A toxic sibling relationship is a relationship that is unbalanced in its power dynamic and may involve sibling abuse and dysfunctional sibling rivalry. Sibling estrangement can be caused by parental favoritism, having immature parents, parental or sibling abuse, and psychopathy. There are steps you can take to heal from a toxic sibling relationship, such as doing deep Shadow Work, engaging in honest conversation, and family therapy.
Sibling relationship represents something unique and irreplaceable in the family system. Unlike our parents, our siblings belong to the same generation. As a peer, our siblings offer a unique kinship connection that will likely be with us for life.
Siblings offer us a mirror of our personalities. They could be our companions, confidants, best friends, and friendly competition. They also reflect our shadow side, holding up a mirror and showing us the qualities we most want to disavow in ourselves.
Sibling connections can be precious, supportive and nourishing. But the existence of siblings also poses some disturbing and painful existential questions. How much loyalty do we owe to our siblings? How much transgenerational trauma have they dodged for us, shared with us, or, paradoxically, burdened us with? What qualifies as sibling abuse, and is it ever okay to cut them off? How are they like us, and how are they not like us? How much of our childhood is brought into adult sibling rivalry and sibling estrangement?
On a primal level, the existence of a sibling poses a threat to us. Psychoanalytically, the birth of a new sibling is a solid reminder to us that the people we depend on the most, our parents, have other priorities and agendas. We are not always ‘everything’ to them. These primal feelings of sibling rivalry are normal and do not in themselves lead to sibling estrangement. Yet, when compounded with other factors such as parental abuse or neglect, favoritism, or psychopathy, the resulting sibling estrangement could be destructive to everyone involved. If there have been no efforts to revert a toxic sibling relationship, its impact is likely carried into adulthood.
“Siblings are the people we practise on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring – quite often the hard way.” – Pamela Dugdale
Causes of Sibling Estrangement and Sibling Abuse
Most of the time, toxic siblings relationship finds their root in a weakness in the family boundaries. Some parents cannot assert their parental authority or act as responsible parents who guide and support their children. They may be depressed, anxious, overworked, or simply immature. When young children are left alone to find their ways, enmeshment or lopsided power dynamics inevitably occur. The older sibling may take on the leader role and become pseudo-parent to their siblings, or they let out their rage on the younger siblings when no one is watching. When you feel like you are locked in a toxic, polarised dynamic dance with one or more of your siblings, you may be trapped in a toxic sibling relationship. Here are some factors that pave the way for toxic sibling relationships and sibling estrangement:
Parental favoritism is extremely common, yet an inconvenient truth that many would rather deny. Parents may favor a child and project their own unfulfilled aspirations onto them. As Carl Jung has often said, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” The favored child is being burdened to live out their parents’ lost dreams and opportunities, even when these expectations do not align with their true selves.
When the parents or one parent form an ally with one of the children, that child is put in a difficult bind. On the one hand, the child’s instinct leans towards justice and harmony, but the power hierarchy created in the family creates a confusing situation where they no longer know right from wrong. For example, the favored child might find that when they make mistakes, they are leniently forgiven whereas their siblings would be harshly punished if they had done the same. The child is confused with the double standard and feels guilty but does not know what to do to challenge their parents.
Gifted children and intellectually advanced children face a particularly tricky situation. Either their parents frame them as the ‘golden child’ (See below) and put pressure on their academic accomplishments and talent development, or they intentionally put the gifted child down, so he or she does not outshine others.
While it is more common that parents favour the child that stands out, some parents do the reverse. This could be because they may feel personally intimidated by the bright child’s perceptiveness and capabilities, are competitive with them or even feel envious of the opportunities they have. They may also be acting out of guilt towards the other sibling that is less capable and more clumsy. In this situation, the gifted child becomes the ‘black sheep’ of the family, with all their accomplishments underplayed and their needs ignored.
When there are more than two siblings, the child that has been favored may be ostracised by the other siblings. They don’t want to be the favored child and would prefer to be closer to their siblings, but the situation has not allowed that to happen. Instead, they were forced to form an ally with their parent/ parents.
