Hey! So… I have a younger sister who is the best person I know. And this is a good thing! We somehow, between the two of us, divided up all the “Traits of awesome peopleness” so we’re evenly matched, but split. She’s more patient than I am, but I’m more outgoing. She’s short, I’m tall. She’s an amazingly talented artist. She’s objectively gorgeous, and I’m… subjectively gorgeous? We’re moving to a new city together shortly, and I have concerns. I just don’t know how to deal with the way people react to her. I don’t know how to gracefully be “the other sister” when guys at bars approach me to ask for her number. Or how, when I go out, I can go all day without talking to anyone, but when we go grocery shopping together, people are always stopping and talking to her. Or when some dude is hitting on her, and I’m just standing there like a lump that will totally not cry.
Now, this is not anything to do with HER, more how people react to her, and it’s not her fault, but the result is that we hang out best in our living room, watching TV. It’s just not how I want to spend time in a new city. I guess my question is, What to do? Obviously, this has spilled over into other parts of our lives, and we’ve had talks where our perception of the other person’s strengths has made us each jealous and insecure. I just… I want to enjoy my sister and not resent her for something she can’t control.
Option #1 is to do the opposite of what you think you want to do and move somewhere else, away from your sister instead of with her. I hear Pittsburgh is prettier than one might expect, and Seattle is good if you like your folks friendly and your shoes flat. Or go abroad! Go to Melbourne, to Mozambique, to Morocco. The operative word is go.
I know, you’re already shaking your head, but bear with me for a second. Having a sister, even the best sister in the world, is hard. Mother Teresa probably had a sister, right? You think that Aunt Teresa lived in Calcutta alongside Mother Teresa, nodding and smiling at all the praise MT received, and didn’t go crazy enough to brain someone with a pickaxe? No way. If AT had managed that, she would have earned the sainthood before MT did.
Sisters are mirrors: useful in their place but also tempting, and dangerous, to become obsessed with. The worst part about mirrors is that we assume that they have no agenda, that what we see in them is the unvarnished truth. When you say your sister is “objectively gorgeous” whereas you are “… subjectively gorgeous?” with a question mark, and when you say that she is “ an amazingly talented artist” and then leave your side of that see-saw empty, to imply that you’re not as good at anything as she is at art, your melancholy wafts through the page. You think you’re telling me My sister is great. What you’re actually telling me is I am sad, and being around my sister either doesn’t help or makes the sad-rain fall even harder.
Fact: You love your sister. Fact: When she’s nearby, you compare yourself to her. Fact: The patterns we develop in childhood, such as comparing ourselves unfavorably to our siblings, are harder to escape than cat videos on the Internets. If you want to go with Option #2, which is to continue with your plan and move with your sister to a new city, understand that that will, perversely, be the more challenging choice. It will take hard work, and maybe therapy, and then more hard work, to figure out how to be happy, because Option #2 involves breaking a very ingrained habit and acknowledging the complexity of your feelings towards your sister.
She’s great and you love her. At the same time, you are—perhaps occasionally, but often enough for it to register—jealous and resentful. Love and resentment, and admiration and jealousy, often come as matched sets. Girls are trained to suppress our negative emotions, lest we appear whiny or bitter, i.e., unattractive to dudes. But negative emotions are part of the package. They are real and, as you are discovering, impossible to pretend away. What would happen if you admitted that they exist? What if, instead of pretending you didn’t mind when dudes hit on her in bars and ignore you, you tell her later that it bummed you out? What if instead of trying to balance all your sister’s attributes on one side of the scale and yours on the others, you admitted that life isn’t fair and that the only way to stop feeling like you’re losing is to stop keeping score? Or, even, to stop playing altogether?
In your letter, you don’t interrogate your statements/conclusions about your sister; you present them as true, self-evident. I’m not saying you’re wrong. Maybe you’re right! But I think you’re not the best mirror for your sister right now, and she’s not the best mirror for you. Even if your sister is great in lots of ways, that doesn’t mean she has to be great to be around. Not for this current iteration of you. Right now it sounds like you need to breathe, and regardless of how awesome Sister is, when she’s around, she hogs the oxygen. She might not mean to; she might even wish she didn’t. That doesn’t really matter, though. When you’re drowning, you need air, not excuses. I say go with Option #1. Give yourself the freedom and permission you need to, at last, get your own room.
Illustrator: Liana Finck’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, Tablet, and The Forward. Her first graphic novel is called A Bintel Brief. Her webcomic, Diary of a Shadow, can be read on her website.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.