Helping My Unhappy Sister

June 1, 2017

5 min read


How can I prevent my sister from engaging in self-pity and help her be more grateful?

Dear Emuna,

I have a sister who I dearly love. However she gets easily overwhelmed, often engages in self-pity, and leaves me feeling quite down after speaking with her. How can I prevent her from engaging in self-pity, help her see the blessings she has in life (which she truly does!) and help her be a more grateful person? I've tried given her suggestions over the years (including reading Jewish books on spirituality, writing something to be grateful for each day...) but none seemed to have helped.

Wishing to help my sister

Dear Wishing to Help,

I applaud your desire to help your sister live a happier and more fulfilling life. Unfortunately, like the proverbial light bulb, your sister has to want to change. Her negativity, however destructive, is her comfortable, easy, habitual pattern. It would take a lot of effort for her to overcome that. She is certainly capable of it but you can’t make it happen and my best guess is that she doesn’t welcome your (presumably unsolicited) suggestions.

For your own sake, you need to minimize your time with her (negative people bring us down, even – or perhaps especially – family members!) and model your own more positive approach to life. Perhaps at some point she will be inspired by your example, to try to change her ways. If so, expect the progress to be slow with many bumps in the road. That’s how growth happens.

Another possibility might be sharing your own struggles – not in a preachy, unnatural way but if you have been able to rise above some challenges and reframe them in a positive light, you could describe that to your sister. I would wait for a time when you are relaxed and just “hanging out” together and it flows more naturally from the conversation.

It is painful when people we love are unhappy. But happiness is something we have to choose for ourselves; no one else can choose it for us. We need to recognize that it is within our power to choose and that we don’t need to be reactive. But, again, we need to want it.

Husband Won’t Listen to Doctor

Dear Emuna,

My husband has an issue with his heart. Thank God, he eats healthy but his doctor told him it’s not enough. He must exercise at least four times a week for at least ½ hour at a time. My challenge is that he just refuses to do so. He’s always too busy or too tired or wants time with me and the kids (how do I argue with that?). I understand but I’m also frightened. I don’t want anything to happen to him. How do I motivate him to listen to the doctor? I feel like I am constantly nagging with no impact.

Scared Wife

Dear Scared,

I don’t blame you for being scared. Apparently one of the biggest challenges doctors face these days is the lack of patient compliance. I don’t know if that’s a comfort but your husband’s behavior is certainly normal. Of course that doesn’t diminish the risk. I’m not surprised that your nagging has no impact; it rarely does. Like the sister in the previous letter, your husband has to want to change. He’s the one that has to be motivated to exercise.

Is there any role you can play in that? It’s possible that if you approach him from a place of love instead of a place of anger and frustration (even if that’s also motivated by love) you may get some results. I would tell him how much you love him, how much the children love him (the ones he’s playing with to avoid exercising!), how much joy he brings to all of your lives and yes, how devastated you would all be if anything, God forbid, were to happen to him. Yes, spell it out. Ask him to do it as a special kindness for you and the kids, as a sign of love, as a birthday or anniversary present (you can get that diamond bracelet next year when he’s healthy, please God). If expressed that way, I think there’s a good chance that his love for you and his desire to please you will motivate him to begin.

Maybe you could even do it together…But don’t stop there. Once he starts, he will need positive reinforcement. Tell him how proud you are, how impressed you are, how relieved you are. Tell him how much you respect and admire his new choice and his determination to succeed. This is not insincere; it’s true. You just have to remind yourself to say it. I am optimistic that this approach will see some positive results. And, of course, like the loving sister above, pray with all your heart – for the health of his.

Share your advice in the comment section below.

Next Steps