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Help Ease Your Client’s Adult Sibling Rivalry

5 ways to help your clients let go of resentment, envy, and jealousy

All relationships can be complicated, but sibling ones all the more so.

“But I’m in the water, too, I wanted to say. And there are plenty of eyes on you. No one’s watching to see if I stay afloat.”

– from Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn

No reading between the lines was needed with Joan. She couldn’t have been more candid.

“I can’t stop resenting her!”

Sally, Joan’s sister, was always the “bright” one, the “gifted” one.

Suddenly Joan’s 73-year-old face took on an almost infant grimace. “It was obvious my parents considered her the ‘pretty one’. I love her, but when I see her now, I just feel this horrible envy – even after all these years!”

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It was clear that sibling rivalry had cast its bitter shadow across the length of her lifetime.

As she waxed unhappily about her love/hate sisterly relationship, I was reminded uncomfortably of the 1962 psychological thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which two ageing sisters live together in mutual enmity.

All relationships can be complicated, but sibling ones all the more so.

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Sibling rivalry: It’s a love/hate thing

Joan still felt her sister was more popular, more showy, a better cook, professionally more accomplished, and had aged better than she herself had.

“I know it’s irrational… and I just want to stop caring! I want to accept her as she is and me as I am!”

The truth is that sibling rivalry can be complex. Love and envy, affection and resentment canand often do coexist within one relationship – but they make uncomfortable and messy bedfellows.

But just where is the line between sibling jostling and outright, no-holds-barred rivalry?

Defining the term

Many, perhaps most, siblings compete to some extent but, ideally, feelings of unfairness and undue competition drop away with the years. Siblings may grow closer or further apart, but generally the sense of acute comparison with one’s sibling is replaced by mature feelings that no longer keep us hooked into the past.

Chronic sibling rivalry:

So for what, exactly, do siblings compete?

Attention: A scarce resource

We all need attention. Just as with any need, such as food, some of us are pretty good at getting by on just enough, while some of us feel we need a constant supply. Perhaps if it has been scarce in the past, we are more likely to cling to it jealously and feel insecure that it may be withdrawn at any time.

Joan felt all the love, praise, and focus had been on her talented “shining star” of a sister. Joan’s childhood had passed, but the hurt had not.

Still competing!

“It’s crazy, but I still feel I’m trying to compete with her! If she’s been on vacation, I have to let her know that my vacation was just as good as hers! If she’s read a novel by a particular author, I want to show her I’ve read many books by that writer. It’s pathetic!”

What was impressive, though, was Joan’s level of insight. She understood her psychology and what she was doing, but this knowledge had so far not helped her feel better about and around her sister.

It did seem, though, that it wasn’t just childhood or retrospective perception that Joan’s parents had lavished more attention on her younger sister Sally. It really seemed they had. In a sense, she had every right to feel cheated – shortchanged by a world that seemed to value Sally’s attributes more than hers.

So why would parents give one child more attention than another?

The ‘special child’

Parents may inadvertently (and unconsciously) favour one child over another for all kinds of reasons. Maybe that child was the firstborn, or lastborn, or proves to be good at something the parents always dreamed they’d be good at themselves.

I remember one mother cooing that her youngest daughter had the musical talent of which she herself had always dreamed. And parents can often assign roles to their children:

  • “Sarah is the sensible one.”
  • “John is the clever one.”
  • “Sam is the troublesome one.”

And so on.

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The ‘special child’ may use bad behaviour as a way of ‘cheating’ extra attention out of their parents. Or if they are ill or have special needs as a result of some condition, they may simply and inevitably require more attention. Their siblings may resent them for this and feel guilty for this resentment.

Or perhaps the favoured child (whether the parents would ever consciously admit that child was favoured or not) simply seems to inhabit the qualities most valued by the parents. Perhaps they are more academic, physically attractive, or sporty. If these attributes are prized by a parent, then the child who most seems to inhabit these qualities may be unfairly prized, too.

And children are especially attuned to this kind of unfairness.

“Why is it okay for them but not for me?!”

Siblings can resent the fact that it seems that what is expected and ‘allowed’ for their sibling isn’t for them.

One client told me that he felt that his parents quite admired his brother for travelling the world and “doing exactly as he wanted”, whereas whenever he tried to go his own way, they would frown upon it. He described his brother as always having been “the golden child” and “the blue-eyed boy who can do no wrong!”

I asked Joan how she felt her parents had viewed her.

“Well, first off it’s important to say, they really did love me.” I knew there was a ‘but’ coming… “But they saw me as the sort of klutz, the dumb and silly one who was dowdy but could sometimes make people laugh. It’s like they put most of their energy into Sally because she was going to be someone!”

And it can be all too easy to be as we feel we are expected to be.

Role play

When other people concoct roles for us, we can quite easily come to play out these roles. We can, of course, also rebel against them, especially in adolescence. Yet the roles assigned to us and which we ‘play’ in childhood can determine our behaviour for decades – especially in relation to our families.

