Not achieving what one’s twin has achieved can cause tremendous shame. Evading crushing anxiety can easily become a lifelong challenge. Many adult twins whose sibling finds a compatible romantic partner or attains a prestigious professional position struggle enormously. For some, the divergences bring up strong emotions that have been bubbling underneath the surface for quite a while. I see this primarily in identical twin pairs. Fraternal twins are confronted with a host of differences from an early age, while identicals are treated more as equals since their physical resemblance is often indistinguishable.
Identical twin pairs—both male and female—who have been surprised with news of their twin’s new status do indeed present with an anxiety that is free floating, intense, unarticulated, and overwhelming. Initially, they seem to have no means of understanding or making sense of how or why this has happened. The perceived betrayal and separation sever the twins’ connection. The abandoned twin cannot find her footing or inner reality. Her sense of herself and her twin world are shattered, seemingly without hope of being put back together again.
Following these initial reactions, most twins are able to recover and reinvent themselves with the help of an experienced psychotherapist. However, some twins can handle these circumstances with more ease than others. Those who struggle longer and more arduously have an extreme guardedness around positive feelings in response to an abundance of negative affectual experiences related to their twin. A sense of mistrust pervades feeling good or hopeful, and they assume it is reckless to believe that being hopeful will change one’s situation. In other words, if you expect something bad to happen, it will hurt less when it does happen. Moderating hope through the anticipation of dread gives an illusion of safety.
An adult female identical twin I have worked with for many years suffers horribly with an obsessive expectation of trauma and negativity. This behavior developed in response to many years of feeling inferior to her sister. She had assumed a carefree caretaking stance regarding her twin as they grew up as a means of regulating unconscious feelings of anger and shame. This dissociation took away the liveliness of experience and the meaning and context of what happened. However, now that she is aware of this, she is learning to recognize that her destructive feelings no longer need to reside within her. Instead of feeling as if she cannot move on, she is working through her many anxieties to embrace the notion of “I can.”