When you're not the favorite child

This article on favorite children from the New York Times resurfaced in time for Father's Day yesterday.  It's interesting, and reassuring just to know it's a universal problem.  One commenter named Dave from Omaha had a sad story,

As children, we 5 siblings, 4 boys and one girl, got along famously. I can count the fights between us on one hand in our entire childhood. The favoritism to the oldest, a boy, was accepted and largely unquestioned. His post-high school education was funded 100%. Books, tuition, room, board, car and spending money. When I attended college I was given not one red cent. Others experienced the same. He was taken into the family business and made wealthy. He worked hard, but he had opportunities not given the others. Dad died last year and it came to be known that the oldest will benefit from the estate far more than the others. To the tune of millions vs. a few tens of thousands. That was the last straw. Each of the five have gone their separate ways and we can't be considered a family any longer in any more than name only. Favoritism unchecked will destroy a family. I know.

One commenter said she wished the article provided helpful tips into what to do if you're not the favorite.  I agreed- the article didn't provide any insight into how to heal from not being the preferred sibling, so I replied to her.  Here's what I wrote.

I wish the author had consulted a Jungian therapist for her article.  I think what Carl Jung would say is that children are manifestations of their parents' owned and disowned qualities of their psychic structure.  Some of our children, we can project our desired qualities onto successfully (ie. they don't bounce back in our face and remind us of how awful we are)- these are our favorite children; whereas some of them we cast our shadow selves onto- these are the unowned qualities that we think are bad or out of control and are having trouble integrating- the children that receive these projections are the black sheep, the scapegoats for our unprocessed unconscious material.  I'm not totally doing Jung justice here, but you get the jist.  When we haven't been favorited by our parents, we have to recognize that we're the bearer of our parents' shadows- it's not personal, and with enough growth and maturity, we become the parents of our parents, helping them access those unintegrated qualities safely and in love.  But who the hell lives long enough, has the inclination, or starts their healing journey soon enough to get to that point?  Most of us, if we're lucky, will only have enough time on this earth to process the gut wrenching pain of being the neglected child and learn to parent ourselves.  And we parent ourselves through meditation.

So what do I mean by that.  When you're not the favorite child, your essential qualities haven't been mirrored back to you very well, meaning you haven't felt "seen" for who you are.   In neurobiology, they would say that our mirror neurons haven't been attuned to by our parents' mirror neurons, without which, we don't have the all-important emotional resonance we need from them, out of which a sense of safe attachment is derived. 

Fortunately for these children, the intrapersonal attunement we achieve between our own minds and our nervous system during meditation has the same healing effect on us as if we were being resonated with by our parents.  In other words, it's been scientifically proven that compassionate self-observation through meditation offers the same soothing effect on our mirror neurons that are craving resonance as you would have if you had had better interpersonal attunement with your parents.   In this sense, these children are able to provide the parenting to themselves that they never received as children. 

Where I read this latter neurobiology stuff is in Dr. Daniel Siegel's book The Mindful Brain.  If you want to know more about the technical details of how meditation has the same effect on our brains as being mirrored by a parent, check it out.