When other people concoct roles for us, we can quite easily come to play out these roles. The roles assigned to us and which we 'play' in childhood can determine our behaviour for decades - especially in relation to our families. Click to Tweet

If we, even subconsciously, feel we’ve been labelled, we may, even years later, find ourselves saying stuff like, “You were always the clever/sensible/pretty one!” or “I’m just not clever/brave/outgoing!”

We may have come to see our role and our sibling’s role as distinct and stuck, as though cast in stone.

What’s more, we can slide back into roles as though through a kind of regression once we find ourselves within family dynamics again.

I suspect sibling rivalry happens more often than many care to admit. And although it may not be the presenting issue with clients, it may often be a factor in their current unhappiness.

I’d like to offer five strategies I used with Joan that may help you help any clients who exhibit sibling rivalry. So here goes…

Tip one: Help your client transcend their role

Joan felt her parents and sister saw her as “dowdy, lightweight, and superficial”. I asked her if there was any counterevidence to these perceptions.

She thought for a moment and admitted that her mother had expressed pride in Joan before she’d died and that she felt her parents had at last come to accept her choice of artistic career.

I asked her if there had been times in her life when she’d thought or done anything profound and meaningful.

Again, she was pensive before replying, “Yes. I nursed my first husband through his final illness. I know he appreciated me so much and I was good at caring for him in his final months.”

I suggested that this didn’t sound lightweight or superficial, and she agreed that it was not.

So we can ask our clients to delineate the ‘role’ they feel they played (or were handed) within their childhood family dynamic and then ask them to generate, or even simply imagine, the possibility of a transcendent role, perhaps one their parents never even suspected.

Tip two: Help them celebrate their uniqueness

Another important step is to help our clients constantly remember that, as obvious as it might sound, only they can be them.

I’m often struck by how different siblings are to one another.

Brothers and sisters can sometimes seem to be polar opposites in their characters. It seems that nature needs all kinds of different types of people to populate the planet. Look around at siblings and so often you might be amazed they are even related! It’s as though the Universe needs different types of people.

I suggested to Joan as she relaxed deeply in hypnotic trance that not all bees can, or should, be queens or workers, just as not all people are meant to be accountants or dancers or maths whizzes. Perhaps nature scatters different types of people into the world because different types of people are needed.

I asked Joan Socratically how life would be if she’d simply been a carbon copy of her sister.

We are all the sum of not just our personalities but our pasts – so we may also need to deal with some difficult memories.

Tip three: Help undo any knots from the past

I asked Joan if there were any painful memories that stood out for her as exemplifying the way she now felt about and around her sister.

She told me several, but one that really stuck with her was when she’d been around 9 or 10 and, just before being asked by a distant relative to sing a song she’d been learning at school, had been referred to by her mother as “the silly one”. She remembered feeling embarrassed and not being able to recall the song.

Joan found that she sometimes got a similar feeling now, many decades later, around her sister or even when people referred to her sister. I helped her unhook this ‘faulty pattern match‘ so the memory no longer played upon her unconscious responses.

There are many different methods we can use to help our clients resolve the effects of past emotional conditioning.

We can’t undo the past, but sometimes we can undo its effects on us.

But we also need to know how your client wants to be in relation to their sibling.

Tip four: Help your client negotiate a new adult relationship with their sibling

I asked Joan how she felt and tended to be around her sister Sally. She studied the wall behind me, lost in thought.

“To be honest, I tend to be a bit passive-aggressive with her.” She added quickly, “It’s a bit unkind, because she’s really supportive of me now. But it’s as though I just revert back to when we were kids, feeling resentful but also slightly in awe of her.

“Every time I see her, I feel uncertain, dowdy, incompetent, and jealous; but I never usually feel like that!”

When people tell me how they feel around someone, I ask them how they want to feel.

Joan had never really considered that before, but eventually said she wanted to feel valuable, calm, and in touch with the strengths “I know I have” when she was with her sister or even just thinking about her.

Now it was time to get practical.

Tip five: Help your client rehearse feeling different

I encouraged Joan to hypnotically expand a sense of her own unique self, with all her strengths and potentials and positive traits.

While she was feeling that fully, I suggested she strongly imagine being with her sister while feeling connected to all her own positive traits, feeling good, grounded, calm, and wonderfully accepting of both herself and her sister.

This was much easier once we had worked on unburdening her of some of the worst memories of feeling second-best to her sister as a child and young adult (tip three).

Joan didn’t feel she needed to forgive her parents – “They were just being who they were!” – and was able to see the good they had done for her, too.

Ultimately, she was excited to develop a new sense of closeness with her sister after so long. “After all,” she told me, “we’re acorns from the same tree – even if every acorn is unique in its way.”

Watch Mark Tyrrell Work Live With Real Clients

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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