When Compliance in Childhood Haunts You in Adulthood

Child helping mother with choresWhat I am going to describe is what can happen when children grow up and begin to realize that they are not living their lives according to their own wishes and desires. They start to recognize that their sense of personhood—who I am and how I must be—is based on expectations learned in their earlier relationships with significant others. In therapy, they engage in a process that allows them to discover the ways in which they are controlled by what were spoken and unspoken expectations and the consequences of noncompliance. This was the work with a person I’ll call “Annie.”

Annie began therapy by expressing strong feelings of confusion and unhappiness about her sense of self:

“I’m so unhappy. I don’t know who I am and I can’t figure out what I want. Or if I think I want something, I’m never sure if it’s me who wants it, or my mother, or my husband. Everybody thinks I’m so wonderful: sweet, kind, easygoing. They have no idea how sad and irritable I feel. I find myself getting angry at everyone, but they don’t seem to deserve it and I don’t know why I’m angry. Who am I, anyway? What is wrong with me?”

Annie, a 48-year-old recently married woman, began to tell me how, since her marriage two years ago, she has been feeling increasing dissatisfaction in her life:

“I don’t get it. I met my husband Steve three years ago. We had a very strong, instant attraction and immediately started to see each other all the time. It felt wonderful to be together. He was funny and smart and he made me feel special. He was always saying how kind and sweet and thoughtful I was. We got along amazingly, never argued or disagreed. My parents loved him. After five months we were engaged, and married about five months after that. I think something started to change for me when we were planning the wedding.”

I asked Annie if she and Steve had conflicts about the wedding. She responded:

“It’s funny. Steve wasn’t very involved in the wedding plans. Me and my mom really put it all together. I don’t know. Maybe it started when Mom was so clear about what kind of wedding it should be. She wanted a large, fancy wedding. I was not a young bride, and I thought something small and more intimate would be better. But she was so excited and kept telling me that she was going to give me the wedding that she and my father never had. So I agreed to the big wedding. I think I was very used to saying yes to my mother, so I don’t think I let it register that it wasn’t what I wanted. At the time, it didn’t feel like a big deal. Looking back, after the wedding I started to feel more irritated toward anyone who told me what to do. It didn’t even matter whether or not I wanted to do it. I just wanted to say no to everything and everyone. I stopped making sense to myself. I didn’t feel like the nice, sweet Annie anymore. “

Annie and I began to explore the “nice, sweet Annie.” I asked: “Who is she and how did she get that way?”

Half smiling, half crying, Annie recalled that her parents used to sing made-up songs to her about “sweet little, kind little Annie” who everybody loved. She began to sing to me: “She’s sweet and neat and very, very good. Just ask anyone in the neighborhood …”

This cute, little song became central to our work. Annie and I began to look at her associations and memories as we unpacked the meanings the song evoked. Annie spoke of her close relationship to her parents and how wonderful it felt to be so loved. She began to wonder if she associated all the approval, love, and appreciation she got from her parents with the expectation that she be a good, nice, sweet girl:

“I have this very strong memory—I must have been 9 or 10—where I remember begging my mother to let me go for a weekend with my friend Ellen and her family. My mother didn’t want me to go and, very unlike me, I yelled at her and told her she was mean. She started to cry. My father was in the room with us and started to berate me. He told me, ‘You’re mean. How can you be so hurtful to your mother? She knows what’s best. You need to listen to her.’ I was devastated. I felt like such a bad person. I’m pretty sure I was crying and ran up to my mom and tried to hug her. She pushed me away and left the room. I felt so ashamed and sorry. It was awful.”

Over many sessions, Annie uncovered many meanings and expectations of what it meant to be a good girl: “Good girls listen to their parents. They are polite. They don’t get angry. They work hard in school. They are helpful. They don’t upset people. They don’t disappoint people. They don’t make people angry. They’re cheerful …”

Annie began to recognize that she was expected to fulfill these good-girl requirements or risk painful consequences: “I think the memory of my dad telling me I hurt my mother is significant. It was one of the worst moments of my life. I think I spent the rest of my life making sure my mother was not upset, hurt, angry, or had any bad feelings. I think I not only made sure I wasn’t the cause of any of her bad feelings, but I took on the job of protecting her from anyone else making her uncomfortable or unhappy.”

The more Annie and I talked, the clearer it became that she has been feeling pressure and anxiety to conform to those old good-girl requirements with “Steve,” her new significant other. She began to emotionally understand that the expectations she attributed to Steve belonged to the relationships with her parents, her earlier significant others.

The more Annie and I talked, the clearer it became that she has been feeling pressure and anxiety to conform to those old good-girl requirements with “Steve,” her new significant other. She began to emotionally understand that the expectations she attributed to Steve belonged to the relationships with her parents, her earlier significant others. She explained: “I feel pressure with Steve to be compliant and make sure he doesn’t have any bad feelings. Now I’m beginning to think this is not so much what Steve wants, but more about me and my parents. I think this is how I believed I had to be in any loving relationship. I’ve started to talk with Steve about this and I’m feeling less pressure to be the ‘good girl’ with him.”

