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Controlling parents tend to be anxious, paranoid and possessive. They struggle with true intimacy and can be extremely defensive. They take conflicts personally, very rarely apologise and it is almost impossible to disagree with them without receiving a forceful backlash.
Anxiety is a normal part of parenting. For some parents, however, a traumatic past or personality limitations stop them from being the best caregivers they can be. Their unregulated and overwhelming angst will spill over into a tendency to over-control, affecting their children in invisible but long-lasting ways. Not all controlling parents present with the same set of behaviours. Some controlling parents express their underlying fears through aggression, or by being highly critical, others by acting fragile or needy.
In the following paragraphs, we will focus on discussing the characteristics of parents who tend to be ‘fearful and controlling’, whose hyper-defensive behaviours are mostly driven by their fears of the world and their inability to tolerate vulnerability.
Controlling Parents are Anxious and Paranoid
To parents with fearful and controlling tendencies, the world is a threatening place. They live in a state of constant vigilance, always on the verge of paranoia. Not only do they have mind-filters that pay selective attention to danger, but they also habitually catastrophise and imagine only worst-case scenarios. They over-analyse everything and assume people have ulterior motives. As a result, they misperceive reality and assume hostility from others when there is none.
Under stress, controlling parents with fearful and paranoid tendencies psychologically regress to a black-and-white mode of thinking. The world is split into the good camp and the bad camp; people are divided between the tyrants and the tormented, the blamers and the blamed, the persecutors and the persecuted. In order to find certainty in an unpredictable world, they may subscribe to conspiracy theories, superstitions, fundamentalist religion or cults. While they are fiercely protective of their own family members, they are suspicious of those they consider to be ‘outsiders’. You, as their child, are forced into either an ‘it’s me and you against the world’ dynamic, or ‘it’s you against me’.
Controlling Parents are Possessive
Controlling parents with fearful tendencies believe they are protecting you and take pride in their role as your guardian. What they might actually be doing, however, is smothering you and roping you into a symbiotic relationship. Their caretaking comes with a price − they expect absolute loyalty and obedience from you. They may put a limit on your social life, pull you into their protective bubble, and regard your natural desire to venture out as a betrayal. If they fail to restrict you through orders and commands, they may resort to manipulative strategies such as guilt-tripping, depriving you of attention or threatening to withdraw financial support. When things do not go well in their marriage, they may recruit you to be ‘on their side’ against their spouse, locking you into a dysfunctional, triangulated dynamic.
Controlling Parents Have a Hard Shell
Unlike anxious parents who are demonstrably frail, parents with fearful and controlling tendencies have an impenetrable ‘hard shell’. They may be high achievers in their career, and to the outside world they come across as competent and confident parents. However, underneath is a thick layer of defensive denial. Their fierce facade is there to compensate for how lost and unloved they feel in this precarious world.
Unfortunately, their fears of the world also block their ability to love or express love for you. Since their unconscious belief is that the world is dangerous, sometimes even their loved ones and family members are perceived as enemies. They are afraid of tender and vulnerable feelings that emerge in authentic exchanges, so whenever they feel their guard slipping, they immediately shut down. You may find that just as you start to share a warm and intimate moment with them, they abruptly make a harsh comment, put you down or do something to push you away. You are then left feeling shocked and disappointed, even beating yourself up for having trusted them in the first place.
Since they have a limited capacity to tolerate genuine closeness, they tend to isolate themselves socially and psychologically. They maintain a close and private life, have few friends and dislike inviting people into their home. They are fearful of being exposed, but at the same time, they feel isolated. Their fear is that no one will ever understand or empathise with them, yet their paranoia and negativity keep them lost in a world of their own.
Controlling Parents are Defensive
Having a ‘hard shell’ also makes fearful and controlling parents defensive and reactive. They are constantly battling against their feelings of vulnerability. They dread being seen by others, but mostly they cannot tolerate seeing their own shadows. Deep down, they feel flawed and guilty; to defend against these intolerable feelings, they become hyper defensive and blame-avoidant. They take conflicts personally, very rarely apologise and it is almost impossible to disagree with them without receiving a forceful backlash. They are especially sensitive to anything that threatens their sense of self, such as being lied to, subjugated, humiliated or betrayed. Whenever they sense they may be losing power, they react rapidly and forcefully, often with hostile or passive-aggressive means such as belligerence, sarcasm, threats, unreasonable demands, temper tantrums and cold withdrawal.
Since they cannot healthily digest their own unease, fearful and controlling parents project it out in order to ‘get rid of it’. That is why they assume that the source of their fear comes from outside. When they feel ashamed of themselves, for instance, they imagine that someone is shaming them. They usually run their life on auto-pilot, with little ability to reflect on the impact that their own psychology or behaviour has on others. Any thoughtful reflections or introspective activities feel threatening because if they look inside, they may find nothing except overwhelming shame about their own limitations. Therefore, it is highly unlikely they will seek help from a professional or talk to a friend about their struggles.
