Sister issues - can they be conquered?
January 17, 2013 8:06 AM   Subscribe

I keep comparing myself to my sister, and it's making me miserable.

(I searched AskMeFi but couldn't find anything similar - if anyone knows of related questions, please link me.)

I should start off by saying I'm not the happiest person. When I was a kid I got it into my head that I wasn't like everyone else (I wasn't a cute little girl, I was skinny and needed glasses, and I've had severe facial eczema since I was a baby). I spent a lot of high school being bullied by a girl who was ostensibly my friend, and thus began college plagued with a host of issues including crippling low self-esteem, social anxiety, a pathological need to please, and most likely some degree of depression. It's only in the past few years (I'm mid-20s) that I've started to come into myself, becoming more positive and friendly, more assertive and sure of my own mind. But I still have this weird fixation on my sister and I feel like it's holding me back.

My sister's younger than me and seems to have had an easier time of it. She was the cute one, the healthy one, the outspoken one, she never seemed to have difficulties establishing friendship groups, and now that she's finished her teens, in my head she's somehow morphed into this ideal of what my life should be (or should have been): from the outside she appears so much more adult than me, with a regular part-time job, strong social network, down-to-earth personality, a combination of interests that are 'in' (eg. coffee, baking, photography, concerts, street fashion). Because I'm the older sister it feels like I've failed somehow, even though I know we are totally different people and I couldn't have or do some of the things she does (I don't have the spare cash or energy to go out so many times socially, nor do I want to). I get pangs of jealousy and feel immature and awful whenever sis comes back home with tales of how her day went, and our parents respond with enthusiasm (I dislike talking about my day, and so can't bond to the parents in this fashion). And somehow, I still light up whenever she's around, and whenever she's out and it's just me and the parents at home, everything feels quiet and lifeless. A lot of this is tied up in perceived parental expectations and what my parents must think of me just sitting at home all the time (even though I'm happy being by myself - or I would be, if I weren't aware of the way it looks to other people).

Basically, whenever I think about how good my sister seems to have it, I feel a furious sense of entitlement that that should be *me*, and then I hate myself for being so deeply fucked up and for being jealous of someone who actually cares about me a lot.

I'm seeing my counsellor tomorrow, but if you guys have any advice/wisdom/kicks in the butt for me in the meantime, that would be very welcome. Thanks to PMS I've been randomly bursting into tears about it and the dehydration is giving me headaches. Cheers.

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a counsellor or any sort of mental health professional, and this advice would depend on what sort of relationship you have with your sister, but I wonder whether you could talk to her and have her tell you what she admires about you. Hearing that there are some things about you that she admires, or wishes she could be, might be very healthy. When I (female) was younger, there was a friend of mine (also female) whom I idealized and thought was perfect, and basically projected my ideal self onto and used to make myself feel bad. When I moved away, she wrote me a letter (unsolicited), and told me several things she had admired about me and was aspiring towards. This made a huge impact on me, as it really recalibrated my perception of her as much more human, to know that she was in actuality not perfect, and in fact, there were things about me that she herself wished she had. Obviously this advice would depend on the exact relationship you have with your sister, but if it's close enough to talk about these issues, hearing this sort of thing from her might be very helpful.
posted by UniversityNomad at 8:14 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Think about the number of people in the world who have done absolutely nothing to deserve what they have. Hell, there are entire families of them who enjoy what they have solely via the accident of birth and the divine right of kings. And there's thousands more who were born to people who were "just" multimillionaires and will never have to work an honest day in their lives.

Now think about the number of people in the world who would kill to be where you are. (I know, this isn't a cure-all for actual depression, nor is it intended to be. It's just a quick trick that I use myself on occasion.)

You can't do anything about any of those people. Your sister got lucky. So did Prince William. Do you spend any time resenting him?
posted by Etrigan at 8:20 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jealousies like this can be helpful in a way, because they make us aware of what's lacking in our own lives. You say you don't even want to do the things your sister does (i.e., going out socially so often, talking to your parents about your day), but since you feel that she has so much more than you, you must be feeling the lack of something in your life. What things do you want to do? Start thinking about what you want, what you'd like to do, what you'd like your life to be like, and then start figuring out how you can make that happen.

