Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Siblings’ Category

Disappointing Siblings

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 27, 2013

Zoe, fifty-seven, does not know how to handle her anger towards her sister Berkeley, fifty-nine. They are the youngest of six children, with four older sisters and an older brother. They have never gotten along, through good times and bad, they have looked at each other with contempt, or rather Berkeley has looked down on Zoe, making Zoe feel little and ineffective, although at the same time, Zoe understands that Berkeley feels little and ineffective. With never-ending, perhaps naïve optimism, Zoe extended kindness to Berkeley, looking both consciously and unconsciously for appreciation and love, knowing that the most likely outcome is anger, resentment and a deep sense of ingratitude. Sure enough, when Berkeley was visiting from out-of-town, Zoe invited Berkeley to join her for home yoga. Actually, Berkeley was staying with Zoe for a spring break, which was startling given that the last time Zoe stayed with Berkeley, twenty-five years ago, Zoe was so profoundly miserable and felt so deeply unwanted that she swore, and until now, kept her promise never to share a residence with Berkeley ever again. With all those years gone by, and with Berkeley sweet talking her way with Zoe, Zoe began, on a deep level, to hope that maybe their relationship could pivot. So, part of sharing Zoe’s home, was sharing Zoe’s experience of home yoga. This, Zoe  thought, was a special treat, given that Berkeley is a big yogi, and that the two of them doing it together, could be a memorable and unique experience. True to character, however, Berkeley, without telling Zoe ahead of time, scheduled someone to come to Zoe’s house at the time of Shavasana, the time in yoga, which requires deep quiet and concentration as one transitions from a meditative, internal stance,  to a stance of being open to the external world. As this time came, the doorbell rang. Berkeley was leaving to visit relatives, and she had their niece pick her up at the house, such that when the niece arrived, she said “oh, am I interrupting your yoga,” suggesting that Berkeley was aware of how things would play out. The yoga session closed, as Berkeley hurriedly, left, without much appreciation or gratitude for the experience, and with a deep sense left in Zoe that the effort to please Berkeley was not only wasted, but assaulted. The relationship is strained even more. I listened to this sibling tale with sadness for Zoe and Berkeley. They are not caring for one another. They do not watch each other’s back. They hurt each other or they are estranged from one another. There is occasional hope followed by deep disappointment. Acceptance of this cycle of pain and coldness is hard for Zoe. I can understand that. Downloading the tale was helpful to Zoe, but the pain was still there. Zoe knows she needs to find support from folks who are capable of giving it to her. Still, harsh reminders hurt.

See also…

Posted in Musings, Siblings, Sisters | 20 Comments »

The Forgotten Sibling

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 21, 2012

Theresa,, went to Becky’s house for a gathering of family and friends. Becky is one of Theresa’s older sisters and she lives around the corner from Theresa, yet Becky and Theresa hardly speak. Theresa introduces herself as “Becky’s sister” to a consistent response of “oh, I did not know about you.” One friend went even further. “We had dinner with Becky on many Friday nights, and your parents were always there, but we never heard about you.” Theresa, not shocked, but hurt, understood that in her younger years, her siblings and her parents were mean to her, but now she discovered that in her later years, they mentally erased her from their internal landscape. “In a way, this makes sense,” Theresa tells me. “I avoided them for years because they were so cruel to me, so I can understand that rather than feeling rejected by me, they just pretended I did not exist. Still, I was really hurt to hear this.” Theresa tells me, with a confused sense of pain and disappointment. “I can understand you being hit by not being recognized as a sibling, both by your sister and by your parents.” I say, trying to picture Theresa standing at this party, realizing how her family tried to delete her from their lives, while at the same time, they maintained enough contact to invite her to this recent gathering. “It is hard to process,” I say, seeing confusion and pain on Theresa’s face. “Yes and no.” Theresa says, referring to the many years where we have discussed the painful dynamics of her family. “I knew that whenever I go to Becky’s house, which fortunately is not that often, I am going to be hit by something. I always am. I always brace myself. There has been so much bad blood for so many years, that I know that more will surface with each contact. On the other hand, I did not know it would hit me like this. Imagine how her friends felt, knowing Becky for over thirty years and not knowing that I existed. That must reflect poorly on Becky. I would imagine. During that time, I have had significant trauma in my life, so I can’t imagine how Becky did not talk about this with her friends, but maybe she didn’t. Maybe her lack of concern for me is worse than I thought.” Theresa says, as if she is reaching a new level of pain as she thinks about her relationship with Becky. “My friends know Becky exists, even though they have never met her. I guess I care more about Becky than she cares about me. As the younger sister, I so intensely looked up to all of my siblings. I can imagine that as the older sibling, Becky wished that I was not born because I took away our parents’ attention. I guess that wish never went away.” Theresa says realizing that sibling rivaly is so different, depending on birth order. “She might have wished you were not born, and then pretended that as she got older.” I say, highlighting that people speak in wishes. “Wow, that is deep,” Theresa says as she leaves the consultation room.

