Although sibling rivalry and sibling abuse are terms often used interchangeably, they are distinct experiences. Sibling abuse is characterized by behavior that poses danger – both explicit and implicit – to one child: physically, emotionally, or both. The ramifications on the victim of an enduring aggressive and assaultive sibling relationship have both short-term and long-term repercussions.
Clinicians need to be mindful of the developmental and emotional influence of the sibling relationship, and as such, the nature and quality of this relationship should be assessed to the same extent of parent-child relationships.
There are environmental factors outside of the family that may increase the likelihood of sibling on sibling aggression such as substance abuse, peer bullying, and low self-esteem. However, sibling abuse tends to develop from certain family conditions that create resentment and hostility between children. Most parents are upset to learn that sibling abuse occurs under their roof; they may be unable to manage the behavior; or they may feel helpless to address it. Additionally, parents may report that their child is also abusing them.
Assessment of the presence of sibling abuse can begin with the following:
Is there abusive behavior between the parent(s) and child(ren)?
Sibling abuse is more likely to occur when parent-child abuse is present. However, sibling abuse exists in all homes, even where there is no evidence of child abuse or domestic violence. It occurs across irrespective of race, culture, religion, geographic location, and socioeconomic status.
Do the parents argue with each other and their children in a “healthy” manner?
Children learn how to manage conflict by observing disagreements and conflict between parents and through the interactions parents have with each child. Learn how discipline and conflict are handled in the family system. Is a range of emotions from the children acceptable? Are the parents able to manage and tolerate challenging behavior and intensity of emotion?
Pay attention to the child’s peer relationships.
Children who have challenging peer relationships are apt to bring this behavior into the home – as either a perpetrator or victim of sibling abuse. A child bullied at school may displace his/her anger onto a sibling. If the child is the target of peer bullying he may be prone to victimization in the home.
Take a child’s complaints and expressions of distress seriously.
If a child is complaining about a sibling’s behavior towards him/her, monitor the relationship. If the child is scared of being alone with his/her sibling or finds reasons to stall coming home from school, ask if he/she feels safe at home. Often, children abused by a sibling will seek refuge at a friend’s house or get involved in after-school activities as a way to avoid being home until parents arrive from work.
Do children have adult responsibilities in the home?
Children should not be in the position of caregiver. Sometimes parents are overwhelmed and need help with tasks. That is ok! However, children should not serve as a substitute spouse. Children, especially from single-parent homes, tend to be burdened with the care giving of younger siblings. This breeds resentment. While children may seek positive reinforcement – and are praised – for being a “mother’s helper”, they have the ability to grow up resentful of taking on that role. Again, displaced anger onto a sibling is apt to occur.
Is favoritism evident in the household?
Granted, each child cannot be treated the same all the time. However, it is important for caregivers to recognize the strengths of each child. Favoritism can create hostile sibling relationships. Whether the perpetrator of abuse or the victimized child is favored, both dynamics warrant potential sibling aggression. When a child experiences his/her sibling as favored, he/she may react by mistreating the sibling. When a child is favored, the sense of entitlement may create a dynamic in which roles are blurred and boundaries are crossed; often time this is represented through the child who takes it upon him or herself to “discipline” the sibling (in favor of a parent’s praise or modeling the parent’s behavior).
Children who are victims of sibling abuse may present with anxiety, depression, or academic difficulties. Interventions must target not only the presenting problem, but the source of the problem. Assessment of parent-child and child-child relationships is critical. Understanding family dynamics is imperative to helping parents identify behaviors that may promote or perpetuate hostile sibling relations.
Adults with a history of sibling abuse often present to treatment with challenging interpersonal relationships and may be unaware of their history as abusive due to the lack of recognition sibling abuse has received as a legitimate experience. Therefore the clinician who explores current and early sibling relationships has the potential to uncover the dynamics which contribute to the client’s challenges and help the client make these connections.
Practitioners who provide counseling services and psychotherapy to children and families have the potential to transform dysfunctional familial patterns of communication and help parents develop better parenting practices. The structural model of family therapy focuses on helping parents to develop and maintain appropriate boundaries within the family system and between siblings. Building on individual and family strengths promotes protective factors and establishing family and environmental supports promotes resilience, ensuring that children are kept safe from all types of harm within the family system.
To learn more about how to assess for sibling abuse, check out podcast episode #25 titled "Sibling Abuse Assessment".
