Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Sibling Rivalry: Revisited

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 5, 2011

elderly care

Tamara, comes in saying “I don’t want to talk about my mom today. I want to talk about my older sister Thais. Thais was two years ahead of me in school and she was an absolute genius, according to my mom. So, when I came along, my teachers expected me to do as well as she did in school so when I did not catch on to things as quickly as Thais did, my teachers seemed really disappointed in me. My whole life I have tried to define myself as just as good as Thais, but deep down, I have never felt that I am.” “I am curious why this is coming up now,” I ask, trying to tie together Tamara’s struggle with her ailing mom and her presentation today about her life-long feelings of inadequacies which she attributes to being the younger sister of Thais. “Well, I guess I see my mom’s passing and I am thinking a lot about my childhood and I am thinking about how even though I am fifty years old, I still carry around a lot of very old feelings which don’t seem to go away.” Tamara explains with a sense of agony and frustration. “These feelings are hurtful and persistent,” I say, “and it sounds like you wish these feelings would go away but they seem to stick around like they are cemented into your core.” “Yes, that is exactly right. They are cemented to my core and I hate that,” Tamara says with a tone that conveys both  the recognition of feeling understood and the pain of a life-long feeling of inadequacy. “Maybe these feelings were cemented in because it was not just the teachers that you felt to be disappointed, but also your parents as well,” I say, thinking that her parents might also have compared Thais to Tamara and in so doing, her parents could have been disappointed by Tamara’s intelligence relative to Thais’ cognitive abilities. “It is impossible for me to think that I disappointed my parents, especially now that my mom is dying,” Tamara says with overwhelming sadness and teariness. “You mean the last chapter in your mom’s life reminds you that you are losing the chance to ever impress her with your accomplishments,” I say, trying to convey a sense of understanding how hard it is to lose that opportunity. “Yes, I am going to have to accept that my mom saw me how she saw me, even if that makes me feel that she was chronically disappointed in me,” Tamara says with strength in understanding and deep pain at the same time. “Needless to say, your mom’s failing health has become a focal point for you to focus on how the past inserts itself into the present,” I say, trying to summarize how Tamara is filled with a stew of complicated and painful feelings, set off by her mom’s failing health. “Maybe there is opportunity here to begin to see yourself independent of how your family saw you,” I say, trying to introduce the notion that she does not have to see herself the way she feels her family sees her. “That would be nice,” Tamara says, “very very nice.”

2 Responses to “Sibling Rivalry: Revisited”

  1. Shelly said

    Interesting. How do people build up their self-perceptions? Is it not based on how our families, friends and peers (or our perceptions of how they) see us?

    • Shirah said

      Yes, this is the challenge. As children, we have no choice but to see ourselves as others see us, but as adults, we can seek out those we admire and use their reflection of us as a means of understanding who we are. It is a monumental task to find people who can adequately reflect one’s strengths and weaknesses. It is far easier if the original role models (parents, older sibs) were positive reflectors, but if that is not the case, all is not lost. Thanks, as always.

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