Today we’re going to be talking about how to deal with parents who put you down or otherwise constantly make you feel bad about yourself.
We’re gonna have a look at how they do this, why they do this, and what you can do to reduce the impact that has on you and rebuild your confidence and self-esteem.
I got a question on Quora.com from a young girl:
“My mom is always comparing me to other people and it really gets to me. My self-esteem is so low because of her. Why do parents do this?”
This problem is really common. Let’s start by looking at what parents do to create this feeling of low self-esteem in their children, and then we’ll have a look at why they do it.
#1 Guilt-tripping and invalidation
A lot of parents control their children through the emotion of guilt. And they can do this in lots of different ways.
Maybe they do lots of favours for you that you didn’t ask for and then they expect something in return. Maybe they’re constantly picking away at the little things you did wrong, so it gives you a sense that you never really do anything right. Maybe they just outright insult you.
They have a way of just constantly creating a sense of guilt when you’re around them, like you’re constantly having to ‘catch up’ and earn some points back because you lost them through some failure or another. That’s guilt-tripping.
#2 Unfair comparisons
Comparing you to someone in a specific area where the other person’s always better than you.
Like if you got second place in the race, “Why didn’t you get first?” even though you ran your best time ever.
“Your brother’s earning so much more than you,” even though he’s three years older and had more time to do it.
“Your sister is so much better than you because she’s got a boyfriend now,” even though her boyfriend is a dick.
This constant comparison to whatever you lack, and no matter what you do your parent finds somebody else to compare you to, somebody who’s doing better. This creates a sense that you’ll never be good enough.
#3 Impossible standards
Setting the standards of what counts as ‘good enough’ impossibly high and constantly moving the goalposts so no matter what you do you’re never there.
Even when you do the best, you didn’t do it quick enough. Even if when you compete at the top level of your sport, you didn’t win the race.
There’s always this ‘never quite enough’. And even though they’ll set a standard for you to reach, when you actually meet it they’ll immediately set another standard that’s even harder to achieve (often including something they couldn’t achieve themselves).
#4 Outright abuse and violence
Some parents control with direct insults, violence, or neglect.
Abuse includes anything that shows you that you’re less than a human to them; you’re less important to them than something else, often something mediocre. If you interrupted them while they’re watching TV and they hit you for it, they’re saying the TV is more important than you.
This leads you to associate pain with yourself, so eventually, you start to believe you cause your own pain by merely existing.
#5 Being very controlling and strict
Making it very difficult for you to have autonomy and freedom of choice. Being really hard on you about schoolwork. Not letting you see friends. Having a ridiculously early bedtime. Being really pedantic about cleanliness and hygiene. Massive lists of chores that take up all your time.
The controlling regime of regulations. There are so many rules and you don’t know what they all are, you’re just constantly in trouble. And when you do get in trouble the punishments are unreasonable and unfair, like you get grounded for three months because you forgot to put the dishes in the sink.
This kind of really controlling, harsh, prison-style environment creates a constant sense of anxiety about being “wrong”.
#6 Spreading shit about you behind your back
Complaining about you to other relatives, talking shit about you to your own friends, or spreading filth about you, and sometimes in quite a subtle or even humorous way, so you can’t really call it out, but the whole time they’re just lowering other people’s perceptions of you, so you’re left with nobody else to support you.
This is a very common manipulation technique that keeps you trapped with the parents and under their control because no-one else seems to be available to you.
Why would someone do this?
Well, there are some reasons, and understanding these reasons will help you let go of taking it personally so you can free yourself from this tyranny.
When you understand that the people doing this to you are doing it out of some sort of mental disorder, then you can understand this isn’t actually about you. There’s nothing wrong with you; there’s something wrong with their parenting and their psychology.
A good parent would never treat their child this way. It’s as simple as that.
#1 Family legacy
Quite often, what you’re getting is simply a representation of the parenting they received. They’re passing on the illness to you. If you’ve got a mother who guilt-trips you, it’s almost guaranteed that her mother guilt-tripped her too.
You’re getting this thing passed down through the generations, and I’d like to put in a little note here: it’s your chance to break the cycle. If you can deal with this, then you maybe won’t pass it on to your son or daughter.
My grandmother was very brutal and controlling with my mother. My mother, in turn, was merely a little paranoid and strict with me. Your parents are probably a less harmful version of their parents. You can carry on the work of reducing the harm.
#2 Need for control
Simply put: low self-esteem children are easier to manage.
If you need your parents’ approval to feel good about yourself then you’re very easy to control. From your parents’ point of view, it might not be a conscious plan on their part but it’s very simple for them to realize: “Hey, every time I put this kid down they do what I tell them to do. It’s a very easy process for me.”
So sometimes – as terrible as it sounds – your parents might be being mean to you just to make you less of an inconvenience, less of a hassle. That’s how bad it can be. Some people just aren’t meant to be parents, but they are anyway.
Consider this: if they really are just making you feel bad so that life is slightly easier for them, it shows that there is nothing wrong with you – they’re the bad guys in this movie. You’re the hero struggling to survive.
#3 Fear for reputation
Quite often, your parents are simply afraid. Maybe they see your “failures” (by their own judgmental standards) are somehow a reflection of their own inadequacies as parents. Everything that they don’t like about you they don’t like about themselves, and so there’s this fear that you represent them.
