I grew up with a kind, protective big brother, no bitchy sisters, so it has been perplexing for me to grasp this insidious aspect of human nature. In fact, it has taken years of observing the bizarre behaviour of fully grown adults to comprehend sibling rivalry.
Sibling rivalry, a deep, burning competiveness, is the underlying driving force that makes a 54 year old man regress to the age of three around his younger brother and act superior and boastful and ignore or denigrate his brother’s achievements, as if throwing a tantrum and screaming at an invisible mummy and daddy: “Look at ME. I am much better than him!”
The potent force of sibling rivalry makes grown women steal other women’s husbands, causing horrendous damage to all concerned; far worse than stealing their sister’s favourite dress. It makes otherwise-intelligent professional women copy and compete with the clothes, jewellery and hair styles of female colleagues (as if screaming: “Look everyone, I’m prettier than her!”). It compels childish men to backstab colleagues by reporting misdemeanours to the boss (the way the Goody Two Shoes kid dobs in his siblings to Dad to score points.)
There are several weapons in the armoury of the grown-up still driven by unconscious sibling rivalry. In conversation, the sub text remains “I am better than you (and other lesser beings)”. This dysfunctional person is proud to strut as a flagrant snob, even though most mature people, who value equality and human rights, consider snobbery offensive and misguided.
A superiority complex might form if someone is born with a firm grip on the Silver Spoon, into a wealthy, upper class family, or it might be based on real attributes and accomplishments (Ironically most genuine achievers are modest and have no need to boast).
More often, superiority is a phoney act with no basis in reality. One guy I know, far from being born into the aristocracy and preened for privilege in a private school and an elite university, grew up in an ordinary, struggling family and left Tech at 15 in the back blocks of Australia. In adult life he moved to the UK, and now fakes a posh accent and pretends he’s Blue Blood. (Sadly not many people fall for it. His false pretensions are very transparent!)
Such a self-centred person will hog the spotlight in a conversation, boasting about their latest exotic holidays, sporting pursuits and dubious achievements and name-dropping about rubbing shoulders with the rich, famous and obnoxious, but they are loath to give the other person equal time.
They never ask about you, having honed with sibling rivals growing up, the skill of avoiding the subject of you as their preferred competitive strategy, which has the affect of making you feel ignored and devalued.
However if you seize the audacity to talk about yourself, gripped by panic, they go to the next level of competing which is to negate you by showing no interest and changing the subject. This will be confusing and hurtful; especially if you are used to courteous conversation with supportive friends who take a genuine interest in you. I’ve been on the receiving end of this undermining treatment, and being taken by surprise, I am quite undefended. It is impossible to connect with someone who is acting superior and competitive. Bonding is based in equality and mutual respect.
If you persist in talking about yourself, they will bring out the big guns of sarcastic put-downs; such is their infantile fear that you will outdo them or take the attention off them. If you are sensitive like me, and not ready with a sarcastic come-back, you can be wounded by these malicious tactics, learned long ago as a sly backyard bully to weaker, younger siblings.
A certain personality type (Type Seven, for readers who know the Enneagram) is prone to jealousy and rivalry, based on a faulty belief formed in childhood that there is not enough parental affection, praise and attention to go around. They perceive parental love as a small pie, which has to be divided up and if your brother gets a bigger slice, you get less.
These jealous kids grow up with a sense of lack and deprivation, fighting with siblings for the biggest share, instead of experiencing a sense of abundance; secure in an unlimited, endless supply of love for the whole family. Stingy parents who doled out scraps of love might be responsible for creating this belief or it can spring from the child’s own insatiable neediness.
A toddler dethroned by a new baby at the Identity stage of development, between the ages of three and four, is particular susceptible to jealousy and perceiving the baby as a rival for parental focus. This is the attention-seeking stage when kids dress up and yell at mum and dad: “Look at me! I’m a tiger/Superman/Fairy/Princess etc”
What this kind of competitiveness becomes in adults is begrudging giving your partner, children, extended family, friends, colleagues, anyone for that matter, any credit, praise, complements or encouragement. Even as adults, we continue to need these emotional strokes and it is wounding not to receive them from people we love.
