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How to stop these doubts about whether I am over-sensitive
March 10, 2014 5:42 PM   Subscribe

Based on previous MeFi advice, I'm limiting my contact with my parents. Dad is reacting angrily. I'm fine with that and generally feel fantastic, but I have moments of wondering if I am too sensitive (as he claims) and whether I over-react in situations where everyone else would shrug it off. How to stop these doubts?

I asked this question about whether to cut off contact with my parents, whose acrimonious arguments over the past 30+ years upset me. Your responses were very helpful, for which I'm grateful.

My dad called recently to ask me on a long trip with him and my mom. I said no. I told him that I am reducing my exposure to him and my mom, due to their dynamic of getting into heated arguments and him loudly shouting harsh criticisms over things such as Mom wanting to go to a cheaper restaurant, or Mom wanting to make everyone wait while she takes photos. (I also want to reduce my exposure to her complaining about him, but she wasn't on the call, so we mainly discussed his part in this.)

He said various defensive things, such as pointing out that other people can handle their parents' fighting and why don't I just become like them. He implied that I'm abnormal for being hyper-sensitive to this. Also he asked if I preferred him to turn into a sissy wuss who lets my mother walk all over him and will die earlier due to being a doormat. He said that I need to give him more chances. He said that if I got this idea from a therapist, that therapist is really wrong and needs to not spread terrible ideas encouraging people to separate from their parents. The conversation ended with me saying that it has become unproductive and that I'm going to go, and then I hung up.

I sent my younger brother a short message that this happened. He replied he respects my decision but he understands why my dad is sad, because my dad has been on his best behavior in recent years. It's true that my dad used to blow up every 2-4 days, and in recent years, has reduced it to blowing up every 10 days. I can see that he is controlling himself to be patient during some events that previously would've led to his temper exploding.

My question is that I'm seeking advice on how I can stay firm in my confidence that I'm behaving reasonably and am not just an over-sensitive person, especially when I'm struck by moments of seeing it from their point of view.

I have felt a sense of liberation around limiting my exposure with them. I feel that my life is so much more calm and peaceful. But occasionally I am struck with moments of seeing it from their perspective. My parents are immigrants. They saw other parents doing worse things (e.g. hitting their kids), and after the kids grow up, they treat their parents great. For example, I know that our friend was beaten by his stepmom using a metal rod, but now he takes her to dinner every few weeks. Our other relatives hit their kids every few days growing up, but the older kid just bought a house for the parents. My dad did not bring up these examples in our conversation, but I know this is the shared context that forms their mindset. My dad did say in our conversation that I am applying ridiculously high standards for his behavior, which no one could meet.

For people who have set boundaries, what techniques do you use to prevent yourself from seeing it from the other point-of-view and then wondering if you're being over-sensitive?
posted by cheesecake to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're behaving reasonably but that doesn't mean that your dad will think you're behaving reasonably. I'd stop explaining. Don't say "I'm not going on vacation with you because you can't control your temper." Just say, "sorry, I can't come." Use your vacation time for something else. Tell them you've used the vacation time for something else.
posted by mskyle at 5:48 PM on March 10 [13 favorites]


The time for reasons why you are or aren't doing something is done.

"Want to come on this long horrible sounding trip with us?"

"No."

Done.

This is not up for debate, with them.

You might be able to resume contact at a later date. Someday you might even have a great relationship with them. But right now? Your father does not get to decide if your emotions are valid. Period.
posted by Sara C. at 5:49 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


Stop trying to get them to understand, they never will. You want them to validate your decision, and they absolutely won't. Not ever.

So don't make it a topic for debate or discussion.

If you get invited somewhere, it's either "yes, thank you" or no, thank you." End of story.

To reiterate, neither your dad nor you mom will admit that they do these things, and besides, it's better now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:52 PM on March 10 [10 favorites]


He knows he can get to you by telling you you're overly sensitive and abnormal. That's why he's doing it -- to get his way. Don't try persuade to your parents or get them to agree with what you're doing on your own behalf. Just say, "No thank you," and change the subject. You can even say, "I'm not going to talk about it any more." Also, if they ever start to argue in front of them, tell them it's making you uncomfortable and you can't stay if they continue to argue.

