Monday, March 26, 2012

Authoritarian Parenting and Emotional Repression

I have a lot of respect for my dad. He's thoughtful and generous to all of us. His constant reading makes him an interesting and well-informed conversationalist.  He makes his life decisions very carefully, yet never looks down on me for making different decisions than him.  Instead, he tells me all the time that he loves and misses me, and that he's proud of who I've become. I feel so lucky to have him as my dad.

Unfortunately, we have not always gotten along so well.  Less than ten years ago, our relationship had been almost completely destroyed thanks to the authoritarian parenting techniques of the fundamentalist Christian homeschooling culture (in our case, it was Reb Bradley's Child Training Tips). Authoritarian parenting forced both of us into roles that we were not at all suited for, with tragic results.

For my dad, authoritarian parenting caused him to see our relationship as a power struggle; maintaining his authority was his biggest responsibility and highest priority.  After all, if we were calling the shots in our own lives, we would become self-indulgent and lack internal self-control.  That would lead us to more dangerous "worldly" teenage rebellion against our parents and God.  So in order not to fail at parenting, my dad had to be hyper-vigilant against giving up power to us kids.  What an insane amount of responsibility to put on one person!  And how difficult to create a positive relationship with that kind of dynamic: it's impossible to mandate real respect and love!  My dad began to crack under the pressure.

For me as a teen, authoritarian parenting very nearly reduced me to an empty shell of a person. I found that my opinions and emotions were sources of trouble and guilt.   Anger or frustration--even just on my face--were signs of disrespect and lack of self-control. Questioning my parents' decisions or expressing different opinions, even on trivial matters, were signs of rebellion.  Even the simple act of lifting my eyebrows could get me in trouble.  In order to survive, I had to bury my negative emotions and try to become more passive and less opinionated.

In addition to guarding my facial expressions and speech against "disrespect" and "rebellion", I also had to hide many positive feelings. My parents' preferred method of discipline when I was in my teens was to take away privileges. Anything that I had shown happiness or excitement about was a likely target. So, to protect things I cared about, I tried to stay detached. One technique that helped me care less about something was to focus on the negative about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to rekindle my excitement once my negativity had extinguished it, but at least it was easier to deal with the feelings of helplessness and disappointment.

At the worst point in my relationship with my dad, I went for several years without my dad smiling at me even one time.  He spent long hours at work or locked in his room and tried to avoid talking to me or looking at me when we passed. But still, every night, my mom made me find him to say, "Goodnight Dad, I love you," and stand there looking at the back of his head with no answer.  Any time I protested this nightly tradition and expressed my hurt to my mom, she simply cautioned me not to let the "root of bitterness" spring up in my heart. So I did my best to bury my negative emotions, just like I saw my mom doing.

I was supposedly in the prime of my life, but I started to feel very old. My body was full of aches and pains, and I was constantly tired or dealing with a headache. Finally, at my mom's urging, I went to see a doctor.  I was caught off guard when the doctor asked, "Do you think you're depressed?" "Oh my goodness, no!" I answered. When the doctor left the room, I burst into tears with no idea why. I finally decided that I must have been upset that my Christian witness was damaged since I wasn't showing Jesus' peace and joy on my face during my doctor's appointment.

Looking back, it's easy to identify that I was deeply depressed and incredibly emotionally repressed.  But I didn't interpret it that way at the time.  I saw my depression as "deep spiritual sensitivity" that came from my desire to be perfect.  And I saw my emotional repression as "true love": by pretending I was never bothered and that I had no preferences, I thought I was being unselfish and putting the needs of everyone else before my own.

As I entered college and started to work through many of my social anxiety issues, I continued using the relational techniques that had helped me survive at home.  I was passive; I went along with other people's ideas and goals; I had no strong opinions or desires of my own.  I was just there, a non-factor, grateful to be included.

The real change for me came through developing my relationship with my boyfriend/husband.  Our long conversations helped me work through my pent up emotions and discover my opinions.  On many occasions, he waited patiently even for 20 minutes, silently walking next to me with his arm around my shoulders, so I could finally express a basic opinion or feeling.  At some point, I came uncorked, and we now have an entirely different challenge as my opinions and feelings come flying from left and right!  In time, I'll find balance.

Sorry, but I don't agree with ___.
I felt really sad when you ____.
I'd really rather ____.
I don't really enjoy ___.
In my opinion, ___.

These phrases may seem mundane to you, but to me they are priceless.  Every time I use them, they remind me that I am a real and valuable person with my own identity, my own voice, my own choice.  They make me feel empowered because I remember what it was like to try to live without them.


