Dear Patti,

I married my husband a year ago. I knew I was marrying a wonderful man but I didn’t realize that his whole family is wonderful. They own a very successful business in Pasadena and everybody in the family has welcomed me to become part of their company. I love the work, I love working in the community, and I love the family and how supportive they’ve been.

The problem is that every time I’m around the oldest sister, Nancy, I get uncomfortable. Nancy runs the business and she’s basically my boss at work. I go back and forth between either feeling intimidated and shy around her or secretly critical and resentful. I keep thinking furious thoughts about how she’s a demanding know-it-all and too bossy and controlling.

When I’m away from her though, I can see that Nancy’s not actually doing anything wrong. She keeps things running but hasn’t been domineering at all. In fact, if I’m honest, she pays attention to me and encourages my new ideas. Nancy is respectful to all the family members and especially kind to my elderly mother-in-law. She’s part of why I love working in the family business. But I still get these irrational surges of anger toward her.

My father died when I was very young, and my mother left me to be raised by my grandmother who was very controlling. For my whole childhood I felt like I had to fight constantly to have any rights at all. I recently realized that I’m reacting to my sister-in-law the same way I reacted to my grandmother and I don’t want to do that. It’s time to move on from my old childhood drama and leave it behind. I want to connect with my husband’s family in harmony both at work and home.

  — Beth

Dear Beth,

This is a very exciting time in both your personal and work life and one that will introduce no shortage of new familial relationships and challenges. As is often the case when people move forward, however, it’s not without the awkward weight of emotional baggage — elements that can influence how well you adjust to the latest change in your circumstances and the opportunities it presents for growth.

You want to heal from the pain and the insecurity of past traumas so they won’t interfere with your life today. That’s an excellent goal. You have already taken the first critical step by recognizing that your sister-in-law is treating you well but that you are emotionally reacting as if her behavior were a cruel carbon copy of what you previously experienced with your grandmother. This is called transference. The more you acknowledge and experience your repressed feelings toward your childhood matriarch, the less power those historic feelings will be able to exert on what you are doing today.

To accomplish this objective and reduce the tendency to transfer your feelings onto others, I would strongly recommend professional counseling. Find a therapist whom you trust and feel connected to. Keep in mind, however, that there is a good possibility you will eventually transfer feelings onto your therapist as well. That is often part of the therapeutic process, which your therapist will guide you through. The goal is for the two of you to create a safe, private space in which you carefully examine and heal these painful memories.

Until then, try this exercise. Write down all of the traits, both good and bad, that characterized your grandmother. Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down all the traits that Nancy exhibits. After reviewing both lists, write down the behaviors from your grandmother’s list that you are currently transferring onto your sister-in-law. Look clearly at the difference.

The next step is to choose a negative trait from your grandmother’s list and remember a specific time when she exhibited that trait and you felt mistreated as a result. See the experience in your mind’s eye and feel your anger and hurt. Do that with each negative trait and you will begin to understand where all of this is rooted.

Share this experience with your new therapist. You may find that therapeutic work will help your relationships, and maybe even help your relationship with your grandmother if you are still in contact with her. You will definitely experience improvement in your current contacts. Don’t let the past interfere with your new career, your new family, and other relationships to come. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.