Tilting at Windmills
Many psychotherapists feel disheartened and discouraged when treating a couple who appear unable to reestablish trust and stability. A similar situation occurs with twin pairs who struggle to get their relationship back on track. Working through upsetting events and traumatic feelings requires a tremendous amount of effort, dedication, and commitment.
I am helping a pair of identical female twins in their midfifties to listen to one another more effectively and rekindle their connection. A number of complex variables hindered the evolution of their relationship for many years. Since their mother died a year ago, both sisters recognize that the only family they have left is each other. Feeling desperate because of their inability to get along and recognize each other as separate people, they contacted me for help.
Both women have diametrically opposing personalities, which is one of many factors contributing to their lack of connection. Sally is outspoken, energetic, fast paced, and extroverted. Her sister Serena is methodical, low key, shy, and orderly. When something that her sister says or does upsets Serena, she shuts down completely. She becomes anxious when she hears Sally express frustration, anger, or impatience; consequently, she cannot respond to Sally’s feelings in any meaningful way. Serena shared that it took her two years to muster up the courage to tell Sally that she hated visiting Sally’s apartment because it was so messy and unkempt.
Sally, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Serena cannot respond to her feelings at all. Since Sally believes that she expresses her feelings in a clear and concise manner, she becomes distraught over Serena’s inability to take care of her in these moments. Sally also panics when Serena thwarts her efforts to be Serena’s emotional caretaker. Sally played this role throughout their lives and feels stripped of her function when Serena rejects her offers of advice and counsel. Telephone conversations between the sisters become empty and meaningless because Serena’s need for quiet self-reflection and passive responses leave Sally feeling empty, alone, and abandoned.
Both women endured tremendous emotional and physical trauma growing up. As a result, Sally has adopted a persona that comes across as dogmatic, controlling, and powerful. Serena, on the other hand, says that she never felt heard or recognized in her family because Sally was the stronger twin. As a result, Serena is reluctant to assert herself in any real way when her sister is involved. She reverts back to her childhood, feeling isolated and alone in her attempts to handle overwhelming fears. The sisters long to feel safe and loved by each other but are tragically paralyzed by old defensive patterns. Both are understandably fearful of changing themselves or trusting each other, so they hide their vulnerability behind their childhood roles. Their interpersonal difficulties spill over into other relationships outside of their twin connection. Both look for friends who can mirror exactly what they need to feel safe and recognized.
My therapeutic goal for Sally and Serena is to tackle the traumatic childhood experiences that continue to drive a wedge between the sisters, which hopefully will establish a safe emotional place for each of them. If they can agree to disagree and find a place of mutual recognition, each will be able to work through their emotional distress—Sally will allow Serena to be herself, and Serena will learn how to manage Sally’s wrath without fear of incrimination or retaliation.
I have titled this blog post “Tilting at Windmills” out of a desire to show that many of us, not just twins, deplete ourselves emotionally by fighting outdated psychic demons that no longer pursue us. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy enables the patient to understand the developmental root causes of presenting issues and work toward a healthier resolution in the future.
Image courtesy of Massimo Frasson (CC BY-SA 2.0)