Maybe it’s even quite literal, like they don’t want their church to see how “bad” you are as a kid or else their snooty friends will think they raised a bad Christian. They might be afraid that your behaviour will somehow reflect on them negatively, and they try to control you to avoid that judgment on them, especially if they’re very judgmental and they’ve received a lot of judgment in their life.
If they come from a very harshly judgmental community or family background themselves (e.g. conservative and religious), their reputation will be a big deal to them and you’ll be directly responsible (in their eyes) for that reputation.
#4 Competition for love
I found this to be really common: you’re their competition for love from others, particularly the other parent.
A lot of emails I get are about the mother/daughter dynamic. The daughter has just an awful relationship with their mother but it’s alright with her father. There’s something about mothers – two females in the house with one male, perhaps – that leads to competition for the love of the male.
Some mothers resent their daughters for the father’s love. Some fathers resent their children for the attention they’ve “stolen” from the mother. They lose the other’s love and attention to you and you’re now seen as the barrier and the competition for getting their own needs met.
#5 Mental illness and Personality Disorders
There are millions of people out there with Personality Disorders and some of these can be really, really brutal.
Like if you’ve got a parent who has Borderline Personality, they may be incapable of preventing themselves from causing destruction. It’s common for somebody with Borderline to do the most harm to the people closest to them; they just can’t help themselves. You can have a parent who has this and takes it all out on you and they don’t even know what they’re doing.
Or they may have a diagnosed (or undiagnosed) mental illness, e.g. if they’re bipolar, their moods might range from wildly manic to massively depressed, and because you’re the child – you’re closest to them – you’re the one who gets the worst of it. They control themselves in the presence of other people, so other people don’t see it as much and don’t believe your stories.
There are a lot of people out there with undiagnosed mental disorders and Personality Disorders and you might simply have a parent who has mental problems and they’re taking it out on you.
How to deal with it
Firstly, you have to see this for what it is: manipulation.
Not love, not discipline, not good parenting, just manipulation, okay?
If you’re receiving good parenting, you’re gonna feel love and warmth and safety in the presence of your parents. Even when they’re hard on you, you’re gonna feel that it’s fair, that you deserved it, and that you can still talk about anything with them. You’re able to set boundaries with them but you’ll still respect their boundaries. You can be honest without fear.
You won’t have constant feelings of guilt and anxiety and a compulsion to please them or any of that if you’re having healthy parenting. If you’re afraid of your parents, if you hate your parents, if you never want to be like your parents; that’s a bad sign.
And it’s not a sign that you’re bad as a kid; it’s a sign that they are manipulative (or neglectful). Understand that if you’re having a lot of negative emotions in relation to your parents, your first port of call: manipulation. Call it what it is.
We’re all raised to think the parenting we received is ‘normal’ because that’s the only parenting we know. It’s not until we get older that we start to see, “Hey, other parents don’t behave like this!”
Sometimes the trouble is you may even be in a community – especially if it’s a small close-knit community of people – where all the parents are like this and there aren’t many exceptions. But just because you haven’t seen anything else doesn’t mean that what you’re receiving is normal or healthy.
If you don’t feel good about the way your parents treat you, that’s all you need to know. They’re not doing it very well.
How to deal with it? The short answer to dealing with all manipulation is to call it out.
Treat everything as manipulation and label it as such. When Dad says, “I wish you could be more like your brother,” you can respond with, “That’s pretty manipulative. You’re guilt-tripping me by comparing me to someone who’s different to me, that’s really unfair to do. Don’t do it again.”
Call it out for what it is every single time, using the word ‘manipulation’ as many times as you can. It’s very hard to manipulate someone when they call it out; it’s very easy when they take it personally and try to fix it and hide their hurt feelings.
If Mum’s like, “Oh, finally you remembered to call your poor old mum,” you respond with: “Mum, that’s guilt-tripping. I don’t want you to do that anymore. Just tell me how you feel but don’t try to maneuver me with guilt. That’s manipulation. Stop doing it or I’ll stop calling.”
You need to be able to have these confrontations all the time. I know; it’s a lot easier said than done. I actually have a whole course on confrontations and I’ve got a podcast where I covered manipulation in great detail.
And when they don’t change, you must walk away.
Never condone it. Never make it okay for them to talk to you like this and treat you like this. It’s on you to control how you respond to them. You can’t stop them being the way they are – that’s a dead-end road where they’re just gonna end up controlling you. But you can control yourself. Make sure that anytime they behave in this way, it is punished by you walking away every time.
You can be like, “OK, you’re doing that guilt-tripping thing again. We’ve talked about this. I’m not putting up with it. I’ll see you tomorrow, goodbye,” and walk away. It doesn’t matter how young you are, you can still walk away. You don’t have to cut them out of your life forever (though some people will need to seriously consider this option), but you do need to walk away right now.
You must understand that if you stick around, trying to talk them through it or argue against them, you’re actually condoning it. You’re making the manipulation a normal part of the conversation. Instead, you have to treat it like they’re throwing rocks at you, or like they’re pissing on the carpet. You can’t allow it to be okay at all. It must be dealt with immediately and seen for what it is.
It’s self-respect that will solve this problem for you. They may never change, but you can.
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