Have you ever been in a situation where you experienced strong disapproval from your parents? Perhaps it happened during a special holiday dinner or over the weekend when they dropped by uninvited to ‘check in’.
“I’m doing amazing, thanks for asking,” you say.
“Oh really?” your mom responds with that twitch in her eye as she surveys the state of your living space. Dad checks his phone, wisely avoiding the coming maelstrom.
A few hours later, you’re on the couch pissed and irritable. You’re angry at your parents for constantly critiquing the life path you’ve chosen. Though you’ve told them countless times that you don’t need or appreciate their judgment, they give it anyway. Whenever you try to make a clean break, somehow they claw their way back into your life.
No one is happy with the situation. They feel neglected and unloved. You feel guilty whenever you ignore your parents’ phone call, text or e-mail. It’s normal to feel this way — it means you care. But it’s time to move on. If you’re torn between making your parents happy or yourself, the answer is a no-brainer. Pick you.
Overcoming parental disapproval is a modern day right of passage
It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you have (or haven’t) accomplished. Parental disapproval knows no age limits. My grandmother has been dead for over 15 years and yet she still haunts my mother’s memories.
In the past, becoming an adult involved dangerous quests and defeating ferocious beasts in the wild. Today, the path to adulthood is obscured. Does it begin when you graduate college? Or perhaps when you start supporting yourself? If either were the case, why do you still feel like a child around your parents?
Is it possible that you’ve never really entered adulthood? If your parents still hold a considerable influence over your life, it’s likely. You deserve to feel the freedom and confidence that comes with living life on your own terms. But first you need to reject your parents’ hold over you. You owe it to your future self and family to win this battle. So do it right.
Make a guilt-free break
How can you break up with your parents without being overwhelmed by feelings of guilt? First, you need to acknowledge and accept why this outcome is good for both of you. Then, you need to do it right.
A clean break is best for you and for your parents. You have spent your entire life focused on making choices that don’t upset your parents. At this point, thinking about what they would approve of is second nature to you, drilled into your subconscious in ways you are barely aware of. Shaking that off is going to take drastic measures.
But you have the right to live life on your own terms. Your parents’ job is to help you grow to your full potential as an independent adult, not to create a clone of themselves, or a perpetual child still dependent on their opinions. The energy they invested in raising you is energy invested in your future. They are supporting players on your journey, but they shouldn’t be the focus of your life now — and they shouldn’t expect to be.
A clean break is best for them, too. Letting them down easy means shielding them from the cold, hard reality that you are independent, and you can’t keep that from them forever. Give them a realistic picture about what they can — and can’t expect from you.
But I still love my parents!
Me too! But committing to your own life path has nothing to do with loving your parents. If you want to love your parents — truly love them — you have to no longer care what they think of you or your life choices. Only people who truly know and love themselves are capable of loving others. Getting to this point should be your primary goal. Trying to win your parents’ approval will only impede this process.
If your parents love you because you do what they want or expect of you, that isn’t love. That’s people-pleasing. And the longer you do it, the harder it will be to love yourself.
Love is rooted in respect
Parental love is messy, complicated and unlike any other relationship we have. They give us life, clothe and feed us until we are able to support ourselves. (and sometimes longer!)
All that one-way giving creates an unhealthy dynamic that often leads to parental entitlement. The logic goes something like this: Well of course you should care about what we think, we’re your parents, we’ve sacrificed so much for you!
And they have a decent argument. Being a parent is a lot of thankless sacrifice. If my two-year-old son understood how much my wife and I have given up to raise him, he would think twice about throwing his peas across the table. But just because parenting is incredibly difficult and costly doesn’t give your parents the right to make you their little sock puppet.
It’s a sacrifice that they freely chose
So before your parents try and guilt trip you into believing you owe them, remind yourself of this: You didn’t choose to be born, nor did you choose your parents.
If you want your parents to love you, you need to start with respect. And that means respecting yourself enough to live life on your terms. When you can do this comfortably despite their disapproval and judgment, then you’re ready to talk about love.
‘I want what’s best for you’ is load of BS
This is a line my mother-in-law used on my wife a few months ago. It felt so canned that I wondered if she had pulled it from a self-help book for clingy mothers.
Most of the time when parents say this what they really mean is: ‘I want what I think is best for you.’
This line will trip up most people looking to make a clean break from their parents. It creates the false impression that your parents are the innocent victims, and you the heartless rejector of their care and affection.
Don’t fall for this passive aggressive mind trick. Love is about respect (see above). If they respect you, then they will truly want what’s best for you. And they will acknowledge that the only person who can know that is you!
Don’t half-ass it
Commit to rejecting your parents’ standards, value system and meddling opinions. Ask yourself — no really, ask yourself honestly! — if your parents’ values and priorities are your own. Are you holding on to your beliefs, patterns of behavior, and worldview simply because you inherited them? Or are you living authentically, in line with who YOU are?
