How to stop needing my parents' approval?
May 29, 2014 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to become more emotionally independent from my parents. I had a very traumatic experience with them many years ago, and I don't know how to resolve the lingering insecurity. Due to the nature of the trauma, I've had a lot of trouble using therapy to resolve this issue. What can I do to stop craving their approval?

On the surface it looks like my parents are not exercising much influence over my life. I live with my wife in a city a few hundred miles away from them; I have a steady job with which I support myself and my wife; we visit them once or twice a year, and call them on their birthdays and Father's and Mother's Day.

I'm in my late 30s, they are in their mid-60s.

But I feel overwhelmingly restricted by my fear of displeasing them, and that seems to be keeping me from doing what's best for myself. I am deeply dissatisfied with my career and marriage, and I think I need to quit my dead-end job and separate from my wife, but I can't bring myself to make either of these life changes because I am afraid that being jobless and divorced will make me feel powerless and frustrated when I communicate with my parents. I am worried that it will make me behave weak, suggestible, and immature, which will convince them that I am not a responsible adult.

I know that plenty of people are uncomfortable about looking weak in front of their parents, but there's a more serious problem at work here: in my mid-20s, my parents committed me to a psychiatric facility.

Brief background: After college I  ended up living at my parents' home without a job or life plans. They were uncomfortable with my behavior, and had me placed on an involuntary 72-hour hold.

Having done some research, I don't think my condition qualified as a grave disability, and so it's disconcerting to me that I could behave in a seemingly reasonable way and still end up confined without my consent. But I recognize that my assessment of my mental health at the time is subjective.

So I have tried to put the incident behind me and get on with my life. And I have vowed to never again put myself in a position where I need my parents to shelter or protect me.

But I can't stop wanting to please them, to show them that I'm not crazy and absolutely nothing is wrong with my life. The experience showed that even as an adult, they could take away my liberty without due process if they disapproved of my actions. It was humiliating, and it's made it difficult for me to have confidence that I'm really in charge of my own life.

A lot of things are different now: I have friends, money, my own place to live, and marketable job skills. But I don't feel confident about taking the steps that I need to do what's important to me, because on some deep level I'm scared that if I make a misstep then I'll end up at my parents' mercy again. And I am very cautious about any interactions with mental health practitioners.

The obvious solution is to get some therapy, and I've tried that, but it's very hard to open up to a psychotherapist and make any real progress, because I'm worried that if I say the wrong thing then they will commit me. And this fundamental distrust has resulted in a lot of early and abrupt terminations.

I would really like to get over this trauma, and stop putting my life on hold out of fear that my parents will punish me if I do something that they don't like. The health resources that I've used so far have been inadequate. What do you suggest?
posted by elasticExplosive to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not qualified in any way to give advice, but:

What you're feeling is anxiety. It's a brain function that has no effect on the outcome of your life events. It starts and ends within your brain. So that's the first thing to remember.

Another tip, which I learned from a therapist, is to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, you write "Anxious thought" and on the other side "Fair, realistic thought." And then you can begin to fill in both sides and have a detached view of the things your brain is telling you.

for Example:

Anxious thought: My parents have the power to lock me up against my will. They did it before and they can do it again. I am powerless before them.

Fair, Realistic Thought: I am a fully functional adult. I am financially independent of my parents and owe them nothing. If I didn't want to, I would never have to speak to them again. This is reality.

I hope this doesn't sound flippant and indeed your obstacle may be deeper than what can be cured by a readjustment in thinking. I also think that you will have a far different experience of mental health professionals if you voluntarily seek their help.
posted by winterportage at 12:38 PM on May 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Have you discussed with your psychotherapists your concerns that you can't be fully honest with them?

So much of therapy is about the therapeutic relationship, because how we interact with our therapist reveals so much about us and our issues.

