Do you have a good relationship with your parents?

Maintaining a healthy relationship with your parents can be tough, especially when you have a critical parent.

Not only do you have to deal with your own inner critic, you have to deal with another harsh critic in your life.

I have a critical dad who is critical of everything including me. Being the highly sensitive child that I am, I used to feel really hurt by his comments. But over the years, I learn how to manage his criticisms and improve our relationship.

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that:

Not all critical parents are unloving.

Your parents might love you dearly, but they can’t stop criticizing you. Like my dad, he always criticizes us because he believes that criticisms would help us. I used to think he didn’t love me and this created an obstacle between us. So I urge you to keep an open mind about your parents and not judge them as bad, mean, or toxic yet until you understand where they are coming from.

If you are reading this, you probably have low self-esteem or feel unworthy about yourself, so let’s understand the side-effects of having critical parents on our self-esteem first.

Critical Parents and Self-Esteem

People who have a critical father or mother would likely to have low self-esteem growing up. Our parents are one of the first people we derive our sense of self from. Most of us trust what our parents tell us. Even if we questioned their criticisms, we usually internalized our parent’s views on us after many repetitions.

If your parent constantly tells you that you are bad and even punish you for that, how are you going to view yourself? Would you think they are wrong or would you think that you are at fault? When you were a child, you are most likely to believe that you did something wrong that made them unhappy and angry.

Your critical inner voice comes from your critical parents.

Many of us grew up adopting our parent’s views without realizing that these are our parents’ views, not ours. I teach young children maths and whenever I hear them say negative things about themselves, I know their parents or somebody close to them must have said the exact same things to them.

For example, once I teach a girl who always uses her laziness as an excuse to not do her work. Truly enough, when I talked to her mom, her mom said that her daughter is very lazy and she needs the extra lessons to keep her discipline.

At the back of my mind, I was wondering: Is the student lazy because she is lazy? Or is the student lazy because her mom told her that she is lazy so many times that she believes she’s lazy? Just for your information, the mom is actually a loving and compassionate person. But when she uses such labels on her child to explain her daughter’s disobedience, she unwittingly makes her daughter lazier.

Of course, not all children cope with criticisms the same way. The psychological effects of criticism on children depend on how they react. Some children choose to fight back instead of feeling unworthy. They grew up blaming others for their problems and for making them feel unworthy. Then, there are others who develop addictions and compulsions to escape the feelings of unworthiness.

(For more information on the different coping mechanisms, I recommend reading Reinventing Your Life by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko.)

So how do you deal with an overly critical father or mother, now that you have grown up? What can you do or not do when your parents are hypercritical?

Dealing with Critical Parents in Adulthood

1. Accept your parents and love them for who they are.

All children deserve loving, kind and supportive parents, but not everyone gets them. Some parents just can’t be warmth, caring, and nurturing even though they love you. It’s not part of their habits. They have adopted a negative view of life.

A long time ago, I was curious if my dad is able to be encouraging, so I asked my dad to say three positive things about me. The first thing he said is “I’m very obedient” which almost made me want to roll my eyes. Then, he stumbled and couldn’t go on anymore. I let him off because he was feeling so uncomfortable.

Don’t compare your parents with other parents.

Don’t ask why other people have parents who are nurturing and supportive, but you have parents who are nagging, unreasonable, and difficult to deal with. A comparison like this just makes you feel jealous and like a victim.

Learn to accept that some parents just don’t like to express love verbally. Asking someone who isn’t comfortable with giving praises to give you praises set you up for disappointment and failure. You already know they won’t give you the approval you want, so why bother?

Instead, find out how they communicate their love for you and be satisfied with it. For example, my dad would do things for us but would not say nice things about us. His love language is the act of service and not the word of affirmation. So I don’t seek approval from my dad anymore.

(To find out more about the 5 love languages, read Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Language.)

2. Know what they criticize you for and avoid the “firing range”.

There are different types of critical parent. Your parent can be a mixture of two or more of the following types:

  • Controlling parents: They criticize you because they want to have control over your choices. For example, they might criticize your date or your job to make you feel bad about your choices, so as to influence you to choose something else they want.
  • Narcissistic parents: They criticize you because they feel threatened by your success and independence. But at the same time, if they see you as an extension of themselves, they might find faults in you too when you don’t do well.
  • Emotionally abusive parents: They call you names, they belittle you, and they swear at you because you reminded them of somebody else. These parents usually have some psychological problems or disorder and have a bad or abusive childhood.
  • Anxious parents: They are overly-protective and they criticize you because they are afraid that you make mistakes. They show their care by nagging at you constantly.
  • Negative parents: They are pessimistic and have a negative view of life. They are skeptical of everything and criticize everything including you.

If you understand why your parents criticize you, you can avoid the criticisms.

In my case, I know my father puts me down whenever I share my successes with him, especially if they are related to my creative endeavors. So I usually downplay my success in front of him and not let him know much about my work. If he assumes that I’m doing average in life, I’ll let him assume so because there is no need to pick a fight with him. This is how I manage and reduce criticisms from my father.

Make sure you understand what triggers your parents’ criticism and do you best not to activate it.

3. Change yourself instead of trying to change your parents. 

It’s very tempting for us to “fix” our parents, especially if you are an INFJ too and have a tendency to help others. But don’t do that. From experience, it rarely works.

