Twins and Altruism

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Recently, I commented about a pair of 21-year-old identical twin female tennis players qualifying for the first time at Wimbledon. Sadly, the twin who advanced to the next round could not fully celebrate the biggest win of her career because her twin sister had lost her match. If you are not a twin, you may find it hard to understand why the victorious twin had to downplay and deflect her success.

Let me share Jeffrey Kluger’s definition of altruism from his book The Sibling Effect: “the willingness to act unselfishly toward another person in a way that gives you nothing immediate in return and perhaps even puts your own welfare on the line.”

The twin’s win puts her at emotional risk. Her twin relationship is predicated on a homeostatic balance that cannot be disrupted. The victorious twin cannot celebrate her personal victory and tremendous accomplishment because doing so might psychologically destabilize her sister. She cannot celebrate with abandon and authenticity because their twin connection will not tolerate this degree of disparity and division.

Unfortunately, twins do not have to be stellar competitive athletes to experience this dynamic with each other. My sister Jane told me just a few years ago how terrible she felt about an incident that happened when we were in high school. She had qualified for a prestigious program that allowed her to attend college classes while in high school. I did not qualify. Jane confided that she felt so guilty about receiving this honor that she could give herself permission to attend only one college semester rather than two.

It is in this spirit that I emphatically remind parents why twins should not be each other’s caretaker or surrogate parent. While it may appear cute and engaging to outsiders, this altruistic stance can interfere with each twin’s capacity to embrace and enjoy his or her individual accomplishments and successes.

Have you ever had to downplay your achievements?

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