Golfing buddies, hiking pals, math tutor, and your hero-in-chief. Or not.
I grew up with an emotionally distant father. His parenting style: disinterested with a minor in disdain. There was an aloofness, even coldness.
I vowed to be different than Dad. And I am. But then, innocuously enough, I mutter one of his pithy sayings. Those thoughts, sensations, feelings overflow. I stew, ruminating on the frayed relationship.
Entering adulthood, my father’s detachment gnaws. The demeaning comments rankle; the coolness stings. When Mom (RIP) was alive, her warmth compensated for Dad’s standoffishness. For my brothers and me, Mom was the matriarch and patriarch. She handled family disputes with aplomb, dispensed pearls of wisdom, and offered stinging, humorous commentary. The community — just like her three boys — treasured Mom’s effervescence. Since her passing, our family has been in disarray.
One of Mom’s favorite sayings was, “The past is prologue.” And the past, if you let it, will consume you, sabotaging your current and future goals. Anger degenerates into bitterness and sorrow. Your indignation, however righteous, cripples future relationships. Don’t let it. Here’s how.
- Accept your father’s limitations. It is tempting to conform to my father’s rigidity. An authoritarian parent, he alternates between “because I said so” or “be reasonable.” Dr. Phil acolyte, he ain’t. And while I desperately crave a healthy father-son relationship, it isn’t there — and likely will never be.
The either/or proposition: you can live life placating your parent or forge your own uncharted path. If you are wavering, remember this adage: If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will. Namely your father.
- Emotional Regulation. Admittedly, this one is challenging. When my father calls, my anxiety surges. I vacillate between an overwhelming desire to please and the desire to shriek at him to jump in the lake (yes, I am a native Midwesterner).
Slowly but surely, I have trained myself to react dispassionately. Breathing, daily exercise, and answering his phone calls in front of a trusted friend have been lifesavers. But let’s not kid ourselves. My emotional buttons scream “system overload” during our conversations. It is tempting to unleash a foaming tirade. And it would be therapeutic, the cheapest therapy I have ever had. But I resist the urge. Why? It is counterproductive.
When frustration mounts, you want to vent at the underlying source of your anger. Instead of employing mindfulness (i.e., analyzing the current predicament), your residual hurt bubbles to the surface. It is natural. The problem: it sidetracks you and, just as important, doesn’t move your unfeeling parent.
- Don’t engage. When calling Dad, he veers off-topic. He picks at my brothers, labeling them “judgmental” or “harsh,” or swipes at my beloved extended family. At first, I sympathized, brainstorming strategies to improve our family’s frosty communication. Don’t waste your emotional energy. Why? Because you are undermining your emotional health.
When you are recovering from depression and anxiety, emotional support is critical to your well-being. Dad, oblivious to your emotional needs, will prattle on about perceived injustices. According to him, your brothers, your extended family, and work colleagues batter him piñata-style. Acknowledge his feelings and quickly move on; let him bring his own ice cream, stale nachos, and cheap beer to his pity party.
- Write a letter. During phone conversations, beads of sweats trickle down your forehead. You grimace at your father’s endless demands, feigning agreement to escape the exhausting calls. Glancing in the mirror, you arch your eyebrows, “Did I just complete the Tough Mudder?”
Writing offers time to contemplate. Find a peaceful location, listen to soothing music, and jot down your innermost feelings. How does your father demean you? What would you say to him? You will find solace — and the courage to change — when reading and reflecting on your letters.
- Repeat affirmations. When a loved one belittles you, your self-worth soars and spikes like the stock market. And, yes, I have had a couple Black Friday crashes. After years of blistering self-criticism, in part because I want my father’s validation, I have adopted a gentler approach. I am competent, lovable, and smart. The Stuart Smalley self-affirmations may strike some as contrived, but it is useful to remind ourselves — particularly the relentless critic — of our self-worth.
When Dad launches into his latest rant, he can’t help himself. “Let it go,” I kindly remind myself. You and I can let it go. Let’s empower ourselves.
Father and son photo available from Shutterstock