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Twins: An Identity Journey

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By: Priscilla Dean, MA Licensed Professional Counselor

Identity formation is probably the trickiest issue to navigate as a twin. I can’t speak to male/female twin sets but same gender twins I know struggle with the “who am I” question with greater difficulty than those who are not twins. Being an identical twin myself, and according to other twins I know, being a twin from adolescence through adulthood is often a confusing time because we’ve always defined ourselves in relation to the other. I like the color red because she likes blue. Do I really like action movies, or is it just because my twin hates them? What do I really enjoy, or definitely dislike? I’ve detailed four key issues that outline the struggle to find a personal identity living life as a twin.

1. The comparison issue.
Wow, you’re so much more talkative than your sister. Or more creative. Or she seems to be more observant/book smart/musical/emotional/logical/outgoing/fill in the blank than you, and you’re more this way or that way. Well-meaning people say these things, hoping to connect or even to compliment but to a twin, it’s more often than not just plain confusing. I never knew how to respond. Thanks? Okay that’s good I guess. Glad to be different. It’s much different to simply say, “Priscilla, you seem to be an emotional person.” Or “you’re book smart.” I LOVED people who said descriptive things about what they observed about me without comparing me to my twin. It was rare.

Comparing your body and personality to friends or Hollywood stars is a common enough problem for adolescent girls in Western culture, but it seems to be especially difficult for twin girls that breathe in the comparison comments nearly constantly. For whatever reason, friends, family and society seem to naturally want to compare one twin to the other, mostly out of ignorance probably, but this makes the struggle towards self-acceptance much greater. There seems to be a fear to act in a way that friends or family have defined your twin as being. For instance, if my twin was labeled “the emotional one,” I was careful to not act in this way, so as to not compromise my identity. I can’t be that, that’s not me. I have to be different.

2. Friendships from childhood to adulthood.
When you grow up with your twin, you tend to make friends together, or at least this was the case for my sister and me. In middle school and for most of high school we shared friends. We attended these friends’ birthday and graduation parties and enjoyed the same sleepovers. But when we reached college and adulthood, what naturally happens to most people also occurred with us. Some friendships endure throughout childhood into adulthood and some do not.

My sister and I chose different levels of intimacy with these friends but as we entered early adulthood we received what we called “obligation twin invitations” which is one of our old friends invited both of us to an event even though only one of us remained friends with this person. This phenomenon makes a natural part of adolescence a bit more awkward than it most likely already is for most people.

3. Being lumped in as one unit or entity.
Growing up we were probably referred to by our individual names about half of the time. The other half of the time my name was “the twins.” I responded to it, and referred to what I wanted or how I needed to communicate in the plural. “The twins don’t like broccoli,” and I said, “No, we think it’s gross,” or “Where are the twins? They should have been downstairs by now!” and I said, “We’re coming!” We were desperately trying to define ourselves as individuals, especially in adolescence, but everyone else was continually defining us as a unit. We shared the same activities, went to the same places, and even wore the same clothes occasionally (under coercion for family photos only).

It is probably obvious that this would be frustrating for someone trying to individuate, but this can subtlety lead to the next struggle I will describe below. (Incidentally using pronoun “I” to describe myself took some getting used to in adolescence. It was always “we.”)

4. Symbiotic Disablement
Because of the fact that twins so often get defined as a one pair, rather than two individuals, and also at the same time get compared to one another, this leads to what I am calling symbiotic disablement. This is where one twin allows the other to complete a behavior for them that they would normally do by themselves if they were not a twin. For instance, the more introverted twin will let the more outgoing twin speak on their behalf during social situations. Or a more detail oriented twin will be sure to make sure the other twin remembers to get permission slips signed or to not turn in homework assignments late. This can happen in other relationships as well, such as in married couples, but in twins these behaviors generally start at a much younger age, with no memory of life before this surrender of will and codependence. These types of behaviors can cripple an introverted twin into struggles with making friends, or enable irresponsibility in a less detail-oriented twin.

My twin sister and I have always had each other, and I would not be who I am today without her. In my formative years she helped form my identity and I helped form hers. I’m grateful for the person she helped me become. I have often wondered who I would be without her, and I’m glad to not be that person. We did have a “built-in best friend,” who God knew we both needed in our family of origin to be the individuals we were meant to be.