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How being a twin changed the way I think about self-esteem

“That’s you. No wait, maybe not. We always dressed you in yellow and Anna in red, yet here you both are in green. No idea.” In keeping with annual holiday tradition, my mom and I don festive sweaters and pour over old family photos like DNA detectives. Now in our late twenties, my fraternal twin sister and I look fairly different (and thankfully dress ourselves), but we spent our first decade on this planet appearing practically identical.

It’s a funny thing, to look back at pictures of your childhood and be unable to discern whether or not the face smiling back in the images is actually you. There are substantially fewer pictures of either of us solo – the bulk of our memories are shared. We shared everything from the womb onward: a bedroom, clothes, friends, interests. We had matching grades throughout primary and secondary school and scored 10 points away from each other on the SATs. We were inseparable as kids and are still best friends to this day, but there was a time not so long ago when this singular identity took its toll on our relationship and nearly destroyed it. As long as humans have roamed the Earth, sibling rivalry has existed. Perhaps even dinosaurs got into squabbles over who was the smartest or best at prehistoric tennis. Competition can be a healthy catalyst for mutual growth. Throughout elementary and middle school, Anna and I pushed each other to do well in school. We both wanted to exceed our parents’ expectations and meet every goal they set for us. However, this need to measure up to shared ideas of success threatened my own feelings of self-worth in high school. My sense of self was entirely dependent on my wombmate. We were a package deal to extended family and friends, not to mention cheap entertainment for nosy strangers in the grocery store. No, we don’t finish each other’s sentences. No, I can’t read her mind. No, her ankle doesn’t hurt when I sprain mine. No, we never traded places in class to prank our teachers. No, there is no evil twin, but that never stopped anyone from comparing us. They say one word can start a war; one hurt feeling can launch a crusade. On an ordinary morning in eleventh grade English class, one simple sentence sparked a feud that challenged my self-esteem for the next decade. “Everybody knows Meg’s the number one twin,” Bobby casually said while pretending to give himself a shot with a mechanical pencil. The thin piece of lead snapped along with my sister’s temper. This external comparison brought our rivalry to unhealthy proportions. The statement was so general that it would haunt us both long after Bobby forgot he’d ever said it. What does it mean to be the number one twin? How did everybody know but us?  This question was our San Andreas fault. When the emotional rift happened, no one was spared —everyone was forced to take a side. I began to doubt myself for the first time and no longer trusted my friends. Were they closer with Anna? Was it because she was funnier, prettier, or smarter than me? What about the boys I liked? Maybe they just flirted with me because she wasn’t interested? Who did my teachers think was number one? What about my own parents?

Going through puberty and navigating adolescence is difficult enough without experiencing a major identity crisis at age 16. Neither of us wanted to be the package deal anymore, but I didn’t know who I was without her, and I didn’t know what my own goals were outside of the shared goals our parents had created for us. I started partying more during our senior year while she stayed home and studied. I was constantly searching for new friends to depend on that could loan me their interests. I became obsessed with what other people thought of me because I didn’t know who I was. My sense of worth hinged on other people. It started with Anna then spread to anyone else within a two-mile radius. Anna seemed so sure of herself, whereas I was lost without a clue. I became depressed and felt I had no real reason to exist. My entire support system had been compromised and I no longer had her as a constant gauge of my own success. “Well, what are you interested in?” my college advisor asked while watering what appeared to be a fake plant. We were alone in her office during my freshman orientation. She didn’t know anything about me, including the correct pronunciation of my last name. This was the first opportunity I had to create a vision solely for myself – terrifying and liberating. College allowed my sister and me the freedom to develop independent visions for our lives. Yes, every visit home still met the same old interrogation and presented room for comparison, but our paths had finally diverged. We took different classes, had separate friends, and pursued wildly different careers. I sought out opportunities for growth that were fulfilling to me, and she did the same. Maintaining a healthy relationship with my twin sister was impossible when my self-esteem suffered. I put too much emphasis on external opinions and had no understanding of my own unique talents and value. Every achievement of hers was a mental sucker-punch; I couldn’t be happy for her because all that she did well only seemed to illuminate my own faults. I had to follow my own interests and begin to focus on developing myself in a way that I’d never been pushed to do before. I engaged in intentional self-reflection and internal drive to meet self-created objectives. Once I charted the unique vision for my own life, I was able to support her in hers. We have a deeper bond today than ever because we’re able to appreciate each other for who we really are, not who others want us to be. The only expectations I have to live up to are my own.

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