My mother wanted me to do “better”. She wanted me to have and make the most of advantages and opportunities. She was also terribly afraid of me, not just failing and so not “succeeding”, but also ending up “like her”.

I’m not alone in having a mother who didn’t get to be, do and have what she needed and wanted in childhood. Nor am I alone in having a mother who became an adult in a time when there were still very hard and fast rules about what was and wasn’t permissible for women. My mother knew what it was like to be in shitty situations that you were or felt trapped in because of the economics, power imbalance, or pressure to conform so as not to ‘invite’ racial or sexual harassment or condemnation.

So she pushed and heavily criticised me, and I was acutely aware of when I was disappointing her. She was unpleasable. That constant striving and pressure played a key role in me being a people pleaser, perfectionist, overthinker, overgiver and over-responsible. For a long time, like well into adulthood, it was as if I only knew her feelings and aspirations, not mine. My mother absorbed me into her as a reflection of her doing “better”. I didn’t understand that I pushed the buttons of her own narrative.

Like so many people I’ve chatted with whether in my personal life or through my work, I found her lack of empathy for my struggles baffling. Like, mind-boggling. Especially when they were often like-for-like situations taking place in different times.

We often think that shared experience makes way for empathy, maybe even an opportunity for bonding. In theory, it should, but in reality, it can be triggering.

Side note: It’s also triggering for us when they expect our empathy while denying the reality of our own similar lived experience. Or they’re sensitive about something we’re ‘not allowed’ to have feelings about. Hello gaslighting.

We like to think, as children, that we’ve arrived into the world with parents who’ve dealt with their stuff. We think they’re ready and equipped to meet our needs. In reality, plenty of our parents barely got to be children themselves. They were a hell of a lot less aware of their emotional baggage, and some of their unresolved issues were hot to the touch. With the benefit of hindsight, I recognise that it’s hard for someone to see you when they don’t see themselves. It’s also difficult to empathise about something you’ve buried and never dealt with.

But I also think it’s crucial to acknowledge this:

When you have parents who base their expectations on you being “better”, their narrative is always that they have it “worse”.

Their story is that they coulda, woulda, shoulda been X if only they had what we had/have. They also often believe that Y only happened because of what they deemed to be “worse”. That makes empathy really bloody tricky because it requires stepping away from their story.

It’s why when we come along with our humanness and struggle in spite of how much “better” they think we have it, it ignites anger and defensiveness. Or acute silence. We’re told, for instance, that it “must” be our fault. Or we’re reminded about rules we “should” have followed to avoid our problem. Or they minimise it because, well, it was “much worse” back in the day.

Of course, if we experience much of what our parents did in spite of what they see as better than what they got, that blows a hole in the stories they tell themselves. That’s why some parents still cling to those narratives despite how much it destroys our relationship with them. It’s also why, with the benefit of hindsight, some will realise not just how hard they were on us but also on themselves–and try to evolve the relationship.

And if we can acknowledge that just like us, our parents have their own distorted stuff to work through, we can finally forgive ourselves. We can stop believing that our parent(s)’ behaviour and yes, lack of empathy, was about us being not “good enough”. We can even stop acting as if it’s our job to live our parent(s)’ dreams or meet their unmet needs. Only then are we free to have a more healing, boundaried relationship with them and with ourselves.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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