I think if you find a therapist that, objectively, you believe to have integrity, and if you tell them at the outset your specific issues about trust and your fears of involuntary commitment, you can begin to work on the specific issues. It's clearly not just your parents you have issues with, since if that were the case you would be able to talk to your therapist honestly about the problem.
posted by janey47 at 12:40 PM on May 29, 2014

First of all, I'm sorry that happened to you. But unless you are a danger to yourself or others, I don't see it happening to you again. It is much easier for parents, with a dependent young-adult living with, them to exert a 72-hour hold on you, than it is for them to do so on a grown man who lives hundreds of miles away.

Now, if you came here without that background, this is what I'd say about wanting to quit your job and leave your wife:

I don't understand why you have to quit your job without another one lined up and ready to go. Just go out and get another job. Then quit your dead end job. You can't be committed for doing that, because I do it pretty frequently these days.

As for separating from your wife, that's something you both need to decide for yourselves. Your parents don't factor into it at all.

Find a therapist you have a rapport with and as your very first order of business, say this, "I have a very hard time trusting the mental health profession because when I was young, my parents had me committed. I'm really concerned that you might detect something in me that would cause you to commit me, and I'm terrified of that."

Most therapists will be horrified that this has happened to you and will assure you that barring any really concerning behavior, and they'll explain what that is, that they wouldn't do that. Again, being an adult and responsible, it won't even be on the table.

Now, after 72 hours, you were released and nothing was found to be wrong with you, other than the typical depression/angst, etc, that attends folks in their early twenties, correct?

The other thing is, you never have to speak to your parents again if you don't want to. Not on birthdays, or Mother's Day or Arbor Day. What they did was pretty terrible and frankly, scary. I'd move and not give them my address.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:41 PM on May 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the purposes of therapy, as I see it, is to help you clearly know yourself and act according to that. You know there was no reason for you to be committed, then or now. But you may not fully know yourself and what you need, thus the confusion and anxiety about making big life changes. I do think therapy focused on this issue could help you, and help you make these changes in a thoughtful way (the therapist as friendly guide rather than punishing parent).

At that point, if your parents don't like it, you still have the support of someone who knows you as you are now, and you might then decide to cut ties with them.

One step at a time. Good luck.
posted by Riverine at 12:47 PM on May 29, 2014

Brief background: After college I ended up living at my parents' home without a job or life plans. They were uncomfortable with my behavior, and had me placed on an involuntary 72-hour hold.

The experience showed that even as an adult, they could take away my liberty without due process if they disapproved of my actions. It was humiliating, and it's made it difficult for me to have confidence that I'm really in charge of my own life.

The obvious solution is to get some therapy, and I've tried that, but it's very hard to open up to a psychotherapist and make any real progress, because I'm worried that if I say the wrong thing then they will commit me. And this fundamental distrust has resulted in a lot of early and abrupt terminations.

This is not really about parental approval. This is a very valid concern that people with authority over you (including your parents but not limited to them) can lock you up without due process. But, as noted above, that is not very likely to happen again. Parents have more leeway to make something like that happen without much real cause than most authorities. The police or a therapist are not going to be able to do that without substantive concerns.

So I think what you need to understand is that leaving your job or your wife will not get you locked up. And those are probably the things you need to do to get past this debilitating concern because I really think you are kind of misattributing this. It wasn't just your parents who "did" this. It was a larger system that participated in doing this and with you living far away and all that, they don't have the power to do this again.

Exercising your right to choose, even though you parents may not approve, is the quickest way to prove to yourself that this fear (about your parents per se) is largely unfounded. And if you can do that, you might find yourself in less need of therapy, which would help defuse that piece of it if it goes that way.
posted by Michele in California at 12:51 PM on May 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree that it may be anxiety. For many years I lived near my mother, who would never approve of me. There were constant snarky comments. My mother committed me when I was 16. Her and my stepdad told me we were going on a trip, and I had to come, and maybe we would do some shopping. I was in a hospital for four months for depression.