Often, siblings do not automatically outgrow the resentment and hostility that had been harbored. Feelings such as guilt, shame, envy, and even hate may change shape or intensify and are carried into adulthood. Favoritism is one of the most common causes of adult sibling estrangement and sibling abuse.
Lack of Parental Maturity and Competence
In a healthy scenario, a parent would discipline a child when they speak disrespectfully or manifests aggression and hostility. Some parents, however, have a deep fear of conflicts. They do not like playing the ‘bad cop’ and will do everything to avoid being disliked by their child. The unconscious worry is that if they say “no” to their child, their child won’t love them anymore. As a result, they don’t do anything to discipline a child that is acting out. If one of the children come across as strong and aggressive, they become afraid of them rather than challenging them. These parents’ inability to assert parental authority means the children are left to find their own limits, which is an impossible task.
The absence of parental guidance and authority sets the scene for sibling abuse. When one child becomes out of control or find that they can blackmail or bribe their way out of things, they will become a bully to their brothers and sisters. If one sibling always blows up in an unpredictable rage, it is difficult for the other siblings to feel safe. As a result, other siblings experience complex trauma, which includes chronic hyper-vigilance and the inability to feel safe in any environment.
The siblings of an uncontrolled, bullying child will also not have the room to express their needs and emotions. The ‘emotional space’ in the household has very much been taken up by their dysregulated sibling and vulnerable parents. There is no room left for them, and nobody in the household has the capacity to attend to their wants and needs and to show them they matter. They may feel they cannot even express joy or exuberance, for if they appear happy, their sibling could get triggered and punish them. They are left on their own, and it is likely that they carry feelings of loneliness and despair into their adulthood.
Parental Abuse as a Precedent for Sibling Abuse
Clearly, parents who abuse their children set a negative example. If the parents repeatedly scapegoat one child and blame them for everything that goes wrong, eventually, the other children will also learn that they can conveniently avoid responsibilities when things go wrong. Future sibling estrangement finds its root in the inherent unfairness the parents have created in the sibling dynamic.
If the parents are quick to anger, act unreasonably, and lash out regularly, the children would also think these are acceptable behaviors. And if the parents abuse one of the siblings and then do not discipline them, the abused child may let out their resentment toward a younger sibling and continue the cycle of abuse within the family. Research has found that sibling abuse is frequently associated with dysfunctional families, with parents who abuse each other (Hotaling, Straus, and Lincoln 1990).
Sibling Abuse and Bullying
It is natural for children to sometimes treat each other in aggressive or even mildly violent manners. These are ways of children testing boundaries and learn to negotiate their roles in a relationship. In an ideal scenario, the parents would step in an assertive but kind way and teach their children the right way to communicate with each other. But some parents are not able to do that due to their own fears and anxiety. On very rare occasions, such as when a child is born with the neuro-atypical trait of psychopathy, even when the parents try their best the situation could not be stopped.
Children frequently experience all three forms of abuse, emotional, physical, and sexual (Wiehe 2000). When one sibling is repeatedly abused, humiliated, and tormented, the psychological scars left in the victim will be deep and long-lasting. Siling estrangement in these cases could even be protective. Sadly, even amongst psychologists and therapists, sibling bullying and sibling abuse are topics that are often swept under the rug. For a long time, psychoanalysts had focused on the trauma inflicted by parents but neglected the impact of having violent and abusive siblings. Parents, teachers and even professionals like social workers may trivialise or minimalize the situation as normal fighting. Many victims of abuse were unfortunately re-traumatized when they disclosed what happened, and no one believed them.
According to sibling relationships expert Avidan Milevsky, you know what you are experiencing is sibling abuse when:
- it is persistent and non-stop
- your behaviors and lifestyle patterns are changing
- the bullying sibling is spreading rumors about you that misrepresent facts
- your interactions with the sibling require long ‘contact recovery time- it takes you a long time to recover from having spent time with them
- you see the same dynamic playing out in other areas of your life
An even worse form of sibling abuse is sexual abuse. Sexual sibling abuse, unlike benign exploration, involves threat, coercion, force, trickery, bribes, manipulation, punishment, abuse of power, age difference, and physical size. Sexual exploitations may take various forms, from penetrative sex acts to voyeurism.