And you know, you might rethink your attitude towards sharing details about your day with your parents. A lot of parents really love hearing all about the details of their children's lives. It makes them feel closer to their kids, and included in what they do. It's not obligatory, of course, but if you frame it as something you can do that will benefit them rather than yourself, you might decide you want to do it after all.
posted by orange swan at 8:22 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're comparing how you feel on the inside to how someone else looks on the outside. It's apples and oranges. You don't know how your sister feels about herself deep down, or how she views her (or your!) place in the world. I know you feel like she has things objectively better than you, but there is no such thing when it comes to human beings. Look at all the successful, beautiful people in the world who suffer from depression - this stuff is in our heads, completely.

When I have seen people in my life get really hung up on comparing themselves with other people, it usually means they are depressed. Talking with your counselor is the right move here.
posted by something something at 8:23 AM on January 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


...she's somehow morphed into this ideal of what my life should be (or should have been)...

does not really jive with this:

...I don't have the spare cash or energy to go out so many times socially, nor do I want to...

It is one thing to be envious of someone because they are living the life you want and, for some reason, can't work toward. If that is the case, you need to do everything you can to work at it. It is a wholly different thing to be envious on a wholly nebulous basis, of someone having fun doing a thing you don't really want to do. From everything you write, it doesn't sound like you've cultivated much of a life for yourself and, because your sister is having a grand ole' time with hers, you're developing an anxiety over not doing things you don't want to do. And if you don't want to do things (I'm talking about fun things, not, like, responsibilities) you're never going to do them. So you're in this vicious circle of reflecting on your own life via someone else's positive experiences, and failing to live up to expectations you have no reason to fulfill.

I think what you need to do is cultivate a you. Is there a good reason you still live at home? You say she's more "adult" than you are because she has a part-time job, but do you work? If not, is there a good reason for that? You need to do something productive with yourself, in whatever context it is you're in. The more you have in your life, the less you'll compare your sadness over a lack of stuff-to-do to your sister's exhilaration in her lots-of-stuff-to-do, because you'll be doing stuff! And the more stuff you do, the more stuff you want to do, the more stuff you'll be able to figure out how to do, whatever the context is.
posted by griphus at 8:24 AM on January 17, 2013 [10 favorites]

I'm the youngest of 4, and have 2 older sisters. I used to feel similarly about my sisters (and brother even), but over the course of time, I've learned that while they do have their strengths, they are not at all (AT ALL) the image of perfection and loveliness I thought them to be for a very long time. Life happens, things happen, and over time you learn that everyone has issues. Everyone has some serious flaws. I love my siblings tremendously - but even the seemingly perfect ones have fuckups.

I don't mention this to revel in the fuckups of my sisters or brother, or the fuckups that will eventually come to light about your own sister, but simply to point out that this is just a fact of being human. It's not a matter of how perfect your sister is - it's a matter of how much she (or any of us) conceals our flaws and failings. But eventually, things do surface.

I turn 33 next month - I probably began realizing "wow, I totally do not want to be them or in their position at all despite my own failings" a couple years ago. Maybe at some point they have thought similarly about me, I don't know. I think realizing this over time about each other has actually made us closer and more empathetic/supportive of each other's issues.
posted by raztaj at 8:26 AM on January 17, 2013

Oh, I am sorry. That sounds very hard. I think you should definitely see a therapist, but I have some thoughts that are a little more actionable in the meantime.

First: is it possible for you to move out? I know that's hard and expensive, but it will certainly make things better for you. It sounds like your problem isn't that YOU don't like your life but that you think people are judging you (and as someone with similarly "cool" younger siblings, boy do I understand).

