Outgrowing Your Parents

During a recent session, Becca (mid-20s) was describing a typical argument with her mother. She and her mom have a close but combative relationship; in their fights, Becca often feels frustrated at her mom’s immaturity. Becca’s parents have been divorced for many years and her mother has drifted from one low-level job to another, never fulfilling her early potential, largely because of impulsive or ill-considered choices that involved taking the easy way out. Since therapy began, Becca has worked hard to overcome similar tendencies in her own character and has done remarkably well in a difficult career.

Becca’s mother often gives unwanted advice that Becca finds irritating. “Look at what she’s done with her own life,” she told me in session. “Who is she to give me advice about how to run mine?”

“Maybe you’ve outgrown your mom,” I said to Becca. “You keep wanting her to be more the kind of mother you wished you’d had, someone you could respect, but the truth is, you’ve grown beyond her. You’re the more emotionally mature and successful person.”

Becca looked startled and unhappy. “That’s kind of depressing,” she said. It made her feel both sad and guilty, that she should be growing beyond her mother in emotional maturity. She didn’t want to accept that her mother would never grow into a person she could look up to.

Becca’s reaction and the rest of that session reminded me of a dream I had almost 30 years ago. Like Becca, I would have been in my mid-20s, and five or six years into my own therapy. It must have been around the time I decided to become a therapist. Here’s the dream:

I’m standing on a crude flat-bottom boat in a swamp or bayou, right at the shoreline. It’s one of those boats you navigate by pushing a long pole into the lake bottom; a man stands behind me and has begun to pole us away from the shore. The rest of my family stands on the shoreline. As we pull further and further away from the shore, I feel deeply sad. Guilty, too. I feel as if I’m abandoning my family and that I ought to go back for them. But I know there’s not enough room for them in the boat. Even if there were, their feet seem to be stuck in the glue-like mud. There’s no hope for escape.

I had only one association to the dream: its location made me think of squalid parts of the rural South where people live in ignorance and poverty.

Even though it’s been nearly 30 years, I have a vivid recollection of that dream. I well remember what my analyst said. He told me that after a number of years of our work together (he was the man behind me with the pole), I’d grown emotionally, to such an extent that I felt I was leaving my family of origin behind. As I became healthier, I left the illness and dysfunction behind me, on my way to something better, while everyone else in my family remained “stuck” in an emotional backwater of ignorance and mental illness. I felt saddened by this movement away, and guilty to be leaving them behind.

As I write these words, that dream still makes me sad. When I look at the lives of my nieces and nephews today, I see the dysfunction getting worse. It’s what I felt back then — so much pain and confusion, too many drugs, periods of complete emotional chaos. I’ve done well for myself and I’m grateful for the life I have, but at the point when I truly separated from my family and moved on emotionaly, as it were, I felt sad and guilty about it.

For many of us who get therapy and truly grow, it often means leaving our families of origin behind. I don’t mean that we permanently break off contact, although with deeply narcissistic or toxic parents, that may be necessary. I didn’t stop seeing my parents, but I usually felt as if I were humoring my father and keeping my mother at a distance. I still loved my family, but in many ways, being around them made me feel how little we had in common. In later years, my sister, brother and I found meaningful ways to re-connect but I never again felt much emotional contact with my parents.

This kind of separation is different from the way many teens reject their parents or treat them with contempt. In such cases, they’re usually struggling to establish their own independent identity and feel they must separate forcefully; it’s often temporary, a “phase” as they say. The grief and guilt of outgrowing your parents also differs from the very normal way that children come to view their parents as quaint and out-of-date — to mothball them, as I described it in an earlier post. Separation and gaining independence are a normal part of development; a phase of feeling superior to your parents helps you to break free of childhood. Feeling grief and guilt because you’ve grown beyond a mentally ill family system is quite another matter.

