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“I Hate Your Awesome Boyfriend”: Overcoming Sibling Jealousy

Is your jealousy productive or unproductive?

In last month’s column I examined negativity in adult sibling relationships. As I noted, adult sibling dynamics often contain similar feelings that afflict childhood sibling relationships. Adult sibling disputes are frequently a manifestation of unresolved childhood feelings such as parental favoritism, rivalry, or jealousy. As I often say, unlike with Vegas, what happens in childhood does not stay in childhood.

Once adult siblings acknowledge these unresolved feelings they can seek effective solutions to this problem leading us to the question I ended last column with: “how do I go about overcoming feelings of rivalry, jealousy, and favoritism towards my sibling?”

I would like to focus today specifically on one of the more pervasive negative feelings toward siblings: jealousy. As I have done in previous columns, I would like to balance my professional and personal experiences with siblings with a healthy dose of empirically based solutions to sibling issues.

Little research is available on sibling dynamics in general let alone on sibling jealousy. However, a great body of clinical work has been published on overcoming jealousy in general which I believe could easily be applied to the question of sibling jealousy. I am particularly drawing from the work of Dr. Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, who was gracious in offering input for this column. Drawing from the cognitive behavioral approach, Dr. Leahy defines jealousy as “angry, agitated worry” helping to conceptualize jealousy within the framework of the cognitive approach to anxiety.

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Dr. Leahy’s definition and approach to conquering these thoughts and feelings can help us understand some of the features of sibling jealousy. First, sibling jealousy may entail a fear that the success of the sibling in some way may detract from our achievements. We may fear that our sibling is engaging in behaviors meant to harm us. This produces a hyperawareness of threats from the sibling. A simple neutral gesture from a sibling is rapidly misinterpreted and is assumed to be a personal attack. For example, when a sibling simply asks “so how is that new job going” you may perceive the question as “so how long will it take until you get fired from this job as well? I have been working in the same place for years and am up for promotion.” Second, this hypersensitivity is often a result of negative core beliefs about self. We are more likely to misinterpret neutral gestures from siblings as malicious if we have negative feelings about ourselves such as “I am no good; I am flawed”.

There are many tested classic cognitive behavioral techniques to use in an effort to minimize worry. I will focus here on two that I believe can be easily applied to sibling jealousy.

First, ask yourself if your jealous worry is productive worry or unproductive worry. Productive worry is when your worry about your jealousy produces some positive outcome. Does your jealousy motivate you to change things about your life? Does it motivate you to develop better relationships with your family? Does it motive you to work harder at securing a better job? If you find that your thoughts about your sibling motivate you to do better then by all means worry away. In fact King Solomon praised this type of jealousy in his famous proverb “The jealousy of scribes increases wisdom.” On the other hand, unproductive worry is when your jealousy does not result in any type of productive behavior. It is when all the jealousy does is make you anxious and you continually ruminate about your sibling and about how good your sibling has it and how bad things are for you. These thoughts and feelings only serve to increase your jealousy and distress.

Second, jealous feelings are often enhanced by negative behaviors toward the sibling. We think that by being nasty towards them it may help in venting the negativity and minimize the jealousy. However, these negative behaviors only help to increase negative feelings and increase the jealousy. Instead, try and engage in positive behaviors toward your sibling. Make an effort to reach out to them, spend some time together, go out for coffee, and express genuine interest in their life. You may find yourself enjoying your sibling and realizing that he or she is no threat to you at all. On the contrary, the relationship you build with them may turn out to be very enjoyable.

Sibling jealousy is very common. However, an awareness of its existence and active steps to challenge the thoughts and behaviors that accompany this jealousy can help minimize this experience moving toward developing a healthy, supportive, and meaningful sibling relationship. A strong sibling bond to be jealous of…

Avidan Milevsky, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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