If you’re living with an authoritarian parent or if you still must deal with an authoritarian parent, what can help? From my primary research with victims of authoritarian wounding at the hands of family members, nothing works perfectly. But the following ten strategies can help.
1. Creating physical separation
Virtually all respondents to my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire reported that only physical separation, and the wider the separation the better, allowed them to feel safe and provided them with the opportunity to heal.
2. Creating psychological separation
Children can’t help but get enmeshed with their parents and continue, often for their whole lives, to be affected by their parents’ behaviors and attitudes. They are also likely to still love (or feel that they ought to love) their parents, to be pressured by other family members to continue to deal, psychologically and emotionally, with their parents, and to never quite be able to get their parents out of their head.
As respondent Mark put it, “Both of my parents have been dead for more than ten years and I’m still not free of them. I still rage at them internally; I keep telling them what they did to me; they keep denying it and keep shaming me; and all of this is going on in my own head. This is all my own doing now. Meditation hasn’t helped; CBT hasn’t helped; I feel like I need some kind of surgery. The only thing that helps is drugs – and I know that can’t be the right answer.”
3. Calling parents on their attitudes and behaviors
Many respondents discovered that saying some variation of “No!” and “That’s not okay!” caused the authoritarian parent to moderate, modulate or even stop his or her behaviors.
Respondent Alice explained, “My mother always screamed at me. So, I would try to find some summer camp to attend just to get away from home. It didn’t matter what the camp was offering—music, swimming, whatever—I would go. One summer when I was about twelve I went to a camp that had these ‘talking sessions’—I guess it was actually some sort of group therapy or encounter group or peer counseling, I don’t know what. I found myself telling my story. A boy I kind of liked blurted out, ‘Scream back!’ When I got back home I did just that. My mother started screaming at the mess I’d made of my clothes and I got into her face and shouted, ‘Stop screaming at me!’ And she did! And the screaming stopped. It was like she woke up from a trance.”
4. Exorcising guilt and shame
Respondents expressed all sorts of guilt. Some felt guilty about not protecting their younger siblings from the family authoritarian. Some felt guilty about having failed themselves or not living up to their potential. Some felt guilty about physically or emotionally separating from their authoritarian parent. Some felt guilty about having contributed to their own physical problems by not doing a better job of healing their psychological wounds. Likewise, and for similar reasons, many felt ashamed of themselves as well as guilty.
Respondent Maryanne explained, “I kept hearing myself say, ‘I should go see dad, after all, he is my dad.’ But it scared me to see him and I knew better than to see him. So, I never went—and I felt tremendously guilty about that. Then I began working with a cognitive-behavioral therapist. I really didn’t believe that CBT could possibly go deep enough; I had the prejudice that it was a shallow kind of thing. But as I got into the habit of actually substituting a thought I wanted to think for the constant ‘I should see dad,’ I began to stop thinking that thought and the guilt kind of melted away. I’m guessing that not everybody gets that lucky, but I did!”
5. Testing careful compassion
Some respondents felt compassion for the authoritarian in question, expressing that the authoritarian parent had himself or herself suffered gravely in childhood. These respondents sometimes came to the conclusion that a little compassion might not be a dangerous thing; and some went on to reach out to the authoritarian parent in the hopes of reconnecting with him or her and heal the relationship. Many of these efforts ended unsuccessfully, with the authoritarian taking the gesture as a new opportunity to shame and to punish. However, some such efforts turned out reasonably well.
6. Creating a support system
Support might mean anything from a 12-step program to a peer support group to a dear friend to a sympathetic hairdresser.
Respondent Maria explained, “I have to be able to handle things on my own, because, growing up, I lost so much power and so much self-confidence that my goal for myself is be powerful and self-confident. But that I want to handle things on my own doesn’t mean that I have to be completely on my own or handle every single thing alone. So, I’ve created a kind of informal support team. I don’t turn to them first thing—first, I want to trust my own resources. But I’m not stubborn and I do turn to them just as soon as I understand that I could use some help!”