Becca has just begun this transition. I think she’d still very much like to feel she has a “real” mother, someone older and wiser to be relied upon for guidance, rather than someone who seems more like a girlfriend most of the time. Because she’s not yet fully confident in her own “adult” abilities, Becca doesn’t feel ready to accept her mother for who she is, rather than the person Becca would like her to be. But that time will come. There’s more grief and guilt ahead for her.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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58 comments

    im in my late 20s and i have experienced this feeling a lot… it was like my parents were younger immature siblings… i wanted to look up to them, i didnt have that independent flair but it was thrusted onto me! it was sad being able to see their cluelessness… similar to you, i humor my mom and keep my dad at a distance now… my therapist says i am probably the most evolved person in the family system… but encourages me to “wake up” my parents by changing ways on which i relate and interact with them…

    im currently working with two clients… early 20s who have essentially taken care of their parents. they feel bad for moving on, for growing so much, and even guilty for their personal and academic successess… how can we grow beyond the people who were godlike in our eyes as infants? with a lot of sadness, i have wished i could go to my parents for advice, and wished they could be my rocks and i’ve been envious of friends who continue to seek guidance from their parents.

    I know how you feel. I often used to feel envious of friends whose parents were the kind of parents I wished I had. Although I wouldn’t have gone to them for emotional guidance, I did have my in-laws while they were living. They were cultured, well-read and well-traveled, much more than me, and I always looked up to them in a way. I miss my father-in-law more than my own father. Sad.

    Nice post – I am happy I encountered this website.
    I am also happy not to be the only one encountering this issue in my mid-20s! There is a lot of talk and independence. But how can you break away from an immature parent who has not done any work on their own issues, but who has given you enormous gifts such as encouraging your independence of thought and freedom of choice in mostly any of your life choices (albeit, clearly, with some injection of their “opinion”, but ultimate acceptance of their child’s decision-making). I find myself clinging to a double-edged sword: I have intellectual and choice freedom, which come at the hard price of little emotional support, but I financially depend on my only parent. I stopped blaming my parent for being unable to give me emotional support, but, like the person in the post, I find it hard to distance myself from the hurt caused by the insensible “unwanted advice” or “advice that is unobjective and overly anxious as of their apprehension for my wellbeing” my only parent gives, always with the wrong timing. I look up to my parent for their achievements in life, and they are my first point of advice for practical/career issues in life, but I don’t look up to them as a person. Breaking away is terribly hard, given that I need financial support for the long and time-consuming career I have chosen to embark on, and which matters to me greatly. In breaking away, I am terribly afraid of losing even that minor and rare emotional support I obtain from my only parent. I do not have a partner, nor do I want to be reliant on someone else for my own emotional wellbeing if I should find one – probably because I ultimately prize too high the independence I have been given. Yet what scares me the most from the possibility of breaking away is not the loss of financial help, however very terribly daunting, but the loss of being able to call a parent when in distress, and maybe one time out of five being able to get a word of support, be it humanly felt or simply intellectual support. The loss of family. That is priceless, and losing that one time out of five – that scares me. I “rebelled” in the past – but I was younger, and still growing up, and my parent ended accepting my direction in life, eventually. Now I am much closer to the adult I want to be, and I am deeply afraid that breaking away can be definitive, in that my parent will feel that this time their child is a well-rounded person and not an adult in the making. I thought about taking my parent to one side, or writing to them, and telling them how I feel. How I keep silent because my priority in life is my career. How I do not respond to their irrational reactions because I know no discussion on an equal basis can ensue. Because I know they built a wall around their own weaknesses. How I hope that they can start questioning how the people around them might feel as a result of their behaviour/comments/way of reacting. Yet, I believe that it is me who need to change and break away mentally – and once that process is complete, they might feel the difference. Any comment would be greatly appreciated!

    Wow, this is a really good message from you. I am going to share it with someone who I THINK is still trying to get approval from her family and she is beyond them but does not realize it
    I can also apply this to myself with my family, i miss my family but they just have never moved beyond all the dysfunction, and I AM the only one who got help. It makes me extremely sad many times but i accept it.

    I made the same realisation at around the age of twenty one. It left me somewhat uncertain, the absence of a safety net if you will beneath all of my endeavors. There was a period of turmoil in which I distanced myself from them, but occasionally the longing to be loved and understood sent me back only to find new disappointments. I learned to be my own parent in a way and the anxiety of out growing my own parents diminished. On occasion, across my twenties, when I saw how a few of my good friends interacted with their competent parents I felt a cavern of emptiness beneath my ribs. It doesn’t hurt any more, nor has it done for some years since. I suppose I look at my parents more objectively, just people moving through life, making decisions with the tools they posses, sometimes getting things right, sometimes getting things wrong. And so it is the same with me.