Posted in Families, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Siblings | 2 Comments »

Birth Order

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 4, 2012

   Marty, now fifty-four,  was born the third of four children and the second boy. His parents, Bob and Marilyn, did not set out to have a large family, but “somehow it happened,” Marty relates to me. Marty’s older brother Warren, the first-born son, seemed to be the boy his parents always dreamed of. He was smart, athletic, social and motivated for financial success. Marty, by contrast, struggled in school, did not like sports, and was painfully lost about his future. As an adult, Marty’s insecurities are painful. He never feels entitled to assert his opinion. He quietly resents that other people in his life, his kids, his wife, steamroll his ideas, making him feel foolish for making even minor suggestions, like where to go for dinner.

  “Maybe the circumstances of your birth have something to do with your insecurities now,” I suggest. “Maybe if you were the first-born boy, you might have felt more cherished and hence you might have had more confidence in your ideas.” Marty looks at me with dismay and confusion. “You mean to say that my parents messed up my life because they liked my brother more?” Marty asks with disbelief. “I mean that maybe in the context of your family, your strengths were not in the foreground and so you were made to feel like you had to blend in or else you would be an unwanted part of the family. As a result of having to blend in, you never formed your own opinions, and as such, you now do not feel entitled to be assertive with your ideas.” I say, suggesting this as a possible explanation as to why he always feels invisible in his current nuclear family.

“You are terrible to suggest that my parents’ did not love me,” Marty says, as if I want to ruin his idealized image of his parents. “I am not saying they did not love you, but I am saying that they might have loved you in a different way if you were born in a different order.” “I will chew on that and then poop it out,” Marty says, trying to lighten our discussion, but also reassuring me that he will think about what I am saying. “Let me know how that goes for you,” I say, continuing with our fun word play with the notion that good food turns into feces.

Posted in Attachment, Birth Order, Siblings | 4 Comments »

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.”

Posted in Aging, Siblings | 2 Comments »

The Wicked One

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 1, 2011

  Brew and Paul are fifty-year old fraternal twins, both physicians; they  have no other siblings and their parents have always been married to each other. They live on opposite ends of the country.  Their mom died of cancer two years ago. Their dad, Stewart,  is still living, at age eighty-seven, but he has multiple medical problems. Recently, Stewart had a severe hypertensive episode, requiring immediate hospitalization. Brew, the brother that lives in the same city as Stewart, attended to him and reported his impressions to his brother Paul. Paul, as he usually does, demeaned Brew, and told him that his ideas and thoughts were “simply wrong.” Paul continued to say that Brew was not being a good son, because a good son would go out and buy Stewart new books so he would have something to do in the hospital. Brew hangs up the phone with Paul, partly devastated and partly feeling that familiar family dynamic where Paul is the “know-it-all” and Brew is a slow-thinking, barely capable person who only succeeds because he works so hard, not because he has a good intellectual functioning. Brew feels that Paul is the “wicked one,” because Brew has felt put down by Paul his entire life.  Brew knows that Paul is thinking about Stewart from a distance and that is very different from eyeballing Stewart. “It takes gall for Paul to comment on my dad’s condition, without laying eyes on him,” Brew tells me, and I agree.  

