9 Signs You Might Have a Toxic Sister (& How to Cope, According to Therapists)

For starters, she doesn't respect boundaries

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toxic sister: Katherine Heigl and Malin Ackermamn film a scene for their new movie "27 Dresses" in Central Park
Marcel Thomas/Getty Images

In a perfect world, all sister relationships would look like something out of a sappy Disney movie. Think: sharing clothes, inside jokes and silly but harmless pranks on parents. In reality, though, they can be some of the toughest relationships to navigate. Think about it: This is someone who you’ve known for pretty much your entire life. She knows what motivates you, what makes you tick and what absolutely gets under your skin. And sometimes, if she’s a toxic person, she uses that knowledge against you. Read on for nine signs you might have a toxic sister, plus some therapist-approved methods for improving the situation.

Meet the Experts

What Exactly Makes a Person Toxic?

toxic sister young woman looking upset at her computer
Daniel de la Hoz/getty images

1. She *Has* to Be Right

Your good old sis has hated every person you’ve ever dated, and it’s starting to feel like no one is going to be good enough. She has similar opinions about your career goals, friends and pretty much everything else. If you’ve articulated that you’re happy with your life and the people in it and she still won’t stay out of your business, then your relationship with your sister could be toxic.

  • How to Deal: Brako-Owusu advises minimizing what you share with your sister if you know she can’t be supportive. You can also set clear boundaries about what you need/desire from a conversation. “That can sound like, ‘I need to talk to you about my dating life. I just need a listening ear, not advice. Are you able to listen without giving advice?’”

2. She’s Manipulative

When a non-toxic person asks a question (“Hey, want to come over next week?”), they don’t have any ulterior motives. When a toxic person asks you a question, though, they might be setting a trap. (“Are you free for dinner tomorrow at seven?” Subtext: “If you aren’t free for dinner tomorrow at seven, I’ll be mad at you for the rest of the week.”) “Their modus operandi is to get people to do what they want them to do,” says Abigail Brenner, M.D in Psychology Today. “It’s all about them. They use other people to accomplish whatever their goal happens to be. Forget what you want; this is not about equality in a relationship—far from it.”

  • How to Deal: “Remind yourself that the manipulation is not about you. It is about them. When you notice a manipulative pattern, it's helpful to name it in a kind way by expressing how it impacts you to be put in those situations,” Brako-Owusu says. “This can sound like, ‘When you schedule a time for dinner without consulting me, it makes me feel unimportant and not valued.’ Let them know what you are able to do and leave it at that. You cannot take on their emotions or control how they react to you.”

3. She Doesn’t Respect Boundaries

You love your little sister, but she’s always had a hard time knowing her place. She’s made a habit of showing up at your house, unannounced, expecting to be able to stay for dinner. Because you love her, you give in, but even after asking her to stop popping in without calling, she continues to do it.

  • How to Deal: Be clear on your boundaries, and the consequences that will come if they aren’t respected, Brako-Owusu advises. “For example, say, ‘I would like you to let me know before you come over. If you don’t let me know, I will not answer the door and we will need to reschedule your visit.’ It is sometimes not enough to simply say ‘Please don’t come over unannounced.’”

4. She Insists on Playing the Victim

Sometimes, family members can’t help but guilt trip each other. (“What do you mean, you aren’t coming home for Thanksgiving?”) But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment and creating a toxic environment by blaming everyone else for their feelings. If your sister refuses to talk to you for a week because you’ve decided to spend next Thanksgiving with friends, you could be in toxic territory.

  • How to Deal: “Take a moment to journal about the way your family uses guilt and shame to meet their needs. Awareness of this is key,” Bishop shares. “One thing that will help is becoming OK with big reactions around you saying no. This isn’t a healthy family dynamic, but you also may not be able to change your family. If there is something your family is creating pressure around you attending [an event], have a pre-planned response and don’t deviate: ‘This is what’s best for me right now. I already have plans to do X, if I have time I will stop by. I hate to miss it this time, but I’ve already [made my plans].’”

5. Her Apologies Are Never Sincere

Have you ever expected an apology from someone and ended up apologizing to them? This is a classic red flag. Let’s say your sister blew off the brunch plans you had last Saturday. Then, when you confront her about it, she delves into this long story about how she got into a huge fight with the guy she’s dating that morning and she doesn’t think she’ll ever find her soulmate and it’s all your parents’ fault for getting divorced when she was five. You feel for her, and you want to be there for her if she’s having a crisis, it’s just…she’s always having a crisis. And weren’t you just talking about brunch? Shifting tactics and turning herself into the victim is toxic territory.

  • How to Deal: “Reversing victimhood to escape responsibility is a classic toxic relationship move,” Vinall shares. “Sometimes crises do interrupt plans, but when it is a pattern, recognize it for the responsibility-shirking power play that it is to minimize the emotional manipulations you experience.” You can definitely empathize with your sister, but the key is to then steer the conversation back to accountability. For example, you might say, “I’m so sorry to hear about the fight with your boyfriend. That sounds deeply painful. Nevertheless, I need you to communicate with me when something comes up.”

