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Originally published Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 6:01 AM

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Grown daughter still troubled by big sister

Using anything or anyone else as a point of reference is hopeless, writes Carolyn Hax, but parents should tread carefully in giving the younger daughter advice, lest they validate her worries.


Syndicated columnist

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Dear Carolyn

Hi, Carolyn:

I’m a dad with two grown daughters ages 33 and 35. Both have graduate degrees, are gainfully employed, live on their own, and are in what seem to be healthy relationships. My wife and I feel blessed and are very proud of them.

So, what’s the issue? Well, the younger one is forever comparing herself to the older one. It’s been going on since they were kids. When she does, she always concludes she doesn’t measure up. We have repeatedly stressed to her this is not healthy and she needs to stop. She agrees but just can’t seem to fully disengage from doing this. Are there any insights you can provide which would help?

– B.

DEAR B.: “Funny, your sister never compares herself with you.” But I’m mean, and presumably you’re not.

This will sound mean, too, but bear with me: Of course she doesn’t measure up to her sister.

But it’s not for the reason she thinks. She doesn’t measure up because Older is merely being herself, while Younger is modeling herself in the image of (or deliberately not in the image of) Older. If there’s one thing everyone here can agree on, presumably it’s that Older can be herself better than anyone else can. Younger’s quest was hopeless from its inception.

The only reasonable path Younger can take to feeling good about herself is to do the best job she can at being Younger. Using anything or anyone else as a point of reference is bound to fail.

If this concept resonates with you, if you think it will resonate with Younger, if she gives you the opportunity to present it to her, and if you think you can be patient from there and just listen to her response instead of trying to fix it, then go for it — once. If for no other reason than it isn’t your current comparing-yourself-isn’t-healthy-so-stop-doing-it mantra, which apparently isn’t getting it done.

You might also pose the question I’d ask her if she wrote to me: With whom would she compare herself if her sister didn’t exist?

Unless the right “ifs” are in alignment, though, it’s hard to see a place for your or anyone’s help. Your daughter is grown and this is her demon to fight. It’s possible your involvement even helps prolong her struggle; continually responding to a worry has a way of validating it.

It’s possible, too, that you see this as a bigger problem than it is. It’s hardly rare for adults to struggle with childhood hang-ups only when they’re around family, for 33-year-olds to turn 12 again upon crossing their parents’ thresholds. Whether you say this new piece or not, make sure the next thing you try is changing the subject to something more productive, or interesting, or centered on Younger’s strengths, or blissfully non-sibling-related. If nothing else, it’s a little relief for you all.

Hi, Carolyn:

My sister (young 20s) has been dating her high-school boyfriend for six years, the past five long-distance. They plan on moving in together later this month.

She’s made comments about him “chipping in” with rent and bills. I suggested that he needs to pay half of everything until the day they get married. I’m worried that if they break up she’ll be left with a much lighter bank account than if they were to split things evenly. She seems to think nothing can go wrong.

For what it’s worth, I used to live with the man I thought I was going to marry, we broke up, he owed me thousands (which I never got back) and she saw this firsthand. I’m hoping to let her learn from my mistakes versus make her own. How do I approach the subject with her without coming off the wrong way?

– Protective Big Sister

DEAR PROTECTIVE BIG SISTER: If she genuinely believes “nothing can go wrong,” then you need to accept that she’s not absorbing any information she doesn’t want to hear.

If you’re just projecting that belief based on her decision not to take your advice, then you need to accept that she’s going to do what she wants, not what you think she should do.

Either way, any attempt to approach a subject you’ve clearly already approached, unsuccessfully, puts you at high risk of coming off the wrong way. Acknowledge that, maybe, and frame your concern accordingly: “I know I got into your business about sharing expenses with Boyfriend. It’s just that Ex owes me thousands that I doubt I’ll ever see, so I felt a duty to speak up. But I’ll butt out now that I’ve made my point.”

Even then, tread lightly. No one likes to be badgered, even by people bearing sensible, well-meaning advice forged in the heat of the bearer’s own suffering. We all have an inalienable if overexercised right to make mistakes eerily similar to ones our siblings just made.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living



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