Since childhood, I have had a fraught relationship with my father who always had to be right. We were not supposed to challenge or disagree with him, but to admire his rise from poverty. Every conversation was an opportunity for him to “win” the discussion, and I had to provide him with validation.
I can deal with this: no one is perfect, and I feel this is textbook behaviour for many of his age, gender and background. These days, I have little in common with him; I avoid his company, and do not get into discussions. But there was one behaviour that I can’t excuse or explain. During my teenage years, pretty much any time I opened my mouth, I was put down. He used a range of phrases, depending on the circumstances, but the effect (whatever the intent) was to convey the message that what I was saying was dumb, wrong or trivial. If I fought against this, there was another put-down. I hated interacting with him and learned to mostly stay quiet.
I now have children myself, and can imagine how crushing such behaviour would be to them. Yet I was always given the message (from both within and outside the family) that my father was great, so I must be wrong. I feel like I have been gaslit my whole life, but am only seeing this clearly now. Is it OK that I feel this way? Do I have to behave as though I like my father? We are told that we are supposed to forgive our parents. I feel that his behaviour was reprehensible, but I don’t trust my own opinions.
It’s often when people have children of their own that they look at the way they were parented and start asking questions. It’s OK to think the way you do, and an entirely natural conclusion to have come to, given how you were spoken to. You don’t have to behave as if you like your dad.
Psychotherapist Lorraine Davies-Smith (psychotherapy.org.uk) wondered if describing your dad’s behaviour as “textbook” was a way to make it feel less personal. “If you believe your father was one of a generation of men who acted this way then [you can imagine] it’s not his fault, or your fault.” Let me be clear: it wasn’t your fault.
We could hypothesise about why your father behaved the way he did. I would imagine the answer is in the way he was himself parented – his behaviour “reads like a person who is masking their own low self-esteem,” said Davies-Smith. Some people try to make themselves feel better by diminishing others, including their own children – especially when, as you found, they start becoming their own person in adolescence. But your dad’s issues are not your responsibility. His view of you, his constant eroding of your self-esteem, is entirely a reflection of him, not you.
There was no indication in your letter that your dad still speaks to you like this but if he does, Davies-Smith noted that you “learned to stay quiet [as a child] and that’s what you’re doing now. But a solution for one stage of your life might not be the best solution now.” If he – or anyone – still puts you down, try saying: “Please don’t speak to me like that, I don’t like it.” And make no further comment. This is an assertive but non-aggressive way to bat it right back to them, and makes it clear you won’t take on their issues.
Harmful behaviour from a parent can take longer to see because we are programmed to love them and seek their approval. Imagine if someone spoke to you now, like your dad did back then. This might help you separate out the behaviour from the person, to see it for what it is: wholly unacceptable. You asked if there was a book you could read: an easy, but fascinating book that looks at family patterns is Families And How To Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese.
Davies-Smith noted the “we” in your letter and wondered if you had siblings you could talk to who might make you feel less “gaslit”; maybe they too are reassessing things in adulthood? But siblings brought up in the same house can have very different perspectives on their upbringing “and sometimes one child is the scapegoat [who gets the brunt of a parents’ behaviour],” said Davies-Smith. It’s hard to trust your own feelings when people told you your father was “great” but if he didn’t take out his issues on them, they wouldn’t have seen that side of his personality. You’re entitled to your own opinion of him.
• Send your problem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
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