Their defensive mechanisms are so powerful that complete dissociation from reality can be the result. You may find that from time to time they deny what they have said, twist your words or selectively ‘forget’ that they have been angry or aggressive. It may not be that they have intentionally lied, but rather the defensive mechanisms are so powerful in their psyche that their memories become distorted.
Controlling Parents Cannot Regulate Their Emotions
Parents with fearful and controlling tendencies may put up a strong front and appear competent, but inside they are afraid of many things that are fundamental to life − change, making mistakes, the unknown, the inevitability of sickness and death. This means they are always on edge and their emotions are always close to boiling over. Even minor mishaps and injuries can overwhelm them and, when that occurs, they can break into a hysterical state, such as screaming and crying in an animalistic and uncontrollable way. As a child, witnessing these disturbing scenes can traumatise your young psyche. Unfortunately, you were trapped in a situation where you had no choice but to be subjected to their unpredictable emotional storms, sudden outbursts of anger and hysteria. This may have traumatised your young psyche, causing you to fear your own and other peoples’ anger.
“A bird cannot love freely when caged.”
Look at Tendencies, not people
It is worth bearing in mind that while the above descriptions capture some parents’ predominant behaviours, it is not the entirety of who they are. Just as there are no ‘perfect parents’, very rarely are their parents who are ‘all bad’. A useful way to think about this is to see their fearful-controlling tendencies as a ‘mode’. They may flip into this mode much more frequently than other people do, but alongside this ‘fearful and controlling mode’, they may have a ‘loving mode’, or a ‘calm, caring mode’.
Underneath their hard shell is often a vulnerable human, who fails to provide you with nurture because they never received it themselves. Their dysfunctional behaviours are rooted in a painful past. To these parents, their fundamental experience in life is that of being groundless. From a young age, they did not feel protected or guided but were ‘thrown into’ a precarious and scary world. They had to survive challenges, protect themselves and seek direction in the world while their parents remained weak or absent. At some point in their life, perhaps on an unconscious level, they decided they would make better parents to themselves than their real parents could. They took over the role and became the powerful figure they had been searching for. Since their own sense of invincibility is the only thing that they have ever been able to count on, they fiercely protect it with all they have. This is why they demand compliance from others to reinforce their authority and are extremely defensive and reactive to anything that threatens their sense of control.
The Gaps In Your Psyche
For better or worse, your early family experience is formative of who you are today. Growing up with fearful and controlling parents can affect your ability to regulate your emotions and connect with others.
Anxiety is contagious. Your fearful parent may not directly threaten you or intend to harm you. However, they cannot give you the tranquillity and emotional resilience you need when they do not possess it themselves. They constantly communicate the idea that the world is a threat, and through their fretfulness and catastrophising, they put everyone around them on high alert. With such instability, they cannot serve as a ‘secure base’ for you, their child, to depend upon. Instead of being able to freely explore the world with a safe harbour to go back to, you absorb their fears. Growing up in an atmosphere of high anxiety becomes your baseline. You may only feel ‘normal’ when you are on high alert, which can exhaust your nervous system and derail your health over time.
However, more detrimental than the fears you have inherited are the consequences of having been engulfed by your parents’ controlling tendencies. If you have been locked in a symbiotic relationship, you may now experience chronic guilt, separation anxiety, difficulty saying no and an inability to prioritise self-care. To meet your parents’ needs to be needed, you may even tailor your personality to include a false sense of dependency. It may appear as though you were the needy, less capable one in the family when you have been ‘trained’ to be dependent. You shrink your sense of being to the point of invisibility, so you can remain inseparable from them, which is what they unconsciously want. In other words, the dynamic at home was set up to train you to hold yourself back from independence and sabotage your success without consciously being aware of it. Either via direct control, manipulation or infusing your life with anxiety, your parents have undermined your ability to grow up and separate from them.
Sometimes, if you have controlling parents, it may sound counter-intuitive, but you can get into counter-dependency; that is, you are afraid of any kind of dependency. You feel that dependence equals control in your mind based on your real-life experiences with your parents. This can manifest itself in all sorts of ways. Maybe you have a hard time asking for help even when you need it. Maybe you need to prove that you are independent and capable constantly. Or you may simply avoid any situation where you feel you are not in control. You may also struggle with over-control issues of all kinds (for an in-depth article on over-control, click here).
To become an adult, you need to break away from your parents, but after that comes the next step. Once you have developed a basic sense of independence and self-reliance, you must learn to let go of complete control and come to terms with depending on others in healthy and appropriate ways to live a fulfilling life. Interdependence, not total independence, is what we strive for.
Fortunately, with awareness and practice, all of this can be reversed. You may not be able to alter the past or change your controlling parents’ behaviour, but you can manage what you do when you encounter their controlling tendencies and reclaim freedom for yourself.