    That objective view of your parents you were ultimately able to reach is so difficult to attain. It means letting go of any kind of expectation, giving up hope that they will ever become “competent” parents. Of course that’s the appropriate, rational response … just difficult to do. Sounds like you got there on your own, which is even more impressive. If my therapist hadn’t been there, helping me along, I’d probably still be hoping.

    Oscar Wilde said it best, as he so often did:
    ‘There’s only one thing worse than a bad childhood, a good one’.

    Sometimes Oscar strikes me as surprisingly profound; at others, I wonder if he’s only trying to sound clever by saying something unexpected. Is having a happy childhood really worse than having a bad one? I doubt it.

    I don’t know. Of course, Wilde’s point is that our childhood and our parents must be transcended, and maybe it’s easier to do that if one’s childhood is something one would be glad to escape rather than loathe to relinquish.

    I discovered your page a week ago! And find it to be totally honest, true and selfless. It really takes a lot to put yourself out there emotionally and you have totally captured it! I’m in a phase of transitioning to that after psychotherapy phase and I truly thank u for ur site. This is my first comment. This story truly touched me! And u put in such a relatable way. Many people struggling with such feelings and it is difficult to accept when you emotionally outgrown your parents and come into your own right. We all have that inner child looking for acceptance and there comes a time and place when u find true healing with a good therapist and realise u are not in this life for your parents but for yourself. Interesting how many people relate to their mid twenties as the phase in life where this happens. I called it my quarter life crisis. A lot of these feelings are difficult and hard to accept and make sense of. As I near 28 and after a year of good therapy with an excellent psychiatrist your words truly hit the nail on the head. I’m in africa where a lotta ppl tend not to get help and make sense of such feelings and swallow up their feelings. There are truly not enough professionals to help. I’m glad I found ur site! Can’t wait to read and learn more from your articles. So many of us get caught up in life from a young age in feelings of expectation… This even from formative years, to careers then u land up in life with little fulfilment n try make sense of how to pick up the pieces. It’s truly a freein moment when you realise u outgrow your parents, personal and external expectations and reach a place where you prioritize your own personal fulfilment.

    You’re right, it’s a very freeing moment, though not without its pains and regrets. Do you mind telling me in which country you live? It’s always gratifying to find a reader on another continent.

    Hi Joseph! I stay in Zimbabwe actually! We only have 6 registered psychiatrists and a few psychologists! A few good ones though! But glad mine was the best! Really good at psychotherapy even though they are a psychiatrist. For years I struggled with depression and finding appropriate help. But after a year I have found myself free and able to open up. Really invaluable what information and help one can get from the Internet and great sites like yours! I totally agree, though freein in the long run, the road is not without turmoil and pain. Ultimately it is Worthit!

    I have the same experience with my parents. I feel like I have always been the “grown up” in my family. I feel lucky to have had the guts and smarts to have gotten help and grown up emotionally beyond my parents and siblings. They in fact found it threatening in many ways that I sought out help and have grown beyond them. I find it very sad sometimes still. Both of my parents are still alive and our contact is very minimal. Holidays and birthdays etc…. I know they try to love me in their own way but they really don’t. I would never think of calling my parents for comfort or solace or support. They really do not know how to be nurturing. They never have. I have this feeling they are sad too but I have tried so much to reach out and it just hurts. So I have given up. I also envy those close families I see… For you Joe or other commenters, does your own created family of make up for this a bit? I have step kids and have a somewhat close relationship with them but am really the 3rd parent and they have a great Mom so I also have a deficit on that side. Does the relationship with your own adult children somewhat make up for the lack of relationship with your parents? Just wondering.

    It definitely has for me. As I said in an earlier reply, it was healing for me to be a better parent and I take great joy in my children as they enter upon adulthood.

    It’s weird how when you become a parent, you start to revisit and evaluate the relationship you have with your own parents all over again. I have two young kids, a son and a daughter. I am surprised to find myself comparing myself so much to my mother. I keep thinking “I would do anything to protect my little, helpless daughter. Why didn’t my Mom save me from my abusive father? What was wrong with her? Why would she let that happen to me?”