Your friend who spends time with his mother who beat him -- that's his business, his situation. It has nothing to do with you.

In my experience and that of my siblings, it was very, very hard to draw new boundaries with regard to our parents. My parents made it even harder by trying every way they knew to undermine our feelings. It does get easier -- you're not used to taking care of yourself in this way, but you'll get better at it.
posted by wryly at 5:54 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]


Your description of their dynamic sounds horrifying. You're not oversensitive at all. But cutting connection with them requires you to take it a step further. You're not going on vacation, and you're also not getting into discussions with them about their behavior or yours. You're done with that. Right? Be done with it.

Maybe in a few weeks or months they'll be calm enough to sit down for a cup of coffee with you in a public place where you can walk away if the dynamic restarts. But the whole point of disengaging is to disengage.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:56 PM on March 10


The thing is that you can see this from their perspective and still not agree with their behaviors/rationalizations and still be committed to your boundaries. It doesn't really matter if your reactions are reasonable in their eyes - or anyone else's. You feel better when you're not around your parents as much, and that's enough.

It's enough for me, anyway, and while it doesn't stop me from feeling guilty or sad at times, those feelings have never made me really regret my decision to put myself first.
posted by sm1tten at 6:01 PM on March 10


I think of the worst incidents and remind myself that they haven't changed since then.

In your case, just because your dad is slowing down and doesn't have the energy to throw tantrums as often any more doesn't mean he's a better person.
posted by winna at 6:10 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


He implied that I'm abnormal for being hyper-sensitive to this.

"Oh well, I guess I'm hyper-sensitive. Bye."
posted by pompomtom at 6:13 PM on March 10 [22 favorites]


"Sorry Dad, I won't be able to come - I hope you have a great time though!"

Blah blah.

"Sorry Dad; I really won't be able to come. Now, how about those Dodgers?"
posted by Sebmojo at 6:14 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


My question is that I'm seeking advice on how I can stay firm in my confidence that I'm behaving reasonably and am not just an over-sensitive person, especially when I'm struck by moments of seeing it from their point of view.

Their point of view is not relevant, although it is good that you are able to empathise with them.

What your dad thinks doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is how you feel about it, and what you think. Are you being 'over sensitive'? Who cares? You are doing what you need to do for yourself. Other people's opinions on this do not matter.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:16 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


What you're experiencing is an extinction burst, when a subject ramps up bad behavior to try and provoke a response right before that behavior is eliminated. I know it sounds ruthless to describe you as "training" your family, but that's essentially what you're doing in setting down new boundaries.

I you give your dad what he wants now, you're reinforcing the idea that he can talk to you that way and get what he wants. You have every right to be treated well, but you're going to have to be stalwart in not tolerating crappy behavior from him.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:17 PM on March 10 [25 favorites]


The cultural expectations are probably still weighing you down, even if you logically reject them. You can feel like you are rejecting everything about your culture of origin even though you are actually engaging critically with it. You might feel better about your decision if you look for other ways to have traditional/cultural ties to your family that don't include more contact with your parents. Ask your mom (by email) for family recipes and cook them for yourself? Start watching/reading films and books from their generation?

I know lots of people from difficult families who have cold relationships with their parents due to abuse, but because of social pressure or practicalities, have to pretend that everything is fine. The parents will tell everyone how their kid bought them a house or has dinner with them - they won't say "But he never visits us and won't let us see our grandchildren" or "Dinner is silent and we've never met his girlfriend".
posted by viggorlijah at 6:18 PM on March 10 [10 favorites]


My dad did say in our conversation that I am applying ridiculously high standards for his behavior, which no one could meet.

In my experience, these people do know how to control their behavior -- they just wait for situations in which they can "get away with it." Your parents likely don't behave this way at the workplace or in front of friends, only when you and your brother are around because they think there won't be any consequences.

Even outside of the fact that what the children of family friends do with their parents is their business, not yours, I'm pretty sure that their mother doesn't beat them now. Your problem is not with what your parents did in the past, but what they are doing now, to you.
posted by deanc at 6:21 PM on March 10 [11 favorites]


My dad did say in our conversation that I am applying ridiculously high standards for his behavior, which no one could meet.

