Why It's Okay To Compare Yourself To Your Siblings — Sometimes

Photo: Gregory Pace/BEI/REX/Shutterstock.
On last night's episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Khloé was lamenting that she has "so much anxiety" that her denim line won't be as successful as her little sister Kylie's flourishing makeup brand. "I feel so nervous. Kylie sells hundreds of thousands of units in like, what? Three minutes?" she says to Kourtney. I'm sorry, are these not the things you and your siblings gab about at home?
"I know we’re not necessarily competing against each other, but still, I have always been known as the fat sister and now that I’m over that, I don’t want to be known as the failing sister," Khloé says. Sure, these are uniquely Kardashian problems, but it's natural to feel competitive with your siblings from time to time — even if there's not actually any direct competition between people, explains Geoffrey Greif, MSW, PhD, co-author of Adult Sibling Relationships.
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"Your siblings are your first contact with the world you live in," Dr. Greif says. "You usually have up to 18 very intense years living together, so they give you a natural sense of how you're doing in relation to the world." You're also more likely to compare yourself to people who are similar to you, like your siblings, explains Susan McHale, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. "Social comparisons don't always make you feel badly; they can make you feel strong and confident, too," she says. Though we don't actually know how the Kardashians interact when the cameras aren't rolling, KUWTK episodes would suggest that they all still spend a lot of time together, even as adults with their own kids and families, so those relationships could be even more intense.
Parents are also key players in this situation, Dr. Greif says. "People are so vulnerable to their interactions with their parents," he says. That's why you still remember something your mom said to you about your brother's grades when you were in elementary school. When you notice that your sibling was praised for something, you naturally want to figure out how to get the same feedback, he says. And even the way your parents' parents interacted with them can influence how you view one another, Dr. Greif says. "Patterns, in the most innocuous ways, get handed down," he says.
If you and your siblings had to compete at home — say, for who did the best job on their chores — that could influence how you see the workplace, Dr. Greif says. "A parent could say, 'I'm preparing them for the world of work, so you better be the highest performer so you can hold onto your job.'" Even the way your parents talk about their own jobs, and wanting to be the best in their field rubs off, he says. Gender, age, and age-spacing (how far apart you and your siblings are) can also influence how you and your siblings interact and are viewed by your parents, he says.
Dr. Greif says that competition isn't always a bad thing, and siblings can inherit a "social context" and view their sibling as more of a role model. "There are so many variables in the way a parent can deliver a message and be supportive of a child who's not going to be able to do well," he says. "We're not all born with natural gifts, so there's always going to be a sibling who's a little better at something than the others." Hear that, Khloé? People within a family can have myriad skills that may (or may not) be related. Your siblings might excel in an area that you don't, and vice versa — but one sibling's success doesn't negate another's.
When kids feel like they can't compete with one or more of their high-achieving siblings, they may choose to take on the role of "failure" or "troublemaker," says Dr. McHale. If you grew up thinking there's only one way to be successful (being good at sports, for example), it sets you up to feel competitive with your siblings, she says, adding that people whose parents embrace a diverse range of skills often feel less competition. In other words, if it feels like you'll never live up to your sibling's success, that might just be a reflection of how you were raised. It doesn't mean you're necessarily inferior in any way — you could just have totally different interests and never got the recognition you deserved.
Ultimately, competition is idiosyncratic to the family, and how the parents treat their children, Dr. Greif says. The Kardashians are especially different, given the impossibly high standards and stakes that they have as public figures. People have often joked that it'd be rough to enter into that family with all the powerful women, and it makes total sense that Khloé would feel pressure from the inside — anyone would. So, even if you and your siblings don't have the same cutthroat business competition as the Kardashian sisters, there's a little piece you can take away and apply to your own relationships (which is sort of the point of watching KUWTK): Competition, even with your siblings, is totally normal.
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