  1. Hi! I just found your blog through Love, Joy, Feminism, and it's great stuff. One thing really stood out to me about this post:

    "My parents' preferred method of discipline when I was in my teens was to take away privileges. Anything that I had shown happiness or excitement about was a likely target."

    My Christian mother used a very authoritarian style of parenting with me - though not, oddly, with my sister - and starting at about eight years old, she would take things away at what seemed like the slightest provocation. Books, music, going outside to play, anything that she knew I liked. I was never able to become TOO detached, though I did try, but what I mostly did was hide things - and even when I got to college, it was several years before I was able to stop compulsively hiding objects in my room (in case she came to visit, saw them, and got angry). Our relationship has improved quite a bit over the last couple of years, though, thank goodness.

    Anyway, long ramble, but that just resonated with me.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience Elise. It can take a long time after leaving authoritarian parents to really feel secure and in charge of your life, but it's so wonderful once you do. I'm glad you're experiencing that now as well!

  2. I just found your blog after looking up No Greater Joy Ministries to show my significant other the level of crazy that is prevalent in some of these groups. Your upbringing sounds a lot like mine. I have just recently put my parents in a time-out for their continued behavior towards me, my significant other, and my daughter, and since then I've noticed that I've started having emotions. Like...ridiculous emotions. I'm feeling an actual attachment to my daughter (not just a responsibility to her), and having very close feelings for my significant other. I've even started feeling attached to our pets! I turn 30 in two months and cannot BELIEVE that I have never felt these things before. Anyway, I really appreciate your blog thus far and it's helping me to feel like I'm not so alone. I don't know anyone else who was raised this way and got out in real life. Thank you for your story, and I can't wait to read more.

    1. Wow, that reminds me so much of conversations I've had with my SO. He grew up as a conservative Christian, or so he thought, haha, but he just can't believe some of this stuff either. Good for you that you're giving yourself the space you need to heal! If you haven't already been there, I really recommend a couple other sites of people who have come from similar backgrounds....they really helped me:

  3. Hey. I just bumped into your blog and surprisingly matched my feelings at this point. I am in an authoritarian parenting situation. been in it for 25 years now and i still live with my parents. A couple of years ago i dropped out of college. I had similar anxiety and problems expressing my opinions like you in campus. My father is the authoritarian one and my mother is a devout Christian and i think her belief has led her to the role of the enabler. My father is more or less a dictator. I have had to deal with A LOT of pent up emotions to the point of confusion. I was on anti-depressants for 6months but i don't think it helped. The person i was seeing was a psychiatrist and his ways of treating me revolved less around therapy and more on medz. These two years have been out of school have been a sort of self-searching and though i am confident i have made progress, i don't think i have fully recovered. It's hard to measure your own progress. I have read a lot on the effects of living under such conditions and its impact on childhood development. I have no doubt that i am a product of its effects. With this conscious knowledge, i hope to improve myself and get myself out of the numbing pain i have been under.

    I resume college in a month or two and thus will be living with my parents for at least the next two years. It's hard to believe but despite my age my parents(dad) still impose their views, opinions and directions on me with no regard to mine. Any contradiction on my part results in privileged being taken away such as my laptop. I should mention that i am an electronics and computer engineering undergrad. I have been a rebel for the better part of my adult life, got into alcohol and marijuana, so history isn't on my side.

    My father came from a troubled family living in poverty and his dad died when he was very very young. My grandma, his mother, was strict and overbearing and would at times punish them by denying them food and kicking them out. I have ran away from home enough times ever since i was 7. Last year i moved out but moved back in after 6months. Mostly because i couldn't support myself any more. My mom arbitrated my coming back home.

    To my point, having come to the realizations that i have, how do i continue to live through this in a way that i will not suffer any more and can actively pursue who i want to be and what i want to do with my life under my current situation?? I have had great success in my academics all through up until college when i think my pent up pain and emotions reached a critical level. I am ambitious and want to be successful. But, i always fear and in doubt. I perceive this to be my damaged confidence. I have trouble socializing unless am under the influence. Please, i would appreciate your take on this as you seem to have the benefit of retrospect.

    1. It takes a long time to find your true self and begin to feel confident. I started the process in my early twenties, and now I'm thirty and finally feel actually *good* most of the time. But I was only able to start making progress once I got out on my own, far away from my parents.

      Right now, you're really emotionally wounded, and you need a safe place to heal as soon as possible. I'm sure you know, it will be really really hard for you to heal while you're living with your parents, because your dad will keep adding to your injury.

      A month or two before the semester starts--perfect! Now is the perfect time to look for a roommate or a room for rent near your school. Since you are 25, you will be able to qualify for more financial aid--the applications (such as the FAFSA) will not take your parents' income into account. Talk to a guidance counselor at your school about your situation and see what your options are. With the extra financial aid and a part-time job, you could finish school on your own and take your first step toward independence. It might take you a little longer to graduate, but you'll be in a much better place emotionally when you do, and more ready for life.