For 30 years I have been a psychotherapist in private practice, beginning in outpatient mental health clinics and various fields of social work including a Big Brother/Big Sister program. At Big Brother/Big Sister, I worked with and assessed many children and adolescents who were victims of bullying, as well as adults who carried the scars of emotional denigration from childhood. I have observed through my teaching at a University that there is an inclination for students to be drawn to peer groups that feel or look similar, creating an atmosphere at times of “cliques” and unintentional exclusion of peers who may not have the confidence to reach out or assert themselves. And of course, I was once an awkward adolescent navigating the elements of popularity and desire to fit in, often time without success. In fact, I was bullied. In our culture, one of the most commonplace forms of denigration occurs through bullying and this experience during such vulnerable stages of development poses serious implications. The question becomes how do we prime our children to be good citizens and set the stage for developing their ability to empathize, be kind, self-confident and contribute towards a culture of acceptance?
There are many factors that can contribute to a child bullying others or becoming a victim of bullying. We need to construct a culture of acceptance of ourselves and those we teach in the home or in schools during this most difficult time where we seem to find what’s wrong with others as opposed to what’s right.
Bullying hurts. We all know that. Life at times can feel like a continuum of trying to find one’s place in the world. We are consistently subjected to feedback on how we are perceived by others, and most of us are quite impacted by those perceptions. In fact, we tend to internalize/”take in” the perceptions others have of us, and make them our own. In other words, we believe what we are told or how we are treated. Interestingly, we are more prone to adopting the negative perceptions and dismissing the positive ones. Consider our culture of women in which a compliment is often undone with an excuse or explanation rather than an acknowledgement and appreciation. For example, how many of us can relate to the theme of being praised for our dress and our response is “this was very inexpensive” or “I don’t even like this shirt” rather than simply responding with a “thank you”. We may be able to trace this common response back to a society in which women were taught to be submissive; subservient, and if we acknowledge a personal strength or attribute it is aligned with boasting or not being humble.
As a psychotherapist, I am struck by the numerous people, predominantly women, I have treated over the years who are challenged by “what others think”. Granted I have not treated as many men as women, though I can say with conviction, that this is not as prominent an underlying issue or obstacle to interpersonal happiness or self-satisfaction.
We do all have childhood experiences that shape us as adults: shape our sense of self, our view of others, and of the world. Is it a safe place? Is it a threatening place? Am I a good, likable, personable, fun, smart… person? To feel safe when one has had a childhood filled with unhappy, challenging, or conflictual interpersonal experiences (such as bullying), requires replacing negative “voices'' with positive ones. I would like to be clear that those “voices” do not have to literally be spoken. Much of the time messages of acceptance or nonacceptance are sent to us non-verbally. We know when someone disapproves of us either through physical force, name-calling, facial gestures, or simply rejection in its various forms such as exclusionary behavior. Positive “voices” can also come from others, and this can be the start of healing; truly hearing and/or feeling the way you are being received. Or, it can come from cognitive dissonance, which involves the active self-talk of disputing our own irrational thoughts.
As part of our life-course, everyone is trying to find their place in the world. Research has demonstrated the challenge of “fitting in” at the most complicated time of identity development; middle school and high school. According to Erik Erikson, during this stage of development experiences of positive reinforcement are critical to developing a secure sense of self. During adolescence, teenagers explore their personal sense of identity through values, appearance, and taking risks. When an individual achieves feelings of pride and accomplishment, they are likely to emerge from this stage with a steady state of confidence. This results in feelings of independence and control. Erikson emphasized our development through social interaction. When an adolescent is bullied, they will likely remain unsure of their beliefs and desires and feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future. Because our identity is shaped by our interpersonal experiences, it is essential to develop positive social interactions from a young age. Yet, how are social interactions developed positively?
When a parent has children, they tend to have ideas about the values they want to impart and they are usually aware of the protectiveness they feel; the “mamma bear syndrome”: no one, ever, will harm my child. Not to be confused with helicopter parenting , in which a parent is overzealously controlling in a protective manner or smothering. “Mamma bear syndrome” is the nurturing, loving instinct to protect one’s child. Despite the reality that we cannot manage every aspect of our child’s experience, we can strive to instill perspectives and perceptions and values, and build character that will arm our children with the ability to manage outside influences. We have to accept that we cannot control every interaction a child has. We must learn to let go and trust. And, we can hope to correct or pick up the pieces of “damage” that we may learn of later. What we do have control over, in the name of developing that sense of protectiveness, is the following: modeling appropriate behavior; conveying empathy and developing empathy in your child; and creating appropriate social interactions beginning at home. I will post a follow-up blog on the shaping aspects of development that parents do have control over.
