Dear Carolyn: I am looking for ways to retain a healthy relationship with my parents, who have a history of trying to control me with their anxiety. I have learned the hard way that things that excite me — taking trips abroad, dating someone who doesn’t align with their comfort zone, outdoor adventures — will trigger extreme worry and fear, to the point they will ask me not to do the thing, bargain with me to do it a different way, and, in some circumstances, threaten that my actions will result in extreme detriments to their physical health since they will worry about me the whole time.
To be clear, I have no history of extreme actions — these activities would be considered fairly normal by most people.
As a result, I have built up a boundary so thick they know virtually nothing that goes on in my life outside of general things with my job and where I live. This makes me extremely sad, as I end up keeping major things secret from them to avoid the anxiety roller coaster. It makes me feel like a naughty teenager, and I’m in my 30s.
Is this the only way to retain a civil relationship with my parents? It really hurts, as I’d like to be able to confide in them without fear.
— Emotionally Blackmailed
Emotionally Blackmailed: How miserable for all of you. I’m so sorry they haven’t taken steps to address their mental health issues; they could be years into having their lives back by now, had they sought timely treatment, and with that a close, functional relationship with you.
Its current distance is not your fault. Not. Your. Fault. No guilt.
I’m pretty sure you know this already, but it is worth saying anyway. You did what was necessary to put your adult autonomy out of reach of their toxic reactions.
As you contemplate inching back toward them, maybe think of this as a relationship elimination diet: You removed your parents from your life almost entirely and got yourself to a healthy place. Now you can start to reintroduce types of interactions with them to see if they trigger a rash.
Start with confiding after the fact. Don’t tell them you’re going on a trip abroad; tell them you went on one as soon as you’ve gotten home safely. This is a basic strategy people use with anxious loved ones — and if it works even minimally, then you’ll be able to talk to your parents about more of what’s happening in your life. If it works ideally, then they will slowly gather proof that your way of life is no more fatal than anyone else’s. (They don’t sound receptive to new information, but I mention this anyway as a point in the strategy’s favor.)
If your parents flip out anyway, about a trip that's already over, then take these disclosures back out of your diet.
Repeat this process with other things you'd like to share with them, adding and removing as their reactions warrant.
It’s also okay for you to acknowledge your thick boundary works and not budge from where you are. You want more of a relationship with them, yes, and that’s a loving impulse — but if they’re not capable of producing any other emotional output, no matter what adjustments you make to the input, then give yourself permission to drop this unreachable goal — and forgive yourself for it, too.
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