‘My rich younger sister wants to take me on holiday with her. I’m so embarrassed’

'Her business has really taken off and she is suddenly quite rich'
'Her business has really taken off and she is suddenly quite rich'

Dear A&A,

My younger sister earns more than me and I’m finding it hard. I have always been the most capable one in the family, but her business has really taken off and she is suddenly quite rich. She wants to share her good fortune by taking me on a luxurious holiday but for some reason I can’t bear it. What’s wrong with me?

– Love, Embarrassed

Dear Embarrassed,

Growing up, the general wisdom often dictated that, while there would always be people who had more than us, there were always those with less than us too.

It was heavily implied that we should vigorously swallow any feelings of envy. So far, so sensible. Then came the age of Instagram and Facebook where enviable life updates were more difficult to dodge: the seemingly constant slaloming down the ski slopes of some, the winter sun escapes, #blessed, and endless house renovations of others.

“We’re still absolutely fine,” we told ourselves. Because there will always be people who are richer than us. And, anyway, skiing is dangerous.

But now the green-eyed monster has actualised and is in your kitchen, drinking tea and planning a must-have Caribbean break. Rich strangers are one thing. Rich friends are another. But rich people who share our DNA? Oof.

Much of what you are feeling isn’t about the money but about the way family systems operate. In families, there are often assigned roles; roles that can be as comforting as they are damaging.

You adopted or were co-opted into the role of “the capable one”. This position is often drilled into the older children, who are conditioned to feel as if they are required to guide their younger siblings like mini line managers.

Until your sister struck gold, you knew exactly where you stood in the family order. Suddenly everything has rearranged itself. Now, perhaps, you are asking yourself whether your sister’s success means that you are no longer “the capable one”?

And if that is true, what role has been assigned to you now? Have you lost your place because of your sister’s gains? It might feel as if there is a price on your talents, and you have been found to be more Zara than Yves Saint Laurent.

All of this is also to do with the value we place on money. Despite the best intentions described above, we are, after all, beneficiaries of a time when wolves roamed Wall Street and you could never be too rich or too thin. We think that money means emotional worth and, as a result, it feels to you as if there is a shift in hierarchy, in influence.

It might be worth remembering however that there are studies – Harvard ones, no less – which show there is little evidence that more money is an automatic gateway to more happiness. There might be an adrenaline rush for a couple of years, but ultimately the source of joy is an inside job.

Still, this might all feel all super worthy and hard to hear because you’ve had a shock. No one likes change; in family systems; in the way that we measure ourselves; in our sense of context. You might be feeling that everything is unbearable because this change is throwing into relief a different sort of dissatisfaction in your life.

Probably the best thing to do is communicate your sense of weirdness to your sister before that dissonance turns into disconnection. Find a neutral space to have a discussion; perhaps a walk in the park where the awkwardness can dissipate in the open, and you don’t have to look anyone in the eye.

Maybe you could try saying something like “I know this sounds crazy, but I feel strange being the taker. I am proud of your success but, for now, can we try and keep this more even?” As your sister has offered to take you somewhere extravagant on holiday, why not suggest meeting in the middle instead?

You might give yourself a little breathing space around this change. Has it, perhaps, painfully pressed on a small bruise that you have hitherto ignored, around your own life and future. Why not see this uncomfortable feeling as an opportunity to reassess your wants or needs now?

Those old family systems have a powerful habit of dictating our values in a way that might no longer serve you well. Have a little think  – work with a trusted partner or a therapist – to try and decode what you might be looking for and what might make your life feel more rewarding?

And, certainly, try not to pay attention to the thought that if someone is worth more in pounds than you, that you are worth less in general.

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