Many folks struggle with relationships: family, intimate, friends. One of the most challenging aspects of relationships is communication. If we generally shy away from confrontation, how do we let someone know what we need? We have two choices, as I see it: learn to confront, or keep our emotional expressions inside and perpetuate feelings of sadness, upset, disappointment, resentment and regret. My earlier blog on confrontation may be useful here. But as a reminder, confrontation does not have to be hostile or create conflict. It’s simply a form of communication. How do we get what we need if we don’t ask for it? And here’s the rub: we want people to inherently know what we need, without asking.
What if we were to come to grips with the idea that people have limitations. And, what we may be able to do, others can’t. And what we can’t do, maybe others can’t either - so why expect it of them? The path to feeling good and having healthy relationships is acceptance. Accepting people for who they are leads to greater satisfaction. What if we accepted that the friend or partner can’t say “I’m sorry you are the one to always come up with the plans, but I’m just not good at that”. That would be so helpful to hear! But most people aren’t able to offer that in specific words - but through actions, or inaction. What if we rewrote the script - but to ourselves - and remind ourselves that “this person has a limitation and I will accept that. I don’t need them to acknowledge this. And for me to be at greater peace, I will assume this is their limitation”. What is the alternative? To continuously and repeatedly get upset at them - or at your role in the relationship; to argue with them to change something that may not be changeable; or ultimately to “break up” with this person?
Another example: what if we accepted that our mother/father/sister/brother can never remember a birthday and you are so good at that - to the point where you are constantly going card shopping so that every person in your family feels celebrated? You are lovely! But, that doesn’t mean they will do the same for you. You can substitute any example of your own, but remember iIt also doesn’t mean that they don’t love you or care about you. It may simply not be their way, or within their wheelhouse to do so. Are there other ways they show you they care? Can you accept this? Does this mean you should shift your behavior and not get that person a card or acknowledge his/her birthday? I don’t think so. That’s not being genuine to who you are. The shift you can make is to be understanding, and not to personalize. And perhaps, even to mourn the loss of who you would like this person to be.
Another aspect of difficulty or strains in relationships is that relationships often shift over time. As people take on more responsibility and new phases of life take different forms - children, work, new interests - their time to dedicate to you may change. Sure you miss the companionship, and the relationship you adored. It hurts! It’s a loss! But… it’s.not.personal. This is a mantra that needs to be practiced. When you depersonalize someone else’s behavior, and accept instead that the sum of them may be better than parts of them, you will achieve a greater sense of satisfaction and contentment. As Dr. Niehbur said “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
There are personal characteristics, temperaments and disorders that may increase the likelihood of sibling abuse perpetration such as substance abuse, low empathy, and anger. As well, experiences with peer bullying, and low self-esteem have been known to be linked. There are also family conditions that can create resentment and hostility between children and lead to sibling abuse. Most parents are upset to learn that sibling abuse occurs under their roof; they may be unable to manage the behavior; or they may feel helpless to address it. Additionally, parents may report that their child is also abusing them. It is important to recognize multiple variables within a family that can unintentionally create hostile sibling relations.
2. Favoritism Granted, each child cannot be treated the same all the time. However, it is important for caregivers to recognize the strengths of each child. Whether the perpetrator of abuse or the victimized child is favored, both dynamics warrant potential sibling aggression. When a child experiences a sibling as favored, he/she may react by mistreating the sibling.
3. Poor Parental Modeling & External Stressors When external environmental stressors, such as economic or social problems occur, parents who have difficulty controlling their emotions may act in ways that disturb the children. Parents who are consistently overwhelmed are not able to provide emotional support to their children. Some parents can’t tolerate a range or intensity of emotion in their children. These families often create a negative atmosphere of criticism, judgment, and abusive communication and lack appropriate modeling of stress reduction.
4. Collusion In families where there is a single parent, or the parents are not unified in parenting customs, or there is stress between the caregivers, a parent can feel alienated. This can create an emotional reliance on a(n) older child to support the parenting role. As with a child who is a caregiver, the implicit role ordained sends a message that the child has the right to discipline, and that the parent will support whatever that child deems necessary. It can also appear as a special friendship or bond between one child and the parent whereby the isolated child feels ostracized and the abuse imparted by a sibling is supported by a parent, thus creating a “double whammy”.
