August 3, 2007



Studies show that your birth order in the family determines a great deal about who you are in life and in your career.  I have not done any formal analysis of this belief but, in examining my own life and the lives of my loved ones, I can see a number of patterns and trends.  Many of these patterns and trends are disturbing and some are even horrifying.


What I know for sure is that we all have ‘issues’.  The question is, are we working on our issues?  For those of us who were either first-born in a large family, or, like me, took over the role of the first-born oldest child at an early age, we really have issues to work on.  And many of these issues are not pretty.


Yes, our homes are impeccable, we have well-organized closets and lives and we have lots of disposable income that we primarily spend on other people, but we do, in fact, it’s true, have issues.  These issues manifest themselves in a thousand ways every day.  We do not get to take a vacation from our issues.


For some first borns, the issue of control can drive them.  Whether it is the need to control where the Kleenex box is placed on the bathroom vanity, how the kitchen towels are managed so as to separate and distinguish between the towels for hands, dishes and counter-tops, or when we pick out educational programs and entire career paths for our children based on what we believe is best from an economic and personality perspective, we like to be in charge and have our directives followed, to a ‘t’.


Some first borns have issues they take into the workplace.  My sister and I are both examples of this, and we have many, many issues that manifest themselves in the workplace definitely on a routine basis and our spouses say, on a predictable basis.  Harley and I are both entrepreneurs which is another name for the mentally ill.


She is a Realtor in a small town in Mississippi and has amassed a successful real estate business that enjoys quite a monopoly in a small town that has actually lost population in the past 50 years.  “Harley” is synonymous with residential real estate in Vicksburg like “Ebby”, is in Dallas.  Ebby Halliday has been the grand dame of real estate in the affluent parts of Dallas for over 50 years.  Harley has that same reputation and name recognition in Vicksburg; minus the affluent part and for a short 25 years in Vicksburg.


Harley is not so successful because of her smarts, but she is really, really smart.  Nor is she so successful because she is a strategic business owner because she’s often not strategic at all.  Harley is so successful because of her ability to assume responsibility – often for things that a Realtor is not responsible for; like repairs needed to sell a house, a packaging deal with a variety of diverse funding sources or working with first time homebuyers in rural Mississippi who are not actually eligible to buy a home if it weren’t for Harley’s creative financing approaches.


Often, first borns take responsibility for their siblings’ physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being.  In our cases, Harley and I have taken responsibility for our nieces’ and nephews’ physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being, but that is another story.


Sometimes we never outgrow these roles.  Our ‘issues’ arise when we continue to take responsibility for these same things once we are adults or even well into middle-age.  We get ourselves into all kinds of chaotic and confusing situations, many of them resembling an episode of “I Love Lucy” because we simply cannot separate ourselves and our own needs and preferences from the needs of our younger siblings, other loved ones, our customers, clients & employees, or even perfect strangers.


Our younger siblings most likely do not, in any way, shape or form, have that same degree of sensitivity, some have called it co-dependence that we display daily.  They can frankly care less if we maintain a program of self-care in order to nurture ourselves when we are spending time with them.  Their focus is on their own needs and preferences because of 40 to 60-year-old patterns with us.  Their expectations are, that we too, will have that same focus; their needs and preferences, rather than our needs and preferences.


As first borns, we have a degree of empathy that is unparalleled.  In our family, Harley and I have empathy towards our siblings that we and our siblings rarely, if ever, experienced from our own parents.  I think this occurs in all families but I’m not certain.  As young children through young adulthood, we shared responsibility for ‘the little ones’; our two younger brothers and our baby sister.  Even though there is only 8 years difference between Harley’s age and Lucy’s age (the oldest and youngest in our family of 5), we were the most loving, affectionate and attentive parents that Lucy had, at least until we went away to college and then after Harley returned.  (I was able to escape permanently but that’s another story).  Lucy describes the day that I left, in August 1977, when she was 11 years old as one of the darkest days of her life.  But that’s another story.


The good thing about first-born is that it does, in fact, take a village to raise a child.  Even the parents who are well-suited to parenting need and deserve back up support from family members, friends and neighbors.


Where our issues arise is when we never move out of those roles with our siblings or when we replicate those experiences with other people; spouses, friends, co-workers, clients and employees.  That’s when the trouble begins.


That’s where my troubles began and where my issues continue to rise up on a daily and weekly basis.  These stories, of how I took responsibility for things as a child that I was absolutely not responsible for, are many.  I also have an equal number of stories about my life over my entire career and even today where I continue to take responsibility for things that I can absolutely not be responsible for with my clients.  I have no authority, resources, or accountability for resolving their organizational or individual challenges.  Reflecting on these funny stories of my early childhood helps me see more clearly the appropriate role and proper boundaries for me to have now with my clients. At 7 years old, I started taking responsibility for things that I was not responsible for, nor had the authority, accountability or resources to deliver on.  That pattern plays it out with my clients regularly.  One said to me at one point, “Katharine, sometimes I think you want more for me than I want for myself”!  That was a kick in the stomach.


However, just because I’ve lived this way for 48 years doesn’t mean that I intend to live this way forever!







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