What Did You Ever Do for Me?

I work with a pair of identical twin women whose individual temperaments are as diverse as night and day. One of the twins, Sue, is a school nurse, and the other, Ellen, crunches numbers at a food warehouse business. Much of the focus of our work has been articulating the differences in the way they think, feel, and approach life. At times, Sue becomes frustrated when she expresses her needs and feelings because Ellen has difficulty grasping abstract concepts such as mirroring and codependency.

A recent session was most interesting in that it highlighted so beautifully how difficult it is for twins of all ages and types to manage feelings related to inequality or disparity. More than ten years ago, Ellen suffered an acute depressive episode related to her family’s unwillingness to support her financially at the college of her choice. Even though the family members participated in family therapy, Ellen felt as if her sister and her family had let her down. Ellen recalled that the therapy concentrated on her outward symptoms of anxiety and depression without actually getting at the real issues. Ellen sobs uncontrollably each and every time she talks about this traumatic time in her life. While she says she has moved on from it, she clearly has not been able to do so.

This same matter surfaced once again when Sue brought up how hurt and angry she felt the other day about Ellen’s inability to affirm her distraught feelings about a family member. Sue complained that it is difficult to feel connected to Ellen because Ellen cannot validate her feelings. Ellen habitually responds to her sister’s emotional rants with dismissive comments and useless strategies. This time, in response or in retaliation, Ellen answered that she could not honestly respond to her sister’s intense emotional feelings because she did not agree with them; consequently, she felt an “incongruity” within herself. Undoubtedly, she is often so defensively focused on her own distress that she cannot listen or respond to Sue’s feelings with either empathy or affirmation.

Sue listened intently to Ellen’s dilemma about not being able to respond authentically to her feelings. At that moment, Ellen started to sob again and said that it’s all unfair. She asked, “Why should I empathize with Sue’s feelings when she did nothing for me when I needed help?” Sue explained apologetically that she was not psychologically capable at that time to respond more appropriately. She was enmeshed with her parents and felt she had no other choice than to accommodate their wishes.

I mentioned how difficult it is for twins to manage these kinds of issues because their families and society at large compare twins throughout their lives. Many twin pairs struggle much more than singletons and their siblings because of the “twin mystique.” The expectation that they should be best friends and soul mates forever makes it almost impossible for twins to process their feelings of anger, envy, frustration, and resentment. I hope that my ongoing efforts will help educate more and more people about the healthy outcomes associated with twins’ capacity to work through feelings they are not “supposed” to have.

What are your thoughts about this subject? What problems related to the “twin mystique” have you witnessed or experienced?


Dr. Joan A Friedman, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and the author of Emotionally Healthy Twins: A New Philosophy and The Same but Different: How Twins Can Live, Love, and Learn to be Individuals.

Originally published at www.joanafriedmanphd.com on December 5, 2016.

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