05 March 2007

Sibling rivalry in adulthood

Jealousy is there in your dreams, it's there every moment of the waking day – your job, your wardrobe, your house, your car, your spouse, your kids.


There she goes again – swanning about in her designer outfit, with her tall dark and handsome husband and her three little designer kids around the Sunday lunch table. Always in the limelight. And your parents are visibly swollen with pride – and you feel like making gagging sounds.

And when your parents need anything, like a lift to the doctor or someone to organise a plumber for the blocked drain, who do they call? You. You are always there for them, you see them three times a week. But do you get any recognition? No, they go weak at the knees if Mrs Perfect deigns to come and visit them once in six weeks – and then spend six weeks singing her praises, while you have your hands full with their diabetic dog and their errands to the post office. And that just gets taken for granted.

There is no more destructive emotion than jealousy. Anger, at least, finds an expression in ranting and raving, breaking things, crying and imagining revenge scenarios. Jealousy, however, eats you up from the inside like an insidious cancer. It's there in your dreams, it's there every moment of the waking day – your job, your wardrobe, your house, your car, your spouse, your kids. Absolutely nothing stands up to the comparison with your perfect sibling.

And, in a way, you feel that this has always been the case. When you were in the Christmas play, she was Mary and you were the fourth wise man. She was captain of several sports teams and you were the reserve – well at least every second week. You were sweet seventeen and never been kissed, whereas she'd been dating since she was fourteen.

So does sibling rivalry still make your life miserable? How can you let go of it?

Accept people are different. People are born with different strengths and weaknesses. Some are clever, some are pretty, some have lots of friends, some have creative or musical talents – whatever. People are not the same and they themselves often have little to do with the good things life has sent their way. You most probably have things of which your siblings are jealous. Don't beat yourself up about why people are born different. They just are. Accept it. Life does not end with your siblings or your family – there's a wide world out there.

Accept that parents are not perfect. Parents are people and people can sometimes make mistakes, be unfair or say insensitive things. That goes for you too. Let go of needing your parent's approval all the time. Surely, at your age, your own approval is more important to you than theirs? If they do things that are unfair, say something, but don't turn your life into a crusade for familial justice. You have more important things to do with your time.

Find your security in yourself/friends. Security is not something we can get from other people when we are adults. It's different when you're a helpless infant, but you are no longer that. We need to learn to be at peace with ourselves, accept ourselves, warts and all, and not derive a sense of self-worth or lack thereof, purely in comparison to other people. Finding happiness and contentment within ourselves is the best thing you can give yourself – and no one can take that away from you. Surround yourself with people who make a positive contribution to your life.

Stop comparing. Comparisons are odious. There will always be people who are better off, prettier, more successful than you, but the reverse is also true. Comparisons serve little function – except to make you desperately unhappy. Lives that look perfect from the outside, are often everything but. No one's life is plain sailing from start to finish – we all hit the rapids at some point. Maybe you just got it over with early on in life.

Don't be an injustice collector. Making mental notes of attention, financial assistance, time and attention your parents spend on your siblings, will only make you bitter and twisted. And the only person that this really affects negatively, is you. Siblings all need different things at different times. You might need your parent's babysitting services at present, your sister may need financial assistance after her messy divorce. Don't keep tabs – you're only hurting yourself. And remember, attention and affection are lovely gifts to receive, but we cannot lay claim to them in a disgruntled and proprietary manner. What's more, when we behave like that, it's difficult for others to be nice to us.

Be honest. Say how you feel if you think your parents are treating you unfairly. Be calm and open and honest and concentrate on how their actions make you feel. Let's say you asked them for a loan when the wind blew off half your roof, but they refused. And now they have lent thousands to your brother to go on an overseas trip. This is unfair and you do have a right to be treated fairly. But once you've said what you feel, let it go. Don't turn this into a family feud that simmers for decades.

No one's life is perfect. Your brother may have all the money in the world, but his wife gives him hell when no one is around to see it. Or his mother-in-law has a personality disorder. Or your sister is very successful in her career, but her child has learning disabilities. You may not know these things. Don't make yourself miserable by looking merely at the façade they choose to present to the world. The brand-new car may have been bought entirely on credit or the recent career change may not be nearly as rosy as it is made out to be. And it may not have been voluntary – lots of people get retrenched these days. Real life gets to everyone at some point – no one can escape it.

Get a life of your own. There is a big world out there. For you it may have begun, but it certainly won't end in your family of origin. While you are pouring all your energy down a bottomless pit of jealousy and are lying awake at night because you think your parents phone your brother more often than they phone you, wonderful opportunities could pass you by while your attention is focused on the nursing of old grudges.

Learn to say no. If it is really difficult for you to do something, say so. It may be slightly inconvenient to your dad to find someone else to take him for his eye test, but it may be extremely inconvenient for you to cancel your dentist's appointment in order to do so. Be available, but do not be at their every beck and call. Don't be manipulated into doing things and don't respond to guilt trips. If it's difficult for you to do something, suggest that they ask one of the other siblings. This may also focus their attention on the fact that you are usually the one they rely on – the others may not deserve all the accolades they get.

Let go of envy. Letting go of envy and jealousy, especially if it is of long standing, is a very powerful thing to do. It means reclaiming your power, time and energy, which you might have been channeling down unproductive and self-destructive pathways for many years. Let go of the past – it is over and shouldn't cast a permanent shadow over the present. If you have difficulty doing this on your own, see a therapist – we don't live in the fourteenth century anymore. Do what it takes to get happy.

Make friends with siblings. Don't see all contact as a competition. Make it clear that you're not part of the competition – no one can compete all on their own. Don't respond at all to siblings' boasting about achievements, acquisitions, or whatever. Smile nicely, look bored, and chat about things you are both interested in. Do nice things together, and avoid discussing the family. After all, these are the only siblings you will ever have – make the best of them.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24)


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