    I know I have surpassed my mother, at least as a parent, because I at least had the guts to fight tooth and nail to protect my son from his dangerous father once the truth about his violent personality came to light. I have lost many nights of sleep worrying about upcoming court dates or hearings to try to get a restraining order to protect my son and myself from my son’s father. But I did it. I did it because I didn’t want my son to grow up like I did. And then I start to feel angry all over again–at my mother and at my father. I have such powerful feelings of protectiveness towards my children. Why didn’t my parents feel that way about me?

    I try to keep an objective point of view, like what Warren talked about. But becoming a parent seems to reawaken anger and resentment that I thought had died.

    I think it’s difficult to account for people like you who emerge from such bad parenting experiences to be much better parents than there own. Maybe it’s because we want to re-parent ourselves via our children.

    My parents had me when they where 40. I’m now 22. I fear my parents will die before I can outgrow them completely.
    I wish I where on that boat because I feel like I’m running out of time to make my life better. Either way, the death of my almost retired parents will inevitably separate them from me (something that my father reminds me of every time I need him).
    It makes me wonder whether the guilt felt by those who separate themselves from their family is caused by a feeling that their parents are dying prematurely because of them.
    In your dream you mention your family being stuck to the beach. I must say that reminds me of quicksand.

    Thanks Joe this is a highly relevant issue for me at the moment.
    Both of my parents passed by the ti e I was in my mid 20s and I recall around the time my father died (my mother died first) I was now the “last frontier” so to speak. But over time I’ve realised none of the adults in my family were the stronger, older, wiser beings. That from an early age I was the one helping my parents and family understand their own emotional life rather than the other way around. Seeing my extended family as they really are – dysfunctional, narcissistic, selfish, abusive and vindictive I wonder how I managed to avoid being sucked into that and I also realise how much hatred I have for them.

    I oscillate in and out if the deep pain Warren described when I see friends my age who have parents who are the older, wiser beings and wonder why me? I feel like I’ve missed out on so much and that im seeing how useless and invaluable my family of origin are.

    I share your feelings. For me, there has been a kind of healing in being a better parent than my own and feeling good about it.

    Tere is some solace in being a good parent to your own child.
    I hav a parental death anniversary approaching and I’ve recently developed an appropriate and sane hatred of my parents. I’m now seeing that the grief I experience around this time is not for my parents but for the fact that I NEVER had parents and I’ve been carrying a child part around with me screaming “if SOMEONE doesn’t love me I will die”. But it’s a need for unrequited parental love that I can’t get or really take in at this stage of life. The thought of fully confronting this is beyond terrifying.

    I can very much identify with this post. My parents did not encourage independence but rather gave me the role of being the parent not only to them but to my brother as well. I did not move out on my own until I was 28yrs old. The guilt and sorrow I felt was beyond painful. My family looks to me for everything, it seems as if they have taken on the role of being “handicap” and the weight of that is unbearable at times. I have slowly distanced myself from them and try to keep healthy boundaries, I have been doing very well so far. While I am extremely relaiable is my public life I seem to struggle greatly with “taking care of myself”. I excel at taking care of others – this is my biggest hurdle. I have issues identifying what I am feeling at times. I am aware that something is bothering me at times, and I know because fo the “signs” not sleeping, overeating, shopping etc. It breaks my heart when I think about this issue in my life.

    That’s unfortunately what happens when parents reverse the usual roles and expect the child to look after them. Rather than learning to identify their own feelings and needs, such children become focused on the needs and feelings of others.

    “Rather than learning to identify their own feelings and needs, such children become focused on the needs and feelings of others.”
    Isn’t that what we culturally praise and admire? What we deem as heroic and selfless?
    Isn’t focusing on the needs of others the opposite of narcissism? Why shouldn’t we encourage children to look outside themselves, to not think about themselves?
    Isn’t focusing on others’ needs how one finds fulfillment and happiness?

    You’re confusing two different things, one cultural and one of the product of early upbringing. I don’t believe in selflessness, I don’t believe in “happiness” as an attainable condition, and I don’t believe that focusing on other people’s needs in a selfless way is fulfilling.

