Accept that your parents are human, individual entities in their own right.
Many of us still treat our parents as if they have near godlike status or certainly as if all of their characteristics, motivations etc are stemming from their position as a parent. We treat them as if they’re infallible when actually, they’re not. This is all the more confusing to us when they clearly show that they’re fallible through their tricky behaviour and yet on some level we’re still wanting them to be a different person, almost flawless. Sometimes we find our parents frustrating because they cannot be who we think that they should be. We compare them to other parents (or our concepts of them) and wonder why they can’t be “like that”. Or, we remember when they acted as we wanted and wonder why they can’t go back to that time.
Your parents have a history that extends beyond you. As a child, you see the world as being an extension of you and your parents are almost treated as a barometer of whether you’re OK (if they’re great, you are, if they’re not, there must be something wrong with you) but part of growing in to who you are and carving out your own identity is recognising that your parents have their own fears, motivations, beliefs, ideas, habits etc. They are human and yes, while in an ideal world, it would be great if they could park their own pasts and get over their issues or certainly self-select any unproductive habits of thinking and behaviour so that you’re unaffected, that’s not how it works.
Part of being boundaried is not only having a more realistic and fair view of you but also about not putting people on pedestals. Sure, you can admire a parent but don’t make them superhuman and certainly don’t engage from an inferior place.
When you accept that your parents are human, you realise that they are grappling with themselves. You realise that they are distinct from you even though you’re related. You start accepting them for who they are and seeing what you can work with. Accepting doesn’t mean like or agree with it all but it does mean that you stop judging you for who they’re not or feeling as if you have to judge them for not being The Ideal Mother or The Ideal Father TM. You realise that just like every other human including you, brings their own baggage into a situation, so does your parent. They are not perfect (even if they tell you that they are). Acceptance doesn’t mean that there won’t be things about them that still wind you up or are even a source of pain but what it does mean is that you stop persecuting you on some level.
Handy Hint: The contrary ways of TFM parents is that on one hand, they want you to treat them as if the sun shines out of them and as if they’re exempt from ever having to be accountable or having to have similar healthy boundaries to others, but then when things don’t go their way or it suits the context of a situation, they want you to treat them like someone else. Treat them as a human, who is your parent, but who is also fallible, and you won’t caught in that frustrating place that they often try to put you in. Empathise by recognising their issues even when they don’t… and then be boundaried.
Be honest with you about your needs.
I used to have ‘daddy hunting’ issues plus I was very self-critical and praise seeking due to not just his absence but the fraught relationship that I had with my mother. When I got honest with me, not just about how my early experiences were showing themselves in my relationship choices but also how I kept bumping my head against the same issues, I had to acknowledge that part of the issue was me still expecting my parents to meet the needs I’d had from my childhood plus still feeling very reliant on them (because I wasn’t meeting those needs myself.
Who’s meeting who’s needs is a real blind spot for a hell of a lot of people and is at the root, not just of most tensions but also part of what fuels other unhealthy or certainly confusing relationships plus it’s part of what can make us very self-critical and lacking in personal security.
In a nutshell, if you have any unmet needs that you yourself are not fulfilling or that you haven’t updated to reflect an adult, fresh, more compassionate perspective, you will look for others to meet that need. You will also find that if your parents placed inappropriate expectations on you (or you assumed them as a way to feel more worthy), such as making you responsible for them or others from an early age, that you will still have those expectations of you and be in relationships where you continue to fulfil those ‘obligations’.
A very quick test for this that I’ve done got lots of my students is do is as follows:
Get four sheets of paper (or use four pages of your journal)
On #1 write down the needs, expectations and desires that you had from your parents/caregivers when you were a child.
On #2 write down the needs, expectations and desires that you have from the parents/caregivers in #1 as an adult.
On #3 write down the needs that you have from romantic partners, friends, a boss.
On #4 write down the needs, expectations and desires that you are meeting for you.
If #1 and #2 look similar, you can immediately see where you’re still in a child role and it will tell you why certain tensions exist.
If #2 and #3 look similar, you can see where you have transferred these unmet needs to others in an attempt to fill voids but are being exposed to pain due to giving away power and putting you into a child role – you make authorities out of them.
If #4 doesn’t have much on it and doesn’t mirror the expectations you have of others, you can see which needs you need to find ways of meeting for you. Our relationships provide us with a window into understanding what it is that we need – if we keep looking for, for example, recognition from others, it’s because we are not recognising ourselves. If we do what we seek, the void closes up.
Another quick test that you can do is get X sheets of paper (or use X pages of your journal).
On #1 write down the needs and expectations that your parents had of you as a child
On #2 write down the needs and expectations that your parents have of you as an adult
If #2 looks very similar to #1, you can see why your relationship with a parent is so tricky – you haven’t been allowed to grow and be. Whether this is about directly stated needs and expectations or these have been inferred or even assumed, #2 needs to change and reflect an adult-to-adult relationship.
If you look at #2 in this test and then compare with #2 in the first test, you can also see where there is a disparity that is causing friction. You can see where it feels as if you’re under obligation to ___________ but they are not stepping up with their end of the bargain.
