The dilemma I am a woman in my early 30s. I have financial independence, a job I love, my own home, wonderful friends, and pets I adore. Despite all of this my parents, who I love dearly, still treat me as if I’m 10. How I spend my money (even on groceries) is monitored. New clothes or books are noted and commented on. I would like to try new hobbies, but my mother always comes up with a reason why I shouldn’t. With my father it’s more about my physical safety: I’m not allowed to travel or take jobs in certain cities.
I’ve tried moving away, limiting calls and only visiting once a week. This has not been successful. I feel like I am incapable of functioning without their opinion or presence, but is that because I need them, or because of how I’ve been raised?
I suffer from physical and mental health issues. My poor physical health is one of the reasons they are so protective. As for my mental health, as a child I was told this was “just who I was”. But recently I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder, social anxiety and depression. It makes me cry to think of the opportunities I’ve missed from not understanding that how I felt and the rules I used to keep myself “safe” were not normal. I want to start discovering who I am, but find my parents clinging on to the past me suffocating and demoralising. I know every part of this is from a place of love, but this makes it all the more difficult to set boundaries. How do I make positive changes without ruining a loving relationship?
Mariella replies It’s time to break free. And any healthy, loving relationship is one that allows and encourages you to do so. Now that I’m a parent myself, I try wherever possible to absolve the sins of those who raise us but, in this instance, building boundaries is definitely what’s called for. For reasons that I won’t go into here, I had to, in my 30s, have a long, tough talk with my mother. It didn’t end well because most conversations with her didn’t. What I was compelled to impart on that occasion was that she needed to take responsibility for her own life so that mine could evolve. Having to parent her through her romantic and financial traumas made achieving my own dreams a challenge. The time had come to change roles. From the age of 16 (and even younger) I’d supported her emotionally and often financially and, in my mid-30s, experienced a Damascene revelation – partly thanks to therapy – that I would always struggle for fulfilment in my own life as long as I was on call to regularly mend my mum’s.
I’m sure your parents’ impulses are motivated by the right things, but they are committed to a behavioural pattern that is damaging to you. It seems you’ve given your parents plenty to be concerned about, but I’ve no doubt your anxiety has also likely been fuelled by their overbearing, stress-inducing close management of your life.
I’m so glad you’ve received a proper diagnosis and are hopefully now being guided by a professional outside the claustrophobic walls of family life. Obviously everything I say here has to be placed in the context of your mental and physical health, neither of which can be diagnosed from the blunt tool that is a one-sided letter. But you’d be amazed how many of my correspondents over the past two decades have possessed remarkable clarity about what’s preventing them achieving their desires, making my job the easy one of nudging, or sometimes giving them a hard push, in a particular direction.
Today I’ve got a Queen song running round my head – and it’s not just because this is my last column for the Observer – I Want to Break Free should become your theme tune. With professional help to prop you up it’s time you set yourself on the path to autonomy.
Your parents need to understand that by protecting you, they are also holding you captive. It isn’t easy to step away from what you know and love without knowing what lies ahead, but life is long and full of lessons and one of the best is that although there will be ups and downs, without them it’s no life at all. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the strength that courses through you when you stand, arms open, and allow yourself to be buffeted by a gale. Pitting yourself against such a pure force of nature using only your own will to keep you grounded – that’s how we live well, by facing the storm and navigating to the other side. You’ll never know just what you are capable of until you allow yourself to be tested. Allowing yourself to be trapped in your parents’ protective vortex is keeping you from living to the best of your abilities. They can’t seem to see that, so it’s up to you to show them the way.