Parents want their kids to obey them, which is natural. When a mother tells her 3-year-old not to run out into the street, he needs to obey for his own safety. When a father tells his teenager to be polite to their dinner guests, he’s making a reasonable request based on social conventions. Obedience, however, isn’t always so straightforward. Emotionally abusive parents expect us to obey them in everything because the right we have to make our own decisions just doesn’t matter to them.
You would think that such obedience would stop after we’ve left our abusive environment. We go off to college or get married or move away, and we don’t have to obey them anymore. For many of us, however, that sense of obedience still remains. The family rules have been ingrained in us, and it’s extremely difficult to let go of the tendency to obey authority. This can lead to an inauthentic life where we constantly feel powerless.
One reason why we may find ourselves obeying our abusive parents even when we’re adults is that we may still be looking for them to give us what we need, even if they never can. We may still search for their approval, respect, and love. Facing up to the fact that our abusive parents may never change because they may never want to change is tough.
It’s easy to beat ourselves up for wanting their approval enough to obey their wishes, even when we know we don’t want to. We need to be easier on ourselves. It’s natural to want the approval of those who took care of you. When the relationship between parent and child is healthy, this can be a marvelous motivator. The approval of our parents acts as encouragement to reach beyond what we might otherwise reach for.
The approval fostered by emotional abusers, however, is toxic. Striving to get their approval satisfies their needs, not yours. They feel powerful because someone wants their approval. It makes them feel like they’re admired and respected. And it makes us feel like we’re Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down, forcing to have another go at it.
Another reason we may fall victims to obedience is that we may still harbor beliefs that our abusive parents know better than we do what we need and what’s right for us. They were likely aggressive in sending us such messages, in one way or another. That left us feeling like we couldn’t make wise decisions on our own.
The dynamic of obedience is very much about the authority figure knowing better than the one told to obey. When the authority figure respects us and believes in us, obeying them is a form of respect towards them. There isn’t a sense of anxiety in obeying such authority figures because there’s no threat to our self-esteem when doing so.
Emotional abusers, however, use their authority to “keep us in our place,” which is a place of low self-esteem. As with many abusive behaviors, they’re not necessarily conscious of doing that, but that doesn’t make it excusable. The fact is that your low self-esteem, which results in you feeling an obligation to obey what they say, makes them feel powerful.
Avoiding Conflicts with Parents
We may also obey our parents even though we’re adults because of a desire to avoid conflicts with them. Abusers are master tacticians when it comes to attack. They get us where we’re vulnerable and they hit hard. We may convince ourselves that whatever the issue is, it isn’t worth fighting over, which may put us in conflict with other people in our lives such as our partner, children, other family members, or friends who really have our best interests at heart.
The problem with avoiding conflict is that it builds up a toxic relationship dynamic. When they push and we constantly retreat, they get into the habit of pushing and we get into the habit of retreating. At the same time, we need to consider the price for pushing back. We can’t expect obedience-obsessed abusers to simply accept “disobedience.” That threatens their self-esteem. We need to expect ugly fights, silent treatments, family gossip, and any number of other “get back at you” tactics to make us feel bad for standing up for ourselves.
Avoiding Conflicts with Ourselves
Even when our parents aren’t around to exert their authority, we may obey their rules because we want to avoid internal conflicts. A website called AllPsych has interesting things to say about how we deal with conflicts between our beliefs and actions. In a perfect world, our beliefs and behaviors are consistent, but in real life, we experience conflicts all the time. The logical thing to do would be to change our actions to support our beliefs, assuming those beliefs are healthy. However, research shows that we’re more likely to change our beliefs to support our behavior.
This is very relevant to the obedience we show our parents even if we’re adults or they’re not around. We may have an automatic reaction to obey them because of the authority that they had when we were kids to punish or reward, which abusive parents often exploit. When we find ourselves following these automatic reactions, we shape our beliefs to support those behaviors. For instance, if we do something their way rather than our own way, we may convince ourselves that they know best, that it’s what we really want, that it’s the best choice, and so forth.
If we fear taking charge of our own lives then it’s natural that we obey our abusive parents even as adults. It may be more painful to be under our parents’ thumb, but it’s also easier than screwing up big time, which is inevitable when we exert our autonomy. I didn’t leave home, for instance, until I was 27. I remember my father telling me multiple times that he knew I would eventually need to leave home “but not just yet.” I think he mostly dreaded not having me around to control, and I dreaded taking control of my life.
This fear can persist even when we’ve established a life of our own and have the loving support of a partner and our own children. Because abusive parents set up a dynamic of power where they have the power and you have none, their involvement in your life, even from the sidelines, carries that toxicity of obedience.
Say you and your partner are considering buying a house. You take your abusive mother to see it, and she has nothing but criticism for it, ending with, “I wouldn’t buy this house if I were you.” That can wipe out all of the positive thoughts and discussions you had with your partner over the house, making you wonder if you’re going to mess up your life by going against her. This has nothing to do with what the house is really like and everything to do with the dynamic of obedience that was set up in childhood and is still going strong.
Stephen Bavolek runs Family Development Resources, Inc., and is the author of the Nurturing Parenting Programs, which are meant to teach parents good parenting skills and thus prevent abuse and neglect. In a paper he wrote about identifying parents at high risk for abuse and neglect, he talks about the effects of oppression and how the obedience that stems from them is destructive. He writes that
[p]owerlessness, excessive dependence, and a sense of personal inadequacy are common traits of many obedient children.
He also says that compliant kids turn into compliant adults who tend to be compliant to any perceived authority, including friends, bosses, and the government. Disempowerment and dependence stretch across environments and across time. I think emotionally we replay those moments of helplessness when faced with our abusive parents. We’ll do anything that these authorities want us to do just to take those threatening feelings away.
Also, lack of self-esteem contributes to this, and a vicious cycle is set up. Our autonomy is undermined and weakened, which makes us more vulnerable to authority until it doesn’t take much to make us obey, which leads to even more helplessness. This dynamic is already in place by the time we’re adults, and so we follow the scenario and feel like we can’t change it (disempowerment again).
For instance, let’s say you and a colleague are instructed by your supervisor that you need to change the way you do something at work. Your colleague, who hasn’t been abused, points out that the instructions reflect the supervisor’s particular quirks and are not essential to getting the task done. Therefore, she has no intention of doing it the way the supervisor told her to do it. Since the result is the same, it’s none of the supervisor’s business how she got them.
You know she’s right, but you can’t go against what your supervisor said because you’re replaying feelings of obedience that you go through every time your obedience-obsessed parents tell you to do something in a certain way. You adjust your actions to suit the supervisor’s quirks, hating it but feeling physically unable to violate an authority figure’s wishes. The question of whether you’re obligated to obey a supervisor’s instructions, no matter how ridiculous, is beside the point. The point is that your colleague, who has no history of emotional abuse, is able to question this authority’s motives while you have a hard time doing that.
Clinging to this sense of obedience that our abusive parents have instilled in us places real blocks to fulfilling our potential. A vibrant, creative life demands initiative, which our obedience-obsessed parents clearly don’t like. We may expect to be beaten down if we even try. But when we continue to obey them even when we’re adults or they’re not around, we let the worst part of them win.