People who can't control their anger often do not understand how anyone could control their anger. This is a false consciousness at some level but that's their problem not yours. I have the same problem. I have a charming narcissistic mother who is usually terrific and sometimes verbally abusive and was neglectful when I was a child. I don't trust her but I generally enjoy her company. However when I don't, I used to try to do what normal people do which is "Hey I don't like it when you talk to me that way, could you not do that?" and then have a conversation. This did not work. Any suggestion that she was doing something "wrong" would turn into her attacking me for being sensitive, for being non-neurotypical, for being "like your father" and basically I'd wind up, in younger days, apologizing for asking her to be different. It was bad.

Now I have boundaries. I keep her at arm's length but we still have a relationship albeit not the one she wants, but let's be honest it's not the one that I want either. If she starts up with her weird verbal abuse I either get off the phone or leave the room. No "let's talk about our relationship" no "When you say this I feel this..." negotiation. I have told her how I have felt in the past, her behavior hasn't changed. I am done. She still thinks I am hypersensitive and need to go to therapy. It's possible she's right. I'm pretty sure she's not (most of my friends and other family members treat me well and I treat them well, this is not a longstanding problem that I have in life). I do sometimes have problems when she takes per persecution complex on the road and implies to other people (who then harass me over facebook) that I am not spending enough time with her or that she really misses me or all the other stuff. I tell them that the situation is more complicated than it appears, that my mother is not the most reliable narrator and to please stay out of it.

I have a sister is good for a reality check. She can sometimes be sensitive to things that I would not be and I'm sure the reverse is true. She and I have hammered out a good relationship and are not mean to each other (most of the time, she can occasionally be oddly brusque but that's the exception not the rule and we can talk it out) and it works. Its good to have someone else on your side who you can talk to about stuff who is in your corner. I am sorry you do not have that person in your brother but I bet there is someone else in your family who might be good for this.

But yeah, it's totally okay to have boundaries where you don't let people verbally or emotionally abuse you. I'm sorry your parents and brother don't see that. I'm glad that you do.
posted by jessamyn at 6:31 PM on March 10 [13 favorites]


I didn't even read your whole question, I can answer it for you. People who push boundaries and who don't think about the implications of their words and actions loooove to blame the other person by calling them "sensitive." It's not you, it's them.
posted by radioamy at 7:05 PM on March 10 [20 favorites]


I think it's great that you can see it from their point of view sometimes. They're dysfunctional and they probably know it. There is no need for you to tell them why you're not going on the trip with them. You can just say you can't make it or can't take the time, or whatever. I wouldn't point out to your dad all of the reasons why you think he and your mom are dysfunctional. It sounds like you're possibly waiting for them to change. You don't have to pretend it's ok but I would concentrate on more understanding and a live and let live philosophy. Your mom was out of line in your childhood but are they emotionally abusing you now? Being accused of being too sensitive is not pleasant or kind, but in his own way, your dad is trying to protect himself and his relationship with you.
posted by Fairchild at 7:11 PM on March 10


If you haven't read The Dance of Intimacy yet I really recommend it! I first read it nearly 20 yrs ago and just picked it back up and it's still great. It is a wonderfully detailed, simple guide to setting boundaries and maintaining connections with difficult people, while not losing yourself in the process. She talks about clarifying a bottom line about what you can tolerate in relationships, and what you can't, and how to communicate it in a low-drama way for maximum productivity. It is just a fantastic book.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:40 PM on March 10


Good on you for terminating that call!

...hyper-sensitive... ....ridiculously high standards...

Sounds pretty belittling to me.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:42 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


I don't think you're being over-sensitive.

But suppose hypothetically that you were, in fact, more sensitive to being around anger and conflict than the average person. The same way that some people are more sensitive to noise, so that a noise level that might be a bit loud but not excessive to an average person might be physically painful to the noise-sensitive person. What, then, is the noise-sensitive person to do? Should she put up with her friends shouting and insisting on going to crowded bars with loud music, despite her pain? Or might she ask her friends to talk a bit more quietly and have a drink in a more peaceful setting, so that she can enjoy their company and not just be miserable? And if her friends refused to stop shouting around her on a regular basis, one might say they were not being considerate friends, and the noise-sensitive person might reasonably decide to stop hanging out with them.