    Appreciate the timeliness of this post to my personal life. I just started following your blog a few weeks ago and I’m glad I chose to keep track of what you are putting out there. Thank you.

    I would like to thank you for your honesty and talking about your experiences. I’m sure you are a great therapist , one who talks and helps people (having been there) from experience and not just textbooks.
    I’ m in my late 40’s and missed being helped at the age of 20, seeing an inexperienced therapist.
    I had to ‘wait’ for the next cycle ( midlife). I have learned soo much and grown soo much. I never heard about emotional abuse before and reading, understanding about did put things in perspective ( Alice Miller books).
    It gave me the courage finally to break with my mother. I did try to talk to her, but she doesn’t understand, leaving me no choice but to decide not be in contact anymore. Hard. Do I feel guilty, sad? A little, but not too much as I am convinced I made the right decision.
    It’ s diffucult towards my children(21 and 18) as I do not want to take their grandmother from them. I did tell them that I do not expect them to understand, but to respect my decision. Of course I’m worried that she is going to use my kids emotionally. I like to think that I have become a better parent, not perfect but good enough. Because what you have ‘ learned’ as a child you repeat unconsciously. I like to think that I have the tools to support my kids . I also seem to learn a lot from their comments about me. Not always easy, but on reflection they do have a point.
    I also strongly believe that we are their to support and guide our children. Not make decisions for them, they somehow ‘know’ best. I’ am very much in the phase of ‘letting go’ of my children. Again as a ‘staying at home ‘ not easy but very neceassary.

    It certainly sounds as if you’re a much better mother than your own. If your mother tries to manipulate your kids and use them emotionally, they’ll have your example to show them that they need to take care of themselves.

    I have a mother who will never be the reliably, nurturing parent I have always wanted her to be. I grew up afraid of her–never quite sure which “mommy” I would find to greet me in the morning. Have grown tremendously in my own parenthood journey and therapy. Also find that I have accumulated several “substitute Mommies” along my lifetime: loving teachers, friends of parents, older friends and inlaws…and a good therapist (a man, incidentally). In my college years, the emotional draw I had towards these women confused me–I did not understand the drive for (emotional) intimacy I hungrily craved from them. Did that say something about my sexual orientation that I was not aware of? As an older, wiser adult, I now see that I was simply longing for and gravitating towards that which I did not have earlier. Highly recommend “taking” nurturing from other adults when available–in mindful ways–to get those unmet needs met.

    Thank you, Dr. Burgo, for sharing your life experience, wisdom and caring. This is a timely piece for me to read as I have recently had to confront the same issues and painful feelings. It is comforting to have these feelings validated by you and your readers, and to know that it is possible to overcome them through knowledge, understanding and acceptance.

    I find your posts so validating. I’m also ‘after psychotherapy’ as I did have a good psychoanalyst for many years who saved my life. I moved to a rural area a few years ago where people have no understanding of toxic, narcissistic families (although many of them exist around here).
    It’s lonely as there’s no-one to talk to about these type of families and my views are unorthdox. I often have to keep quiet about what I really think!
    It’s also lonely because i have grown way beyond my family and am now estranged from them – didn’t really have a choice, they treated me so badly.
    Also the worst aspect for me is seeing the same horrors repeated in the lives of my nephews and nieces. Simply heartbreaking.
    Thanks for this blog – i feel less lonely and less crazy!

    You’re welcome. I can relate to what you say about your nieces and nephews. It truly is heartbreaking.

    Still a newbie and readin all the comments… It seems to me like a lot of people still do revisit these feelings and memories when it comes to emotional attachment to their parents when they become parents themselves… Wondering wha the best way to not worry at all about this and maintain a state where u have truly outgrown your parents emotionally. To such a point where u revisit those emotions from a stand point of true growth.

    First, the comment “squalid parts of the rural South where people live in ignorance and poverty” might be explained so I don’t come away with the impression that the people of my region are still being stereotyped as “stuck in the mud” mentalities..While poverty does indeed contribute to many of the points you raised in your points I certainly would appreciate you not treating it as a universal truth in 2013.
    Also, I feel this post raised many things I could identify with as a young woman approaching her mid-twenties and struggling to form an identity away from parents, especially a mother, who has become dependent on my attentiveness and companionship throughout my teen years but needing to fill a void that has been created by loss of many close family members and an unfulfilling marriage with my father. Breaking away is especially hard when one’s mother verbally expresses a lack of will to live at the thought of being left behind as a result of me finally leaving the nest. Overall a great thought-provoking post, I wish the best for all who are in a similar scenario as I am because it is often seen as an immense burden to take a leap of faith and assert some selfish behaviors to better one’s own future.