“The fear of abandonment forced me to comply as a child, but I’m not forced to comply anymore. The key people in my life did reject me for telling the truth about my abuse, but I’m not alone. Even if the consequence for telling the truth is rejection from everyone I know, that’s not the same death threat that it was when I was a child. I’m a self-sufficient adult and abandonment no longer means the end of my life.”
Steps To Free Yourself From Controlling Parents
Recognise that you have been parenting your controlling parents, either explicitly or inadvertently. They may be living vicariously through you or may rely on you to reassure them, ease their worry or loneliness. Having been indoctrinated all these years, the pressure to stay and psychologically take care of them is no longer externally applied but internalised instead. After many years of being an emotional caretaker, you feel the need to protect them. Whenever you try to walk away or create separation, the part of you that craves their love and approval tries to thwart that move via guilt-tripping. By staying in this pattern, however, you are forgoing your growth, independence, and the many opportunities that life has to offer you.
It can be both aggravating and overwhelming when your parents repeatedly raise groundless fears, make false claims or subscribe to conspiracy theories. Perhaps you have realised by now that no amount of reassurance will ease their worries, but you may still be tempted to challenge their thinking or try to eradicate their fears with logic. Besides being futile, these efforts will likely backfire as your parents’ fears are real to them. In fact, these are the pillars of their existence. For many years, they have relied on a rigid and absolute way of feeling safe in the world. They hold onto their defensive system so tightly because if they don’t, their sense of self will crumble. Therefore, the more you try to challenge their views, the more defensiveness and pushback you will face from them. To have a productive interaction, try not to ridicule, tease or undermine their paranoia, or convince them that they may be wrong. Instead, allow them to have their say. If they try to force you to agree with them, it is within your rights to remain firm and honest. You do not have to share their beliefs, but you can validate their feelings, or remain non-reactive. On the other hand, bear in mind that when your parents are in a fearful place, their cognitive abilities will tend to regress, and they may not be capable of abstract thinking or logical reasoning. Therefore, when you speak, try to be clear, explicit and non-metaphorical, to reduce the chances of misinterpretation.
You may be stuck in a loop of compulsive caretaking because you have an unconscious expectation for your parents to be different. Your desire for them to have a good life comes from a place of love, but it is not your task in life to entertain them, enlighten them, bring them out of their anxiety or cure them of their neuroses. Bear in mind that this is the best they can do − given their upbringing, life circumstances and resources, and you have to respect that. You may have your own ideas about what a healthier, happier life entails, but imposing your agenda on your parents creates an unproductive tug-of-war between the two of you. In the same way that they should not have control over who you are and the paths that you choose, you do not have the right to change them.
Sometimes, to free yourself, you must relinquish your hope that they will treat you with the love and respect that you need. When you take the plunge and separate from them, they may react with aggression, threats or accusations. They may frame you as a traitor, ungrateful or selfish. The rigidity of their lifelong defence mechanisms prevents them from being truly empathic, authentic and able to see your perspective. They may continue to be overbearing, hysterical and argumentative for the rest of their life, and there is little you can do about it. It can be excruciating to grapple with, but the reality is that no amount of explanation will gain you justice or fairness. The more time and energy you invest in this losing battle, the further you move away from the life you truly want. You can negotiate the terms of your communication, but you cannot bend their personalities. You can control your actions and the efforts you make, but you have little control over the outcomes. By releasing your judgement and the need to control, you are freeing yourself.
You may find that you have internalised some of your parent’s fears of the world and are now holding yourself back from your full potential. Fortunately, new findings in neuroscience have given us hope. As long as you have the intention to be free, it is entirely possible for you to rewire your anxiety-prone neural pathways and reopen the doors to the richness and adventure life has to offer. Imagine a world where you are free from excessive worries − how would you think, feel, act and perform differently? What would you start doing, and what would you stop doing? How would you look from the outside, and how would you feel from the inside? Identify the qualities you would like to manifest and the steps you need to take to achieve them. Then take the smallest possible action you can do today − it could be as minimal as researching a topic, or doing an activity for two minutes. The mini success from achieving your first milestone will start a new neural pathway, which can be reinforced with further actions. Slowly but surely, evidence of your independence and autonomy will replace the old memories of being trapped by and with your controlling parent. Instead of despair and dependency, confidence and self-agency will become your new defaults.
Whether your parents are living or dead, emotionally separating from them is an essential step in your journey from healing to thriving. Separating from a parent does not have to mean completely cutting off contact (thought that may be necessary for some), but rather reclaiming a life that is authentically yours, and no longer living a made-up scheme that was imposed upon you. By taking action in a direction that is affirmative of your own true value, you are strengthening your sense of self and preparing the foundation for your true breakaway. At any given moment, you can drop the baggage of trauma from your family-of-origin. It is never too late to liberate yourself.
“It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.”
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.