Tales from the therapist's couch

'His anger at his brother felt as fresh as if triggered yesterday'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A man in his late forties has been coming to therapy for about 10 months. He was referred by his GP, who told him that his blood pressure was dangerously high. This patient has for many years held a fairly senior position in an advertising company. During our first meeting he described himself as "a self-confessed workaholic", and as I listened to him talking about his life, the truth of his words became worryingly apparent. He was dogged by a sense of not having quite made the grade. Burning the candle at both ends in order to reach some ever-moving goal was, inevitably, having a dire effect on family life as well as his health. "I know it's bad for my marriage to put in so many hours", he said, "but I just don't know how to stop."

A man in his late forties has been coming to therapy for about 10 months. He was referred by his GP, who told him that his blood pressure was dangerously high. This patient has for many years held a fairly senior position in an advertising company. During our first meeting he described himself as "a self-confessed workaholic", and as I listened to him talking about his life, the truth of his words became worryingly apparent. He was dogged by a sense of not having quite made the grade. Burning the candle at both ends in order to reach some ever-moving goal was, inevitably, having a dire effect on family life as well as his health. "I know it's bad for my marriage to put in so many hours", he said, "but I just don't know how to stop."

As he talked about his life, past and present, there was one topic he kept returning to, angrily, almost obsessively: his older brother. He spoke about him with a voice full of bitterness. "He was always the favoured one, the successful one. He always got the prizes at school, the loving looks at home. And he was always squashing me down, making me feel stupid. So I'd lash out at him, only to get the blame. I'd always try and catch up, behind his back as it were. I'd secretly swot for exams, or practice at sport, but I never managed to overtake him."

Sibling rivalry: as old as the hills, as damaging as Cain and Abel. Psychotherapy tends to put the spotlight on our early relationship with our parents as being the formative script for much of our adult behaviour. It's talked about as "transference": the idea being that we unconsciously transfer the same ways of relating from past to present, to other "parental figures" in the world around us. Yet in my experience, the way we were in the sibling line-up can be just as damaging.

The workaholic man described above is an example of just such damage. His sense of being second best was clearly being transferred into the present. Always trying to catch up, always feeling threatened by more successful colleagues, he was in a time-warp. Like Cain, he felt murderously angry towards his brother but tragically, it was his own life that the unspent anger was actually putting at risk.

Sibling rivalry thrashes on well past its sell-by date. When I asked the man above how often he saw his brother, he was surprised that I had imagined they ever met. "Occasionally at a family do. But just the two of us! Good lord, no." Yet his anger felt so fresh, as if triggered yesterday. But most of the grievances at the root of his fury had festered for more than three decades. He was assuming that childhood memories of this sibling were consistent with a nearly 50-year-old man he hardly knew. Yet maybe his brother had changed, or had a different but equally valid memory. Maybe he had hated being the favoured one.

There is no reason why we should get on with our siblings. But there is every reason why we should try to dig ourselves out of patterns of relating that had their genesis decades ago. If we remain unknowingly fettered to our childhood scripts we will react to our present with a too-determined, too-limiting response. If we can become aware of the ways of relating we have unwittingly continued from our earliest years, we can choose to challenge them, and so be freer to become the person we really are.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the above clinical material refers to specific cases

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