7. Staying alert for triggers
In the language of the 12-step recovery movement, a trigger is an internal or external cue that is likely to cause a person in recovery to relapse and resume the addictive behavior. A trigger might be the appearance of a certain feeling, like feeling overwhelmed, being yelled at, criticized, shamed, or punished, seeing someone in a film or a television show in a situation like yours, relationship events that mimic family-of-origin events, or even encountering a certain smell (like an aftershave lotion) or a certain sound (like a door slamming).
As respondent Marvin explained, “I used street drugs to deal with my feelings of worthlessness that were a product of growing up with a really mean, shaming dad. Once I entered recovery, I had to figure out what my triggers were—one sneaky one was seeing some man wearing a knit cap like my father used to wear—and knowing exactly what to do when a trigger occurred.”
8. Communicating with and enlisting “healthy” or “sane” family members
Many respondents expressed how maintaining contact with family members who saw the situation the same way that they did was their number one healing and survival strategy. A client and her sisters might support one another in validating their memories (“Yes, Anna, it was that bad!”), standing together in mutual defense and in ongoing defiance of the authoritarian parent, and sometimes even finding ways of seeing humor among the horrors.
Respondent Jennifer explained, “When I try to go it alone, I can’t deal with my mother. But when I’m with my sisters, the whole thing seems less tragic. I think that’s why we live close to one another; that very proximity is a kind of armor against mom’s assaults. I remember when I had to go see mom on a piece of legal business. I was so dreading it I was making myself sick. Finally, my sisters both announced, ‘We’re coming with you!’ They did; I survived; and their company—I would say, protection—made all the difference in the world.”
9. Not accepting the vision of siblings or other family members who do not see the situation as you see it.
Other family members may have had a very different experience of mom and dad from your experience. This may have occurred for any number of reasons. They may have entered the family later than you did; maybe the authoritarian had mellowed by that time and your much younger sisters and brothers did not receive the same authoritarian wounding as you did. Maybe you were less favored than your siblings and singled out for shaming and punishment. Maybe your siblings were in fact just as abused and traumatized as you were, but they are currently in denial about their experiences or have followed in the authoritarian’s footsteps. If any of this is the case, you will need to defend yourself against their contrary vision, their demands that you “be nicer” to the authoritarian parent, and their accusations that you are being disloyal or ungrateful.
Respondent Alfred explained, “I’m one of three brothers. The eldest is just like our father. He’s a complete bully. I can deal with him because I know exactly who he is. My younger brother is convinced that nothing bad ever happened in our house. When I say to him, ‘Do you remember when dad busted the door to the shed?’ or ‘Do you remember when dad took Bobby out and beat him?’ he looks at me like I’m insane. That’s so hard to deal with! Part of me needs him to remember and needs him to corroborate my understanding of what happened. And I know that’s never going to happen. That makes me very sad.”
10. Limiting contact
You may still be living with your authoritarian parent or may have returned to live with that parent, perhaps because the parent has become infirm. For you, then, complete physical separation is out of the question and complete psychological separation is unlikely. The question for you to pose is “What’s the least amount of contact I can have with my mom?” or “How can I stay out of my dad’s way most of the time?”
What might it look like to limit contact? Respondent Amelia explained, “I moved back into the family house to take care of my mother when none of my siblings were willing to even lend a hand. I hated that I let myself guilt-trip myself into doing that but I also loved my mother, so it was a complicated moment. But what I did was only see my mother when I absolutely had to. I was otherwise really unavailable. I chose a room in the house far away from my mother, I went out a lot, and, most importantly, I made it clear to myself that I didn’t need to ‘keep her company’—because ‘keeping her company’ was inevitably toxic.”
I hope that these tips serve you. To learn more, please see Helping Survivors of Authoritarian Parents, Siblings and Partners, visit me at ericmaisel.com, or drop me a line to [email protected].