How to get past overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety?
December 8, 2013 7:03 AM   Subscribe

As long as I can remember, I have experienced extreme guilt, embarrassment, and anxiety about simply relaxing and living life for myself. I have an anxiety disorder, so these feelings are to be expected somewhat, but they’re incredibly uncomfortable and affect my daily life. Snowstorm inside.

Most of my feelings of guilt seem to be based in wanting to make my parents proud. I’m 21 years old (almost 22) and I feel as though I should have more goals that are rooted in self-fulfillment as opposed to letting myself be guided by the wishes of others. This anxiety and guilt has lead to me graduating college a year later than planned because I was concerned that my dream major (nursing) was disappointing to my parents and was embarrassed to even bring the option up. Even now, my father encourages me to change my mind and go to law school (which I don’t understand as I’ve never displayed an interest in law). When I was applying to colleges, I ended up choosing to go to their alma mater instead of the community college that I felt was more appropriate to my goals at the time because of the immense pressure they placed on me. Their reasoning was that if I chose community college I would lose scholarship opportunities – which is absolutely fair - but I was not ready to move onto a campus two hours away at all.

It isn’t just academically that I am faced with this type of anxiety. Every relationship, both friendship and romantic, is judged by my parents on a strict, unfair basis. My mother honestly destroyed a romantic relationship I had with a lifelong friend a few years ago because she disliked his dreadlocks. Any time he came to visit me she made it so uncomfortable that neither of us could stand it. I’m sure to many of you this sounds childish and dramatic, but I’ve spoken to her at length about it and the only reasons she gave me for disliking my friend were superficial. I feel extreme guilt about having any long-term relationship and spending more time with that person than my parents. My (now ex) boyfriend and I shared the holidays between our families last year and the stress of “betraying” my parents by spending part of the holidays elsewhere made me physically ill. I’m honestly concerned that I will never be able to get married or have a family if I continue to feel this way.

My personal appearance is often a source of guilt as well. Any time I modify my appearance, be it dying my hair or wearing clothes that fit my own personal style, I feel that I’m a horrible person and any joy I would have felt by doing these things is overshadowed by guilt that I’m an embarrassment to my parents. A good example of this is tattoos. I have been fascinated with tattoos as an art form most of my life and have always desired meaningful tattoos in subtle, easily hidden locations. Despite living on my own, working 40 hours a week, and going to school full time, any time I decide to get a tattoo I spend months and months worrying about it and feeling that if I do it I’m betraying my parents again (I literally lose sleep over it).

The biggest issue of guilt and anxiety I've dealt with lately occurred after my parents questioned my finances and accused me of spending money on things that they "didn't know about" - insinuating that I am purchasing drugs or something else that would be shameful. I had a meltdown over this because I have worked so hard to have stable finances, and because of the guilt that they weren't seeing how hard I was working, I created an in-depth budget to show them that I was being responsible and completely cut out any "extras" such as going out or shopping for things other than necessities.

Honestly, all I want out of life is to just be able to live my life fully in the way I’ve always dreamed. Even when I’m not faced with anxiety I have a horribly difficult time making decisions which I think is what allows other people to put in their two cents and make me waver in my decisions. I don’t know how to get past these feelings because every time I do it lasts for about an hour and then I begin to feel them creeping up again. I don’t feel as though I’m an irresponsible or immature person, and I know that I should trust my own decisions as “good” and “okay” but I just can’t. Is there a trick to getting past this and being able to be my own person/make my own decisions or am I completely crazy and in need of therapy?
posted by sarahgrace to Human Relations (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
What would happen if, instead of demonstrating your budget or otherwise giving proof, you responded to your parents with some version of this sentiment: "We both know that I make responsible, appropriate decisions. I have really appreciated your guidance along the way. You did just fine. Now it's up to me to remember what you've taught me as I make my own way."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:10 AM on December 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'd head to therapy for the anxiety, but for now, you could just... not give your parents so much access to your life. As you say, you're an adult who lives alone and has a full-time job.

Few things I see, immediately:

Any time he came to visit me she made it so uncomfortable that neither of us could stand it.

Then don't bring boyfriends around to meet the folks.


I created an in-depth budget to show them that I was being responsible...

Why are your parents all up in your finances? Get them out of there.


or am I completely crazy and in need of therapy?