Second: Retell every day to yourself in a positive manner (perhaps even write it down). "Today, I had a fabulous omelette -- perfectly cooked -- for breakfast before work. Work was a bit boring, but I had an amusing conversation with my coworker. When I got home, I spent some time chatting on facebook with an old friend before vegging out in front of Doctor Who. " Or whatever. Then, find a few amusing stories within that and write those down, too. Finally, you can tell those stories to your parents -- it's not talking about your day, it's sharing amusing anecdotes. That may help relieve some of the feeling that, without your sister around, the day is empty.
posted by AmandaA at 8:28 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Spend more time one-on-one with her, like you're making a friend. I guarantee that she a) has tons of insecurities and challenges that wouldn't have occurred to you and b) respects and values your attention much more than you know. It sounds like you actually like her as a person, which is really awesome-- a sibling who you can be friends with is, at the risk of going into cheeseball territory, a truly valuable thing. If you work a little bit on turning her from this mythical creature into a real human in your mind, you'll have a lifelong ally. Plus you can make fun of your parents together.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:29 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I get sibling rivalry issues myself now and then; something that's helped me a lot is a YA book called Jacob Have I Loved. That also deals with a pair of sisters, and the main character feels that she's compared unfavorably to her pretty and outgoing sister. Towards the end of the book, though, she comes to realize that a little of that may be her own doing (not, like, that she's making people hate her, only that she's mis-interpreting some of the things people say to her), and she is able to go and find her own life and her own path and make peace with things.

The funny thing is, I've read it twice - and the first time, I totally missed the subtext about her having mis-interpreted how other people were treating her and interpreted it solely as a girl who'd broken out of her sister's shadow and found happiness. I didn't catch that bit until the second reading. But I found just as much consolation both ways. So I think that whatever frame of mind you're in, you will be consoled.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:08 AM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had a great quote on my Zen calendar the other day about how human effort is as much a part of the dharma as the natural world. I hear a lot of lore to the contrary these days, but my experience tells me otherwise.

In my mind, I always self-pityingly separate the people for whom opportunities seem to present themselves magically from the people who have to go out and get them. I'm in the second group, always have been. It is really aggravating to me but no door ever opened for me, at least no worthwhile door, without my knocking first. That applies to education, jobs, housing, social life, you name it. The stuff that showed up on my doorstep (I'm thinking of several people) without my making an effort usually wasn't worth the bother. However, too MUCH effort put into getting things was also counterproductive (I'm thinking of several MEN here).

Or it may be that any effort that I spend feels like effort to me; maybe to people like your sister it doesn't feel like that big a deal. So people in my "first" group may actually be making a lot of effort to open the doors in their lives. I don't know; I'm not in their shoes.

As griphus says, it will pay off for you to figure out the things that give you pleasure or enlightenment (I'm not saying "joy," that word is overused these days) and then to spend some time and effort in going after them. These things may be: pets, knitting at home in front of the TV, concerts, gym, career, reading, art, sports... the list is endless. However, if the shoe does NOT fit, don't cut off your toes to make it fit. Move on to something else.

On the "no energy to go out" issue: is this due to a physical cause? Are you eating enough and getting enough exercise (1/2 hour brisk walk a day should do it)? If it's just the blahs, sometimes pushing through that feeling can really work wonders
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:14 AM on January 17, 2013

I wonder if this is a sibling thing.

I have a similar sibling ... successful, pretty in the standard way most of society likes and now married to a semi-celebrity. I can't tell you it's easy. But I think the part about figuring out what YOU really want will help you feel good in your own skin. This might require additional therapy or it might require some journaling but figure what's best for you and hold on tight to that.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 9:43 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Want to know something? Some of us end up drawing the short straw. We might be born with a more melancholy temperament. As the oldest child, we had to serve as the "practice" run for our parents' parenting skills. We might randomly ended up making friends with and dating the wrong people early in our lives which warped our understanding of relationships and caused us a lot of lost time. This is ok. The important thing is to realize that you aren't going to let any of these things be an impediment to your personal or social success. Effort can overcome both nature and nurture. When I was your age, I was only just starting (re-starting, for various reasons), my social life and creating interests and reasons for going out and "putting myself together."
posted by deanc at 12:19 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, firstly with respect, I disagree wholeheartedly with Etrigan. Watching Oprah everyday growing up and being generally raised right has brainwashed me (I know) into honestly believing that we all are lucky already and should be grateful for what we have and can grow into whatever form we choose. E.g. Prince William did 'get lucky' on the grounds that he has some claim to a symbolic (but otherwise mostly meaningless) title. But not only do I not resent him, I even feel sorry for him because he missed out on a lot in terms of his childhood, and has been hounded by paparrazi his whole life! Some of that press has been good, but how would you like to have tabloids all over the country zoom in on your bald spot and comment on your fading looks? And aside from being a famous figure with no personal claim to fame without any sort of opt-out, he has the burden of having to keep up appearances all the time and missed out on the many small joys and freedoms of being normal and non-royal. So what I am trying to say is, contrary to what Etrigan would have you believe, life is not about letting go of resentment over people we perceive as superior to us, but making the most of what you've got. We are all pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of time and the cosmos, you are just as special as everyone else and you need to make the most of the unique assortments of talents and quirks that you have!

