I grew up with an overly critical and overprotective dad.
If a buzzer went off for every judgment, it just wouldn’t stop.
When I was 7 years old, he pointed at my ponytail and scorned, Don’t pull your hair back so tight, or else you’re going to go bald.
If I leaned on one leg while standing, my dad was sure to correct me.
Good grades at school didn’t get me off the hook… even my friends feared his stern expression.
As a child, I learned to put my needs aside and appease my dad. Little did I know how it’d poison every aspect of adulthood: my self-esteem, career, love life and even finances.
My darkest moments all trace back to this first toxic relationship. So this subject is very close to my heart.
I hope these 5 tips to deal with overly critical parents bring you some peace.
1) Get some distance
As soon as I could, I moved away from home… all the way across the country!
I got a scholarship to attend a prestigious college and happily packed my bags. For once, my dad couldn’t be more proud of me.
In those first few years, I found some relief from his nagging voice. I dressed and acted as I pleased. I didn’t have to walk on eggshells.
As children, we depended on our parents for our physical and emotional needs. So we didn’t have a choice. We had to please our parents to avoid punishment.
Now that we’re adults, we can make the choice to walk away. We can distance ourselves from abusive behavior, whether the perpetrators are our parents or not.
You don’t have to move across the country like I did. (That doesn’t fix everything, you’ll see what I mean later.)
You can limit your time on the phone with your parent.
And you can tell them how their (unconstructive) criticisms affect you and request that they speak to you kindly.
Tell them that this will improve the relationship. Otherwise, you’ll pull away.
2) Acknowledge the repercussions
Distancing myself gave me some space to breathe.
But I quickly realized that I now had a harsh inner critic—that voice in our head that says we’re never good enough.
No matter how hard I worked, I felt the need to work even harder. To always look impeccable. And to beat myself up.
Though I rarely saw my dad after I moved, the scars from his overly critical ways were undeniable, including:
- Needing desperately to please others
- Struggling to set and honor boundaries
- Having unrealistic expectations of myself (e.g. perfectionism)
- Fearing failure and procrastination
- Focusing on the negative (e.g. depression)
- Feeling disconnected from my emotions and body
- Hating losing control and being controlled by others
- Blaming myself for others’ behavior
- Self-sabotaging and feeling worthless
- Fearing getting hurt, rejected and abandoned
It took me a long time to connect the dots. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me.
On the contrary, these fears and unhelpful behaviors are simply the repercussions of growing up with an overly critical parent.
Now it was time to clean up the mess.
3) Take care of your wounds
I would’ve never imagined that the emotional wounds ran so deep.
The most painful one was the nightmarish relationship I had with my husband at the time.
I didn’t have to look for my wounds—we somehow managed to have explosive arguments almost everyday. My husband and I suffered from our respective childhood trauma.
So, we eventually confronted the ultimatum: either work to understand each other, or the fight would start again tomorrow.
We committed to leveraging every single argument to reveal our hidden fears, hurts, grief and resentment. To our great surprise, seemingly stupid arguments stemmed from the past. We did our best to apply bandages to these freshly reopened wounds.
Taking care of past hurts today lets you create a better future. So extend compassion to yourself.
You’re more than enough, even if it doesn’t feel like it yet.
4) Stop seeking your parents’ approval
It’s a sticky habit that developed for our survival.
A parent could easily withdraw love if we misbehaved when we were little.
We learned that love was conditional and relied on our parents to feel good about ourselves.
But as adults, this approach proves maladaptive.
Here’s the kicker for me: Even though I had stopped seeking my dad’s approval, I unconsciously transferred my pain and expectations onto my husband. (Codependency, ta-da!)
As difficult as it may be, we must pick up the bits and pieces of ourselves to develop our own strong sense of self.
It might be helpful to write a list of your positive qualities and read it when you’re feeling down. Instead of focusing on the negative, acknowledge one thing that’s going your way.
Let your parents know that you don’t appreciate their unsolicited opinions.
Accept that your parents might never change or live up to your expectations. Mourn the childhood that you wish you had.
And steer your energy towards people who understand and appreciate you for who you are.
5) Empathize and forgive
It was much easier to empathize with my dad once I healed my wounds.
Forgiveness doesn’t have to be a priority, especially when we’re still hurting.
In my experience, it made more sense to tend to my wounds first. I just had to control the damage.
Though for some people, forgiving may be the first step in their healing process.
I knew bits of my dad’s painful life story. His mom had a short temper and severely disciplined her children. Also, Asian families often believe harsh criticism bolsters their children’s success.
That’s not to excuse my dad’s behavior. But it was easier to not take it personally when I understood that he did his best. He tried to save me from life’s many disappointments.
When I imagined myself in his place, I could see why he behaved the way he did. I recognized his good intentions, as well as his humanity. (Unfortunately, not all parents have good intentions.)
Today, I’m grateful that we have a mutually respectful relationship.
An opportunity to know my true self
My husband likes to say he has no regrets in life.
I used to cringe when I heard him say so.
What about all the mistakes, bad decisions and past hurts? Wouldn’t he prefer to avoid those experiences?
He’d give me a knowing smile: I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Obviously, I would’ve preferred that my dad treated me kindly when I was younger.
But now that I’ve healed my wounds, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have as much compassion for myself and others, if I hadn’t experienced such a traumatic childhood.
My ego doesn’t like that truth. (Of course not. It’s the ego.)
Yet the most painful experiences can change us for the better, if we choose to see them that way.
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Annie Moussu is a certified EFT Tapping Master Practitioner helping women build confidence, set boundaries & enjoy healthy relationships. Get her free EFT meditation & guide for people-pleasing.
Further reading to deal with overly critical parents: