Why Can’t I Be Me: How Parents Can Stifle Individuation

Child with head downWhen I think of the people I work with in therapy, it is astonishing how many have had to grow up fearing a parent’s powerful responses if they fail to maintain their parent’s emotional equilibrium. Shame, anger, hurt, retaliation, and emotional and physical abandonment are just some of the serious consequences for children who attempt to be themselves in some families.

When subjected to these forms of physical and emotional mistreatment, children learn to protect themselves by becoming acutely sensitive to the feelings of their caregivers. To keep themselves safe, they quickly learn that they have the responsibility to soothe and get rid of their parent’s anger, hurt, uncertainty, confusion, and any other intolerable and unwanted feelings the parent may experience. If they can’t prevent unacceptable parental feelings, they must fix the parent’s feeling state through apology, soothing, or even acceptance of the parent’s lashing out with shaming, humiliating treatment.

If the child is unsuccessful at this, the parental assaults, sometimes subtle and other times powerful, convey many messages: “It’s your fault I’m hurt, upset, sad, etc.”; “You have failed in your responsibility to make me feel good”; “You are a bad person.” Most prominent is the message: “To safeguard my feelings, you must be who and what I need you to be.”

This has many repercussions for the development of the child’s identity, sense of self, and agency.

Living in Fear

Cynthia, 47, is married woman with an 11-year-old son, Jason. She describes herself as having been depressed and anxious for as long as she can remember. She attributes her severe anxiety to her relationship with her mother, who lives nearby. Cynthia explained why she decided to seek therapy:

“I have always been anxious and depressed. But I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve been careful around my mother my whole life. I’m so afraid to hurt her feelings or get her angry. I bend over backward to sound cheerful, never ask for anything, tell her how wonderful she is. Even when I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong, I always apologize. Now she is doing with my son what she has always done with me. She’s trying to run his life. She gets all weepy or angry and makes him feel like a bad person when he doesn’t go along with what she wants. My life goal has always been to keep my mother happy. I know I never let myself think about or go after what I wanted for myself. Now I can’t let her do that to my son. But it’s just so scary to try and protect him. She will tell me what a horrible mother I am and then get icy cold to me. I don’t think I can withstand that rejection. I probably am a terrible mother.”

Working with Cynthia, I soon discovered that her life was organized around her need to be vigilant. She rarely made a decision or undertook a meaningful action without obsessively worrying about how her mother would feel and respond:

“Jason has been begging Howard (her husband) and me to let him go to a travel camp this summer. His best friend is going, and they would mostly be going to some national parks out west. Howard thinks it’s a great idea. But I know my mom will think it’s dangerous and that he’s too young. If I don’t do what she thinks is best, my mom will be so hurt and upset. I’ll be the one who has made her an anxious mess. Then I will be a wreck. It scares me that I’m actually more worried about her feelings than about whether this is a good idea for Jason. I’m always thinking ahead about how everything will be seen by her. Her feelings rule my life. I know if I agree to let Jason go traveling, I will be attacked and then get the cold shoulder. It’s wrong that I’m more afraid of my mother making me feel so rejected and like such a bad person than I am about whether this is OK for Jason. I think I am even more afraid that if we send Jason to the camp, my mother will start on Jason like she has in the past. When he wants to do something that she doesn’t approve of, she gets that distant, frigid look and tells him that he is being mean to her and doesn’t love her. I don’t know what to do. I’m frightened all the time.”

In our therapeutic work, we began to realize how Cynthia’s vigilance was designed to protect her from the painful and frightening consequences of her mother’s behavior toward her. As we uncovered and explored Cynthia’s memories and associations, Cynthia became aware of how terrified she was of her mother. In one session, Cynthia began to cry and tremble as she recalled:

“I remember when I was in kindergarten—oh, it was so awful. I had peed in my pants, and the teacher was very kind. She called my mother to bring me some fresh clothes. All I can think of is my mother’s face when she showed up.”

Cynthia began to sob: “She looked so angry and scary. She took me into the bathroom at school and yanked my clothes off. She yelled at me and with a twisted face said something like, ‘How could you embarrass me like this? You are disgusting.’ I felt so ashamed and humiliated. I kept crying and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ ”

The more we talked and the more memories that Cynthia recalled, the clearer it was that Cynthia’s mother terrified her. Not only did Cynthia have to protect herself from repeated shaming, she always felt at risk of being abandoned by her mother emotionally and sometimes physically. Cynthia described how she knew she had to be good:

“One time, I must have been about 7 or 8; we had a housekeeper who gave me a present for my birthday. When my mother learned about it, she made me give it back. Then she screamed at me for taking something from someone who had no money. And yelled things like, ‘What kind of person are you?’ Then, as usual, she told me I had embarrassed her and that I didn’t deserve to have her for a mother. I think I remember being stunned. Then she slammed the door to my room and left the apartment. I was all alone. I don’t remember how long she was gone, but I was so frightened. I never knew what would set her off. But I soon understood that I was always in danger of being rejected or shamed and humiliated.”

Impact on Separation and Individuation

It is easy to understand how Cynthia’s fears necessitated compliance with her mother. The only means she had to protect herself was to live in her mother’s shoes and anticipate her wants, needs, and demands. Growing up, her emotional life was stunted. The constant need to be prepared to prevent or soothe her mother’s destructive behaviors had a huge mental and emotional cost.

Because Cynthia needed to be available for her mother’s use, her head was always preoccupied with anxieties about what her mother wanted and how to provide it. This left no emotional space to discover her own wishes and desires. Indeed, it would be dangerous to be too aware of being separate from her mother: to even know her own needs would run the risk of conflict and the painful consequences that would follow. This left Cynthia as a person who has no sense of herself as a person who knows who she is or what she wants.

As long as Cynthia succeeded in regulating her mother’s emotional state by keeping her feelings positive, Cynthia could stay safe. She could shield herself from the pain inflicted by her mother’s outbursts of terrifying feelings and reduce the risk of being rejected, as when her mother became cold and abandoned her emotionally or physically.

As Jason is getting older, it is becoming more difficult for Cynthia to maintain her disconnection from her own undeveloped self. While she has not had much opportunity to become a separate, individuated person, there are nascent wishes and dreams for herself that are beginning to emerge and grow. Her awareness of the destructiveness of her mother in relation to her son has helped her to emotionally understand what her own experience with her mother has been like and what the consequences have been. This has made it more difficult to ignore the steadily increasing volume of her own needs.

Cynthia is slowly becoming less afraid of her mother and of her own emerging, differentiated self. She wants something different for Jason: “I am going to try and fight for him. It is getting more scary to think that he is going to repeat my history than that I am going to be rejected by my mother.”

Cynthia understands that the power and hold of the early fears of her mother and the terror of shame and rejection are not easy to overcome. But the desire to help her son provides powerful motivation as she struggles to differentiate and separate. She knows that her challenge is to become less afraid so she can tolerate the feeling that she is harming her mother and will lose her if she asserts herself. Cynthia is committed to developing herself and learning who she is and what she wants.

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

© Copyright 2014 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
  • Lucia

    December 30th, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    I have a daughter who is definitely not a conformist, wants to do things her own way and for a long time I really struggled with this because it was so much different from who am or thought that I wanted her to be. Now I love it that she has her own ideas and likes to do tings in such an independent way.t makes me so proud to see that unique young girl that she is turning out to be.

  • Janie

    December 30th, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    It must be so terribly frustrating to have a parent that you have to worry about so much that you are not then allowed to be yourself.

  • Jennifer

    June 7th, 2019 at 10:25 PM

    Janie: It is absolutely frustrating. And debilitating, especially when making decisions. There’s a sort of brainwashing that results from this wiping out of one’s identity so the desires of the parent can take that place.

  • jim

    December 30th, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    I am not sure that many parents know where to draw the line between what they think is best for their kids and what actually is the best thing for them.

    I think that there are a lot of us who think that we have the best interest of the kids at heart when in actuality we are hurting them because we never give them a full chance to be what they want to be.

    I hope that my wife and I have done a little better at letting our boys spread their wings and fly than what we were given, but you know, they might always come back and say that they too felt stifled when growing up. I guess it is all about perception at times.

  • laura

    December 31st, 2014 at 8:37 AM

    how sad that she is already a mom herself and still has to worry about what her own mother will say about the parenting choices that she makes for the kids.

  • Pearlie

    December 31st, 2014 at 12:53 PM

    I am sorry, I know that this happens all of the time but IO would never want for my children to have to carry the weight of the things that I deal with emotionally on my shoulders.

    Why on earth would I ever wish to have my problems become their problems? How is that approach ever going to help anyone other than to continue to be a crutch for me but such a hindrance for them?

  • Martha S.

    December 31st, 2014 at 2:25 PM

    There will hopefully come a time in all of our lives when we find the courage to move forward from what we were taught as a child.
    We could have been treated badly by our parents and that could have stunted us for a very long time
    However do we have to let this thing hold us back forever? I choose to think not, that I am a grown up now and that it is time for me to make my own choices about who I wish to be, and what I was molded as as a child does not have to continue to shape me into my adult years.

  • Natalie

    January 3rd, 2015 at 4:59 PM


  • Jennifer

    June 7th, 2019 at 10:34 PM

    I don’t disagree exactly, but sometimes the will isn’t enough. Parents who do this really mess with the child ‘s cognitive abilities and emotional control. Their identity is enmeshed with the parents.

  • Carrington

    January 2nd, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    I want my children to be good and honest people and I would never think to stifle who they are and need to be just to suit my own needs. I am an adult and as far as I can tell I am supposed to not only take care of myself but I am the one who should be taking care of my children and not causing the roles to have to be reversed.

  • Cheryl C

    January 5th, 2015 at 3:58 PM

    This might not be the answer that many of you are looking for but as a mom I know that there were times that I tried to get my own children to conform to the norm just because I know that it would make things easier for them to fit in if they would. Maybe you think that that is narrow minded and that’s okay, but I remember vividly the kids who did not fit in at school and how hard of a time they had and I did not want that for my kids. I wanted things to go smoothly for them and when I thought that my advice might help them then I was all about giving it to them. I don’t think that there was any one time that I blatantly would not let them be themselves, but I did try to steer them down the path that maybe pink hair or too many piercings weren’t always the best idea.

  • KP

    May 3rd, 2015 at 3:09 PM

    My 22 year old son has estranged himself from me. With time I realize that his father’s early death, my in laws’ distorted presence in my son’s life and yes some of my character defects have resulted in this estrangement as a part of his individuation. I was a pretty liberal parent – and raised them to make choices and understand consequences. Looking back, I realize his temperament and mine are completely different – he is stoic and thoughtful; I am passionate and extroverted. Despite all my years of therapy, I did not have the coping skills or insight to nurture him in the best way as he will readily claim as soon to be BA in psych. But I did do the best I could – at various conflicts in his life. Still I feel like he is gaslighting the past and lacks gratitude or even recognition for the things I did do correctly as a parent, albeit imperfectly.

  • Angle H.

    April 2nd, 2017 at 2:20 AM

    I’m not positive where you are getting your info, however great topic.I must spend some time learning much more or working out more.Thanks for wonderful info I used to be in search of thisinformation for my mission.

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