Adapted from a recent online discussion.
HI, CAROLYN: I’m a teenager living with parents who I would hesitate to describe as abusive, but they are difficult, often angry, and they can be really mean.
I swear I try not to be a brat. I am going to the college they told me to. I am majoring in the major they told me to. I am going into the career they told me to. A lot of my life is spent trying not to upset them and trying not to show that I am upset. They don’t like my expressing negative emotions.
I have one thing I want that requires their assistance. It is a hobby. They don’t like to say no, but they like to indicate in other ways that this is a burden and I am burdensome for wanting it. At this point, it’s the only thing I am doing that isn’t specifically a thing they told me to do.
I try just to ask them, but they say yes and then sigh and mutter and eye-roll me into retracting my request because I feel guilty.
I disagree with this whole martyr routine designed to trick me into feeling bad because if they don’t want to do it, all they have to do is say no. But I still feel guilty, and I don’t want to.
I mean, yes, they gave up their lives for me, but I’m giving up my life for them in return. I just want this one thing. Is there any way I can not feel bad? I’m really not trying to be a brat. Thanks.
DEAR GUILT TRIPPED: Oh my goodness. Does your college have a counseling service? I can see why you “hesitate to describe [them] as abusive,” but what you describe is an extreme level of control over a nearly adult child, achieved through intense emotional manipulation. That’s abuse.
And: “They gave up their lives for me”? This just shocks and saddens me, both as a parent myself and as my parents’ child. I see my kids as part of my life, a rich, funny, exhilarating, sometimes exhausting/painful/frustrating, always loving and lovable part.
My parents, too, had full lives that included us; their lives didn’t stop when we were born. Yeah, we were needy little things and ate their food and spent their money and kept them up at night when we got sick or came home late. But they chose to have us and they accepted these sacrifices as part of the experience of being parents.
In return, when we were old enough to stop being so needy, we did what we could to give back to our parents — much of that in the form of investing in our own lives and families, because that’s what they wanted for and from us.
And my parents didn’t tell us what we had to do or study or become any more than I’m telling my kids.
A way to “not feel bad” is to get professional help. Please. Give yourself the gift of outside perspective and guidance.
It will take courage to go, and be scary and disorienting at the beginning, but trust that there’s relief in it for you. Soon, I hope. Take care.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.