     Despite the fact that they are fraternal twins, their mother always treated Paul like he was the older and wiser child. Brew was treated like he was not very “smart” or at least no where near as smart as Paul; at the same time Brew was told that if he worked hard enough he could compensate for not being so smart and thereby still accomplish in the same way that Paul would. Brew took this message as a challenge, such that Brew worked very hard to go to medical school, since he knew that Paul was headed in that direction. As his mother told him, Brew believed it was his hard work, not his sharp mind, that got him to progress professionally. Paul believed this too. Over the years, Paul has frequently attacked Brew with the notion that he was not “smart” so his ideas are not as good as Paul’s. In so doing, Paul seemed to feel that he won the favoritism of his mother and his father. Further, Paul seemed to be in constant fear of losing his perch, such that he seemed to keep reminding Brew, and his parents that he was the “better” child. The most egregious example of this came about twenty years ago when Brew’s young wife died quickly from a malignant brain tumor. Brew was heart-broken and he felt the need for his family. Paul attended to their mom, as she was understandably distraught, but Paul never paid much attention to Brew around this tragic event. After that, Brew felt he got clarity about his relationship with Paul; there was no relationship. In his time of need, Paul evaporated. Brew felt that to be unforgiveable. Brew also understood that Paul’s behavior stayed remarkably consistent. Paul maintained the life-long battle of fighting to have the most attention from his mom and his dad. When Paul attended to his mom when Brew’s wife died, he also prevented their mom from attending to Brew. The tragedy became the mother’s tragedy, not Brew’s tragedy; at least that is how it felt to Brew.

   Now that Brew and Paul have to tend to their ailing father, Brew understands, but is still hurt, that Paul’s behavior seems to once again be an attempt to show that their father loves him more. “It is sad” Brew tells me. “One day our father will pass on, and there will be this deep hurt between us.” “Yes, that is very sad,” I say, reinforcing that sometimes, not very often, sibling rivalry is so severe that the competition for attention never stops, thereby prohibiting a closeness in the siblings. In that sense, the outlook looks grim. On the other hand, Brew’s recognition of the problem helps him take Paul’s behavior less personally, and allows Brew to see himself in a way that is very different from how Paul sees him. That process has been exciting and painful at the same time. Brew may call Paul the “wicked one” but unlike in the past, Brew does not have  to feel bad about himself. As Brew was growing up, it did mean that. Time, maturity and psychotherapy have changed things. Brew is grateful. I am privileged to play a role.

Posted in Siblings | 2 Comments »


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 18, 2011

   Lilith, twenty, starts to cry. “I wish my brother Xavier (age twenty-two) would stop defending our parents. I know that he has a better relationship with them, but he could be more sympathetic to what I am going through. He just tells me how spoiled I am and I don’t appreciate them, but he knows that they favor him and he knows that when I ask for things, I am not being ungrateful, but they give me a hard time.” “What do you think is going on?” I ask, curious about her perspective. “I think he is mean to me because he has always been mean to me. He has never accepted me in his life.” Lilith says, as if to say that no one ever asked Xavier if he wanted a sibling and so he has punished Lilith ever since she was born. “Do you think you could talk to him about it?” I ask, knowing that she has probably tried many times. “I think he should come in here with me,” Lilith says, almost as if she was reading words out of my mind. “Maybe if the two of you came in together, you could learn to see each other’s point of view, and in so doing, forge a lifelong relationship which is mutually rewarding.” I say, trying not to sound trite, but at the same time, expressing a deep appreciation for the importance of sibling love. “That would be so nice,” Lilith says with tears running down her face. “We have never had a good relationship, but maybe there is still hope.” Lilith says, again, as if she is reading the words straight from my brain. The meaning of this sibling relationship to Lilith seems clear to me. Lilith wants Xavier to validate her perspective that her parents treat them differently. Only Xavier can give her that affirmation, as Lilith believes her parents will never acknowledge the asymmetry. Maybe he will not go there with her, but she certainly wants to try. It means a lot to her. It means her mental health, or so she believes in this moment.

