Carolyn Hax: Parents anxious that younger daughter feels inferior to older daughter

DEAR CAROLYN: I’m a dad with two grown daughters ages 33 and 35. Both have graduate degrees, are gainfully employed, live on their own, and are in what seem to be healthy relationships. My wife and I feel blessed and are very proud of them.

So, what’s the issue? Well, the younger one is forever comparing herself to the older one. It’s been going on since they were kids. When she does, she always concludes she doesn’t measure up. We have repeatedly stressed to her this is not healthy and she needs to stop. She agrees but just can’t seem to fully disengage from doing this. Are there any insights you can provide which would help?

– B.

DEAR B.: This will sound mean, but bear with me: Of course she doesn’t measure up to her sister.

But it’s not for the reason she thinks. She doesn’t measure up because Older is merely being herself, while Younger is modeling herself in the image of (or deliberately not in the image of) Older. If there’s one thing everyone here can agree on, presumably it’s that Older can be herself better than anyone else can. Younger’s quest was hopeless from its inception.

The only reasonable path Younger can take to feeling good about herself is to do the best job she can at being Younger. Using anything or anyone else as a point of reference is bound to fail.

If this concept resonates with you, if you think it will resonate with Younger, if she gives you the opportunity to present it to her, and if you think you can be patient from there and just listen to her response instead of trying to fix it, then go for it – once. If for no other reason than it isn’t your current comparing-yourself-isn’t-healthy-so-stop-doing-it mantra, which apparently isn’t getting it done.

You might also pose the question I’d ask her if she wrote to me: With whom would she compare herself if her sister didn’t exist?

Unless the right “ifs” are in alignment, though, it’s hard to see a place for your or anyone’s help. Your daughter is grown and this is her demon to fight. It’s possible your involvement even helps prolong her struggle; continually responding to a worry has a way of validating it.

It’s possible, too, that you see this as a bigger problem than it is. It’s hardly rare for adults to struggle with childhood hang-ups only when they’re around family, for 33-year-olds to turn 12 again upon crossing their parents’ thresholds.

Tread lightly. No one likes to be badgered, even by people bearing sensible, well-meaning advice forged in the heat of the bearer’s own suffering. We all have an inalienable if over-exercised right to make mistakes eerily similar to ones our siblings just made.