Lots and lots of people have anxiety about all kinds of different things. Please don't call yourself crazy, or assume that only "crazy" people go to therapy. And yep! I think that would be a good idea. No shame in that. Therapists can help.
posted by ulfberht at 7:16 AM on December 8, 2013 [3 favorites]


It is natural to want to please your parents. You are still young and at this is about the time where you should be healthfully disconnecting from your parents.

About the dreadlocks: That was your mom's hangup. We all have our hangups. Moms and dads are going to judge the appearance of their children's romantic interests. This was a few years ago. You were a teenager and this is a fairly common teenage problem.

About your career choice: You get to choose what you're going to do for the rest of your life. There is no shame in this.

The biggest issue of guilt and anxiety I've dealt with lately occurred after my parents questioned my finances and accused me of spending money on things that they "didn't know about" - insinuating that I am purchasing drugs or something else that would be shameful. I had a meltdown over this because I have worked so hard to have stable finances, and because of the guilt that they weren't seeing how hard I was working, I created an in-depth budget to show them that I was being responsible and completely cut out any "extras" such as going out or shopping for things other than necessities.

Are you currently employed? Are you living with them? Do you pay your own way? Do they give you an allowance? If you are working, I would not share things like your budget with them. By sharing your budget you are inviting them into a parenting role. If they question your choices in the future, you need to shrug it off and give very little information. No meltdowns required. Say something like, "Things are under control" and change the subject.

Bottom line is that they are still in the parenting role, you are in the child role, (natural, sometimes hard to let go of) and they care about your welfare and future. It sounds like they may be a tad superficial, they may even seek status, but... ultimately they care about you.

So when you are having an anxiety attack about what they may think, try to frame it as: they are my parents, they want the best for me, they have their own insecurities and hangups. They are not perfect. I am confident enough to make my own choices and ultimately things will work out just fine.

Approach the situation with love and understanding. If you go down the resentment and anger path, you are reverting back to the child role and not growing.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 7:27 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, there is absolutely a way to not feel guilty about being your own person and trying to fulfil your own needs and wants. From what it sounds like as soon as you go against your parents in some way, upset them or when they question you, you feel terrible. So you have two solutions

1) Try to manage your parents feelings with your behaviour. This is impossible by the way, as your current feelings reflect, and every therapist will tell you. You can't fix their feelings and you really don't cause them. So let's rule this one out

2) Try to manage your feelings of anxiety about why you feel so bad about upsetting your parents. They're adults, they'll survive, they can handle their feelings. You get to have a life.

The second option is totally do-able. You're not crazy for wanting it at all. The trick in doing it though might need a therapists help or guidance . It's OK to want to be your own person. You're not hurting anyone by wanting that. You can start by kindly telling yourself it's OK to want things, and your parents will be fine. Try to observe the feelings from then on. But it really is OK.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 7:37 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Despite living on my own, working 40 hours a week, and going to school full time

I am very sorry. I missed this.

Advice remains the same.
posted by Fairchild at 7:52 AM on December 8, 2013


Yes, therapy! You've identified the source of your problem: your anxiety comes from constantly wanting to please others, especially your parents. You want to live life for yourself. But you don't know how to break old patterns. This is exactly what therapy is for -- it doesn't mean you're crazy, and your therapist won't judge you. A good therapist will listen to you and give you some tools for living your life the way you want to.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:55 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hang in there. You're at possibly one of the hardest times in your life. From what you've described, it sounds like up until now, your sense of self-worth has derived from being a good child to your parents, according to your parents' definition. And you've worked really hard at that and sound super sensitive to their needs and wants, their likes and dislikes.

Only now, you're in your early 20s and you're moving out into adult life in the world, and what the world demands of you in order to respect yourself as an adult is that you be self-directed and independent: that you make your own choices, steer by your own star, trust your own inner authority and take responsibility for your own decisions. And you can't do both these things well. You can't remain a completely dutiful and obedient child to your parents AND become a competent adult capable of creativity, leadership and self-direction.

This is the process of individuation, and it can be really hard. You'll need to be brave. Especially if your family has any significant narcissistic dynamics -- if your parents feel reassured and gratified by having an emotionally dependent child who always looks to them and not to herself for her sense of self-worth -- of course you're going to feel anxious when you do anything they might not like. That's part of your programming. Are you brave enough to confront those feelings and overcome them? Of course you are.

There are two steps to individuation. The first is to detach from your parents externally -- by moving away, taking charge of your own finances, setting boundaries and otherwise running your own life as an adult who doesn't need to seek their permission for life decisions. The second is harder: it involves detaching from the judgments of your internal parents and locating the inner voice that values you for what YOU value you for. If you need to find a therapist or support group to help you do this, that's fine. This does not make you "crazy". It's an absolutely natural part of becoming an adult for many people, and it's one of the major things that therapy is for.

Can you do this? Yes, you can. The part of you that realizes something's not right and that you want to live your life on your terms without feeling terrible about it is alive and kicking. This is enormously good news. Take what help you need: therapy, self-help books, strangers on the internet, friends you trust. Try not to beat yourself up about having these feelings, or about needing help. Learning to see our parents not as gods or monsters but as ordinary flawed humans like ourselves is one of the hardest parts of growing up.

BTW when things get tough for me and those critical parental voices start up in my head, I comfort myself by thinking, "You know what? Parents like mine would have managed to regard even Jesus Christ as a disappointing ingrate of a child."
posted by stuck on an island at 8:00 AM on December 8, 2013 [10 favorites]


You've internalized the unreasonable demands and shaming of your parents.

How to stop? A gradual campaign of noticing and acknowledging when these thoughts arrive and teaching yourself its okay to want something different. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with a good therapist and doing the homework with it is the best way to get this.

To start, find a way to note every time you have these thoughts you describe and record the number for each day. Some people use tally marks on paper, others a little mechanical or smart phone app-based counter. Compare numbers month to month.

It is also important to realize this will be ten-thousand small battles over time and not one big one. You won't feel a huge rush of getting better.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:08 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have worked so hard to have stable finances ... I was being responsible and completely cut out any "extras" such as going out or shopping for things other than necessities ... living on my own, working 40 hours a week, and going to school full time... all I want out of life is to just be able to live my life fully in the way I’ve always dreamed.

Hey, congratulations.

You're doing good (in my humble opinion) so well done. I just wanted to let you know that.

Do your parents ever say anything similar? I think your folks should see and respect an adult who is on the right lines in life and knows what they want. Perhaps they always see a child? A talk might help. Explain to them how unhappy they are making you by doing this. Get your tattoo first and explain this signifies a new phase for all of you. They have an adult daughter now and they have to respect your autonomy and understand that if they see you make mistakes, they are yours to make. If they love you they'll listen.
posted by 0 answers at 8:15 AM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like so many things, there's no simple answer here. I read some of your past questions, and putting it all together I think: (1) Your parents are very controlling, and (2) You feel you are too influenced by them, but in fact you realize that you do respect their opinions and values.

So first the controlling part. Sometimes control like this is because parents are being protective. It sounds like they have staked a lot of their own feelings about themselves and their place in your small town based on how you behave and how you "turn out". It sounds like you are turning out quite well, however you are taking a different path to success than they would have taken themselves and indeed possibly a different path than they have ever observed anyone to take and have it turn out well.

Now, the influence/respect part. With respect to the friends and boyfriends, my read of one of your posts about one of these guys makes me think that he was not such a great boyfriend. I suspect that your mom couldn't articulate that, and thus came down on his appearance. You may have felt resentment or guilt that "she was right" because you ended up realizing he's not such a great guy as it turns out. But what you have to remind yourself is that his appearance really was NOT part of your problem with him, nor really, was your mom's dislike of his appearance. There were other issues and reasons why he was not right for you. My own family was always much more restrained in offering their opinions about some of the ridiculous men I have subjected them to, and when I got vibes that they didn't like some particular person I would always jump to an assumption that they were being superficial and judging on appearance or manners and if they would just give this great guy a chance they would learn to like him better. Of course when I finally would figure out for myself that the guy was not right for me because he was treating me poorly or bringing me down in some painful way, I would also figure out that "Oh, my family actually saw that and THAT's why they never liked him. Plus he had an appearance or manners or whatever that they didn't care for."

Therapy really can help you with figuring all this out, but remember any progress you can make with therapy will not happen overnight--there is no "cure" for 22 years of behavioral conditioning, and it will take you some time to figure out how you want to relate to your parents as an independent adult.