Claim for yourself the priorities and desires that most authentically reflect your vision for yourself, and make a clean break from the ones that are holding you back. It doesn’t count if you never speak up. Stand up for yourself and be clear with your parents about your vision for your life and what you need to accomplish it.
They may take it personally. Ok, they’ll definitely take it personally. They’ll feel some combination of betrayal, disappointment, and heartbreak. But if you — or they — are going to grow, it’s a necessary step.
My biggest regret in college was not completely jumping off the hamster wheel of parental expectations. It took me until the end of my sophomore year to own up to the fact that I didn’t want to be an engineer like my dad. Even though I had realized this years earlier, I felt I had the responsibility of making my parents proud and happy. Huge mistake.
In the end my dad disowned me, so I still had to deal with the consequences. I wasted valuable time that could have been spent making my own mistakes and stepping into my own truth and power. Instead, I opted for the slow and easy let down by trying to compromise on my life path. No one was happy, least of all me.
The slow and easy let down — nodding along with their judgments while you seethe inside — is really a half-assed approach. It’s like when you’re really not into someone, but you’re reluctant to break it off because you don’t want to hurt their feelings. So you hang in there until the relationship falls apart on its own. With parents, the relationship rarely falls apart on its own without confrontation.
Tips on cutting the cord
If you’re committed to doing something that upsets your parents, then really push the limits, yours and theirs. If you want to move away so you can build a life apart from them, then don’t just move a few hours away. Move to the other side of the country, or better yet, across the ocean!
The further you go, the harder it is for them to pull you back into the status quo you used to live. When you second-guess your efforts to sever the parental umbilical cord, you end up sabotaging your own future success. Feelings will get hurt. Would you rather it be yours or theirs?
Delete their address from Google Maps so your phone stops reminding you that your parents’ place is ‘Home.’ Commit 100% to moving forward with your plans. You don’t need their approval.
If they insist on guilt tripping you to death, then block their numbers, e-mail addresses, and all other avenues of communication.
Don’t half-ass the breakup. You just waste everyone’s time and it kills your momentum. Whatever it is that you want to do, even if your parents disapprove, do it to the max.
You’ll be happier for it. And if you’re all adults, there will be a healthier, happier and more sustainable relationship waiting for you years down the line.
Set hard boundaries
If you break this to them correctly, your parents should be disappointed enough to give you space to do you. But some parents are so stubborn that they can’t let you go.
That’s when you need to make sure you’ve got boundaries in place to keep you from relapsing. If you’re not ready to completely go radio silent with your parents, at the very least communicate hard boundaries. This includes:
- When they can (or cannot) visit or call.
- What topics are off limits during conversation.
- What type of comments are unacceptable and grounds for ejection
This should sound harsh. Growth is challenging and uncomfortable. The alternative is living the rest of your life feeling like a child in their presence.
Parental codependency is a real thing
Still aren’t ready to cut the cord? If you’re hesitant to break free or telling yourself your parents’ behavior is not that big of a deal, consider whether there are any co-dependency issues lurking about.
According to a 2016 article in Psychology Today, codependency is a condition when two people with dysfunctional personality traits become worse together. Enmeshment happens when clear boundaries about where you start and where your partner ends are not clearly defined.
Typically we think about codependency in romantic relationships. But it occurs in parent-child relationships as well. According to that same article, here are six questions you can use to determine whether you’re in a co-dependent relationship:
1. Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs?
2. Is it difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on your time and energy?
3. Do you cover your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law?
4. Do you constantly worry about others’ opinions of you?
5. Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
6. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
When you read those questions, do your recognize yourself and your parents in them?
You may be dependent on the emotional push-pull of your relationship: the high you get when you satisfactorily meet your parents’ expectations and receive their praise, and the buzz of being needed by them, even if it’s just for a chat or phone call.
But, like any addiction, there’s a crash after the buzz. It’s the frustration of never being enough, no matter how hard you try. It’s receiving their disappointment and judgment, as your confidence in your decisions disappears. It’s not fun, but it’s the only way you know how to be.
Co-dependency is not good for them, either. They are failing to take ownership of their identities as adults outside of their role as parents. Their own self-worth is based on whether or not they approve of what you’re doing. They don’t have the strength to let you try and fail, because they can’t risk the hit to their own egos if you do.
If this sounds like you and your parents, then it’s time to create some distance. Breaking up with your parents doesn’t mean forever. Give yourself the time and space you need to live life on your terms for a change. If you decide to reconnect with them later on, it’ll be a much healthier relationship.
Look within yourself
No one but you should have the power to decide your values and how to live your life. It is an empowering belief, but also a frightening reality. Having the agency and freedom to decide what, how and why of your life is an awesome responsibility. While it may be easier to go along with your parents’ vision instead of claiming your own, ultimately, you will be happier and more fulfilled when you are in charge of your life’s direction and the choices you take to get there.
If you want to live the life your parents expect and hope you to live, that’s totally fine. But let it be your choice, not theirs.