When I was in my 20s holding down a highly responsible job as Women’s Editor of a daily broadsheet newspaper, I was working my heart out and achieving great things by writing in-depth features that publicised community issues and promoted worthy events.
I craved a pat on the back from my best gal pal and my best male friend, but both of them in their own way, withheld all praise and acknowledgement. I remember buying into their unspoken devaluing message and thinking “Ah well, what I’m doing isn’t such a big deal!”
Likewise I scrambled after approval from a close relative, longing for the day she would praise me for a clever article I’d written, but it never came! She lived with low self-esteem having grown up with ‘small pie’ parents, so it was too risky to throw a few crumbs my way.
Unresolved sibling rivalry can also emerge in adulthood in silly ways. An impressionable female colleague of mine in a male dominated workplace, was obsessed with copying my clothes. One day I wore a smart green suit, the next week, she coincidently wore the same suit. If I wore red, she wore red. I wore big gold hoop ear rings, she wore bigger hoops! She started wearing her hair like mine. I thought I was just vain and paranoid and imagining this copying syndrome until she bought the same make of car as mine! Apparently she grew up with a lot of sisters.
There is a positive developmental role to sibling rivalry; growing up we learn by copying parents and are motivated to succeed by comparing and competing with our brothers and sisters (and friends). Humans, like other mammals, have an inbuilt instinct to learn through imitation of parents and siblings.
How do we learn to speak if not by listening carefully to and copying our parents? When my husband was a primary school teacher he had a little girl as a pupil who spoke as if she had a speech impediment, when she had no physical problem. She learnt how to speak from her dad, who had a cleft palate. Another woman I know has slurred speech having grown up with an alcoholic parent.
When we reach the Individuation Stage of Development in our teens, when it is essential to psychologically ‘separate’ from enmeshment with parents and start to form our own independence and individuality, we need to clash with parents in order to break the attachment. This clashing is normal and necessary although very tough on parents.
Some times the latent urge to individuate from parents comes out as rivalry. I once had a woman friend whose mother died when she was young. She was still straining to grow up and break the psychological maternal tie in her late 40s and used me to ‘compare, copy and compete’ with. It was quite weird being the recipient of such a dynamic.
Some kids who grow up as an Only Child, without siblings to bounce off, end up competing with their parents in adult life, trying to prove they can do exactly what their parents did, but even bigger and better. If they are High Achievers, they feel compelled to surpass their parents’ success in every aspect of life.
In the final analysis, sibling rivalry is an extension of the survival instinct. We are born with a powerful urge to survive, which is purely selfish and self-centred. This is the ‘Taker’ part of you, which tramples over others to get your own physical and emotional needs met.
But thankfully we are also equipped with an altruistic instinct to care for and protect others. Females of the species have a powerful maternal instinct to nurture and males come installed with the paternal instinct to provide and protect. This other-centred instinct, the ‘Giver’, is firstly directed to our own children and family and then expanded to encompass all children, the sick, old, weak and vulnerable members of the Tribe and animals in our care.
This Social Instinct hopefully guides us to nurture and care for, and to protect from harm, our community and natural environment in these current times we live in (having left the Tribe).
As we develop and mature as adults, concern for others must override the selfish and competitive instincts. The Social Instinct allows people to work together for group survival in a spirit of co-operation, rather than competing as individuals.
In marriage, the caring and protecting instinct should be the strongest instinct. The husband who perceives his wife as the ‘enemy’ is stunted in survival mode and must locate his masculine paternal instinct, altruism, empathy and compassion.
Likewise the adult trapped in childish sibling rivalry must grow up and see his peers (brothers and sisters) not as competitors but as equal human beings to be respected and cherished.