Sibling abuse must be understood from a family systems lens. The existence of this abusive sibling relationship is indicative of (not necessarily active and intentional) parental neglect and is a symptom of dysfunctional family processes. Identifying the abused child as the problem or even the perpetrator can inadvertently cause the children to feel victimized and targeted rather than helped. It’s important to recognize that Intervention must address both the members of the family system and the system as a whole.
There are those who believe medication is the cure to mental health, and those who are deeply opposed. Who should take medication? I believe that it is a deeply personal decision. Everyone and anyone has the right to self-determine if medication is for them. There are a lot of potential side effects and it's not a one-size fits all industry. This means that even though there are specific and multiple medications aimed to treat depression, what works for one person may not work for another. And therefore, someone may have to go through several trials of various medications to identify the one that works best. This, and potential side effects can make this route overwhelming, and unpleasant. For example, medications can cause dry mouth, a low sex drive, and shaky hands, or jittery legs. This may be so uncomfortable that someone chooses to live with their mental health symptoms. It reminds me of the mantra "my body, my choice". As long as someone is not suicidal or homicidal, I believe that decision should be theirs.
As a helping professional, my perspective has shifted over the years. Once upon a time, I was not one to recommend meds to clients unless they were part of the SPMI population - seriously, persistently mentally ill, ie: schizophrenic, bipolar. Hearing voices and being manic are not something one can work on in therapy. However, there are many other disorders from depression to anxiety to attention-deficit disorder that can make functioning extremely difficult. So why not alleviate the pain? If you have a headache, you take an aspirin. I know we are a society that emphasizes medication, if not pushes it. I'm not saying it's a lifetime solution. But, I have come to believe that if functioning is impaired, and medication can help to reduce symptoms and activate functioning, it can be very useful... in conjunction with therapy. Otherwise, the medication is a band-aid that can become the cure-all for a lifetime. It can be healthier (medically and mentally) to learn coping mechanisms and techniques to address the symptoms of disorders. Now, if we look at those disorders that are physiological (due to brain chemistry), then this is another reason why medication may be helpful. But it doesn't mean those feelings can't be addressed in other ways. Let's focus on anxiety and depression as examples. These are two mental health diagnoses that can be bio-chemically based or situationally ignited. Either way, medication can be useful. In the case of situational anxiety or depression, perhaps there should be a period of time before medication is considered the key determinant. But also the intensity of anxiety or depression should be considered. Even if it's a short duration (3 months; 6 months), but it is hindering functioning (ie: difficulty getting out of bed; unable to control crying at work; panic attacks; paralyzing anxiety), medication may take off the "edge" enough to be able to address coping skills in therapy. When someone is so consumed by difficult emotions (ie: obsessional thoughts), sometimes the therapy does not help if the "work" can't be done.
Concrete skills, shifting thought patterns; and behavioral interventions can be a powerful tool as an alternative to medication. I work from a psychodynamic lens. This means that I tend to focus on how we developed; our parenting; our environment; our experiences; and how that has shaped who we are, how we think the way we do, and how we behave and relate the way we do. I also believe that clients should be given feedback, and that they learn and can change how they relate in the world, by becoming aware of how they are relating to the therapist. We can learn a lot about someone from the client-therapist relationship. Psychodynamic therapists also do a lot of re-parenting. And, with the understanding of where the client's emotions and perceptions come from, we can work on healing those emotions and shifting those perspectives. That being said, working on shifting irrational thought processes and working with concrete interventions is important. And, if medication is needed as a supplemental tool, it is something to be discussed. With always in mind, the client is the captain of the ship.
What is the conclusion on medication?
- Do your own research; learn about side effects and the risk/reward ratio
- Consult with your therapist
- A medical doctor will prescribe medication but is not trained in emotions; so consider who will be monitoring your meds
- Consider alternate ways of working on your issue/disorder and determine what you are most at ease with
- This is your decision to make
If you want to hear more about this subject, tune in to episode #20 of "What Would Dr. Meyers Do?" on apple, google, or spotify... or this website under the tab "podcast".
It seems that the word “confrontation” is something we learned, or were taught, that is not acceptable. I see it as a form of communication - and an important one. It doesn’t have to be equated with conflict, though it seems we are inclined to make the two words synonymous. By definition, confrontation is a hostile or argumentative interaction. And conflict is an aspect of confrontation. But, confrontation does not have to be mean-spirited, aggressive, or overly intense. Most people don’t like expressing anger or having anger directed at them. This is understandable because anger is not a pleasant feeling. And, we tend to avoid feelings that don’t feel good.