When you try to change your parents, you are giving out the energy that they are at fault and they need to do something about it. Your parents might have some issues of their own, but they might not even see their criticisms as something wrong. If they do, most parents would have stopped. To most of them, they are doing you a favor by pointing out your mistakes.

A relationship is about connecting and relating with another person. If you have an unhealthy relationship with another person, it means there is a breakdown in communication.

The problem lies in the relating, not with the people involved.

Both parties cannot find a way to communicate effectively with each other; it’s not just one party. So focus on the communication style and not on the other person. If you have parents who always criticize you, voice your boundaries and let them know you don’t like to be talked to in this manner. Let them know if they want to get the message across to you, this way of communication doesn’t work for you. If you want to help me, speak to me nicely, or don’t speak to me at all.

You can’t change your parents, so what you can do instead is to change yourself and the way you deal with your parents.

4. Stop seeking your parents’ approval.

Are you still looking for your dad’s or mom’s approval? If yes, this might be the reason why you are still getting criticized by your parents all the time.

Seeking approval from others means you are asking them for opinions and permission to do something. It means wanting to be accepted. But it also means there’s a chance of being rejected. Which child doesn’t want to be approved by their parent and feel accepted? But we are adults now, we are responsible for most if not all of our life choices.

As children, our survival depends on our parents. If we don’t get approved by our parents, we risk not able to survive on our own. This is not the case now, but most of us still seek approval from our parents for everything ranging from our partners to our jobs to our purchases.

Self-approval is more important than your parents’ approval.

Even if your parents disagree with your choices, what’s stopping you from moving ahead? The reason why their disapproval has so much emotional charge on you is that you think they are still in control of you. But no, they don’t. If you don’t want to get disapproved by your parents, then don’t ask for their opinions, especially if you have controlling parents. You just give them the opportunities to criticize you.

Don’t expect your parents will give you the approval and recognition you want so badly someday. This might sound a bit disheartening, but having an expectation like this is going to disappoint you all the time. Instead, always give yourself the approval first. Let your parents’ approval be a bonus and not something you seek.

5. Don’t believe their criticisms.

What our parents say aren’t the truth. They learn it from someone else, most likely from our grandparents. So don’t trust their criticisms. In fact, don’t believe your own thoughts too. You inner critic is also influenced by your parents.

How do you know if you believe what your parents say? You know when you reacted to it. If someone were to tell you that you are a green monster, you don’t have any feelings for it because you know you are not a green monster. But if your parents tell you what you have done is dumb or stupid and you feel sad about it, then a part of your mind believes that they are right.

The criticisms are never about you, so don’t take them personally.

Most parents see their children as the extension of themselves. Whatever they are criticizing you for is what they don’t want to see in themselves too. Know that as children, we kind of trigger problems that our parents don’t want to face and hence the criticisms. They don’t want you to be the lazy or bad child that your grandparents see them as.

And sometimes, parents just don’t know how hurtful their words are and how sensitive their children are. Just recently, my dad called me stupid for eating the rice dumpling before a meal. Then after realizing what he had just said, he clarified not stupid as in really stupid and we laughed about it.

Understand the intention of their criticisms. Extract what your parents want to tell you without believing that there’s something wrong with you. We almost have to develop an internal filter or translator to prevent our minds from forming unnecessary meanings from what we hear.

6. Be compassionate and don’t pass the criticisms on.

When you are criticized by your parents, don’t criticize others, don’t criticize your parents and don’t even criticize yourself. Stop the cycle there.

If someone were to pass you the poison, you don’t pass it on to someone else. You don’t drink it. You find a way to dispose of it without harming the environment.

Your parents will not be the only ones who criticize you.

You need to know how to neutralize any poison that is given to you at any time by any person, and not let the poison spread in your body.

Take the time to heal yourself and get rid of any “poison” you have already consumed i.e. all the hurt you have accumulated in the past since you were young. Understand how you have internalized some of the criticisms and believed what they said are true. Be your own best friend and be compassionate to yourself.

Your parents might have been hurt at some point in their life and they don’t know how to undo the hurt they received. But it’s your responsibility to undo the hurt inflicted on you and be impeccable with your words.

(Read The Four Agreements to find out more about being impeccable with your words.)

7. Leave them (but use this as a last resort).

I don’t recommend leaving your parents. It’s best to give them a chance. However, I understand some parents are so messed up that it’s impossible to live with. If your parents are making you so miserable that you cannot stand their criticisms and they are affecting your self-esteem, then the last resort would be to leave.

Especially if your parents are verbally or emotionally abusive, the more you should walk away from the situation and protect yourself. Don’t sit there and get caught in their rage. Don’t confront them as you’ll engage in an argument. Perhaps as a kid, you have no one to turn to and you have to suffer and bear the circumstances. But you are not a child anymore.

You have a choice now. You can change your position.

This is the biggest difference between adulthood and children. Now, you can survive on your own. You can get help from your friends and circle of trust.

If you feel guilty about abandoning your parents, you can ask your relatives to intervene and check on them. Someone who is of similar age as your parents such as your parents’ siblings or their friends would be better at persuading your parents to seek help from a mental therapist. It’s more difficult for you to persuade your parents because most parents believe they are the ones who are supposed to teach their children, not the other way round.

So it’s better for you to leave them and solicit help from another person.


Featured Photo Credit: Nika / Ivan Tokanawa

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