Unfortunately, research has found that sexual sibling abuse is less likely to be disclosed than other forms of abuse (Carlson et al., 2006). Similar to why that is in situations of sibling bullying, the victim fears punishment, not being believed, or being ostracised by the family. Their parents may not support them and instead punish them for bringing shame to the family. In some cultures, gender plays a role, and females may be silenced from speaking up (Fontes and Plummer, 2010).
One should bear in mind that, however, the abusers are often abused, neglected, or traumatized children. The abuse likely does not stem from a fundamental character defect but a symptom of things going wrong within the family system for a while.
For more on this topic, here is an interview I did with an expert in sibling relationships, Dr. Avidan Milevsky:
–> In this interview, we discussed many other topics, such as the concept of ‘de-identification’ and the benefits of having siblings. For the full podcast episode and its show notes, click here.
Having a Psychopathic Sibling
Researchers have estimated about 1 percent of the adult population meets the criteria for psychopathy. Children are usually not diagnosed with sociopathic and psychopathic disorders but conduct disorders or behavioral problems. Signs of psychopathy, however, can often be spotted even in a person’s early life. Even a young as between the age of 2 and 4, the following may be observed in a potentially psychopathic sibling:
— They lack empathy and do not seem to care what others feel.
— They lack fear and are not intimidated by punishments.
— They lie constantly.
— They steal from their parents.
— They destroy properties or engage in violent play.
— They do not seem to feel guilty even if they hurt others.
— They hurt animals.
Even as children, your psychopathic brother, and sister might have stolen from you, spread rumors about you and shown no remorse or guilt if they had hurt you. To make matters worse, your parents were so intimated that they seemed to care only about appeasing him rather than protecting you.
As your psychopathic sibling grows up, their narcissism looms larger. They want everything for free or with little effort, and they don’t believe the rules that apply to everyone apply to them. People and spouses are simply resources to be used and exploited. They are charming and like to draw attention to themselves. They also create constant drama because they cannot stand being bored. Unfortunately, your parents are exhausted just trying to manage them. They hardly pay any attention to you. As a close sibling or the only sibling, you may feel your life was ‘stolen’ by your psychopathic sibling. Sibling estrangement is an unfortunate and inevitable result.
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
Toxic Sibling Relationship Dynamics
Specific toxic sibling relationships could result if the parents are unavailable, depressed, aggressive, narcissistic, controlling, or clearly favor one child over the others. When the parents do not set boundaries or manage the sibling’s relationship in a healthy way, these polarised dynamics tend to become increasingly extreme and detrimental.
Some potential toxic siblings’ relationship dynamics are 1) The Golden Child and the Black Sheep, 2) The Mature One and the Eternal Child, and 3) The Bully and the Silenced One.
Dynamic 1. The Golden Child and the Black Sheep
When the parent clearly favors one child to the other, the Golden Child and the Black Sheep toxic sibling dynamic results. Parents may favor one child over the others because they see themselves in them, or they expect one particular child to live out their legacy. They frame the Golden Child as the smart one, the good one, the one who could do no wrong. In contrast, the other sibling is treated as the Black Sheep who could do nothing right. Sibling estrangement is implicitly set up and even encouraged by the parents’ behaviors.
The Black Sheep of the family is the scapegoat. As the name suggests, they are cast out of the family because they are different. It might be that they are more sensitive, unconventional, or emotionally intense, but their qualities are seen as defects, and in subtle and explicit ways they are being blamed for who they are. With the defense mechanism of projection and projective identification, the family projects all woes onto the scapegoat. They are the ‘identified patient’ who is sick, selfish, and lost. No one has taken the time to really get to know the Black Sheep or what they uniquely offer. Instead, they have pushed aside most of the time and get blamed when things go wrong.
With the Golden Child being an extension of their brilliance, the parents would not allow the Black Sheep to threaten the narrative they have set up. So when the scapegoated child does something well, their achievements are ignored and their voices are dismissed. The Golden Child always has to be the best in everything, and the Black Sheep can only be acknowledged to the extent that the Golden Child remains unthreatened.
Since the Black Sheep has internalized their family’s message for them, they struggle with low self-esteem, carry toxic shame, and don’t believe they deserve to be happy and successful. Unconsciously, they feel if they achieve something, they will be attacked and criticized. So even as adults, they may rather self-sabotage to dodge the attack they unconsciously expect.
Also, since the Black Sheep is emotionally distant from the rest of the family, they never felt belonged or that anyone welcomes them. This can lead to lifelong loneliness, attachment difficulties, fear of intimacy, and the assumption that they will never belong anywhere.
Being the Golden Child, however, does not mean there is no suffering. Having to act as an extension of their parent, the Golden Child is deprived of the opportunity to find their own paths and explore their own needs, desires and unique qualities. Whilst the Black Sheep is forced to be autonomous and find their own way in life, the Golden Child is forced into enmeshment with their potentially immature, dependent, and controlling parent. There is a clear path laid down for them, and the message they receive from a young age is that choosing to follow their own will or disobey their parents will be a betrayal. They may face threats that they would be disowned and abandoned or that they will need to repay their debt for hurting their parents’ feelings. As a result, it is not uncommon for the Golden Child to have an existential crisis or experience existential depression when they reach mid-life. When suddenly, they realize they have been following a script laid down for them rather than following their true north.
Also, throughout their childhood, the Golden Child may see how unfairly their sibling is treated but cannot do anything about it. They are almost pushed into a situation of sibling estrangement by their parents’ design. Their natural sense of justice needs to be suppressed for the sake of survival. This can create unconscious guilt that they later over-compensate for. Later in life, they may have a ‘rescuer complex’, be attracted to vulnerable partners who need help, or exhibit people-pleasing behaviors and subjugation.
Dynamic 2. The Mature One and the Eternal Child
The Mature One in this toxic sibling dynamic is the one who is almost always mature, responsible, disciplined, reliable, and level-headed. The Eternal Child, in contrast, is archetypally undisciplined, failing to commit, passion-driven, and lacking in control. In Pop culture, the Eternal Child is likened to Perter Pan, who never grows up.
In Jungian Psychology, The Eternal Child embodies the Puer/ Puerlla archetype. Puers or Puerllas are afraid of commitment. They do not like being tied down and want to have unlimited choices. Rather than making efforts to stay grounded in reality, they thrive on fantasies. Their mind is on what they will do sometime in the future. But life slips away as they indulge in one after another future vision.
Whilst boundaries and limits are essential for our growth, the Eternal Child resists having any of them. They have little tolerance for hardship, so they run from one situation to the next, one job to the next, one relationship to the next, whenever things begin to get difficult. As a result, despite having big dreams, they rarely achieve much in actuality. They refuse to face life heads on and always wait for someone or something to come in and solve their problems. As a result, the Puer/ Puella lives what Jungians call a ‘provisional life’.
The positive side of being an Eternal Child is that they are spontaneous and imaginative, full of hope and energy. They are often charming, attractive, and humorous. Within the MBTI personality system, Puers and Puellas are likely to be the “P” type, embodying both the best and worst aspects of the trait.
In a way, the Eternal Child was never given the opportunity to grow up truly. The family members and relatives may tease them for being ‘free-spirited’, and passion-driven or talk to them in a patronizing way. But this isn’t their fault as they were given little responsibilities and accountability. Their controlling and engulfing parents may be overprotective of them and give them few opportunities to make their own mistakes and learn and grow from them.
When there is an Eternal Child in the family, their sibling often has to take up the role of the Mature One. As the Eternal Child is underfunctioning, the other sibling is forced into an overfunctioning role. If the underfunctioning Eternal Child is also an under-archiver by society’s standards or get caught up in addictions or criminal activities, the Mature One would feel the need to compensate for the parents’ disappointment.Unconsciously, the root of the dynamic is that since the other sibling upsets their parents, they cannot do so as well. Thus, they feel they have no choice but to follow the path that was laid down for them and to become a successful, functional member of society. Just as the overfunctioning-underfunctioning dynamic can get polarised and derails intimacy in a romantic pair, this toxic sibling relationship dynamic is destructive to both.
As a child, the Mature One is the one who always finishes homework on time, tidies up, and obeys orders. They do everything that is expected of them. But they do this because their absolute compliance is the only way the family system can sustain itself. They may be filling in for a depressed parent who makes it clear they have no energy for parenting, or they are overcompensating for a violent and unpredictable parent who would be enraged if things are less than perfect or orderly.
The Mature one is also often parentified. They may be an older sibling (though not always), who has no choice but to step up and fill in the gap left by their vulnerable, irresponsible or incompetent parents. Parentification is both instrumental or emotional. On the one hand, they have to take care of household chores, and take the younger brothers and sisters to doctors, school, etc. On the other hand, they have to act as tutors and carers to their siblings and as the emotional punchbag, counselors or confidants for their parents.
Being the protective big sister or brother may have won the Mature One praise and recognition, but they also feel trapped in their caretaking responsibilities. Everyone in the family has come to depend on their accountability and competence, so they cannot take a break from their role.
Having been a peacemaker and mediator all their lives, the Mature One brings an other-focus tendency into their adult relationships. They may disown their dreams and passion because what they want has never mattered, it was always about what they ‘should’ do. They eventually learn to neglect their own needs and desires. They do not feel they have the right to express or even feel ‘forbidden’ emotions such as anger, or sadness. As a result, many Matured One has the tendency to be ‘overcontrolled’, meaning they tend to suppress their emotions and expressions, both positive and negative, and not tell others about what they need. They do not feel they are allowed to let their hair down, relax, have fun, and do something outside of the conventional. They are also likely to overfunction at their work, in their romantic relationships and in their own parenting. Eventually, they are overburdened with responsibilities and may become burned out. (Here is a full article on Overcontrol as a personality trait)
By always trying to be the ‘good person’ who never upsets anyone, the Mature One has to disown some parts of their personality. But just as they deny the parts of themselves that have the potential to be arrogant, selfish, and aggressive (the shadows) , they also disown their capacity to be confident, assertive and care for themselves and fight for their rights.
The Puer and the Mature One act out each others’ shadows; Meaning they act out aspects suppressed or disowned by their sibling. In Jungian Psychology, the shadow of the Puer/ Puella is the ‘wise sage,’ which describes the Mature one who is disciplined, responsible, rational, and orderly.
One factor that makes this dynamic complicated, especially when it turns into adult sibling estrangement and rivalry, is envy. For all their lives, the Mature One is consciously or subconsciously jealous of how carefree their younger sibling seems to be. The Mature One might feel they have sacrificed a lot for their sibling. They love their brothers and sisters, but could not help but feel bitter and resentful for how quickly they never had a real childhood. Caught in a bind between love and resentment, loyalty and the need for freedom, the Mature One may be plunged into an emotional and existential crisis in later life.
Dynamic 3. The Bully and the Silenced One
When there is sibling abuse, the polarised dynamic involves a Bully and their victim, the Silenced One. With parental neglect, the Bully has never been disciplined. Children need, and often crave, boundaries and discipline. Being able to get away with aggression and even abuse is not a blessing. The fact that the Bully is never punished is not a blessing; Not knowing what is right and what is wrong creates a chaotic and frightening world for a child. Left on their own, the Bully never learned to respect boundaries and other people. Often, the Bully was a neglected, abused or hurt child. They feel helpless and ashamed on the inside but does not have a better way to channel their hurt other than to inflict it on their siblings.
The Silent One has learned to be silent because, all their lives, their story cannot be told. Either due to threats from the Bully or the parents not believing in them, they could not tell anyone what they were going through. Perhaps every time they speak up, they are punished. Since sibling bullying is often underplayed and unrecognized, the victim may not be able to make sense of or tell others about their experience. Their story is buried within them but may show up as psychosomatic symptoms, bodily pain, depression, or anxiety later in life. They have learned that the only way to survive is to be silent and compliant. They have never got an opportunity to learn to be assertive or stand up for their own rights. So even later in life, they lack the ability to set boundaries or stand up for themselves.
Rather than rightfully expressing their anger and setting boundaries, the Silenced One blame themselves.
Many victims of bullying have internalized the voice of the aggressor and become aggressive to themselves. They experience internalised aggression as a ‘critical inner voice’. It is as though they have become their own bully, constantly criticizing, and sabotaging themselves.
The Silenced One may take the psychological scars and the internalized shame into adulthood and never feel legitimate as a person. They do not believe they deserve to be loved and may sabotage opportunities and loving relationships. They may also become bullies to others as a way of releasing the unprocessed resentment.
Toxic Sibling Relationships Infographic
Sibling Estrangement and Adult Sibling Rivalry
Adult sibling rivalry is a toxic relationship that has continued from one’s childhood and haunts the involved parties emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.
Many people think of sibling estrangement or rivalry as something that we grow out of. Sadly, this is not always the case. When we speak of sibling estrangement in adulthood, others may dismiss us for being immature, dramatic, or unable to ‘let things go’. What others often cannot see, however, is a deep pain that was once inflicted and could not be quickly turned around.
Even if our siblings have changed, it does not mean the wound we have suffered could immediately be erased. Our siblings may not be bad people, but with all the history, it is almost impossible to know and truly see our siblings for who they are today.
We may deep down love our siblings but can find no words for it. We may want to support our siblings who are not doing so well in life, but we risk being seen as condescending. The trauma of sibling estrangement may even be transgenerationally passed on, affecting how our children interact and see their roles in the family.
Usually, parental favoritism lays the foundation for toxic adult-sibling estrangement. However, sometimes it can also happen simply due to life circumstances. For example, one sibling might have more success in their relationships and career. They may be more financially well-off or fulfilled personal goals, whilst their siblings remain in poverty or feel stuck in life. Benign feelings of jealousy are normal, but they can also become toxic, especially when they act on their envy. One may try to put down their siblings, ignore them or even sabotage their success. One may also try to sabotage the envied sibling’s life or humiliate them at every given opportunity. They may form an ally with other members and paint a picture of the successful one being arrogant and selfish. They may alienate the successful sibling and exclude them from family events. When acted out, toxic envy intensifies any existing sibling estrangement and sometimes causes irreversible damage.
In childhood, our parent’s love and attention are what we fight for. As grown-ups, however, the cost of sibling estrangement is more complex. What is at stake may be a house or inheritance. But when adult siblings fight over estates, it is not really the money that matters. Money and possessions are the symbols of the love that was missing and the justice that was not served. Siblings who fight for inheritance are usually acting out of years of bottled resentment and deprivation.
Have you been the target of toxic sibling envy?
Toxic sibling envy may be derailing your sibling relationship for a long time without you noticing, and it is at the root of many adult sibling estrangements.
For example, your sibling may consistently put you down. At first, this may not be obvious, but eventually, you find that every conversation and interaction with them leave you feeling exhausted. You notice that they always try to one-up on you every time you accomplish something. Or, they are suddenly kind and concerned when things are not going well for you, almost as though they are relieved.
Perhaps toxic sibling rivalry has been in place all your life, but it all happened under the radar, on an implicit level. You may blame yourself or think of yourself as being insecure, but what is happening, especially if you are an empath, is that you are picking up on your sibling’s insecurity and their need to put you down out of envy. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you may be faced with toxic sibling envy:
Do you walk away from most interactions with your sibling feeling ‘less-than?
Do you feel anxious when you have to spend time with them?
Does your sibling put you down under the cloaks of ‘bantering’ or ‘friendly teasing?’
Does your sibling make you feel stupid by using overly complex or difficult words?
Does your sibling subtly ‘slip in’ information about how they are doing so well at work or in their relationships; in fact, much better than you?
Do they ever celebrate your success, or do they seem insincere when they congratulate you?
Do they seem relieved when you fail?
“Your parents leave you too soon, and your kids and spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.” – Jeffrey Kluger
5 Steps To Heal From Toxic Sibling Relationship Dynamics
Our siblings offer us a lifelong connection that is unlike any other relationship. If, unfortunately, the degree of sibling abuse is severe beyond repair, we may have to set firm boundaries or walk away. However, as much as we can, repairing sibling estrangement is a meaningful endeavor.
Here are things we could do to heal ourselves or the relationship when we are faced with the consequences of sibling abuse or sibling estrangement.
Doing Deep Shadow Work
Within the framework of Jungian Psychology and Shadow Work, our siblings often play out the suppressed sides of our personalities. According to Jung, we all have a shadow side, this is where we house qualities we have dislodged, disowned, and denied in ourselves.
Because of the psychological process of ‘De-identification’ in sibling relationships, it is not uncommon for siblings to turn out radically different to each other in terms of personality, interests and attachment styles. As children, to establish one identity and to gain parental approval, we would unconsciously try to hone talents and qualities that are the opposite of our siblings.
In adult sibling estrangement, we find that certain qualities in our siblings trigger us— their arrogance, messiness, and rigidity. In truth, however, there are always parts of us that could behave in the same way. We also have the potential to be arrogant, self-centered, and over-controlled, but instead of acknowledging our shadows, we project these qualities into them. We judge our siblings in what we do not allow ourselves to be. For example, the Mature One would blame the Eternal Child for being irresponsible and selfish, while the Eternal Child would judge the Mature One for being controlling and rigid. The more our shadows are at play, the more dynamics such as Black Sheep and the Golden Child, the Mature One and the Eternal Child, and the Bully and the Silenced One become polarised.
One of the ways to heal from sibling estrangement, therefore, is to take back our projections through deep shadow work. We can re-integrate the shadow qualities we have projected outward. We become more self-aware and integrated. By seeing the humanity and vulnerability in our siblings, we gain the gift of empathy. They were not born to be our enemies. Through the vehicle of self-actualisation, we can turn adult sibling rivalry into a portal for our growth.
Notice How Your Toxic Sibling Relationships Affect Your Life
Without lucid self-awareness, we will likely take original sibling dynamics into our adult relationship.
Our longing to be seen and heard for who we are inevitable gets played out in a group situation, including the workplace, social support group, church group, or sports team.
When we are triggered, we regress in psychology to that of a young person. We can’t help but crave a ‘special relationship’ with the authority figure. Just like how much we wanted our parents’ recognition and approval, we want our manager to acknowledge our work and our worth. Suddenly, our colleagues become our competitive siblings. We see the world in a black-or-white manner; we imagine competition to be a zero-sum game and would do anything to protect ourselves or fight for what we want. If our colleague or peer reminds us of the bullying sibling, for example, we either crumble in fear just like we did as a child, or we blow up in rage and let out our pent-up anger. In psychology, the process of redirecting the emotions that were originally felt in childhood to a substitute person or situation is called transference.
Experiencing transference and projection is not necessarily a bad thing. When we become aware of it, it can become an opportunity for growth. For example, we may realise we have been projecting tyranny onto all authority figures and experience excessive fear. When we break through our transference, however, we can learn to be assertive and stand up for ourselves in a way we couldn’t before.
Many people find that once they have worked through transference, they can take back their projections. They stop feeling triggered wherever they go, and they can feel more peaceful in life.