    Good point about the rural South. Remember I was in my mid-20s when I had this dream and knew virtually nothing about the South. All I had was stereotypes and my dream imagery was probably informed by movies I’d seen.

    I, too, really appreciated this post. I did cut off contact with my toxic parents over a decade ago, but the internal battles with them in my mind continued. I really appreciate what Sara has commented above about the positivity of finding surrogate parental figures along the way, as I have certainly done this in so many relationships (not always with good “relationship antennae” because of my dire past – but often with really lasting benefits of receiving love, guidance, self-affirmation etc.) and I’ve often felt ashamed of needing this. In my current counselling (not therapy, but “coping counselling” once a month), my counsellor recently told me she feels like my mother sometimes. I was a little embarrassed by her saying this, but, after the embarrassment, really touched, as I realized that she doesn’t mean she sees me as a helpless child – she often recognizes my resilience and strengths as a career woman and a single mum of two small children living in a foreign country – or “too needy” when she says she feels like my mum, she meant it in a positive way, as a bond of care (so different from my real mother).

    Also, Dr Burgo, I have been meaning to apologize to you and may as well do so here (whether or not this comment gets published). A long time back when you posted about the rejection of your book by a publisher and also some posts about narcissists, I was having a deep battle about wanting to follow my heart/intuition/ common sense and leave a job where I was ALWAYS having to alter my values to please managers, managers who included two very toxic, bullying and narcissistic characters. I was trying to deny the harm the job was doing to me as it felt overwhelming to change and I think I took this out on you, because your analysis on here also pointed towards a change for me (in not-very-supportive comments around your book launch – I am sorry). I am pleased to say I bit the bullet and quit the job and have found other work and am much happier (so, thanks, as well).

    Hey Dr. Burgo, thanks again for that example from your daily practice.reminds me so much of myself!
    In my early twenties I came to understand, like so many others here, that I won´t ever be able to change my parents so they would eventually become my ideal version of competent and grown up people. My entire life I felt more or less contemptuous towards my parents since they never managed to work as a “team” togehther and always got absorbed in their own fights with each other. As a child of a weak and highly anxious mother and a choleric father I tried to correct all those imbalances and emotionally strained situations by getting involved in those fights. I kind of puffed myself up into someone who would challenge and mediate with them all the time hoping that finally they would act more maturely. Of course that was a pretty exhausting strategy and for quite a long time I didn´t notice that in many situations I would provoke the complete opposite, but I just wanted them to change so badly, no matter how. Now in my late twenties I´m learning to cope with these feelings a bit better. At times it still can feel humiliating to see your own parents argue and act like children, sometimes I feel ashamed for they are MY parents. When I´m visiting them or we meet each other and the mood between us all gets stired up, I try in a way to “zoom” out adopting a rather observing attitude. What an achievment in 27 years :) I´d like to be more easy-going with them and more tolerant, I hate how hard I can be on them. I wonder how I could develop that easiness…

    many regards from Dresden!

    I broke off contact with my abusive and narcissistic father last October. I have been in therapy dealing with this for three years. I fought with the decision to break off contact for years. I’ve never been one to fantasize about a dream wedding, but I kept waiting for him to be a man that I would be proud to walk me down the aisle, and the more time that went on with him being abusive, the more I realized that wasn’t going to happen. So I finally took the plunge and, predictably, all hell broke loose. I’ve been banned from family events because of what I did, but I don’t regret it (for the most part). It’s just the grief, as you so accurately state, that’s so hard to come to terms with. I still haven’t fully accepted what I lost because of him, as well as what I never had.

