Follow the Envy

I recently listened to a podcast in which a guest spoke about envying her brother’s financial success. The host advised the caller to “follow the envy”—in other words, to recognize this feeling as an indication of what she wants for herself and to come to grips with why she has not accomplished those desires. I was struck by the relevance of this advice to twin relationships. Individuals often feel that envy is a pernicious feeling that evokes shame and self-loathing. Twin pairs have difficulty voicing these sentiments even though they run deeply through the twinship.

A pair of identical twins in their late thirties contacted me about eighteen months ago. The sisters lived on different coasts and had infrequent contact with each other. “Sima” mentioned that she had felt estranged from her sister “Shoshana” for more than ten years. They never contacted each other by telephone. On the rare occasions they attended family events together, one inevitably made the other feel unwelcome. The entire family was affected by the tension between the two. Shoshana especially resented how Sima maligned her behind her back. Shoshana accused Sima of constantly telling their parents that Shoshana was selfish and insensitive.

Sima lived with her parents at the time of our initial meeting. She had recently lost her job and was looking for another one. She was uncertain about her career path. She had just experienced a romantic breakup. To make matters worse, all this was during the height of the pandemic, so she felt overwhelmingly isolated and depressed. Meanwhile, Shoshana was happily married, joyfully engaged in her career, and living in a beautiful house with her husband and dogs. Sima acknowledged her envy, said that she blamed Shoshana for having everything that Sima wanted, and worried that she would never have the life she longed for.

The twins grew up incredibly competitive toward one another and emotionally isolated from others. This combination of competition and dependency can be emotionally explosive. Shoshana apologized for keeping secrets from Sima. Shoshana felt anxious about revealing events that might cause Sima to feel bad about herself and her life. Although Sima intellectually understood Shoshana’s rationale, she could not forgive her sister for past transgressions and behavior. Sima remarked that she felt incapable of repairing their relationship until she could address her envy and anger in therapy. Only then would she feel that she and Shoshana were on a level playing field.

Of course, Shoshana was disappointed about her sister’s decision to postpone working toward a rapprochement. However, she understood her sister’s hesitation. Our sessions gave each sister an opportunity to express her feelings about the other—envy, resentment, and hopelessness in Sima’s case and anger, hurt, and rejection in Shoshana’s. Hearing each other’s truth can be an important step toward reconciliation.

Image courtesy of Mattias Åström (CC BY 2.0)

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