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I crave connection with my siblings – but they are toxic

<span>‘Can friends satisfy my need for sibling connection?’</span><span>Photograph: Johner Images/Getty Images/Johner RF</span>
‘Can friends satisfy my need for sibling connection?’Photograph: Johner Images/Getty Images/Johner RF

The dilemma I feel very alone in my family. I’m in my mid-50s and happily married. My parents are both dead. I have five siblings.

My mother was a narcissist, which screwed us all up. I’m years into therapy and it’s been brilliant. My self-hatred is almost behind me, and I finally feel a lot more joy. My siblings are mostly toxic to varying degrees. Two of them are also in therapy, both still experience pain which can get dumped on to me, and I’m always having to tread carefully around their reactions. This has got exhausting. The toxicity from the other three siblings has been worse; they exclude me, tell lies about me, and can just be downright nasty.

Going “no contact” with them seems so dramatic. But I’m in pain because I don’t connect with my family the way I crave. I have good friends outside my family. Can I seek connection with friends that satisfies my need for sibling connection? I’m asking you for permission.

Philippa’s answer I’m going to have to borrow from a rather marvellous Instagram inspirational message I saw on DJ Fat Tony’s Insta feed (@dj_fattony_). It went something like this: start accepting people for who they are but place them where they belong. Begin making realistic decisions about where they fit into your life based on who they keep consistently showing you they are instead of who you want them to be.

Another saying, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” is probably less useful to you. Maybe that one came into being so that we don’t get stabbed in the back. Why do we humans often want to convince those who hate us to like us? It is as though we don’t realise that, unlike our ancestors from pre-history, for whom exile from the group might have meant you didn’t survive, we can walk away from family and find a more congenial group of people to live among. Is it also possible that you may be a victim of old family messages that have got under your skin that say things like, “Stick to your family, don’t trust strangers?”

Rely more on the people who do love you to be your human mirrors

What is this craving to be close to your siblings about for you? Do you have a belief that if you had a great connection, it would mean that you are a good person? If you don’t achieve this closeness, what meaning are you making out of that? How would the beliefs you have about yourself change if you did get along happily with your family? Change your beliefs to those anyway. The people around us are our human mirrors. If they reflect back to us an inaccurate picture of who we believe we are, it can be crazy-making. I wonder if you have a subconscious belief that if they reflected back to you a more accurate picture of who you are, you would somehow feel more at peace.

We can never fully know anyone, but we believe we do because our imagination fills in the gaps and our meaning-making propensities come up with theories that we mistake for facts about why other people do what they do. This was brought home to me again when watching episodes of the BBC’s The Traitors. We the viewers see the players when they are all together, but we also see some of them when they are in private, so we have facts that the larger group doesn’t have, and we watch them make meanings and fill in the gaps from the insufficient information they do have, and they often get it wrong.

It’s not just this random bunch of people who behave like this – we all do. We all get stuff wrong about other people. My advice to you is to hold your theories about your siblings lightly. Maybe don’t give them labels in your mind like “toxic”. There is nothing like thinking someone is toxic for making them think you are, too. I would also advise you (and me, and everyone) to spend as much time as you can with people with whom you feel good, feel relaxed, feel able to talk to about anything without rehearsing it in your mind first. Because these are the people who make the best human mirrors for us.

You want permission to stop trying to get on with them and put your energies into people who can appreciate you? Yeah, yeah, you can certainly have that! But you do know you don’t need anyone’s permission? You are a grown-up, and I wonder whether your siblings treat you like you are still a child. Is that part of the distorted mirror?

Your siblings were among the first people you ever knew so you could not help but form bonds with them. But remember wise Fat Tony’s words: make realistic decisions about where they fit into your life based on who they keep consistently showing you they are instead of who you want them to be.

You could cut them out completely; you could carry on trying to make them respect you; or you could rely more on the people who do love you to be your human mirrors; and you could take the reactions of your siblings to you a little more lightly than you presently do. Give your siblings less psychological power over you and spend more time with people who do love and appreciate you.

Philippa Perry’s The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) is published by Cornerstone at £18.99. Buy it for £16.14 at guardianbookshop.com

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions