The stakes in sibling relationships are high. Whether or not you and your brother/sister are besties, the dynamics of a sibling relationship come with inherent complexities that don’t exist in our other friendships. Trusted goop depth psychologist Carder Stout, Ph.D., who focuses on exploring the unconscious side of the psyche, has incredible insight into navigating the tricky sibling waters—from how to balance our sense of loyalty to our siblings with our own needs and wants, what to do if we feel overshadowed by a sibling (or if we worry we are the one overshadowing), to the deal with lending money to siblings, how to act if we really don’t like a sibling’s significant other, and the best way to reconnect if you’ve lost touch.
A Q&A with Carder Stout, Ph.D.
What do you make of birth-order archetypes—do you find truth in them and/or do you see them as limiting?
Archetypes always have stories to tell. In regards to birth order, there are so many variables at play that their relevance is diffused by other more pertinent factors. There is the myth of the first-born child, which revolves around high expectations and special attention from parents. This child may be more dominant, responsible, and slated for success, but this is certainly not always the case. Birth order has little to do with a child’s true nature—the essence of his/her character is determined by the soul that lies within, but how the child is parented contributes significantly to his/her sense of self. Every family is different, so generalizations and stereotypes don’t apply across the board. If a child endures the trauma of a divorce, has a single parent, has a narcissistic parent, and so on, regardless of their birth order, these factors will undoubtedly impact and shape their perceptions.
So whether you are a first, middle, or last born, it is much more important to consider the family dynamics that exist/existed in your household. Never discount the vitality of an archetypal pattern, but it is your job to investigate whether it applies to you. Remember that your soul is not bound by the parameters of any one story or myth. Your story is your own and has the ability to shift at any time. Live it fully and without remorse.
Compared to friends, we generally feel more obligated to stay close to our siblings regardless of how difficult they may be: How do we balance that sense of responsibility/loyalty/guilt with our own needs/wants?
To strike a balance between our own selfish pursuits and the selfless attitude often necessary to accommodate siblings can be like holding an advanced yoga pose while being tickled: On your best day, you may surge with a sense of accomplishment, and on your worst, you may be overwhelmed with frustration and guilt. Just because someone is your sibling does not mean they have earned the right to be your good friend. In some cases, our siblings can be mean-spirited, shortsighted, and reckless. If so, for your own self-preservation, apply a healthy boundary and disengage until your sibling is in a better place.
“To strike a balance between our own selfish pursuits and the selfless attitude often necessary to accommodate siblings can be like holding an advanced yoga pose while being tickled.”
We can easily lose ourselves in the lives of our siblings and forget that we need to take care of ourselves. But there is a healthy way to incorporate selfishness into our daily routine. Most of us do it anyway (we just don’t name it), for our dedication to self is what allows us to regenerate and be available for others. If your sibling is struggling emotionally, for instance, consider referring them to a therapist—and not trying to take on that role yourself. Of course you want to be available to help them in some capacity, but you need to help yourself first. Your own happiness is your primary concern, not that of any one else. If you access joy from within, it will extend to everyone around you, including siblings.
How do you maintain closeness with a sibling who has a very different life view/style?
One of the most effective ways to continue our spiritual and emotional growth is to constantly challenge our own world view. This is best accomplished through interaction with people who have differences of opinion, disparate styles, and divergent beliefs. The more comfortable we become with ourselves, the more available we are to consider ideas that oppose our own.
Again, a sibling does not have to be in your inner circle of confidantes, but you potentially have much to learn from them—if you are willing. Often the most successful relationships are a fusion between two people that are vastly different. There is beauty in the very nature of a compensatory bond—the dissimilarities serve as the bonding agent. Fostering an attitude of admiration (not judgment) of a sibling is the ultimate goal, regardless of their hair color, obsession with conspiracy theory, or ardent support of causes you dismiss. Take the differences with a grain of salt and ask yourself how they have assisted in your expansion.
What do you say to clients who feel like they’ve always lived a bit in the shadows of an uber-successful sibling?
We live in a society that constantly asks us to compare ourselves to others. The media tells us that beauty equals happiness and material possessions give sustenance. We have been misled through these powerful messages that promote a fixation on the lives of others.
I first address clients in this boat by honoring their feelings and affirming that their concerns are both valid and understandable. I then ask what it would feel like to celebrate the success of a sibling with a new attitude of acceptance and respect. This could be achieved through developing an appreciation of the client’s own free-spirited and individual nature. Success is a relative concept, so I would work with my client to uncover the rudiments of their own personal triumphs. These could simply be the deep friendships they cherish, their dedication to self-improvement, or their openness and curiosity.
I have always felt that true success revolves around the way you feel when you are lying in bed drifting off to sleep. Do you feel clear, unencumbered by doubt, or full of optimism and love? If this is the case, I would say you are extremely successful. So, focus on the purity of your own achievements and do not worry so much about your siblings. I also remind clients: Who really knows what goes on behind closed doors?
On the flip side, how do you help clients cope with the guilt they may have around feeling like they have a better/easier fate than their siblings?
I explore the feelings of guilt and encourage them to to adopt an attitude of self-forgiveness. A person should never feel ashamed about the ease in which they stroll through life. If they are well respected in their vocation, have a healthy relationship/family life, and/or are connected to a deep sense of their own value, I would ask them to release themselves from any sense of guilt about it. People should not feel uneasy about their own path unless they have actively contributed to the dismay of someone else. Remember, you are not responsible for the health and well-being of your siblings. Each person is solely responsible for their own happiness.
“Remember, you are not responsible for the health and
well-being of your siblings.”
If you feel as though you have not been emotionally available to a sibling because of your frenetic life and you harbor guilt about this, there is a simple solution: Reach out to your sibling, convey that you love them deeply, and aim to be more available. Speak from a place of humility and listen to what they have to say without becoming defensive. It may take time to dress the wound between you, but be patient and let the healing begin.
What kind of financial responsibility do you think is healthy between siblings?
Financial dealings between siblings rarely end favorably. They are sticky, messy, and a breeding ground for resentments. My recommendation is to avoid them if you can. If a sibling asks to borrow money from you, consider a few factors: What is the money for? Do I have the money to give? Never loan money to a sibling and expect to get paid back on some sort of layaway plan like you would for a bedroom set or a condo in Redondo Beach. You are not a mortgage broker (well maybe you are, but most people are not).
If you do have a surplus of money and are feeling generous, then I suggest giving it to your sibling as a gift. Release yourself from any agreement with them and relinquish any negative feelings about the money in general. But before signing the check, have a thorough conversation about why they need the money. If the money is for their child’s education or a medical emergency, then maybe it is the right thing for you to do. You have to decide what you are willing to endorse. Whatever decision you make, feel good about it.
What do you tell clients who are dealing with fraught sibling dynamics around caring for aging parents, or settling wills of passed family members?
The best way to handle complicated situations regarding preceding generations is to convene with your siblings and try to find common ground. You may experience an overwhelming divide in your proposed course of action, but do not let this be discouraging. Each sibling should have a voice, and everyone should be willing to compromise. If you are discussing the care for your aging parents, proceed without your own agenda and check your unresolved feelings about each other at the curb stand. This is not about you—this is solely about the preservation of your parents’ lives.
So many families are torn apart by the seemingly unfair distribution of wealth and assets designated by wills and testaments. This territory can be extremely dangerous. If you feel slighted by your parent’s wishes, you have two main options as I see it: You can accept it or try to fight it in court. If you choose the latter, you may create a chasm that will keep you separate from your siblings for all eternity. Is it worth it? My mother had attached a handwritten addendum to her will that was signed and dated, but never legally filed it with her lawyer. This heated my temper for a bit and then left me confused and bewildered. Ultimately, I decided to let it go and this decision lowered my temperature several degrees. I never looked back, and this has made all the difference in my ability to make peace with a difficult situation. Each one of us is capable of making our own impressions, money, and decisions—I encourage you to do so.
If you’ve gone a long time without speaking to a sibling, what’s the best way to reopen lines of communication?
Extend the olive branch. It is never, never, never too late. Consider the nature of the estrangement. Have you acted inappropriate in some way? Have you been too self-involved or resentful about something from the past? Regardless of what has transpired, be willing to own your part in it. Pick up the phone. Don’t be shy.
Begin the conversation with something like: I know it has been a long time. I just wanted to let you know that I miss you and I love you dearly. I’m not proud of the way I have been acting. I am sorry for my part in this. I hope that we can spend some time together soon and talk things out. That would make me so happy.
“Extend the olive branch. It is never, never, never too late.”
Then just listen to what your sibling has to say. Perhaps they simply need you to hear them. Find compassion and empathy; it’s in all of our hearts somewhere.
A lot of sibling drama can arise with large age gaps—as parenting styles shift over time, siblings (and/or half siblings and stepsiblings) may have very different relationships with their parents. Is there a particular way to approach related unresolved anger/resentment?
It was not until my mother died that I realized how differently my siblings and I had perceived her. Our experiences with her as mother were not even remotely similar. I had egotistically believed that we all felt the same about her—when nothing could have been further from the truth. Yes, we all loved her, but her parenting style shifted dramatically when I went off to boarding school and my sisters remained at home. I was unaware of the impact this had on my younger siblings until many years later, when I was an adult. I suppose I was not ready to hear it until then. I was surprised and shocked to hear their side of the story and I grieved my inability to go back in time to support them more fervently.
Deeply listening to each other was a type of medicine (it tasted sour initially) that helped heal the emotional colds of our childhood. To truly know the story of your sibling, you must give them the time to tell it. I implore you to do so. This may lead to a closeness you never imagined possible.
What should you do if you’re not a fan of your sibling’s significant other?
Usually the qualities that we do not like in others are merely a reflection of those we dislike in ourselves. Is it possible that your sibling’s partner is more like you than you want to admit? Consider it. Even if it’s not the case, remember that people who are different constantly ask us to challenge our limited perspectives. Make an attempt to appreciate the person who opposes your point of view and pushes you out of your comfort zone.
If they are rude or obnoxious, be thankful that you are not married to them; always take the high road. Do not become entangled in confrontation. Kill them with kindness. In short, always be supportive of your sibling’s choice of a mate. Too much honesty may drive a wedge between you, so chose your words wisely and be diplomatic.
Do you recommend siblings work together with a therapist on their issues?
If you do the work on yourself, the answers will come. Find out in your own personal therapy what is driving your discomfort. Determine whether you want to have a relationship with your siblings, and investigate the best way to get there. After a deep exploration of your own feelings, ask your therapist if it might be beneficial to have a family session. It is not always a good idea. Siblings may feel threatened in a therapeutic setting. They may feel that the scales are tipped in your favor. The best way to reconcile is always to find the place of forgiveness in your heart. Create an opening for your sibling and proceed with care. But if they are not ready, you must honor that as well.
How can parents foster healthy relationships between siblings early on?
Children are wise little humans. They have so much to teach us as parents. Use your intuition and if you sense that there is something amiss, allow them to tell you a story. While birth order archetypes don’t tell you a lot specifically about a person, sibling rivalries are archetypal in nature, so let them run their course. Be certain never to be exclusionary; foster a policy of fairness and balance. Go on family outings in nature, or just to a playground. Don’t over-parent; give them the latitude to work out their differences. You will be surprised by their mastery.