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Monday, February 10, 2014

Overcoming Unresolved Guilt Towards a Sibling

Your unresolved guilty feelings can have a negative impact on your relationship with a sibling, and it can also erode how you feel about yourself, especially when your guilt is longstanding.

Too often, unresolved guilt between siblings can lead to misunderstandings or, in some cases, the demise of the siblings' relationship.

Let's look at an example in the following composite vignette, which represents many cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Tom and Ed:
When Ed was born, his older brother, Tom, was a caring and protective older brother.  When he was older, Tom would babysit for his parents.

Overcome Unresolved Guilt Towards a Sibling

As a child, Ed looked up to Tom as his older brother, and they had a loving relationship.

But Tom had a difficult relationship with their father that got worse when he became a teenager.  By the time he was 18, Tom knew that if he didn't leave the family home, he and his father might come to blows.

Tom thought about leaving for a long time before he moved out.  He worried about not being around for Ed, who was still in elementary school.  He went back and forth in his mind debating what he should do.

Ultimately, although he was reluctant to leave Ed behind, he decided to move in with friends, and he moved out of his parents' home while his parents and Ed were out one afternoon.  His friends helped him to swiftly move out of the house while the rest of the family was out, and Tom left a note for his parents.

After that, Tom didn't see his family for several months.  His parents were angry with him for moving out without telling them in advance, and Ed missed him.

Tom maintained contact with Ed by phone.  He felt guilty for leaving Ed, and he tried to explain why he couldn't come home, but Ed didn't understand.

Eventually, Tom's parents asked Tom to come home for a family visit to talk things over.  Tom and his parents went into the dining room to talk about what happened.

The talk went a lot better than Tom had anticipated.  Although they were angry and disappointed, his parents acknowledged that Tom and his father weren't getting along and it was probably for the best that Tom moved out.  As the adult, his father took responsibility for not doing more to try to repair the relationship.

Afterwards, Tom went to see Ed in his room.  Ed barely made eye contact with Tom.  He kept playing a computer video game as Tom tried to talk to him.

Over time, as Tom came around more, their relationship seemed to improve.  But Tom continued to feel guilty and he had a nagging feeling that Ed still feel abandoned by Tom.  He also worried that Ed might have resentment for him that Ed couldn't or wouldn't express, even though Tom encouraged him talk.

As Ed got older, he developed more friends and he had less time to see Tom.  Although, Tom also had many friends and a girlfriend, he kept looking for signs that Ed might still feel resentful towards him.  And when Ed wasn't as available, Tom wondered if this was a sign of resentment.

Over time, Tom and his father's relationship became less contentious.  They were even starting to get close.  But Tom continued to feel guilty about leaving his brother.

So, when Tom came to therapy, he brought up his unresolved guilt.  He said he knew, on a rational level, that he did the right thing for himself by leaving his parents' house and, back then, there wouldn't have been any way to talk to Ed about this because Ed was too young to understand.

Tom also knew, on a rational level, that back when he was 18, if he had remained at home, his contentious relationship with his father and the tense atmosphere it created in the household would have been damaging to Ed.  But, on an emotional level, Tom continued to blame himself and feel guilty.

So, I suggested that Tom could invite Ed to a therapy session to talk over his feelings and I could act as a facilitator of their communication, if both Tom and Ed were open to this idea.

After we talked about it, Tom decided that it was a good idea.  He was a little reluctant to tell Ed that he was in therapy, but he summoned his courage and spoke to him.

To his surprise, Ed agreed to come to the session.

By the time Ed came, Tom already had in mind what he wanted to tell Ed.  Somewhat nervous at first, he told Ed that he felt guilty about leaving him behind years before, and he was afraid that Ed might be harboring resentment towards him.

Ed seemed genuinely surprised that Tom still felt this way.  He told Tom that he remembered feeling surprised and disappointed when Tom moved out, but his childhood memories of Tom were mostly positive.  He remembered Tom taking care of him as a young child and how loving Tom was with him, and he expressed his love and gratitude to his older brother.

Ed also said that, when he got older, he understood that Tom had to leave because of the contentious relationship between Tom and their father.  Ed even said that he sometimes felt guilty that their father treated him so much better as compared to how he treated Tom when they were younger.

There was no sign that Ed harbored resentment towards Tom.  To the contrary, he seemed to still look up to his big brother.

Overcoming Unresolved Guilt Towards a Siblings

Hearing Ed tell him that he cared so much for him and he wasn't holding onto resentment was a great relief for Tom.  He felt like a big weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

A Disconnect Between What You Might Know Rationally vs What You Feel Emotionally
In the particular example that I gave above, there was a disconnect between what Tom felt on an rational level vs. what he felt on a emotional level.  Given the circumstances, Tom knew that he did the best thing for himself at that time.

A disconnect between what someone knows rationally versus what s/he feels emotionally is a common experience in these types of situations.  Sometimes, knowing that the experience might be irrational can be helpful, but it often doesn't make the guilty feelings go away.

In the scenario above, it turned out that Ed wasn't resentful, so Tom's guilty feelings were unwarranted.  But there are many complicated situations where a sibling does harbor resentment and this needs to be worked out.

The Importance of Communication to Deal With Unresolved Guilt Between Siblings
Unfortunately, this dynamic between siblings often goes unspoken, and people can spend years tiptoeing around each other because neither sibling wants to bring it up.

Decades can go by with these underlying emotions that never get discussed or resolved.  Over time, siblings can grow apart because these underlying emotions have a negative impact on their relationship.

In some cases, one or both siblings don't know how to discuss what happened between them or one or both of them is unable or unwilling to talk about it.

Shame is often a major factor for one or both siblings that gets in the way of clearing up whatever happened.

This is when it can be helpful to seek the assistance of a licensed mental health professional to facilitate a dialogue between siblings.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you and a sibling are struggling with a similar issue, rather than continuing to allow guilt to have a negative impact on how you feel about yourself and get in the way of your relationship with a sibling, you could get help in therapy with a licensed mental health professional who can help to mediate between you and your sibling.

Getting Help in Therapy

Even in cases where your sibling is unwilling to participate in therapy, you could benefit from working through your guilt in individual therapy sessions.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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