Similarly, it does not really matter whether you are in fact more sensitive to being around other people's fights than the average person. Even if you are, there is no reason why you should disregard your own comfort and needs and spend time with people who knowingly do things that cause you pain. There is no reason why the people who claim to love you should not do their best to provide you with a pain-free environment - even if it requires them to lower their voices a bit.
posted by unsub at 9:09 PM on March 10 [14 favorites]


Think of your parents as people who programmed themselves into a hostile, angry, abusive dynamic. They don't want to change that program. It's hard and involves facing painful truths about their failures as parents and as people. It is much easier and more appealing to try to find some reason, any reason, why it's all someone else's fault. Yours. Their parents. Whoever. But at this point in their lives, finding ways to be happy and mentally healthy is something only they can do for themselves, through therapy and hard work. You can't do it for them, and you also can't remain happy and healthy around them. The ball is, in every sense, in their court. They can choose a better way of life, if they want. The door is open. You have already walked through it. You can't go back, because you want a better life. You want to stay on this side of that door.

You have to let go of the idea that you can or should have any power to make them walk through it. You can love them and wish the best for them from this side. You can set an example of what is possible. But you can't go back.
posted by emjaybee at 10:15 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]


These comments are super helpful! I appreciate the new perspectives, especially on cultural guilt, friends' parents are not currently beating them, the visual of walking through a door, and how typical patterns of "When you say I feel" don't work.

I wonder if I made it sound like after I reduced contact, I still repeatedly have conversations where I tell my parents why they upset me. I want to clarify that this is the first and only time I've told them that I'm unconditionally reducing contact. They had not noticed previously, but I figured that they'd eventually see that I went from 2 family trips per year down to 0. I decided to have a one-time conversation where I tell the reasons truthfully.

I of course do not plan to keep having conversations about this. If they or any of my relatives open the subject, I plan to change the subject. My question was more around how I can mentally prevent from hearing an inner voice that's my dad's voice, and having doubts due to that inner voice even when I'm not talking to them.
posted by cheesecake at 10:45 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


You are bang on the money cheesecake, with this: "My question was more around how I can mentally prevent from hearing an inner voice that's my dad's voice, and having doubts due to that inner voice even when I'm not talking to them..."

That internalised judgmental father voice is definitely the one you need to address, very much so.

You're too sensitive! = So what?

You have ridiculously high standards = So what?

Dad's doing interpersonal so much better than previously! = So what?

He thinks being nice is being a sissy! = So what?


All those things can be true and it doesn't even matter. You have probably endured years of having your view of reality dismissed, minimised, re-framed, ridiculed and/or used as a platform to extend an abusive pattern of behaviour. It's hard to trust that your views of things, your reactions to them and your feelings have any validity.

I have had the same situation and I have learned to regularly validate my right to have my feelings and not have to justify them to others, especially others who have been asshats to me.

The best outcome of all is not merely an increased sense of belief in myself, a person who has normal reactions to shit behaviour, now I find myself in the wonderful position of not having to function as an audience member of some crappy dysfunctional panorama every time I am around people that I regard as narcissistic, disordered, unregulated and brattish. Woo hoo.

Get that shrug happening every time you start internalising your dad's critique of you. You can be all those things and it doesn't matter. You have just liberated yourself from endless parades of annoying bullshit.

Good for you!
posted by honey-barbara at 12:16 AM on March 11 [7 favorites]


You aren't "hyper-sensitive", and your father just PROVED why reducing contact is a good thing.

Hold firm; don't let him bully you into going back to your family's old patterns. And you don't have to explain any of your decisions or choices to him; when he yells on the phone, tell him you have to go and hang up. When he yells in person, tell him goodbye and leave the room --- if he follows and keeps yelling, go home.

You are totally, completely right not to want to go on a long trip with your parents: the man can't even maintain his cool for a short phone call, it's clear a trip (where you wouldn't be able to get away from them!) would be hellish.

Consider reducing your contact even further.
posted by easily confused at 2:40 AM on March 11


He's ready to practically drop a nuclear bomb every time some tiny thing comes up, and *you're* the oversensitive one?