      Besides your own mental well-being, you have a better chance of success at school and in your career if you get away from your parents. When they take away your laptop, they are showing that they don't mind sacrificing your future for the sake of keeping control of you. That is incredibly abusive.

      I recommend checking if your school has a therapist at a reduced rate for students...mine did, and it was helpful for me when my old issues came back to haunt sometimes me at school.

      I hope you discover, as I did, that there are many good people in the world, and that you are one of them! I wish you all the best.

  4. Praise the Lord, this story is another encouragement for me to boldly set myself free from intimidation and uncertainty. This also happens to me in the fact that my father is a typical conventional Asian parent and struggled with anxiety. This leads him to be overprotective to avoid bad things happen as the consequences. He s not just smashing down my opinion and disagreement while in conversation, but also limits my activity during childhood by giving warning in loud voice that even could scare a dog away. For example, prohibiting me cooking, going with friends, etc. This happened until I entered high school. Then i moved to another city and live with my brother who is also as authoritative as my dad. Worsely, he s kind of paranoid who seems to obsessed to finding my mistake and feels 'satisfied' to mock me or even throws things to release his anger. I lived with intimidation and terror, also afraid of leaving home and pressed down my hurt and pain instead. It shaped my personality to be passive, no self opinion and agree to everyone else idea. For more than 10 years I hd been living with emotional repression and always positive thinking of everything which actually I m not comfortable with. I burried all my questions and curiosity in search of pleasing other people. I also learn that i hd developed insecurity and withdrawal attitude. It affected my relationship with some of my best friends. However, during healing ministry seminar or church sermon, I leart blessing and curse, negative emotions, forgiveness, fruit of flesh and Spirit. I found myself up and down in dealing with repression and difficulty to speak up my mind to the people I disagree with until I learn the grace of God n commitment to give away bitterness and heartache to the cross and pray for healing. Thanks to my mom and friends who prayed for me and texted me encouraging verses. For these 2 weeks, I feel more comfortable with myself, less anxious, panic and more calm in pouring out my own idea and my reasons of disagreement to other people. Thank God for this precious gift of freedom, a surpassing peace that the world cant give. I believe when Jesus can heal me spiritually n emotionally, He also can heal anyone with emotional problems - because He is good, just and merciful.

  5. I can't remember how I found this post, but it was the same for me. Except my parents both have severe anger issues, too, and so I grew up being screamed at basically very day, dad slamming his belt into walls and the counter screaming that he'll beat us until we can't bear to sit for a week and he'll kill us if we ever do XYZ again and putting his fist through drywall and stuff. My mom is just as bad anymore. I could never get away or get help because I was homeschooled and trapped inside all day.

    My parents destroyed me in ways they'll never know. I don't feel any love for them, and I don't think I can change that.

  6. Hi Late bloomer, my story is quite similar to mister mic except that I even have a masters degree but feel stuck career wise. I had to move back home after uni. Although I schooled abroad, the parents supported me financially as I was an international student and this unfortunately gave room for them to control me over the phone and skype. I found my self in bad friendships (getting used and disrespected a lot but I didnt want to be lonely so I had to go along). I even have past boyfriends who still owe me thousands of pounds (that I've decided to let go of) because I was too weak to say no (I guess I was desperate). I got into smoking weed all day (and still do) but managed to do well in school to avoid suspicions. These days I just think of all the resources I've wasted but now that im back home, my parents are still driving me nuts. At my age (25), my curfew is 5 pm and I have very few friends. I spend most of my day ruminating on things ive done wrong and were done wronG to me. I dont enjoy anything anymore. Im just numb. I even fear that I currently resent and or hate my parents. Im just jealous of those that get to be themselves all the time. I was into singing and dancing but wasnt allowed to pursue them outside boarding school but now I dont even enjoy them anymore and just forcing my creativity. I was diagnosed with depression but my parents said it's my fault so I cant get a therapist. I suffer from chronic back pain but my father believes it's because I wont obey him (I should wear a sweater in 30 degrees nigerian heat). I just w9nder if I can ever grow from this but your story gives me a bit of hope. So thank you

    1. I'm so sorry, so much of this sounds familiar :(. You've been diagnosed with depression, so it makes sense that you don't enjoy anything and feel numb most of the time right now. It also makes sense that you spend a lot of time thinking about the negative things in your life when you are depressed. I've been there.