On preview. What Ironmouth and 0 answers said.
posted by gubenuj at 8:18 AM on December 8, 2013


Honestly, all I want out of life is to just be able to live my life fully in the way I've always dreamed.

Are you still living at home? Because I think you need to move out and establish your own identity and independence post-haste.

And FWIW, in my opinion this is beyond Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I would encourage you to seek therapy (and no you do not need to discuss this with your parents) in order to better understand and manage this - it sounds like a tough way to live.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:30 AM on December 8, 2013


Go get that tattoo. What are they going to do, rip it off of you? It'll be a solid permanent reminder of "piss off, this is my life now." You don't even need to show it to them if you want to have that feeling of personal surmount.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:31 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is an easily thrown out answer, but I do think that therapy can be helpful for things like this. I would like to recommend looking into EMDR specifically, as I've seen it be very effective for reprogramming the way that our minds respond to deeply ingrained patterns of response that were laid down in our primary care relationships when we were younger that weren't always healthy, and before we were old enough to rationalize what was going on. This type of therapy has literally changed the life of someone I care about deeply, and it's been pretty amazing.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:35 AM on December 8, 2013


You're not living at home anymore, so you can stop acting like you're living at home: we, the internet, give you permission. Stop telling them everything about your life - your finances, your friends, your detailed plans. If they're still paying for anything or have any financial hold over you - like, why do they know what you're spending on anything? - then figure out how to get out from under that support. It isn't support: it's control.

And yes, therapy. Separation anxiety is really common for both parents and young adults - it doesn't mean anybody is "crazy," and it can really help you figure out how to set boundaries and stop feeling like you need their (or anyone else's) approval for your choices. You can't make your parents go to therapy, but you can go yourself. It takes time, but it works (at least, it worked for me!). Good luck.
posted by rtha at 8:37 AM on December 8, 2013


Please, please, please get therapy. Don't be me and wait until you're almost 30. You could be living an awesome life right now!

It is not your job to make your parents happy. It is your job to live your own best life. Any therapist worth his or her salt will help you do that, if you tell them what you've told us. Mine reminded me, over and over again, that I was not a bad person for having thoughts and feelings separate from my mother, that in fact I was quite successful and awesome and needed to let myself feel that instead of emotionally abusing myself in her stead. And I did. Any happiness would be tinged by feelings of guilt and self loathing--because it wasn't enough or because that happiness somehow came out of something I didn't deserve.

(I should note that I was resistant to therapy in part because I knew my mother thought less of "crazy" people who needed it. When she found out I was in therapy? She tried to control that too, for fear that I was saying "bad" things about her. This is all soooo fucking unhealthy I can't even. But I'd imagine it all sounds familiar to you.)

You need to cut them off, tell them less, give them less access. Every time you do something like that whole budget debacle, you're showing them that they have power over you. Put your foot down: learn to say, "Sorry, mom and dad, it's none of your business."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:47 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


1) you're going to hate me for saying this, but to a degree, this is something you'll grow out of.

The desire for your parents' approval will probably always be there to an extent, but now that you are an adult living on your own, their influence will probably start to fade as you get accustomed to living life on your own terms- especially since you dislike their sway over you. As you get accustomed to making decisions that they wouldn't like without there being any painful repercussions, some of this anxiety will diminish and you'll become more confident.

Something you need to do is set boundaries. Don't see or speak to them as often. Don't tell them everything about your life. Don't take their pressuring to heart- they've been your parents for 22 years; they're not going to stop trying to run your life overnight. Remember, it was their job to run your life for a long time- you were a child. This may be the only way that they know how to relate to you, and it will probably take a few years for you to teach them new ways of relating to you. During those years, you'll make a lot of mistakes and probably have to go to them a few times and maybe hear "I told you so". That's fine, it's the process of getting your wings. Many people start this process when they're still kids ("rebellious teenagers"), but it's ok to start your rebellion now!

2) for general anxiety and self-esteem stuff, therapy and self-help type workbooks might help you.