Over the years she held it over me, treated me like I was incapable of making smart decisions, like every choice I made was suspect only because it was my choice. In 2009 I moved to a new country, and made the decision to divorce my mother at the same time. I have not spoken to her since, and it was the best thing I ever did for myself. I have learned the extent of the damage, I have been given breathing room, and I've learned how to be me, and not just her child, her stupid fucked up depressed trouble making child. Now I am my own person, an adult, and wouldn't you know it, I am a lot more capable than she let me believe. Some parents won't let you out of the mold they've crammed you into, and the only thing you can do to fix it within yourself is to cut out their influence so you can bloom into who you are, without them.

Don't know if that is much help. Maybe separating yourself from your folks is not an option. But you may try mentally separating yourself. You are you. Not just their child. They may never approve of you. Ever. And you know something? It doesn't matter. Until you believe that - fully absorb it into your gray matter, you'll be struggling with it, I think.

I struggle with anxiety as well. My anxiety tells me to worry, to stress over what people think, to cosign the bullshit my mother used to feed me. Her presence was toxic. You may find a way to get through it without taking the steps I did. In the meantime, just ask yourself what YOU want. What YOU need. And make sure you get it. You are your own parent now, you are the adult. And it is your life you need to live.
posted by routergirl at 12:54 PM on May 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

This may or may not be useful to you, but something in your post reminded me of Feelings I Have Had:

In your post, you say that you're afraid. And that makes sense - I'd be afraid, too. An additional thing I've discovered from working through some trauma stuff is that for me, fear masks anger, and because I disguise the anger as fear, I'm not able to let go of it. So I might describe myself feeling afraid of Family Consequences, but underneath the fear is anger at my family - anger I feel afraid to express because that would mean that I'm a bad person and it is totally unacceptable to express anger at family. Because what I really want is for someone to acknowledge the anger, I hold onto the fear - if I stopped being afraid-on-the-surface, that would mean stopping being angry-underneath, and I feel like if I let go of the anger then that's like accepting that what happened was okay.

What made me think of this was where you say you've stopped therapy multiple times out of fear - that reminded me a bit of some of the stuff I had to work through in order to do therapy.

Are you angry at your parents, by the way? Regardless of whether you feel that it's "legitimate" anger? Are you angry at the hospital or at other people in your life? Are you angry at yourself-at-that-age?

I think that for a lot of people it's culturally acceptable to feel anxiety instead of anger/grief/resentment/guilt, so people often express other stuff as anxiety.

I think that if you are angry, telling the story of your anger might be an important part of therapy.

Also, it is okay to say to a therapist that you're looking for reassurance that they won't have you committed [absent a Very Serious Situation]. They can't promise that they will never intervene in that way, but they can lay out what would cause them to do so, which can give you a feeling of more control.
posted by Frowner at 12:56 PM on May 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

I also had an irrational fear of screwing up my adult life enough that my parents would have to step in and take over. What helped me was volunteering at a homeless shelter, and really getting to understand how that particular shelter works and what the rules are there, meeting all the staff, and realizing that if I ended up homeless, that's where I would go. To that safe, clean place where the rules make sense and are fairly enforced by kind people. Not to my parents' house.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:58 PM on May 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Assuming you live in the US...

It is much easier to place someone on involuntary 72-hour hold than to do anything beyond that, such as committing them past 72 hours or forcing medicine on them. It is similar to how someone could conceivably get you arrested for one night by making up a fake story about how you're assaulting them, but it's much less likely that they could make the charges stick in a court of law, and get you a jail sentence.

It's going to be very hard for your parents to commit you again if you're not living with them.

But even if somehow they manage to do so, you just have to stick it out for 72 hours. And unless you're thrashing around trying to wrestle yourself free or shouting about how you're going to commit suicide or kill others, it is very unlikely the doctors would be allowed to medicate you. So you would wind up having an awful 3 days where you're trapped with mentally ill patients, but there's an end in sight.

Last time, you probably didn't know what was going to happen. You might have feared you'd be stuck there forever, or that they'd give you electric shocks or something. If you arm yourself with legal knowledge, it might make it less scary.

