Finding Your Voice With Overbearing Parents
You'll need to build confidence in your own choices in order to take control of your life.by Katie Moritz
Natasha Nunez lunged, grabbing a carton of eggs off the edge of her mom's kitchen counter — right before her toddler pulled it onto her head.
Nunez's mom immediately accused her of overreacting.
"I responded that I didn’t feel like being criticized for not wanting raw eggs all over my daughter," Nunez said.
Now that Nunez has a daughter of her own, her mom criticizes her parenting choices, even down to the egg incident.
But it isn't a new phenomenon. Her entire life, Nunez has felt judged and picked apart by her mom.
"Some really stand-out moments include when she told me that I’m her daughter so she loves me because she has to, but that I’m very hard to like," Nunez said. "This was several years ago, but it still hurts. I mentioned it once and she basically shrugged and said she still felt it was true.
"Whenever I made a grade that wasn’t an 'A' she’d act like it was the end of the world and say things like, 'Whatever shall we do with you?'"
Those kinds of stories ring true for a lot of people. And, just like in Nunez's case, growing up, moving out and having an adult life doesn't mean overbearing parents stop criticizing your decisions or even stop trying to make decisions for you.
"I’ve had a difficult time learning not to dread her judgment and disapproval, even as an adult," Nunez said. "When I’m dreading her judgement I definitely do feel nervous. I’ve usually found myself imagining the conversation before it’s even started and thinking about all the different things she might say."
How do you change your relationship with parents who just won't let go?
Laying down the law
Unfortunately, it's not going to be easy. In fact, it will require something a lot of people struggle with: setting firm boundaries.
That's because, if your parent or parents feel they can still control your choices as an adult, they're likely not going to stop without intervention.
"Toxic parents don’t change simply because you age and mature," said psychologist Sherrie Campbell, author of "But It’s Your Family…Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath.”
"In fact, many toxic parents become more controlling of us as we age and mature and become more independent."
You can't control your parents' behavior; you can only control your own. Because of that, you will have to stick up for yourself, probably many times, to change the dynamics that have solidified in your family.
The best way to do that is to set specific, unambiguous boundaries.
"One of the easiest ways to think about boundaries is 'if you, I will,'" therapist Kimberly Vered Shashoua said. "Such as, 'If you criticize my hairstyle, I will let you know that it hurt my feelings and ask you not to do it again. If you criticize my appearance a second time, I will end our phone conversation (or) cut our lunch short.'"
Build confidence in your choices
Setting a boundary after a lifetime of being critiqued and judged won't be easy. But you can work with a mental health professional who can help you figure out the best way to approach it — including determining the most important areas to set boundaries — and help you develop the confidence to make these changes.
"You have to realize that growing up with overbearing and sometimes emotionally abusive parenting is traumatizing," said Cena Martin, a confidence coach "who grew up with a helicopter parent who still attempts to control my life as a married woman with two children of my own."
"Allow yourself time to heal and build your confidence. Don't expect it to happen overnight."
Growing up with a lot of criticism can make you second-guess your choices, including the choice to set boundaries with your parents. You're doing the right thing by claiming ownership over your life.
"Start journaling on one area of your life where you'd like to create a new belief system," separate from the belief system of your parents, Martin said. "This will encourage instant confidence and make you feel as if you are taking back control of your life, because you are."
For Nunez, having a child of her own "helped me finally gather the strength to examine my feelings about my mom and work through my issues," she said. "I knew I didn’t want to unconsciously repeat the same patterns with her, so something had to change."
She talks monthly with an "accountability buddy" about her relationship with her mom. She also joined a group that "helps me feel supported and like it’s OK to do things my way, not my mom's way."
Things aren't completely fixed, but they are better.
"Journaling and the support of other women has helped me empathize with my mom and see how many of her own actions come from a place of loss and hurt after losing her own mom at a young age," Nunez said. "I can see the underlying cause behind her actions and words, and that helps take the sting out of them."
Being OK with letting go
The risk of setting hard boundaries is losing the relationship, Campbell said. At the very least, your parents will resist the boundaries you set.
"These types of parents punish every step towards self-love that you make away from them, and therefore, they become more invasive, punitive, demanding, cutting, manipulative and controlling," she said.
Through that, you'll have to stay strong and stick to the boundaries you laid out. For example, if you said you were going to end the phone call if your parent said X, Y or Z, end the phone call if that happens.
That's a challenge in itself. But, if you're miserable, it's worth it, Campbell said.
"There is not a negative relationship out there that is worth the price of your freedom, including parents," she said.