Posted in Siblings | 4 Comments »


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 14, 2011

  Jesse,, is the middle of three sisters. Elaine is two years older and Janal is two years younger. “I have struggled with being invisible my whole life,” Jesse tells me with both resignation and sorrow. ” “Has anything made you feel that way recently?” I ask, trying to understand why she is talking about this now. “Well, yes. My nephew had a birthday party and I saw my sister Elaine. Elaine introduced me to her friends as ‘one of my sisters,’ even though Janal was not there. I know this is no big deal, but I felt hurt that she did not say that I was her sister. I had to be ‘one of her’ sisters. My whole life I was a ‘one of’ and so I have never felt that I was treasured for my uniqueness. I was part of a herd, but not a particularly nice or warm herd. I know it sounds like I am whining, and I know it was just an off-handed comment, but I was reminded of my life in this pack of girls, never feeling particularly loved or special.” Jesse tells me as if she fears that I am sitting with her in criticism. “What do you think was going on in your family that caused this impersonal feeling?” I ask, wondering if Jesse has a narrative, since she usually does. “I think we were all struggling to survive in an environment in which there was very little love to go around, so we were all fighting for the morsel.” Jesse says, describing this desperate childhood seeking love, with occasional success. “I guess you are saying that if there was little love in the first place and then there were three lives depending on it, the environment was a struggle, so it was hard to nurture one another. That is interesting,” I say, thinking about Jesse’s narrative. “I suppose you are also saying that those childhood years of needing love, receiving a bit of it, but still feeling like you need to fight for it, persists, even though your parents are deceased,” I say, re-stating Jesse’s point. “Yes,” Jesse says, “I doubt we will ever stop fighting for something we will never get.” Jesse says with known irony and pain.

Posted in Siblings, Sisters | 2 Comments »

I Have Been Translated: Gee Whiz

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 15, 2010


Mi paciente Arthur lágrimas en los ojos me contó la historia de Dan Jansen. At the 1988 Winter Olympics, Jansen was a favorite for the 500 and 1000 meter speed skating races. En el 1988 Juegos Olímpicos de Invierno, Jansen fue uno de los favoritos para los 500 y 1.000 metros carreras de patinaje de velocidad. However, in the early hours of the day of the race, he received a phone call saying that Jane, his sister, was dying of leukemia. Sin embargo, en las primeras horas del día de la carrera, recibió una llamada telefónica diciendo que Jane, su hermana se estaba muriendo de leucemia. Later that morning, she passed away. Más tarde esa mañana, ella falleció. He fell in the race. Cayó en la carrera. A few days later, he fell again. Unos días más tarde, cayó otra vez. In the 1992 Winter Olympics, he lost again. En los Juegos Olímpicos de Invierno 1992, perdió otra vez. Finally, in 1994 he won the Olympic gold medal and he dedicated his medal to his late sister Jane. Por último, en 1994 ganó la medalla de oro olímpica y dedicó su medalla a su difunta hermana Jane.

This is a story of triumph after adversity; this is a story of tenacity. Esta es una historia de triunfo después de la adversidad, lo que es una historia de tenacidad. For Arthur, this was a story of deep sibling love. Para Arturo, se trataba de una historia de amor entre hermanos de profundidad. As Arthur put it, in his family, if he died while his sister was competing in the olympics, the reaction would have been “there goes Arthur, making things difficult again.” I laughed, but I also knew it was not funny. Como Arthur decirlo, en su familia, si murió mientras que su hermana estaba compitiendo en los Juegos Olímpicos, la reacción habría sido “ahí va Arturo, haciendo las cosas difíciles de nuevo.” Yo me reí, pero también sabía que no era gracioso. Arthur wanted to mean something to his sister in the way that Jane seemed to mean to Dan Jansen. Arthur quería decir algo a su hermana en la forma en que Jane parecía significar a Dan Jansen.