    My mother doesn’t know the full extent of everything he did to me when I was younger, so, even though she knows he’s abusive in some ways, she wanted me to try to patch things up with him, or at least give a better explanation as to why I was cutting him off. And I did, but only to try and save her from the verbal abuse he constantly dishes out at her (they are divorced but have a long-distance work-related relationship). Of course, it didn’t work, but I was blamed for that, too. And so then there was the added grief that I couldn’t help her understand my decision, either, because she was (is) still so enmeshed with him. I had to come to terms with the fact that there was only so much I could do to help her, too.

    I still often wonder if I gave in too soon, if I didn’t give him enough of a chance. Maybe it’s just me trying to escape that grief. Because grieving those losses is unbearable to me. Thanks for this post – it helps to know that the grief and guilt I feel is a normal part of this process. Sometimes the guilt feels like it’s my mind’s way of telling me that I made the wrong choice.

    No, that’s wrong. You didn’t make a mistake. If you’d made a mistake, your father would have fought harder to find out why you were breaking things off rather than turning on you.

    I very recently had a dream eerily similar to the one you describe, identical in symbolism if not context. By way of working with a therapist on issues related to an abusive and thoroughly distasteful childhood, I’m in the process of grieving this very loss. In about half a year, several decades of persistent self-serving fantasies about my parents being competent and caring have crumbled before my eyes. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprised that I’ve suffered numerous sleepless nights, vivid dreams, and depressive malaise throughout this time. Fantastic delusions have a powerful grip for a reason — losing your family of origin to death, ostensibly people who brought you into this world with a sense of wonder and love, would be one thing. Never having your family care about you in the first place, being left to your own devices to imagine a suitable alternative, and then having to reckon with the past in order to recognize your own strengths that could be resourced in the present — that’s an entirely other thing. I want to believe the grief will soon be resolved, perhaps even replaced with relief over coming to terms with reality, but it’s a tough one to hang in there for.

    If your experience is anything like mine, it will happen. It sounds like you’re on the right path.

    I really resonate with this blog post. I have felt for years that I outgrew most of my family, especially my mother, who has been both a driving force in my life but also a detrimental one. She had been living on disability since she was a teen. She struggled with untreated mental illness that lead to her death this February.

    I found out that my mother was an addict at the age of 10. After that, I fought to be as different as her as possible, striving to be her complete opposite. For most of my life, I blamed my mom for who she could never possibly be. I held her to high standards that were unattainable for her and when she could not satisfy them, I got mad. This was all an unconscious process taking place. It wasn’t until I started receiving treatment for my own mental illness that I recognized how much I outgrew my mom at a young age. This was part of the reason this unconscious battle with my fantasy mother and my real mother came to existence in the first place.

    What makes me so sad is to recognize mental illness, emotional immaturity, and chaos in the rest of my family as well. I try not to grow too big of a head, and being humble is important to me. I do recognize, though, how different I am from them. It makes me feel frustrated to know that I cannot do anything about it. I resonate with the interpretation of your dream, Dr. Burgo, because I feel I am going through the same thing. I don’t want to leave them behind, but sometimes you don’t have much choice if you are to grow as a person.

    Becca’s story is also very much like mine. Most people feel that they were let down by their parents in some way, but a lot of people still have “good enough” parents. It’s different, though, when you have a mom like Becca’s and mine. It’s such a sad thing to realize how the fantasy and hopes about your mom will never be true. I think there is much growth, however, in learning to be OK with who your mom/parent is/was. It brings much self-acceptance and personal growth as well. I wasn’t able to do that before my mom passed away, but I really hope Becca can come to that place soon.

    I don’t know if I ever really accepted the fact that I had outgrown my parents until I’d read these posts. But reading them now is something of a relief. When you evolve beyond the people in your life, whether it’s parents or siblings or even friends, you tend to feel like you’re the one with the problem. Because these same people resist acknowledging your growth as a person, and instead come to resent it and treat you as if you’ve betrayed them.

    I had to draw some hard lines in the sand with my father a few years back, and the thing that still pains me about having to do that is that I’d always wanted him to be the kind of person I could turn to for advice, who could help me make sense of the things I was going through (I’m now 55). But whenever I’d bring up anything “awkward” or “unpleasant,” he’d inevitably lash out at me and make me feel ashamed for having any problems at all–as if having a problem was a problem in itself.