6. Everything Is a Competition

Every time you call her to talk about a promotion at work or a potty-training breakthrough with your kid, she inevitably steers the conversation to be about her illustrious career or her parenting wins. Any healthy relationship should be a two-way street, and if your sister is incapable of celebrating your wins—big or small—it’s a sign that there’s an issue.

  • How to Deal: Bishop recommends having a conversation if you think your sister would be open to it. “Say something like, ‘Your support is important to me. I don’t want to feel like we’re competing. I’m happy to celebrate your wins as well. I would really love your support to look like [be specific about what you need here]. What can I do to celebrate your wins too?’”

7. Spending Time with Her Is Draining

Do you feel totally spent every time you interact with your older sister? We’re not talking about feeling like you need to be by yourself for a little while—something that can happen even with people we love being around. Interacting with a toxic person can leave you feeling defeated, since their dramatic, needy and high-maintenance tendencies can suck the energy right out of you.

  • How to Deal: “Check in with yourself frequently when in contact with your sister,” Vinall advises. “Assess your energy level and emotional reserves before you find yourself too depleted to respond well. Your patience and emotional capacity may fluctuate based on what is going on in your life and with your health on any given day.” Be confident in your knowledge that you have the right to good boundaries, she says, and don’t be afraid to communicate and enforce them. “With a toxic sister, you may have to be very firm and repetitive in enforcing your boundaries, but don’t give up. Stay consistent and calm so that she has less to reactively push back against.”

8. Everything Is Always About Her

You just got off a 45-minute phone call with your twin only to realize that she didn’t ask you a single question about your life or how you’re doing. If she was dealing with an important issue or had some exciting news, that’s one thing. But it shouldn’t happen pretty much every time you talk.

  • How to Deal: Try to take note of the patterns you observe when communicating with her. Vinall then recommends sharing what you’re experiencing. Try something like, “I’m glad you are comfortable sharing with me. I’m realizing we don’t often get around to talking about what’s going on in my life. Have you noticed that?” According to Vinall, this gives your sister a clear reason why you might drop the frequency of communication—and maybe gives her an opportunity to change. “If your sister simply isn’t capable of or interested in reciprocity in your relationship, be sure you are carving out time to cultivate deep relationships with surrogate sisters. Everyone needs a confidante and a friend willing and able to hold space for them.”

9. There Are Always Strings Attached

Sure, your sis will pick up your kids from school, but you’ll never hear the end of how lucky you are to have her help…followed by an immediate request to reorganize her closet. We’re not suggesting our family members should do every little thing for us, but you should be able to ask for a favor without having her hold it over your head or immediately ask for something unreasonable in return.

  • How to Deal: “Don't allow yourself to be manipulated by passive-aggressive behavior and contingency-based relationships,” Vinall advises. This means your new best friend is a one-letter word: “No.” If you can’t help out this time, that’s OK. And if you find yourself the one needing assistance? “Be intentional about building outside relationships with friends who will have your back unconditionally. Be sure to be toward others the sort of person you need, as well, showing up for them with what you have to give with no expectation or demand of tit-for-tat reciprocity.”
toxic sisters two women sitting on a couch in an argument
urbazon/getty images

4 Ways to Cope If You Have a Toxic Sister

1. Pick Your Battles

Sometimes it’s worth agreeing to disagree. Though sisters are often similar in many ways, you have to remember that you’re each your own person. You and your sister might have totally different ideas about careers, relationships and parenting, and that’s fine. It’s important to identify the areas where neither of you is likely to change your mind and agree to respect the other’s opinion without judgement or hostility.

2. Try the Grey Rock Method

We first discovered this handy trick on psychologist Nadene van der Linden’s blog, Unshakeable Calm. In a nutshell, it’s a tool to prevent toxic people from escalating a situation. Act as boring, uninteresting and disengaged as possible and toxic people will find it less exciting to try to manipulate you and choose another target. It takes some acting chops, but you don’t have to be Meryl Streep to master it. During every interaction with the toxic person, the trick is to speak in a neutral voice, talk about boring subjects, don’t make eye contact and give short, generic answers. And if the toxic person tries to get a rise out of you, don’t engage emotionally. Find out more about the Grey Rock Method here.

3. Have a Go-To Phrase on Standby

We get it—dealing with a toxic family member is tough and you never know what’s going to set them off. That’s why it’s useful to have a phrase or two handy that you can repeat whenever they give you unsolicited advice or ask you to do something. For the former, we like the phrase, “You may be right.” And for the later, try “I have to think about it.” Here’s how it works:

Sister: "I need you to plan a birthday party for me."
You: "I have to think about it. I have a lot of things going on in the next couple of weeks and need to see if that’s doable for me."

4. Recognize If Your Relationship Is Beyond Repair

Every sibling duo has the occasional argument (she totally lied about stealing your favorite sweater—and getting a stain on it). But if you always feel like you become your worst self when you’re around your sister, your relationship could be treading on toxic territory. “Toxic people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out,” Brenner says. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return." Sound familiar? While it can be incredibly difficult to cut a toxic sibling out of your life, there’s no shame in doing so—especially if it feels like you’ve tried everything.

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