Healing From Deep Family System Wounds and Ongoing Sibling Rivalry

    Sibling rivalry
    Sibling rivalry

    By Bob Vance

    The following is an e-mail exchange I recently had with a client of mine.

    The struggle presented here is a common one: how to come to terms with the innate and strong wish to have and maintain family relations while enduring the ongoing, long-term results of damning and damaging family secrets and the visceral memory of deeply felt childhood harm, even if only partially remembered or not remembered at all.

    I thought it was informative and worth sharing here because of the common-ness of such circumstances between siblings even, and perhaps especially, after the death of both parents. It also asks and reviews many questions that are common to those who struggle with life-long patterns of unresolved and hurtful sibling rivalry:

    1. What do I do if I remember hurtful things from the family’s past and my siblings do not?

    2. What if my siblings remember circumstances that involve me and I do not?

    3. How can I best cope with sibling behaviors that seem to be a result of occurrences in the distant past, especially if they deny those behaviors or claim they are my fault and a result of my own unwillingness to come to terms with the past?

    4. When do I, and can I, let it all go and recognize present behaviors on their own merits and refuse participation in a damaging, hurtful, pattern of behavior? How do I do this?

    5. How do I recognize when I am re-entering the pattern of hurtful interactions and see the warning signs so that my innate hope of reconciliation isn’t turned into co-dependency or re-emergence of the patterns that result in the opening of old, deep wounds?

    6. If I can’t remember specifics of how I was wounded how can I manage the unsettling and difficult feelings my family members bring up in me? Is estrangement the only answer?

    The difficulty underlying all of these questions remains how to manage the competition between the nature of the wish to cultivate and resolve family connection and the equally strong defense mechanism that each of us possesses that wants to keep us safe and loved, worthy, in our world and among our family.

    Deep wounds, and perhaps especially the ones that remain stubbornly half in and half out of the box of secrets that we began to fill up and lock when we were very very young, push to be realized and healed. We feel that push even if we do not remember and cannot find the words to describe. Besides, we cannot use language to describe what happens in the more primitive parts of our psyche that have no language, just feeling. We assign guilt and responsibility according to how we translate these occurrences into language, and therefore we often misappropriate wholly or in part.

    Perhaps we no longer have the combination, or perhaps we unknowingly gave the key or the combination to others in the family and they have forgotten where it is, what the numbers are, or have other reasons, conscious or not, for with-holding essential information from us. Many of those reasons may have everything to do with their own methods of coping and strategizing their own healing and defense. Unfortunately our manner and skill in actively participating in how that healing can take place co-exists with the desire to bring our degree of safety in the family configuration to the fore and make it work for us and for the others whom we are connected to.

    Much happens in the preverbal areas of the human brain. How to trust our ability to interpret the messages we get from those netherlands? So much of how we interpret our world happens in the parts of the brain that also devise and implement ways to protect us from the dynamism that the pre-verbal areas want to subject us to. We must be careful. We must be concrete in how we facilitate the interaction between how we speak about and understand our childhood wounds and how they are presented to us through the Escher-like vagaries of memories, ours and those who share them with us.

    Most of all, we must be as kind as we can while we proceed on our way toward fuller integration of our childhood experience as it arises even unbidden and asks us to understand it, as we continue to work to protect ourselves from further harm. We must be kind to the others who share parts of this story, for while it is unnecessary and not worthwhile to place ourselves back in the way of harm. We can realize that they have almost certainly been harmed as well and as deeply. Being a victim and a perpetrator are often, perhaps even usually, both sides of the two-sided mirror. We must be kind to ourselves.

    Names in the following exchange have been changed. It is being used with permission.


    Hi Bob,

    Can you tell me about if a child can have something bad done to them and not remember it?? Does that really happen??? I made the horrible, horrible mistake of giving siblings another chance to blow my life apart. They didn’t disappoint. Problem is I don’t know what’s real or what’s a lie anymore. It has taken a toll. Are their ways to find out your own past?? Thank you!




    It might be best before you go forward to do some research about memory itself. Maybe Google “Recent Brain science re: Memory”

    The jury’s out whether it is of much use to “remember” those things that appear to be forgotten. Every individual and every incident of childhood trauma can be so different… one child is forever altered by the death of a dog and another child manages the death of a sibling without a glitch. It is VERY difficult to “remember” the specific details of otherwise forgotten episodes of one’s childhood… and some trauma is less a specific event and more the sustained behavior of powerful people around him or her… so that it may not be a specific incident of cruelty, abuse or neglect, but a pattern of dealing or NOT dealing with the needs of the child. IE: a pattern in a family culture that results in making taboo the discussion of traumatic events that happened to everyone can be just as difficult in later years as other more specifically harmful events… because of the pattern one devises to manage those events. Patterns gets ingrained even after it is not useful and even harmful.