Nah. You're fine.
posted by Drexen at 4:48 AM on March 11 [5 favorites]


This is hard and you're doing really well.

Everytime someone asks me to see it from their point of view I ask if they are doing me the same courtesy. When they're not, its time to be aware that this is not about empathy or compassion for them but getting me to do what they want. And to realise that I can see if from both perspectives but they can't. And so I need to protect me and feel sad that my needs aren't on their radar.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 6:22 AM on March 11


I sent my younger brother a short message that this happened. He replied he respects my decision but he understands why my dad is sad, because my dad has been on his best behavior in recent years. It's true that my dad used to blow up every 2-4 days, and in recent years, has reduced it to blowing up every 10 days. I can see that he is controlling himself to be patient during some events that previously would've led to his temper exploding.

I have to single this out as being particularly dangerous. My father had an explosive temper and he did this all the time. "I've gotten better, haven't I?" I don't think they are getting better in any meaningful way; I think they are doing the minimum to respond to external pressure and convince others they are "trying." But make no mistake, they are still using rage to control others. I do understand your brother giving him credit for better behavior-- and it is nice that your brother responded to you in a balanced way, he sounds like a very nice guy-- but once every ten days, for a temper tantrum, for an adult? Still way too much. Admitting there is a problem is a fine start. But come to that, it seems like your father is still trying to make you think you're the one with the problem.

I had some compassion for my father because he had experienced volcanic temper tantrums from his own mother and it is very hard to get rid of some of these learned behaviors. But (to echo deanc's comment) it was clear he could control the behavior outside the family, where it would have had more serious consequences.

I maintained a relationship with my father, but I would get up and walk out of wherever we were when he got started with the rages. And I refused to travel with him after a spectacular blowout in a restaurant in Rome. There is no hell quite like traveling with Angry Dad or with a couple who is bickering all the time.


Good luck.
posted by BibiRose at 6:40 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


My question was more around how I can mentally prevent from hearing an inner voice that's my dad's voice, and having doubts due to that inner voice even when I'm not talking to them.

Well, IME, this is the kind of thing that does require some time. This is all really fresh to you, so it's totally understandable that you've got lots of doubts, but the longer you live your life with established boundaries, the more you come to feel that your "new" situation is actually your "normal" life, and those inner voices will fade.


I'm seeking advice on how I can stay firm in my confidence that I'm behaving reasonably and am not just an over-sensitive person

You kinda answered your own question - "I'm fine with that and generally feel fantastic" "I have felt a sense of liberation around limiting my exposure with them." "I feel that my life is so much more calm and peaceful."

Now that you've actually reduced contact, the idea that your life is improved by limited contact is no longer a hypothetical and you have no idea if it will actually work - now you've actually experienced that improvement, you have real-world evidence that you're happier and calmer.

So now you can compare and contrast the two. You can remember how miserable you were before, and you can recognize how your life is better now. You're not just hoping your life will be better, you know it's better.

I have set boundaries with various family members, and whenever friends or other family members suggest I move or remove those boundaries (however well-intentioned those suggestions may be), I can contrast how unpleasant my life was before I set those limits with what my mental health is like now. I'm hardly perfect, but I have actual real experience that my life is improved by having those boundaries. It's not just a figment of my imagination.



P.S.: he asked if I preferred him to turn into a sissy wuss who lets my mother walk all over him and will die earlier due to being a doormat.

Oh good lord. He may not be a sissy wuss, but he's definitely being a drama queen.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:49 AM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Hi everyone. It's been 2 months and I've come a long way. Thank you to everyone who responded to this question. It was a lifesaver during that intense time.

I've only spoken one time to my parents in the two months since this transpired, for 10 minutes on the phone. My life is so much better now.

I broke the bonds of family secrecy, and told a few friends and my therapist about the types of behaviors my parents engaged in. They looked horrified. I am starting to understand that what my parents did to me was not typical. They loved me, but they also emotionally and verbally abused me and each other.

Recovery feels like such a long journey, but I'm glad I am at least on that road now.

Thank you again for being supportive during a difficult experience.
posted by cheesecake at 6:32 PM on May 6 [6 favorites]


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