Psychologist Doug McKinley shares 3 principles of living authentically as an adult when it seems like your parents don’t want you to grow up.
Dear Dr. McKinley,
I think my upbringing was so focused with religion and discipline that I can’t deal with life. I’m 42 and I feel 12. When I’m around my parents, I feel small and powerless. I lie about my beliefs and hide my life from them. I’m exhausted and afraid! I’ve often thought that I could be free when they die. Horrible, I know, but I can’t confront them. I’m terrified they’ll shun me.
—Still Growing Up
Dear Still Growing Up,
Thank you for your vulnerable question and transparency. You are not alone and I’m pleased to make a couple of suggestions that have helped others in your situation. We all experience the unenviable pressure to gain approval from others. The approval of our parents may be unparalleled to any other relationship. I realize words are insufficient compared to living in this situation, so please receive these comments as my best attempt to be responsive to your courage in asking this question. If you can pursue ways to apply the following three principles to your situation, I am confident you can find relief from your fear and exhaustion.
1. Don’t give your personal power away.
Personal power cannot be taken from you; it can only be given away. The power a parent holds is often misunderstood and misused. Because we all likely grew up with a parent or parental figure imposing their will over our development, it’s understandable when people mistake the role of a parent with power and control. One of the greatest insights psychology has uncovered is the idea that people or circumstances do not have control over our feelings, behavior or attitude. Viktor E. Frankl wrote eloquently about this in his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” My suggestion is for you to reclaim your personal power by establishing a boundary for yourself of never permitting others to have your power.
2. The best version of you is when you are congruent in words and deeds.
Some people call this integrity, authenticity or honesty. Regardless of what you call it, shrinking to avoid ridicule, shame or wrath is not being good to yourself. Your parents do not benefit when you tell them what they want to hear; rather they become crippled and clueless by your disguise. You do not benefit from avoiding their reaction; rather you become bitter and confused and alone. Other people don’t benefit when you wear a mask. They’re unable to know the real you. Frankly speaking, there is simply no benefit — other than escape from momentary pain (which is something, of course) — from lying and hiding from your parents’ judgment. Be the best version of you, and just watch how much freedom and joy will start to emerge in your life.
3. Most conflict that goes underground remains unresolved.
As tempting as it may appear to be rid of the perceived cause of our pain, it is often an illusion. Many people have tried to separate themselves from the person or situation and have found that their feelings persist. Unresolved feelings of conflict do not provide any more relief from the conflict itself. It is a common myth that if you avoid something it will go away. The hard truth is that unresolved conflict agitates and destroys any chance for hope and joy. Your only path to freedom from this emotional prison is to address your feelings directly with your oppressor. You had enough courage to ask this question. I believe you have access to the courage to confront your parents. Regardless of how they respond to your confrontation, you will no doubt feel the chains of shame falling off you.
Have a question of your own? Ask Dr. McKinley, and we may feature it along with his answer in an upcoming article.