Any needs and expectations also need to not look like obligations in order for tension to not be reduced.
If you start taking responsibility for meeting the needs that are not being met by your parents then you are liberated from the pressure of trying to get them to be and do certain things.
Being boundaried doesn’t mean that your parents are redundant.
Sometimes, parents who encounter new boundaries from their offspring appear resistant and it’s not necessarily because they want us to be a doormat but more because they feel twitchy about what their place is with us.
If you encounter this, what you have to remind your parent of is that they encouraged you to be a grown-up, to do and be certain things and that of course you cannot need them as if you are a child anymore but what you can do is have an evolved relationship where you get to know each other on a deeper, adult level (with boundaries), if they want to.
They need to trust that you’ve got this. Sometimes that’s what you’ve got to say. “Mom/dad, I really appreciate your concern and know that you are scared that I’m going to ________ but please be assured, I am OK. Thank you for your input. I promise you that if I have questions or that I need guidance on it, I will ask.” And say it with sincerity.
Don’t go to them for stuff that you know that they’re not good with.
My mother asks me why I don’t go to her for advice and I tell her that it’s because it’s not her forte. She gets very blame-y and she can’t help herself or certainly if she can, it’s not a habit that she’s showing any signs of changing. But I’ve found other ways to enjoy her company plus she can be quite good with ideas. What I don’t do is feel guilty for not asking her to do something that I know based on countless examples, she can’t do.
Don’t act like Kevin The Teenager.
I hear from so many people who are angry with a parent or both of them about something or who find it really frustrating or whatever, to spend time with them yet, they keep going around there and do you know what happens? They start behaving like a kid. They slot into a role that they don’t typically engage in outside of their family home. And of course they end up being treated like kids. I hear from 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-somethings and beyond who they get sulky, stomping around, squabbling with siblings, skulking about the place, attention seeking, praise seeking, being passive aggressive and the list goes on. They revert to being a particular age and then feel guilty about feeling that way about their parent. The problem is that if you don’t address how you feel about some of their past or present behaviour or you keep being a party to the issue in the same way by just letting them cross your boundaries while suffering in silence, you’re going to act out in ways that leave you feeling bad about you and it will be lather, rinse, repeat.
If you wouldn’t do something if you didn’t think that you were going to get some sort of reward (e.g. acknowledgment), revise your motivations or don’t do it.
This will also ensure that you remove a hidden agenda and as a result, that you dispel tension from your end plus apply this in all areas of your life and you will find that your resentment load drops to nil.
If you ask them for something, don’t ask them for it as you have done in the past.
Your parents are only going to understand differences in you if you are consistent. If you ask them for stuff in the way that you did when you were 15, you will feel the way that you did when you were 15. I have been very guilty of this. I still have to remind myself not to pussyfoot around my mother like a terrified teenager and do you know what? Each time I do the acting like I’m younger, she responds in time honoured fashion and each time I don’t, I don’t end up feeling angry at her plus she picks up on my boundary.
This same piece of advice works for broaching subjects.
Don’t let them keep bringing up old sh-t.
One thing that a parent can do, which no one else can, is bring up stuff from the moment we entered the world. Great when they’re sharing memories, not so great when they’re bringing up something that you did a gazillion years ago. Rather than rising to the bait when they throw in stuff from the past and even inwardly criticising you for it, say, “I’m not sure what ______________ has got to do with this conversation but I really would appreciate it if we can focus on the actual issue at hand now”.
Or do what we (myself and my siblings have done):
“You can’t keep bringing up stuff from the past when you can’t even hack us bringing up stuff from 5 minutes ago” – it’s real, it’s humourous but it makes the boundary clear.
While you could argue that a parent has creative license to bring up the past, imagine you doing that to your own child real or imagined, and you can see what’s wrong with that picture. No parent needs to rely on berating, shaming or court-rooming their child to make a point.
There are separate classes on dealing with aggression and passive aggression. Needless to say though, if your parent is abusive, it’s not acceptable. If you can’t draw your line being around them, you will need to be boundaried by putting you at a safe distance.
Your needs are your general ‘self’ needs (how you want to feel and live on a day-to-day basis), work, education / self-improvement, health, family, work, friends, romantic relationship and any other areas that apply in your life. Some of your needs cross into several or all but the key is to ensure that you are meeting most of your needs even if you have those needs of others. Write down the details of each area of your life and how you would like to feel, be treated, and act, so for instance think about the job that would be happy with, the relationship that you would be happy with, what type of relationship with your friends where you would be happy. Don’t edit / self-censor – just put your ideal relationship down on paper.
Things to consider:
How would you be treated?
How would you feel?
What types of things would cause you to feel that your needs weren’t being met?
What do you feel like you couldn’t do without?
What would make your position in a situation untenable?
When you’ve been in other jobs/relationships/friendships where your needs weren’t being met, what were the reasons?
Getting a clearer understanding of your needs will help you to have a clearer identity. What you journal will tell you about what you will need from you as well as from others. Treat you as you want to be treated by others.
Don’t forget – if lots of feelings are coming up, try an Unsent Letter or the Releasing Exercise in the Resources.