3) when you get to the place in your life where you can make decisions your parents will hate, and tell them about it with confidence- that feels really damn good. You'll get there.
posted by windykites at 8:54 AM on December 8, 2013


Therapy isn't for "crazy" people. My husband and I are both highly functioning, happy and confident professionals and we both check in with therapists sometimes. Do you have health insurance? There will be some mechanism for finding a therapist through them. Your biggest problem may be finding the time, with your schedule. Go schedule a meeting, you'll be glad you did.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:56 AM on December 8, 2013


Your parents sound really controlling.

I would recommend a book called "The Nice Factor Book" by Robyn Chandler and Jo Ellen Grzyb. This will give you various strategies for handling your parents' being buttinskies.

For example, your parents have no business prying into your finances and implying that you are engaging in something criminal because they don't have full transparency of how you spend the money that you earn. For this kind of thing I recommend the book "Controlling People" by Patricia Evans.

I know it's hard but you need to stop taking the bait. Insinuating that you're a crook is a way of getting you to reveal your budget to them, which is a way of controlling your life from a distance.

Your parents can insinuate that you must be buying drugs because they don't know how you spend your money, but that's laughable, and instead of buckling under and changing your entire life to prove your virtue to them, you could also respond by laughing it off. You are probably inwardly protesting at that idea right now, but I'm just stating a fact. It's a thing in the world that you could conceivably, physically do.

I understand that this behaviour of theirs is extremely hurtful, and I don't want to make light of it, but I don't want to make too much of it either. And yes, it's going to be uncomfortable taking and owning what's yours, and rendering Caesar's things to Caesar. But doing so always results in less anxiety in the long run.
posted by tel3path at 9:45 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is the process of individuation, and it can be really hard. You'll need to be brave. Especially if your family has any significant narcissistic dynamics -- if your parents feel reassured and gratified by having an emotionally dependent child who always looks to them and not to herself for her sense of self-worth -- of course you're going to feel anxious when you do anything they might not like. That's part of your programming.

I want to underscore this -- the type of over-controlling behavior you describe from your parents also rings the narcissism bell to me. People with narcissistic tendencies often need the people around them (especially their family members) to "mirror" them to an extreme degree -- that is, to mimic and reflect back their beliefs, preferences, tastes, choices, expectations, etc. Any deviation from this mirroring that indicates you are a separate human being -- with your own preferences, desires, needs, and choices that are different from theirs -- is unacceptable, and will often be met with hostility, guilt, etc. in order to push you back into a mirroring position.

If this sounds like it describes your situation, you might want to check out The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. It might help illuminate further the way your family dynamics have fostered this sense of anxiety and indecision for you, as well as help suggest ways to move forward.

Also, I want to repeat what others have said about seeking out therapy. Going into therapy does not mean you are crazy -- it just means that you value your self and your desire for happiness in order to learn how to deal with issues in your life in a new way. Therapy, for me, has led to greater insight, healthier coping mechanisms, and a much happier, calmer sense of self. Seeking it out doesn't mean there's anything "wrong" with you.
posted by scody at 10:43 AM on December 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you're interested in books, and if it applies, I would suggest Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:50 AM on December 8, 2013


I think a lot of people go through this and a lot of it requires an unpacking of your relationship with your parents, particularly in terms of what you want from it now and how exactly it will fit into your life. Your parents will go through the same thing, although it may be much more difficult for them to change any existing dynamics and ways of thinking.

Good things to remember are: your parents are human, they make mistakes, they don't know everything, and they have their own biases and experiences, which they filter through their own lens.

A large part of how you deal with this is how you manage your parents (and, yeah, you have to manage them because they won't manage themselves...heh).

Parents don't agree with your career - don't talk to them about it.
Parents don't agree with you partners - don't talk to them about it.
Parents don't agree with how you spend your money - don't talk to them about it.
You get the gist?

The other thing is betrayal. Okay, so you feel you're betraying your parents if you do something they won't approve of? But, you're betraying yourself if you do everything to please them. So, you're going to be spending your life, your years in the world, making them happy at the expense of your own happiness? You will regret that significantly later in life if you do that.

You can never make everyone around you, particularly your parents (or grandparents), completely happy. I am extremely well-qualified - which they like and appreciate - but they're kinda waiting over here for the grandkids/great-grandkids, y'know, tick tick tick. My response is: I'll get to it when I get to it. It's your life, you get to do largely what you want with it.
posted by heyjude at 12:49 PM on December 8, 2013


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