    Remember: it is very difficult to give up on one’s family. So giving them multiple chances to rectify past patterns and harm is NORMAL… perhaps unavoidable (it seems the mind tricks us into doing it even after we have made firm resolutions to never let it happen again!) so go easy on yourself.

    Is that helpful?


    Yes, it is very helpful. I did Google it and read some articles with differing points of view. Considering what I’ve read and… the sources of my questions, it seemingly confirms that I will never know the truth.

    For the past year, Jim & I knocked ourselves out for by brother Hank and his wife Chris. All while driving back and forth to the Cancer Treatment Center of America for Jim’s treatment. We painted, repaired, cleaned, moved, installed… a multitude of physical duties. We brought him a lift chair, a hospital bed, a standing wheelchair, etc… and a list of other things to help them remain in their home. The second visit together Hank poured out this seemingly heartfelt apology for all he put Linda, Larry and I through. I just accepted his need to clear his conscience as this stage in his life and I really enjoyed puttering around with him and fixing things for him and giving him some peace of mind. His ability to walk is lost, his ability to transfer himself was greatly diminished last I saw him. Chris seemed o.k. around us. She seemed to make the effort and we just tried to be respectful and not rock her boat. But from the beginning, Jerry seemed to follow her (almost obsessively so) while we were there. (In retrospect, we should have realized his signs of being on point… Lord knows we’ve seen him do it before.)

    Then one Sunday night while I was still struggling to wrap things up at 9pm and head home, Hank didn’t want me driving late, he was worried about my safety, etc. So I was going to stay and we sat there visiting together and he proceeded to tell me how Chris hated me and it was all an act. He went on to tell me that she “made a big deal” around the boys, but trashed them to others… etc. I was stunned. I was there alone and it was my worst fear being realized. I began to panic. She had gone to bed, but I just didn’t know what to do. He just kept going on and proceeded to tell me all the things that were wrong about me. They were stunning. He was so cranked up I just tried to keep calm. By midnight I told him that I decided to just head home. Then he really went nuts. I stayed calm, calm and steady, but my head was spinning. I got my tools and played like everything was o.k. I left and called Jim and woke him up. I drove the 5 hours home. I never went back, but I did stay in touch on the phone and online until we received a photo of our boys that Chris had sent on to Larry’s biological Dad and his wife. I didn’t have to pop a vein, Jim did. We decided what we were going to do about it and I was the one chosen to deliver our decision to Hank. He went ballistic. He sent a letter (that I did NOT read). Jim intercepted it and I honestly did not read it. Jim handled it with Hank from that point on. He told him that his family was off limits, that he would not stand for any further harm inflicted on me and never would Larry and Jerry know this kind of behavior in their lives. He told him to stay away from all of us, including Linda. All our social media was all closed off to them at that point. Jim told him if there was another contact, letter, call, harassment of any kind, he would be calling the police. He told Hank that HE was stopping it. I am grateful for that, I didn’t have it in me anymore. At the time, Linda’s wedding was upon us and it really cast a shadow over a part of it for all of us. But I kept going.

    Problem was that Jim did tell me (in a moment of non-thinking… ) a couple comments that Hank had said to him. It’s almost as if the poison continues to seep into my life. He made accusations of someone abusing me. (My brother David implied that in a fight with my parents many years ago too.) Since neither of them knows anything about my personal life, they couldn’t know my own thoughts. I’ve never spoken them out loud to anyone. I’ve thought about it all a great deal in the past few months and especially after reading these articles, I don’t know that I believe what they are saying, but I also don’t believe there is any reliable way to find out.

    Do you have any thoughts on “Soul Retrieval”?

    I won’t lie to you. I have scared myself a few times in the past couple months. Then a good friend of mine took his own life. It made me realize I better get my shit together. But it seems that who I thought I was and who I really am may be miles apart. I know that my siblings words created that doubt and there are some “coincidences” that seem too close to be ignored.

    Anyway. Enough of my babbling, I know you already know my family dysfunction. I’ve probably put you solidly to sleep… snoring in fact. LOL! Just trying to find my way through all this.


    This sounds so familiar. I am sorry for you but also admire your continuing efforts to try to make your brother’s life more live able.

    I think it’s important to remember that just because you may not remember specifics of any abuse you may have suffered does not mean it never happened. SOMETHING happened. You live with that legacy… and in some ways so do your brothers, whether they were victims or perpetrators or both. Sibling rivalry in families with toxic secrets is fierce and life long. In my business we would be fools if we refused to treat people for symptoms of PTSD just because there is no substantiated history. The symptoms are and should be enough. Of course, most victims of such secrets are stuck with the de-legitimizing forces that are extremely strong and alive (even if the perpetrators aren’t)… the feeling that there must be proof is undeniable and sometimes crushing. Can you let go of that part and focus on taking care of yourself while you continue the fine work you are doing to stop and change the legacy? Most of these things are multigenerational.

    Great that Jim has been so strong for you… sounds like he really came through. Very very cool.


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