    I realize now that even in college, I was needing a place where I could breathe, where problems could be discussed openly, and constructively. But this is not a need that my family ever acknowledged, or valued, and so I came to think of it as a form of weakness, which I’ve always kept hidden from them, and still do. The price I pay for this is that they never will really know me the way I want to be known. That for me is the real tragedy.

    I know the blog has moved on, yet reading about your dream reminds me of the mythology of Nessus/Hercules (Hercules one of the Sun Heroes from Greek mythology) – and the ‘Shirt of Nessus’. Rich symbology. Nessus was a ferryman.

    We may have moved on but I’m always reading new comments. Could you say more about that myth and what you think it symbolizes? I’m unfamiliar with it.

    I am 40 and only just untangled myself enough from my mothers lies and manipulations as well as personal issues to realise the years of abuse and neglect and not to blame myself. What are the challenges of starting this process at age 40? It’s not that I’m unaware of things in general, but I struggled with depression all of my life and for the first time I am not depressed so it’s like other, deeper things are uncovering themselves. It’s a bit depressing in itself, thinking that I have to start this process of acknowledging and dealing with an awful mother, at this age.

    I’m moving thru your posts, as you can see.
    I live with my daughter ( and other children, a couple of sons come and go- it’s sort of a compound, with a few spectate structures), and her daughter.
    This child is four now. Her father is involved in her life. But her main family is my daughter, me and her uncles. I have been very present these last four yes, helping my daughter( who is 25, studying to be a nurse), bringing into the situation my many yrs of parenting knowledge,
    Not in any way overwhelming my daughters situation, position, as mother. Helping as I can along the way.. Giving her breaks, etc.. Loving my granddaughter .
    This child is an amazing child. Intelligent, happy, plays games with her toys, gives us all such pure love. Loves her mum, but stands her own ground ( what she wants to wear etc).
    There has been little anger, fear, isolation in this child’s life.
    Guess my point, if I have one, is that rearing a child well, takes more than two people to do it well.. Of course, some people( I assume), have the ability to manage it.
    It will be interesting to watch this child grow, to see who she becomes.
    I know looking at capitalist structures, not really your thing, Joe. But to me, trying to rear children well, in the structure of the nuclear family- is very very difficult..

    I think that’s very true, Dolma. We essentially had no grandparents or extended family to help us and it was extremely difficult. Sounds like you and yours are doing a great job.

    I find it rather serendipitous that I have found your website, and this article, specifically, exactly a year after it was originally published. I am exactly where Becca is, maybe a little further on, mourning the fact that my mother never will be the parent that I wish I had. I’m also in my mid-twenties, and have felt torn between my desire to move on and my guilt at doing so.

    Like you, I had a dream that personified that feeling. It was different from yours, in that I was begging my mother to understand. I asked her, in the dream, if we could try taking care of each other. She shrugged it off, and said a simple, cold “Nope.” I wept and wailed and carried on in the dream, but then I felt this separation. There’s no other word for it. Emotional divorce, maybe. That was about a week ago, and I’ve been struggling with that ever since.

    So, I typed in “outgrowing your parents” into Google, and was brought here. Every word of your article rang true, and I’m glad to be making this progress that I clearly, sorely need.

    Thank you.

    I am going through this this year.i have outgrown both my parents.especially my mum.no matter how much I tell her I appreciate her she thrives on conflicts only.she is a bully too.it gets worse when they are a team with my dad.i never knew family ties can be a real heartbreak.i feel bad for my younger brother.he got affected much earlier and did not do so well in school.now his future needs so much work if it should get better.and my mum is still very defensive and adamant in her position it makes me mad to think about her immaturity.am glad I bumped into these comments.

    Thank you for sharing, Joseph! I’m in my early 20’s and recently reconnected with my father who lives overseas and have an abusive mother with a low-paying job. It’s comforting to know that I’m actually YOUNGER than most the people in this post – as opposed to the convention that once you move out of the house you should be 100% self-sufficient and just leave all the pain in the past. It’s impossible, especially when you have to rely on your family for anything (in my case college tuition) and this takes away some of that guilt. I found that I feel best when I imagine how healthy people feel. How it feels to have someone who always loves you. That may be ignorant but it takes away some stress and reminds me that I am not to blame. I am working towards being that loving person to myself and coming to peace with my parents. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that will happen while I’m still getting to know my dad.

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