     I thought about this later, realizing that I am unclear about why this matters so much to Arthur. Pensé en esto más adelante, al darse cuenta de que tengo muy claro por qué esto es importante tanto a Arthur. What is it about his sibling that matters so much? Lo que se trata de su hermano que es tan importante? I have read a great deal about why children of all ages, spend their lives trying to get love from their parents. He leído mucho acerca de por qué los niños de todas las edades, se pasan la vida tratando de conseguir el amor de sus padres. This makes sense. Esto tiene sentido. The parents brought the child into the world. Los padres llevaron al niño en el mundo. The parents were a touchstone for the developing child to feel good about himself. Los padres fueron la piedra de toque para el desarrollo del niño a sentirse bien consigo mismo. Mom and dad are responsible for building a child’s self-esteem. Mamá y papá son los responsables de la construcción de un niño autoestima. Yet, what is the role of the sibling in self-esteem development? Sin embargo, ¿cuál es el papel del hermano en el desarrollo de la autoestima? Typically, siblings compete for attention from the parents, and hence there is built in conflict. Normalmente, los hermanos compiten por la atención de los padres, y por lo tanto no se construye en el conflicto. Typically, the parents die first and the siblings are left, sometimes with close ties, sometimes not. Por lo general, los padres mueren primero y los hermanos se quedan, a veces con estrechos lazos a veces no.

I wonder why Arthur was so touched by Dan Jansen’s story. Me pregunto por qué Arturo se sintió tan conmovida por la historia de Dan Jansen. Was it that he could not perform knowing that he lost his sister? ¿Es que no podía realizar a sabiendas de que él perdió a su hermana? Was that he came back from adversity to triumph? Fue que llegó a la adversidad para triunfar? Was it that in Arthur’s mind, Dan loved his sister in a way that Arthur will never experience, and somehow, that has a great deal of meaning for Arthur? ¿Fue eso en mente de Arturo, Dan amaba a su hermana en una forma que Arthur nunca la experiencia, y de alguna manera, que tiene un gran significado para Arturo? I have questions, but no answers. Tengo preguntas, pero ninguna respuesta. I will continue to wonder. Voy a seguir maravilla.

Posted in Musings, Siblings | 7 Comments »


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 8, 2010

      Jane, sixty-three, mourns her mom’s recent passing, as she is confronted with her longstanding troubling relationship with her older sister Lynn. Jane, seemingly inconsolable, cannot understand why Lynn is so mean to her. “Has she always been mean to you?” I ask. “Yes, always,” she responds quickly. “Well, then why is it hard to understand that she is mean to you now?” I ask, knowing that life is not as simple as I make it sound. “I thought with my mother’s passing she would soften up,” she says, as if that is so clear. “Why would she soften?” I ask. “Because all we have is each other,” she says, again, stating what seems so obvious to her. “Yes, but you do not have each other. Lynn is mean to you.” I repeat her words. “Yes, but why can’t we work it out?” she says as if she is stamping her feet. “Maybe Lynn is used to be the alpha dog and as such she is not willing to treat you as an equal,” I wonder aloud. Jane begins to cry. “Yea, I know that,” she says, as if the previous discussion never took place. “It is hard to feel so alone in the world,” I say, thinking that this is such a hard time for Jane because she relied on her mother to center her universe. Jane has friends, but no other family. Seemingly out of nowhere, she says “I am glad I have you. I feel better talking about this, as compared to when I sit at home and just think about these things.” “I can understand that,” I say, thinking once again, that at this moment my listening job is more important than sharing any creative ideas I have about Jane’s life story. 

    Family relationships come with expectations; expectations which persist despite sadistic behavior. There is an almost universal anticipation that siblings will come together when a parent passes. Sometimes that happens; adult children receive comfort from one another. Yet, sometimes that never happens; the mourning of a parent is compounded with the mourning of  a sibling  relationship because the death of a parent does not mend the siblings. Grief becomes more complicated; harder to share with caring friends.  

   Jane wonders what the rest of her life will be, without her mother, and without her hope that she can forge a relationship with Lynn. She is afraid of being lonely. Sometimes Lynn’s sadistic behavior towards her feel better than the loneliness of an uncertain world. Other times, Lynn’s behavior makes Jane want to “divorce” her sister. She vacillates, as it appears that Lynn does. At the moment, I am here to listen.

Posted in Musings, Siblings | 6 Comments »

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