My brother used to bully me. Now, when I hear from him, I panic

I am 22 and my brother is 24. I am married with a child; he is single. We grew up in a rocky family situation and were removed from our parents’ care and placed in a children’s home when I was five and he was seven. I don’t remember much before that, but he bullied me a lot growing up. For a while now I’ve been dealing with anxiety related to him – every time I see his name pop up over text, I freak out. I hate it when he calls or visits and I feel drained afterwards. He doesn’t deal with rejection well, so I feel I have to take the call. Deep down he’s a good guy who has issues, but I really want to figure out why I have this anxiety with him; I don’t have this issue with anyone else. I can’t afford therapy but I’m trying my best to work this out.

It sounds as if you and your brother are dealing with trauma connected with your childhood. “Freaking out” when you see someone or their name pops up on a phone is a sign of this, and bullying is a trauma, quite aside from everything else you both suffered as children.

I went to clinical psychologist and trauma expert Dr Deborah Lee ( “It seems both you and your brother have been exposed to traumatic childhood experiences, but you are reacting in different ways,” she said. She wanted to stress that nothing that happened to you is your (plural) fault. But, as adults, we have to take responsibility for our behaviour and your brother’s past doesn’t “negate the need for him to change his behaviour towards you”.

Lee explained that traumatic memories are stored differently from everyday memories in the brain. Instead of being stored in context in the hippocampus, they remain as fragmented and decontextualised in the amygdala (part of the brain’s fight or flight response). When these memories are re-experienced, it’s as if what happened to traumatise you is happening all over again. So “just seeing his name sends you into threat mode,” Lee said, “because that’s how he made you feel as a child.”

Lee said that another legacy of your trauma is that your brother – a dominant personality – elicits a “get-safe” response in you that makes you want to appease him. That’s why you feel the need to go along with him in order to feel safe. This is automatic and nothing to be ashamed of; as a child, you probably did the same.

“This doesn’t mean you can’t care about or love your brother. This feels confusing as you want the best for him, but he triggers a trauma reaction in you. What’s important is that your needs matter, too. If your brother is making you feel like this, then you have a right to protect yourself.”

Lee advocates compassion for all of you in this situation. “Compassion isn’t the soft option, it isn’t, ‘I have to put up with anything and everything.’ At the heart of compassion is the courage to do something that’s helpful, instead of harmful.” But you do need to start with showing yourself some kindness: you deserve it.

I asked what you might do, and it’s about setting boundaries. Lee suggested talking to your brother in a safe setting, chosen by you, rather than waiting for him to call, then explain that you find it really difficult talking to him at the moment. How, when he’s angry or upset, you get upset, too. “Give him the chance,” Lee suggested, “to redress the dynamic and take your needs into account.” However, she added, you may feel unable to do that, which is understandable. If it’s easier, you can put this in a letter.

If your brother can’t accept your needs, then you have some decisions to make. It’s OK to not take his call – you are not responsible for his happiness. It took me years to learn that being assertive isn’t the same as being rude. But it’s OK to say to him, “I need to step away for a while, but I still love you.” This isn’t rejecting him but protecting yourself (and the family you have made). His reaction to this is his responsibility – not yours.

I think you show incredible compassion, understanding and insight for someone so young. Lee has written a book that gives you – and maybe one day your brother – some great explanations and coping mechanisms. Called Recovering From Trauma Using Compassion Focused Therapy, it goes into much more detail than we can here. I know it varies hugely according to where you live, but you can access trauma therapy through the NHS via your GP.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see

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