Set Boundaries and Say No to Sibling Abuse
Some siblings consistently behave in toxic ways and refuse to put a stop to the cycle of sibling abuse. Their refuse to respect your boundaries and continue to push. For example, they always ask for your help for more than you can give, and when you refuse they emotionally blackmail or guilt-trip you. Sometimes, you feel no matter what you do you cannot please them enough; their needs and demands are bottomless. Perhaps they are aggressive and unpredictable, and you find no matter how careful or respectful you try to be, they seem to be triggered and blow up at you. They may also constantly put you down or one-up on you out of envy. These are all signs of sibling abuse. Ideally, you could have an honest conversation with your sibling about how you feel and assertively make a request for the sibling abuse to stop. However, if they have psychopathic tendencies or little self-awareness, repair may not be possible.
If your brother or sister refuses to communicate or change, please know that you have the right to set kind but firm boundaries with your toxic sibling. You might have tried your very best to be close to them, but a relationship involves both sides, and ultimately you cannot sacrifice your own mental health just to sustain a toxic sibling relationship. You may wish to diplomatically reduce contact, say no to their unreasonable request, and stop responding to their unreasonable requests.
Consider Therapy for Sibling Estrangement
Seeing that sibling relationships often set the blueprint for many of our future relationships, it is worth working on them, healing from any unhealed old wounds and harnessing the bond that is there. Even if your parents are no longer here, it can still be worthwhile to process some of the unprocessed anger, grief, and resentment, so they no longer haunt you. In individual therapy, exercises such as an empty chair or a letter that you don’t send could be helpful.
If your siblings are willing, family therapy could be tremendously useful. It is a place for adult family members to talk through old stories and pain, to put a stop to any sibling abuse and to revert toxic sibling relationship dynamics.
Family therapy for siblings may be useful in achieving the following:
- Identifying unhealthy and destructive elements of your interactions.
- Process buried resentment and anger that stem from your childhood experience.
- Establish healthy boundaries that are neither too rigid nor too porous, so you can learn to be close without being enmeshed.
- Learn to respect differences and build a functioning relationship where you support each other.
Nourishing the New Sibling Relationship
Once you have gone through the process of honest conversations, shadow work and potentially sibling therapy, you may not want to spend the rest of your life dwelling in past hurts and trauma from the toxic relationship that is now in the past. If they have changed, you can make effort to see them as the person they are today rather than who they once were. If your sibling is willing, you can join forces to work on strengthening a healthy and supportive sibling relationship that you can both benefit from today.
Here are some pointers to nourishing a healthy adult sibling relationship:
- Schedule quality time together, create new memories with each other and get to know each other as the people that you are today, rather than the children you once were.
- Become aware of unrealistic expectations. They may not be available or understand you all the time, but you can learn to respect each others’ limits and not take support for granted.
- Do not compare your achievements, relationships or achievement of your children.
- Try to agree to disagree on certain matters, such as politics and religion, and try not to create unnecessary conflicts.
- Explicitly express your gratitude and appreciation. Learn each others’ ‘love language’ and express your love for them accordingly.
“Sisters are supposed to be people you’re close to, aren’t they. You may not like them much, but you’re still close to them.”
― A Pale View of Hills
When people who are supposed to love us hurt us, betray us or abandon us, the scars cut deep and affect other areas of our lives. When the relationship with our sibling is fractured, we are often left with a lingering longing for reconciliation. We may be stuck in grief if we cannot let go of the sibling we are supposed to have but do not have. We may still be waiting for an apology that will not come, the recognition for what we have done, or finally, or an acceptance of our true self into the family. When we have tried again and again and are not able to get anywhere, we can be left feeling helpless.
Sometimes the solution lies in making effort to reconcile with the sibling. And at other times, we may have to accept that we don’t have the sibling love we want and let go.
We may not be able to change how our siblings behave, but we can change our perspective and attitude. Through deep conversation, shadow work or the help of therapy, we can learn to see our siblings for who they are— flawed, but human just like ourselves. They too, have been wounded and are finding the best way they could to survive. By seeing our shared humanity, we can hopefully transcend past hurt and trauma, free ourselves from the burden of rage and resentment, and not let past events hold us back for the rest of our lives.
This article is written by Imi Lo.