I propose that we learn to tolerate, accept, and sit with all kinds of feelings and discomfort. When we allow ourselves to experience, to feel, a range of emotions, including the “bad” ones, we work through them much easier. When we avoid, or use other defense mechanisms to prevent feeling sad, mad, angry, etc. they still live within us; they just come out in different ways such as headaches, stomach aches, anxiety, depression, etc. or they could be displaced onto someone else who doesn’t deserve it.
The intensity of feelings actually dissipates when we accept them, tolerate them, or actually express them. Sitting with the feelings is the first step. This allows us to not act impulsively. When we immediately respond to someone with the anger we feel, the desired communication does not make it over to the other person. It is intercepted by the tone in which it is delivered and the outcome is likely to be unpleasant. So, it’s quite hard to “sit” with the feelings. Often when we impulsively express our feelings, it creates some relief because now we are no longer sitting with them. But what we have done is dropped them on someone else. It’s not always fair, and it’s often not effective. Then, the other person receives it, and either feels badly by the way it was delivered or it’s not heard in the way we intended or wanted it to be received, or with the outcome we envision, and combative friction develops. When we are intensely affected by someone else’s actions, we can be prone to defend ourselves or go on the offense; "fight back”. And fighting back often leads to attacking behavior. On the other hand, those folks who are willing to let their hurt or anger slide, are not getting their needs met.
What to do? Be intentional with your confrontation.
For more about this topic, tune in to What Would Dr. Meyers Do?, Episode #18.
This is such a big question! And since blogs are relatively short, I’m going to rise to the challenge of tackling this in a succinct way. There are many different types of therapy, and many different styles, and ways of working. Personally, I was trained in psychoanalysis which is based on Freudian theory and working with the unconscious. What that means is trying to help the client bring into awareness those things he/she may not be aware of. Sounds simple, but it’s very complex. If they aren’t aware of those “things”, how do they become conscious? Through a lot of talk and free association. When the client is free to talk without judgment or prompts, the idea is that they are able to get to underlying thoughts and feelings that they are not usually in touch with. There is also a lot of focus on transference. This means that we move through life relating to others how we have been related to and how we have been responded to, but again we aren’t usually aware of this. For example, if someone had an overly critical parent, that person may expect others to be critical as well, even though he/she may be dealing with some very different people who may not respond that way at all. Or, they may continue to find critical people and attach themselves to these “types” of people because it’s familiar. But are they aware that they do this? Most likely not. If the expectation is there, of facing criticism, this may impact the individual in many ways. Perhaps they don’t exercise their voice, and they remain introverted or socially isolated. Or maybe they don’t exert themselves at work for fear of judgment. On the other hand, attaching oneself to negative people may further reinforce their negative self-esteem. So it’s important to help that person understand their background, their past relationships, and how that may impact their current functioning. We tend to repeat what we know/what is familiar, and we are usually not aware of doing so.
I consider myself a psychodynamic psychotherapist. This means that I work with making the unconscious conscious as I described, and I work with transference. However, over the years I have shifted to also incorporating working from an interpersonal framework with some cognitive behavioral methods. I have observed that folks want results. They want interaction. And they want some tools to help them through the everyday while they are working on increasing self-awareness.
An interpersonal approach focuses on building interpersonal skills and communication skills towards the goal of strengthening relationships. Since I also work from a psychodynamic perspective, I believe that this can also be addressed through the transference of the client-therapist relationship, practicing and modeling. A cognitive-behavioral approach addresses your thought processes (often negative, distorting, or overwhelming) and offers concrete adjustments or homework to address those faulty ways of thinking and develop coping skills.
Now where does a psychiatrist, psychologist, and social worker come in? In short, a psychiatrist attends medical school and specializes in brain chemistry; the focus is on the use of medication to address symptoms. Some psychiatrists also conduct therapy, but it is important to question their training. Perhaps they have also been trained in therapy. If they have not, remember they are coming from a medical model, and therefore are likely to focus on medication as an intervention of treatment.
A psychologist also works to understand thoughts, emotions, feelings and behavior. In addition, they are trained to make assessments and conduct psychological testing - often for diagnoses (ie: ADD) and learning disabilities.