Annie was beginning to make efforts to let Steve know her wishes even when she thought he would not approve. With Steve, she was becoming more comfortable allowing herself to discover her needs and wishes and to ask for what she wants. Her relationship with Steve is developing into an attachment that repeatedly confirms that she can experience acceptance and love in the face of not always being the “good girl.” This is helping Annie with her most noteworthy transformation: her evolving strength to tolerate her mother’s bad feelings and emotional withdrawal.

In contrast to her relationship with Steve, it is much more difficult to express her own opinions, needs, and desires around her mother. The old beliefs that she is responsible for her mother’s bad feelings and required to protect her mother from hurt and disappointment were internalized at a young age. Ideas about what is required of a good daughter are not easily transformed. Annie can acknowledge intellectually that it is not her job to keep her mother in an emotional comfort zone. She recognizes how her impulse to respond to her mother’s unspoken requests for soothing is triggered when her mother calls her to report an emotionally upsetting reaction to something. She is aware that when her mother is upset by something that occurs between them, she immediately feels responsible for causing the bad feelings and needs to act quickly to make her mother feel better.

She explained:

“I know I am feeling more anxious around my mother because now I’m aware of my conflict between wanting to take care of her feelings and wanting to be free to know what I want and be able to express it. Since we’ve been working together, I am much better at knowing what I want, but it mostly still feels too risky to not protect my mother. I feel like I must soothe her. I’m so afraid of her hating me. She can get very cold when she feels hurt, angry, or disapproving. It’s so scary to think of losing my mother.”

When Annie’s “good girl” behaviors toward her mother began to change, it was difficult for her to consider the possibility that her mother’s old responses could also change. It was helpful for Annie to accept that if she took small steps to express her own voice to her mother, she could test if there could be any change in her mother’s old emotionally abandoning responses. Annie has discovered that while her mother can get cold and dismissive, she recovers after rejecting Annie and can shift to being a more loving mother.

Annie continues to work on developing the ability to assert her individual self to her mother. She now understands that she has not only been protecting her mother, but has also been protecting herself from feeling emotionally abandoned by her. She knows she can’t significantly change her mother, but she has been slowly changing her own ability to withstand the intolerable fear of being abandoned and losing the emotional connection with her mother. Most essential in this process has been Annie’s growing ability to feel her emerging strength and resilience as she increasingly believes in her capacity to survive abandonment and be less frightened of asserting her own wishes and needs. This bodes well for her ability to develop and express all of her self states to others as she allows herself to engage more fully in the world.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • garrison

    August 19th, 2015 at 1:04 PM

    But for most of us we become what we learned in childhood, yes? And that isn;t always a bad thing

  • Kai

    August 19th, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    If we have been told all of our lives that it is up to us and our own behavior to make other people feel good about themselves, we really need to take a step back form that and remember that we are the ones who we need to make happy, not anyone else

  • Kalvinder

    October 25th, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    I agree with you Kai and yet I have others who think I have to put others needs first. No! It is up to them to look after their needs. I can only cope with me and my needs thank you.

  • Zeke

    August 20th, 2015 at 7:36 AM

    I guess I am sort of proud of the things that my family instilled in me when I was growing up so I have never had to face this.
    Now with that being said, I was never made to feel like I had to be someone else to make another person happy.

  • Myra G

    August 21st, 2015 at 8:13 AM

    Sad though when you eventually take an inventory of your life and you see that you are living not for yourself but for some idea of what another person wanted for you. Sometimes you come to that realization pretty early but then there are other times when you feel like you understand it too late and that your life could have been different had you started earlier living for yourself.

  • Lorissa

    August 22nd, 2015 at 5:39 AM

    I really enjoyed this article, it’s concise and such a true experience for so many people. I’m a parent of young children and it is quite a challenged to guide them and give boundaries without insisting on compliance…which means I get to do my own emotional work so that I can stay available to them. Not easy. Its no surprise to me that few parents can operate this way. Great article, I’m going to share it, thanks!

  • Sherri

    August 22nd, 2015 at 7:13 PM

    Thanks so much for validating me feelings and helping me better understand this complicated relationship with my mom. I don’t feel so guilty.

  • lola

    August 24th, 2015 at 4:16 PM

    Thank you for pointing out that just because you are able to grow and move on that there will always be those people in your life who may resent you for making that move and they may never be able to adjust to the change in roles that this could bring about.

  • Lindsey

    August 26th, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    I get so tired of the people in my life who always seem to make it all about them and never about me. Don’ t I ever get to be selfish too?

  • Kalvinder

    October 25th, 2015 at 11:01 AM

    Dear Lindsey,
    I can relate to your comment so well and I think my mum would also be able to and yet she made me conform as she expected herself to so never allowed me to be me and certainly I only felt loved and accepted when I was being a good girl and this is how I feel all the time even now as whenever I do anything others don’t expect of me they soon tell me. It’s their expectations they are projecting onto another. So keep being yourself and you will care less what others think. I hope so as that is what I am trying .

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