Carolyn Hax: Advice

‘Critical’ parents are now just the opposite

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: My parents had a lot of strengths, but one of their weaknesses was a tendency to be very critical, with high standards in every area (grades, accomplishments, extracurriculars, etc.). This led to a very distant relationship after I left home for college and continuing well into my late 20s. All the high achievement did make for smooth professional sailing, but it also meant recurring problems with anxiety, depression and perfectionism, requiring a lot of counseling to sort through and arrive at a realistic view of myself.

Now I am approaching 40, and over time (and a lot of arguments) my parents seem to have realized that pressure and criticism don’t work. They are a lot more kind and supportive and sometimes even express regret for things that were said and done when I was younger.

My problem — which sounds weird — is that now they overcompensate, and I continue to leave conversations with them feeling frustrated, just as when I was younger. As an example, they go out of their way to praise me, using all kinds of superlatives (I am the smartest, the best, the kindest, the most valuable, whatever). It really rings hollow because, well, I’m just a regular person who is good at some things and not so good at others. When I try to talk to them about actual setbacks I’m experiencing, they tell me to “be positive” and that everything will work out because I’m “the best.”

For some reason, the lavish praise makes me feel similar to how I used to feel about the lavish criticism. But now I feel kind of guilty for getting frustrated, because who gets frustrated at someone for being TOO kind and supportive?

OK With Being “Not the Best”

It was a rhetorical question, but here’s an answer anyway: A lot of people get “frustrated at someone for being TOO kind and supportive.” It’s not weird at all.

You touched on part of the reason yourself. Being called the smartest/kindest/best of more than 7 billion people, without qualifiers, is a laughably clear exaggeration, if not an outright lie. That’s annoying on its face, because discussing setbacks means you want either an empathetic listener or a practical helper, and, “Be positive that everything will work out because you’re the best!!” doesn’t fit either bill.

Though it’s probably tempting to do so, you also can’t write this off as awww, parents being parents, especially given your history with them. Instead their hyperbole raises questions, namely, why must they blow smoke? Why can’t they accept you and talk to you as a regular, flawed human being?

This questioning point is where you are right now, almost – you’re at the “for some reason this feels bad stage,” which means the next step is the why.

So please consider that their gushing isn’t proof of parents with a softer new outlook at all, but instead is proof of the same weakness that drove them to be so critical. It’s just the flip side of the same egoism, the same need for you to occupy a pedestal above all other offspring.

That would explain why they pushed you so hard and why they now praise you so hard. Your being merely “a regular person who is good at some things and not so good at others” — I love that description, by the way — doesn’t give them the emotional affirmation they need.

This would also explain why you feel now as you did then, despite seemingly very different treatment by your parents. Both the pushing and the praising deny you your essential, for lack of a better term, you-ness. Before they only saw the great thing you could be, and now they only see the great thing you’ve surely become under their tutelage, with both visions blocking out who and what you actually are.

Their apology shows a willingness to admit fault, never to be minimized. It could just be that the mistakes they acknowledge are specific, like word choices, instead of general, like dehumanizing you with their need for you to succeed.

If all of this is accurate, then gratitude isn’t the answer, nor is guilt for not feeling gratitude. Acceptance seems more like it: Accept their neediness for what it is — both a reflection of their limitations, and an obstacle to their ever truly meeting your needs. Regard your parents as unwilling, and frustration is guaranteed; see them as unable, and freedom is yours to embrace.

I’m sorry. Resignation is never a welcome suggestion. It does seem to fit, though: To deal with parents who deny who you are, you accept them for who they are. Perhaps there’s some comforting symmetry there.

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