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All About Sibling Rivalry

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

Why you may resent your sibling

"I can't stop resenting her! She was always the 'bright one', the 'gifted one', it was obvious that 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!"

Sibling rivalry can cast its shadow across whole lifetimes. I worked with this woman in her seventies who had a very destructive relationship with her sister. I was reminded uncomfortably of the 1962 psychological thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in which two aging sisters live together in mutual enmity and hate.

Sibling rivalry: Loving and hating

Sibling rivalry can be complex. You might love your sibling but resent them. What's more, the intensity of your resentment can leave you baffled: "I'm an adult now; why does it still hurt so much?!" Loving someone and resenting them can be hard. Sometimes it's easier and simpler, though of course not better, just to hate someone.

All siblings compete to some extent and ideally, feelings of unfairness drop away with the years. But chronic sibling rivalry happens when sibling competition becomes:

  • Almost constant.
  • Damaging to self-esteem and confidence.
  • Damaging to the relationship with the sibling.
  • Ongoing through the years.
  • Damaging to the relationship with the parents.

So for what, exactly, do siblings compete?

Attention: A scarce resource

We all need attention. Think of it as a food. Some of us are pretty good at getting by on just enough - and some of us feel we need a constant supply. (Ever noticed how fading celebrities accustomed to constant attention may seek increasingly desperate ways to cling onto it? Look no further than 'reality' television like Dancing with the Stars or I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!)

The point is, attention from parents is a scarce resource. You can't have all of it all the time. It needs to be shared out.

Ever seen young chicks competing with their siblings for food - desperate and open-mouthed? Rival siblings compete, just as fervently, for the attention of their parents.

If you feel that your parents give more of the available praise, encouragement, concern, and high regard to your brother or sister than to you, you may feel cheated. It will feel unfair! It's not surprising that feelings of resentment become directed toward the sibling.

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 different reasons. Maybe that child was the first born, or last born, 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. Parents can assign roles to their children:

  • "Sarah is the sensible one."
  • "John is the clever one."
  • "Sam is the troublesome one."

And so on.

The 'special child' may have behavioural problems or even be ill. They may use bad behaviour as a way of 'cheating' extra attention out of their parents. Or because they are ill or have extra special needs through some condition, they may simply and inevitably require more attention. The sibling may resent them for this and feel guilty for this resentment.

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 - often in adolescence. Roles we 'play' in childhood can determine our behaviour for decades - especially in relation to our families. And the fact remains that years later we may still find ourselves saying stuff like: "You were always the clever/sensible/pretty one!"

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

So how does all this affect some siblings as they age?

Sibling rivalry and regression

Situations can make us regress. Middle-aged men might enter the situation of an old school reunion and find themselves feeling, even acting, in ways they had thirty years before. Even elderly siblings can 'revert to type' when they meet up and regress to feelings they had fifty years before.

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

An important step in overcoming old sibling rivalry is to renegotiate a new adult relationship with your sibling.

Nature has its own needs

Another important step is to constantly remember that you can only be you. I'm often struck by how different siblings are to one another.

Brothers and sisters can sometimes seem quite opposite in their characters. It's thought that about 50% of how we behave is genetically determined. It also seems that nature needs all kinds of different types of people to populate the planet.

Not all bees can, or should, be queens or workers or accountants (help me out here, what other types of bees are there?) - but you get my point. Nature needs to scatter different types of people into the world because different types of people are needed. Perhaps you are supposed to be very different from your sibling.

Eventually, we need to disentangle our sense of identity from the conditioning and expectations placed upon us when we were very young. Who do you want to be?

You are not your brother or sister. But you can begin to relate to them as other adults without resentment or bitterness.

Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Relationship Help