      It's completely unacceptable and abusive that your parents are blaming you for your depression and your back pain and refusing to allow treatment. I really feel strongly that you can improve your life if you try again to move out of their house and also if you go behind their back to get the treatment you need. As a legal adult, there is no such thing as disobedience anymore. You have the right to make your own decisions, but you will feel like a disobedient child as long as you are living with your parents. Can you find a job that's enough to pay the bills while you keep looking for something better? And a housing situation with one or more roommates so that it's easier to afford living on your own? Or can you get financial assistance for more college (to broaden your job prospects), and see a college therapist at a discounted rate? (In the US, students can qualify for financial aid more easily once they are 25 because their parents' income isn't considered.) Or is there a relative or mentor/friend you can call on for help in getting out on your own, one who will be supportive of your need for treatment for depression?

      I wish you the best of luck in re-discovering the creative and adventurous person you are deep inside, that's currently masked by depression.

  7. This post was really interesting, seeing as I'm currently going through this myself. I get a lot of the same things that you got, "Fine" is a rude word (No matter what context), calling anyone anything other than their name is rude (But when I call my father by his real name in response I get grounded), slight eye movement is seen as "Rolling my eyes", any negative emotions are bad and end with punishment (Ironically leading to more negative emotions that adds to the pressure cooker that is my mind), even when my father is wrong he never admits it, the list of madness goes on. I found this post initially around a year ago, while I was being punished for "Not getting a long" with my brother (I was arguing with him in the car about something, but in my family any argument is rude and disrespectful) and was looking up the effects of social isolation, seeing as the punishment was that I couldn't see any of my friends until I "Got a long" with my little brother. I've been home schooled my whole life, as such I don't have many friends besides the two friends I made in church when I was five years old (Whom I'm still incredibly close with), and I wasn't in a neighborhood where my parents felt comfortable letting me go off by myself. This means I was stuck inside the house all day, almost every day. My dad worked odd hours, and my mom didn't have her drivers license, so we couldn't go anywhere. Being trapped inside the house for two months without seeing either of my friends made me go crazy, my friends were the main release I had for relaxing and getting things off of my chest, without them I had no one to talk to. I finally got un-grounded, and for a while, everything was good. A few months ago I was lying in bed, and I came to a sudden realization: I'm emotionally repressed. I had known for a while, but the reality of it just hit me full force right then and there. I cried, but not because I was sad. It was because I wasn't able to feel sad, I only felt anger. In the past few months I've been doing better, although it's hard to work on it while simultaneously keeping my defenses up. Fast forward to last Friday, me and my friend are talking, my parents are presumably out on a date, so me being foolish, I don't check to see if they're gone. We're chilling, working on plans to hangout the next day, when my mom busts down my door, saying that she heard me swearing from downstairs. Blood runs cold, eek out a half-hearted "Sorry" she replies with "You will be" and she slams the door shut. Yeah, I curse, It's a great stress reliever, so sue me. So here we are again, not allowed to have any contact with friends, and my friendships with my two best friends of the last 10 years potentially in jeopardy. "Well, I was listening and I heard you swearing like every other word, it was not just a slip up." Darn, my excuse of a difficult video-game didn't work. "I'm not sure how long you'll be grounded, or if you'll be able to be around them, if you were swearing like that they must have been encouraging the bad behavior". So, I'm here again, reading this post again, and I doubt it'll be the last time. Also, Mom/Dad, if you're reading this you probably know who it is. It sucks you had to find out this way, but this is how I feel. Whenever I'm with my friends, I'm incredibly happy, because I don't have to hide myself from them, I don't have to put up a mask, or a wall. I can just be 100% honest with them, I don't need to hide my opinions or thoughts from them. I can just chill, relax, and have a real connection with an actual person. I don't get that from you.
    "If you try to shove all of your emotions into a bottle, the only emotions that wont fit are Anger and Pain."

    1. I'm so sorry you are dealing with that right now. It's unreasonable to demand "perfection" from anyone, and the kind of things they are nit-picking about are extremely trivial. Displeased facial expressions, sibling arguments, swearing---they don't know how lucky they are to have so few problems so that these are the things they want to crack down on.

      This sort of thing happened with my parents too. One sibling, for instance, got grounded for getting a forbidden can of grape soda from a decent kid next door. My mom ranted for an extended amount of time about what a bad influence that kid was, how "deceitful" my sibling was, and that we were never allowed to talk to that neighbor kid again. GRAPE SODA, for fuck's sake. When you're in such an isolated bubble as a parent, you lose sight of what real problems are.

      I'm glad you have at least a couple friends to help you see what's possible from healthy human can relax and be yourself with your them. It's so beautiful, and there's more of that coming in your future. You're right, it's really hard to make progress while still in the situation that caused the's a long process with ups and down, just be patient with yourself (even though it's hard to cut yourself slack since you haven't experienced much grace from your parents).

      Take care of yourself!! It gets better.