If you have ever played mario kart on an actual television console and taken it seriously, you will find that the times when you do win are the times when you are focusing so hard on your own kart, on staying on path and dodging shells, that you completely ignore everyone else. Those are the times where you win. (This is also a complimentary answer to the question 'how to kick butt at mario kart' coming from a certified karter). This wisdom extends, as griphus is trying to say, to real life. You feel like you are on the same race course as your sister, because you started off in the same place. But in fact you may be on totally different racecourses, and competing against different people. Find out where you want to go (who do you want to be exactly? What parts of her life do you feel like are parts which you want, and what exactly is holding you back?) Take responsibility for your own life man! So you mentioned:

a regular part-time job, strong social network, down-to-earth personality, a combination of interests that are 'in' (eg. coffee, baking, photography, concerts, street fashion)

And mentioned also that you would like to be closer to your parents.

Well channel your energies into achieving those things, and just forget the imbalance you perceive between your sister and yourself. Those are all in your head. Practical things you can do:
-get a job-just apply to a lots of places, be prepared for rejection, and be pleasantly surprised when they hire you! Then show up.
-join classes/book clubs/churches/communities/sports where you can meet people and begin to build a support system(there are a trillion threads on how to do this from scratch)
-fake it till you make with regards to personality
-throw yourself into hobbies that you are genuinely into, regardless of how cool/uncool it is. If you genuinely like techno, read up on it and listen to it all the time. If you like languages, knitting, cooking, art, tattoos, voluntary work, finding cool esoteric things on the internet... Whatever, throw yourself into things that you genuinely like and enjoy yourself!
-start talking to your parents a bit more about anything, ask them about their lives if you don't feel like sharing, just get into the habit of listening to them and things will get better
-keep loving your sister unconditionally and try to be happy for her instead of comparing her achievements with your own. You deserve to have the things that make you happy, but so does she! It is not mutually exclusive and doesn't actually detract from your mariokart journey. You guys are lucky to have each other, sisters are the best, hold on tight!

Oops accidental essay alert. Sorry but I really felt strongly about this. TLDR;
Keep your eyes on your own path!
The fact that you sought out counselling and asked this question on askmefi makes it clear that you have had enough and are ready for change. Good luck girl! Even though you two are different, I am sure you are every bit as interesting as your sister, you just have to start believing it yourself. Good luck! Don't give up!
posted by dinosaurprincess at 2:17 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have two older sisters. My oldest sister is very popular, friendly, everyone loves her, she's involved in her community, has a great job. My other older sister is 15 months older than me and has always been the smart one, she's very witty and clever. They both have two advanced degrees.

But I've traveled more than they have. I'm more athletic. I live in a major city. I don't have any student loans. I've had several boyfriends. I'm more independent and I have more money.

I don't know what to tell you besides that I think somehow all of this evens out in the end.
posted by kat518 at 6:50 PM on January 17, 2013

Your sister got lucky. So did Prince William. Do you spend any time resenting him?

Exactly. I have this situation with some extended family members who had everything while I had very little. It was terribly painful and caused me years of distress.

Things are MUCH better now. It does get better.

What happened was that over time, I got many of the things that my other family members had that I had wanted. And then I didn't feel that terrible longing.

It doesn't even out. It's not fair and it sucks. But it will get better
posted by 3491again at 4:59 PM on January 18, 2013

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