Elliot Rodger's case has shown that even when someone is clearly mentally ill and is showing themselves to be a threat, it's hard to get them forcibly treated against their will. If anything, the US laws make it too difficult to do anything beyond the 72-hour hold.
posted by cheesecake at 1:43 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are facing difficult decisions, particularly regarding your wife.

It would be good if you could get emotional support (and maybe some advocacy) somewhere, a therapist might be willing to help but if you could open up to a trusted friend or sibling, it would also serve that purpose. You could also start discussing it with your wife, which might resolve some issues you two have or at some point may lead to a temporary separation or whatever arrangement you are comfortable with, at which point you'll need extra support from somewhere else. But you do need someone who can help rebuild your trust of others and a sense of control in your life. If there are no obvious candidates, a therapist can do it, and you'll just have to be upfront and give them a rehearsed/written down piece about your need for trust and complete transparency in your relationship with them. You could work from the people you trust to give you a recommendation, and try a few until you find one that connects well.

Also, whatever activities you may take up that you think will help you, that are outside of the basics standards of parental approval, will be confidence building. Someone suggested a homeless shelter, and some kind of structured self-improvement project could also work.
posted by Tobu at 2:01 PM on May 29, 2014

Several people asked about what happened after the 72-hour hold. I was given olanzapine during the hold, and it was prescribed to me after release. I took it for the following 3 months while I was living with my parents, and stopped taking it after I left town. I have not been hospitalized or taken any medication since then.
posted by elasticExplosive at 2:23 PM on May 29, 2014

Quitting a job and splitting from your wife don't need to be seen by you or by anyone else as failures. Toughing out a difficult situation can be seen as a success, and quitting can be seen as a failure. Yet one can look at the exact same situation and say staying in a rut and not being proactive about getting out of it is a failure and that moving on is a success. You have to define for yourself what is success and what is failure. Furthermore, if you are miserable and unhappy, isn't that more important than what someone else thinks you should or should not be doing?
posted by Dansaman at 3:06 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

How much do you tell your parents about the goings-on in your life?

Maybe it's time to let go of that feeling of needing to inform them of the things you fear will result in disapproval. It's a small way to start the process of extricating yourself from your current position.

If you quit your job, they won't know unless you tell them.

As for your wife - this one is a bit trickier, but there are ways to hold off telling them anything while you work on these issues, especially since you only see them once or twice a year. Hopefully in time, you will feel more comfortable letting your parents know what's up, or even deciding that they really just don't need to know, depending on what you decide you want your relationship with them to look like.

You have friends, money, your own place to live, and marketable job skills. You have vowed to never again put yourself in a position where you need your parents to shelter or protect you. You have the tangible stuff down, you have the determination, and that's huge.

Have you expressed to your past therapists, right off the bat, your traumatic experience and the resulting distrust? Approaching your sessions with that in mind may better help your therapist provide an experience for you that just may stick.

I wish you luck. This takes a lot of courage, I know.
posted by sweetpotato at 4:32 PM on May 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm going through the very same feelings and even talked about this very issue today in my therapy session. I was urged to just do what I want to do. Surely you have shown that you have maintained a good relationship with your spouse and that you are readily employable. Are they going to commit you for finding another job or another spouse because it is better for your overall happiness? Probably not, they may be disappointed but by this point in their lives they should see that you are a very stable individual. Doyou care if they are disappointed? I know I worry about that, but disappointment does not equal you're going back to the psych ward. I put myself away for a few days back in 2011 because of depression. It is still an issue today. I still sugger from major depression and anxiety. It is just as bad. I want a better life for myself. My parents at least get that I am working to improve myself. Sit down and have a conversation with them. See what happens. Let them know that you are thinking about making some major changes in your life. Thinking being the key word. Go from there. All we can do is put one foot in front of day at a time.
posted by Jewel98 at 7:57 PM on May 29, 2014

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