A social worker, depending on their focus of education, has many possible paths. A social worker has a broad understanding of resources, human dynamics, and development. A social worker can also be a therapist. However, in my opinion, it’s important that they have more than two years of graduate school to be trained as a therapist. A social worker considers context: not only how a person is functioning, and what may have led to stressors, crises, or difficulties but also the impact of the greater environment on said functioning. For example, culture, race, political climate, geographic location, poverty, etc. Each of these titles, psychiatrist, psychologist, and social worker can fall under the umbrella of therapist/psychotherapist.
Are you looking for a therapist? It’s ok to ask questions! This doesn’t mean you are challenging the professionalism or credentials of the person; you have the right to know how the person is trained; their philosophy; their style of therapy.
It’s important that you find what works for YOU. I get it, you may not know. But what is most important is that you feel you have found a good fit. It may take meeting a couple of therapists, and having an introductory session. It’s that important to take the time to do so. You are on what may be a long journey. You are on a path of self-discovery and healing. It can be frightening to begin therapy - you don’t know what is going to come up, and you don’t know what you may end up feeling. Not having that kind of control is scary! There may be times you leave feeling a bit down. But I strongly believe you have to work through your stuff in order to get past it. And there will be many times you leave encouraged, supported, validated, and having gained insight. Consider it a necessity like your morning cup of coffee. Or a luxury like getting your hair done, or getting a massage. Invest in yourself!
If this kind of topic interests you, check out my podcast, What Would Dr. Meyers Do? for some interesting conversations.
Our primary motivation is to feel a sense of connection to others. The root of all connectedness begins with mother-infant, yet siblings soon become a key source of emotional connection. When children lack nurturing relationships in their home, they search for that connection throughout their life. Families set a precedent for how its members understand closeness with another person; how they think about connectedness; and how they experience intimacy. Because victims of sibling abuse do not have a model for a “healthy” and satisfying connection, there is a tendency in adulthood to seek out relationships that repeat aspects of their previous experiences.
Survivors of sibling abuse endure feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and inferiority that erodes self-esteem. This ultimately influences the nature and quality of relationships to others. We learn so much from our sibling relationships: loyalty, friendship, conflict resolution, sharing, competition, tolerance, frustration, leadership and followership, sharing, assertiveness, cooperation, negotiation, love and support. When one’s most trusted peer – the sibling – betrays the sanctity of that relationship, the idea of closeness – and of intimacy - becomes fraught with danger. As a result, survivors develop defenses against and within intimate relationships as an attempt to self-protect from re-traumatization.
Survivors of sibling abuse poignantly define “closeness,” in terms that demonstrates both their struggle to achieve intimacy and a desire to attain it (based on my research):
Naked honesty bare-naked emotionally; unconditional acceptance but I’m not sure if that is possible; staying present to one’s own feelings and to another’s.
A lot of caring --a lot of ‘unconditionality’. It’s about having similar values and beliefs that if I ever needed anybody, all I needed to do was pick up the phone and they would be there for me.
There’s a lot of mutuality and a lot of openness. If they do something that makes me angry or vice versa, we talk about it. You know, and I never question that I care deeply about them or they care deeply about me.
Intimacy is when I feel most vulnerable - when I share something about myself that I wouldn’t necessarily share with anyone. There is always a part of me that thinks ‘I wonder what that person thinks about me now that they know that. Or I’m like ‘oh no, what are they going to think now’? That’s what intimacy is to me- to trust someone with my feelings, my most delicate feelings and they will be like ‘I get you and I love you’.
To be able to talk with someone and express how you feel emotionally--to be able to talk freely without any advice or condemnation or ridicule but with acceptance and listening. And still at the end of it I will be held. I don’t know because I can’t think of any person that I have gotten that from.
It means understanding somebody and showing that you care about them. Or someone identifying how I feel; knowing when that person feels bad and being able to reach them and finding a way to help that person through; providing comfort to each other.
Although desirous of closeness, survivors fear they would be hurt if they expose their feelings or appear vulnerable. This mirrors earlier incidents when they relied and trusted that their families were capable of providing support, but were severely disappointed. Survivors of sibling abuse are violated not only by a sibling but by the caregiver who failed to protect. Not only was abuse present, but neglect by the caregiver is also implied. The betrayal and violation inherent within a sibling abusive relationship forms survivors’ perceptions of how the world at large will relate to them and engenders the expectation of rejection. We are conditioned to take in our life experiences, make them our own, and project them onto subsequent relationships. This is called the internalization and externalization (or projection) of experience. And as a result, we expect others to relate to us as did our primary (familial) relationships.
