Lately everything my sister does or says gets on my nerves. Ever since my stressful spring semester of school ended I just want to be alone or away from my older sister. During the school year she was seeing a psychiatrist and they said she was depressed, so whenever we hung out she would only talk about her depression. I wanted to be there for her but I was going through my own problems with school stress (I go to art college and the work load is intense). Hearing about her problems was even more stress for me and I couldn’t tell her about mine because she was depressed and my problems seemed minor. However now that school is over and she’s no longer depressed I still find hearing about my sister’s life to be irritating. Whatever she says seems to be about her unhappiness and little things that I have done or haven’t done that have affected her. I feel blamed and I want to be alone so I don’t have to hear that but I can’t ignore her forever. What can I do? I feel a little smothered and it’s making me unhappy.

A: If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. Dalai Lama

Thank you for writing to us about your reaction to your sister. It is very difficult to be with someone who is chronically depressed.

While there is no magic formula in coping with someone’s depression, there are some general principles that may be helpful. Your sister’s depression isn’t something you can do much to help. She has to manage the ravages of the disease on her own. But you can still find a way to love her, show you care for her, and keep yourself from being consumed with the pain that comes from coping with the profound despondency and self-absorption that can accompany her illness.

The way through this is by detaching with compassion. Twelve step programs like Al-Anon use the phrase “detaching with love” to describe this process, but I have found the concept to be difficult for many to embrace because the frustration seems to block any sense of love. Compassion seems to be more comprehensible to family and friends, particularly when it means understanding, and honoring, your sister’s limitation as well as your own. Your sister doesn’t want to be depressed, and you don’t want to be angry. But both of you are in this dance of trying to figure out how to be together with the elephant of depression between you. My advice is to be kind and loving, but to set limits with your time and availability. The challenge is to find a balance; the risk is overextending yourself and becoming resentful.

Since you are at school I would highly recommend you meet with a counselor their to discuss coping with your sister.

Compassion implies an understanding of shared suffering with a desire, but not necessarily the ability, to help alleviate someone else’s pain. Try to be with her the way you would want someone to be with you if you were depressed. Your sister is trying to find happiness, avoid suffering, and get her needs met. Compassion means understanding she is a lot like you.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan