel stressed out.
Even though they might steal the spotlight, give your sibling time to shine during your conversations together. Then, share your own news, too. Trying to cut him off or interrupt him might only further incense the situation. So let him lead your conversations on occasion (not all the time), because maybe all he really wants is for you to hear him.
7. They Bring Out The Worst In You
In a healthy relationship, you feel loved, respected, and valued. But a toxic sibling makes you feel the opposite — and often. The hard part is that it’s your family member, so it’s not like you can just unfriend or block them, like you would an annoying high school FB friend. “You might be less likely to completely cut ties with a sibling,” agrees Elper. “So recognizing your individual needs within the relationship can positively impact your experience with these distressing family members.” So be aware of how you feel when you’re around your sibling. If you’re incessantly upset, tense, or frustrated, these are all signs that you may need to rethink the relationship.
Everyone has their own set of triggers, things that people say or do that can make them irate and irritable — and that includes you, too. While having a toxic sibling isn't easy, make sure that you're holding yourself accountable for what you bring to your relationship, too. That way, you'll know that you did everything to make it work, regardless of the outcome.
Ultimately, it will be up to you to determine how to handle the situation, since your brother or sister may or may not see the error of their ways. Remember, your well-being (and that of your family) is of the utmost importance, so make sure that you put yourself first.