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From the Introduction of

If You Had Controlling Parents


If your parents controlled you in unhealthy ways, they may have unwittingly planted land mines in your psyche. As a result, you may tiptoe through life expecting buried danger, not treasure, in your path. You may wait ... and wait ... for permission to love, succeed, and feel content. Permission you're not sure how to get. Permission you may have difficulty granting yourself.

Well you are not alone. An estimated one in thirteen adults in the USA have grown up with unhealthy control. That's more than 15 million people.

Unhealthy control has lasting costs. Such an upbringing can put you at risk for depression, anxiety, poor self-image, addictions, self-defeating behaviors and stress-related health problems. Lacking a protective sense of self, you may live with too little freedom, too little meaning and, most of all, far too little self-love. Growing up controlled means inheriting habits and beliefs that complicate relationships, decision making, spirituality, and emotional development. As one 37-year-old teacher raised in a white-knuckle household said, "I feel like I'm missing a couple of big chunks on how to be a person."

An unexamined upbringing may lead us unwittingly to replay old patterns with our mates so that our mates come to remind us of our parents. We may misread friends, neighbors, or co-workers who remind us of our parents. We may inadvertently use our children as vehicles to work out unfinished business with our parents. We may unintentionally inflict suffering on ourselves and those around us as we act out old, controlling ways.

After we're grown, our controlling parents may still treat us as children. More frustratingly, we may feel as helpless as children when we're around our parents. We may struggle to get closer to, or find greater distance from, a controlling parent. We may even come to understand their motivation for controlling us, yet be at a loss about reconciling that knowledge with our lingering hurt, disappointment or anger.

If you have problems or habits that stubbornly resist change, these may be, in fact, symptoms of unresolved issues with your parents or upbringing. For example, we may grow bored with our jobs or relationships when what we may really need is to cut the apron strings with a parent; we may push ourselves mercilessly to do more when what we really need is to slow down and heal old wounds; or we may overeat when what we may really need is to attend to frustrations inherited from childhood. By looking deeper, we can solve these problems at the source so they don't merely crop up a few months later in a different form.

This book can help you or someone you love recognize and disarm the emotional land mines that linger from unhealthy family control. I'm here to tell you that many adults who grew up controlled have worked successfully to create happier adulthoods.

Placing Responsibility

Controlled children rarely have the option of acknowledging, "Something is wrong here. I don't like the way this feels." Because they're trained not to recognize their feelings, controlled children may have only a vague sense of constriction or emotional numbness.

If your parents exerted unhealthy control, something was wrong in your family. Healing from such an upbringing often requires that you peek behind the curtain of familial loyalty to examine family rules and beliefs.

Psychoanalyst Alice Miller has written that healing from a painful childhood begins with allowing yourself to express all the feelings and opinions that arose from years of abuse and control; in effect, to speak out after so many years of not being able to.

In so doing, it's important to place responsibility where it truly belongs by acknowledging:

1) You aren't responsible for what your parents did to you, they are.

2) You are responsible for what you do with your life now, your parents aren't.

Exploring a pattern of control that was handed down for generations in your family isn't passing the buck; it's the first step in stopping the buck. By seeing unhealthy family patterns, you can avoid passing them on -- a choice your parents may have been unable or unwilling to make.

This exploration is not designed to blame or bash parents. Being a parent is tough. There is no harder or more important job. Parenting is immensely demanding physically, emotionally, financially, and mentally. No parent gets training in being a parent until she or he becomes one. There are no perfect parents. All parents make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, and still many children grow up relatively happy, well-adjusted and able to meet life's challenges.

I do not advocate excessively "permissive" parenting. Appropriate control and limit-setting are crucial to child-raising. Children test parental control with petulance, sarcasm, deception and a host of other techniques, some conscious, most instinctive. The lack of adequate limits in permissive households can cause problems no less troubling than the harsh limits in authoritarian families. Yet this book isn't about appropriate control and limit-setting, it is about households with unhealthy control -- too much or the wrong kinds of control for too long.

There Is Much You Can Do

If your parents were controlling, you saw control modeled as a strategy for living -- but it's not the only one. The more aware you are of how your parents controlled and of the fallout of their early control in your present life, the more informed choices you're likely to make about controlling your children, your mate and yourself.

Despite an uptight upbringing, you can reclaim the most vital parts of your life, emotions and dreams that may have withered in childhood.

Despite a childhood in which you had little say, you can discover a new richness to your voice in the world.

Despite growing up with unhealthy family ties, you can fashion more nourishing relationships with those close to you.

Despite your own painful childhood, you can significantly increase the chances your children will not suffer the pains you suffered.

Despite a troubled past with your parents, you can develop a more realistic and satisfying relationship with your parents as they near the end of their lives, and with their memories after your parents are gone.

It is possible to be yourself even if you had to be always "on" for your parents. It's possible to use your feelings for your betterment, not against it. No matter what your age or how restrictive your upbringing, it's possible to fulfill your personal promise and find the contentment which was derailed by parents who may not have known better or couldn't have done any differently.

All these things are possible by achieving greater individuation from a controlling upbringing -- and it begins with emotionally separating from the hurtful and problematic habits of your parents and family system. Individuation also includes setting right what was knocked out of balance by overcontrol and by redefining yourself and your life in your own terms.

By individuating you can better know the hero or heroine in you: the biggest and strongest parts of you that helped you survive when you were smallest and weakest. Precisely because your parents were so controlling, you had to develop many strengths to survive -- resourcefulness, intuition, perseverance and sensitivity, for example. Luckily, the skills you taught yourself in navigating a difficult childhood are yours to keep and can be quite useful in adulthood. You deserve to feel independent and whole, to have healthy boundaries, to have free speech and open emotional expression. You deserve to heal.

From If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. Published by HarperCollins. Copyright Dan Neuharth, Ph.D. All rights reserved.


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If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright Dan Neuharth, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.