Survivors describe “closeness” as unconditional acceptance and a sense of unyielding support: something they did not experience with their families of origin. As adults, they fear pain if they expose their feelings or appear vulnerable. The betrayal and violation inherent within a sibling abusive relationship forms expectations of the world at large – a world where intimacy is to be feared.
Intimacy requires trust. Trust requires risking that the world is not necessarily going to respond to survivors as did the family of origin. Humans are conditioned to perceive others through the lens from which they see the world growing up. The voice or perception of the abusive sibling makes its way deep within the victim/survivor’s soul. The good news is, that lens can change. Take risks; step outside of your comfort zone; allow yourself to hear/feel how others perceive you. Finding those who treat you the way you deserve to be treated will rebuild your ego and make the voice of your perpetrator diminish over time.
I saw a magnet that said “I’m sorry I slapped you, but you wouldn’t stop talking and I panicked”. Yikes. Sounds harsh, and certainly not subtle. But I want to speak to the subtle part of that message. Some people like to talk… a lot; and some people are listeners. But EVERYONE wants to be heard and understood.
It sounds so easy. Just let someone talk; air their thoughts; feel heard. But it’s not so easy! We want to show we get it, so what do we tend to do? We interrupt with our own thoughts; we cut off the person; we relate something we experienced that may be similar; and we try to comfort by offering a silver lining. All of this tends to fall flat, and leaves the person feeling deflated. Sitting with someone in their discomfort, their pain, their truth ain’t easy! Practice, practice, practice. Offering your silence is a gift like no other.
So consider this: what gets in your way of simply sitting with the person, remaining attuned and attentive?
Do you think the person expects something from you? Are you uncomfortable with what is being shared?
Is it stirring up feelings in you - sadness, anger, identification? Is it hard to sit with their feelings? How are you at handling your own strong feelings?
Holding - and I mean emotional holding - is so powerful. It requires sitting with our own discomfort in order to be there for the other person. So first, identify what’s uncomfortable for you - and then work on managing that.
Check out this discussion in full on the WWDMD episode #14 entitled “The Art of Empathy and Silence”
Working in the field of social work, or I suppose any helping profession comes with a bit of a burden: the sense of responsibility for someone else’s well-being. I say burden, because we tend to take this very seriously, and it’s scary! Especially at the beginning. In social work, we tend to feel that responsibility for someone’s emotional well-being. After my first few years fearing this, I came to see it as a luxury. Someone else is trusting me with his/her emotional life, and is revealing inner, often private, thoughts that perhaps no one else in their life is privy to. So, yes, this is scary, but it’s also a privilege. Perhaps if we shift our lens from feeling fearful to perceiving it as an honor, that can be a starting point to feeling more confident.
Making mistakes is a natural “right” that should be bestowed on all of us when we come into this world. In fact, it is. We learn to walk, we fall down. We learn to talk, we make up bizarre sounding words. We learn to eat, we smear our food all over our face. So what happens after toddlerhood that activates this sense of dread when making mistakes? Sure, it can have to do with how these errors or mistakes were handled by our parents, our teachers, etc., but it is extremely curious to me that the majority of us have this ability to punish ourselves. And so, that raises questions about a much larger phenomenon - why this is such a common feeling. I don’t have the answer, but I do think that those of us who go into the profession of social work are somewhat “broken”. And I don’t mean that to be critical - I’m one of you! I mean that in the sense that whether we realize it or not, social work has drawn us in, has spoken to us, likely because of our own connection to needing help or living through some difficult times. That being said, somewhere along the line it’s like we got the message “get it right, or else”.
I have tried to live my life with the words of Elbert Hubbard in mind. He was an American writer and philosopher, who said “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” I hope you too can adopt that philosophy. Remember:
So, as a social worker, we have the ability to consult - with a supervisor or a colleague. You don’t know of a resource your client needs? Ask someone. You think you may have said the wrong thing to a client? Go back the next time and address it. You are modeling very positive behaviors: asking the client how he/she felt about what you said or didn’t say; you are showing that you are able to self-reflect; you are showing that you want to build a positive relationship; and you are showing that you are human, and fallible… and it’s ok! What better model for human interaction?!
If this topic "speaks" to you, hear more on Episode 13 of WWDMD.