Ah, the holidays. For many, this time of year comes with lots of time with your parents and extended family, something that’s complicated for many people, but especially those with strained relationships with their parents.
If that’s you and your family, a recent episode of We Can Do Hard Things, a podcast hosted by Glennon Doyle, her sister Amanda Doyle, and Glennon’s wife Abby Wambach, perfectly explains why you have a strained relationship with your parents, how to navigate that strained relationship without losing your mind, and what you can do not to repeat this dynamic in your own family. While not every relationship that’s strained is due to this dynamic, it’s a worthwhile listen that offers invaluable perspective.
In their December 7th episode, the trio tackled navigating strained relationships with parents in an episode titled “Disentangling from Emotionally Immature People with Lindsay C. Gibson.”
The guest, Lindsay C. Gibson, has been a psychotherapist for 30 years. She’s also the author of several books, including “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Disentangling from Emotionally Immature People.” Gibson had been a previous guest on the podcast, including the week before, where she talked more broadly about emotional immaturity, how to spot an emotionally immature parent, and how to stop yourself from getting sucked into the cycle of emotional immaturity.
In this episode, Gibson focuses on the practical. At the top, Gibson defines an emotionally immature person — or parent — as a person who may be totally up-to-speed in every other way, but “in their emotional maturity and their ability to regulate, control their emotions, and have deep, intimate relationships with other people, they can be very emotionally immature.” She says emotionally immature people have very poor self-reflection, never ask themselves if they’re to blame for any relationship problems, and are afraid of emotional intimacy or deep, sincere emotions with others. They can see things in black and white, right or wrong, and struggle to take ownership of their actions.
As for how to have a serious conversation with an emotionally immature person — or parent — a conversation that Glennon refers to as “getting sucked into a vortex of weirdness,” Gibson says that you can expect that even if “you try to communicate them using your best communication skills, everything that you’ve ever learned... they come back with stuff that is either highly defensive... aggressive... or they act like they don’t understand what you’re saying... and they seem very, very hurt.”
Even if you’re solutions-oriented — imagine you’re talking to a parent about a conflict that needs to be resolved to clear the air — you may get nowhere. That’s because, as Gibson says, “communication has to go two ways. If somebody [doesn’t want] to understand what you’re saying to them, it doesn’t matter what you say.” Similarly, Gibson notes, if a person wants to understand what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter how you say it.
There you go: if somebody doesn’t want to understand what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter what you say. If somebody wants to understand what you’re saying, you also don’t need to say it perfectly — they’re going to try to meet you in the middle because that’s emotional maturity.
Also, you should never expect the dynamic to change. Never. Really.
While that sounds like harsh stuff (ok, it is; this episode can definitely lead you to tears), it is, they argue, eventually freeing. And the way to approach that relationship is clear. Here are some of the takeaways they offered.
1. Know It Isn’t About You
The most important thing to do is to clearly spot the emotionally immature person and let yourself off the hook. It isn’t about you — they wouldn’t let it be. This is frustrating, but it’s an important acknowledgment — the outcome of the conversation isn’t in your hands.
2. Your Communication Skills Won’t Make Tough Conversations Go Your Way
You have no control over how your emotionally immature parent might respond to you — you only have control over yourself. They are not listeners, and you can’t hope that they’ll understand you because you’ve tried your hardest to engage in emotionally mature conversation or considered their point of view.
3. Don’t Start Tough Conversations With Any Expectations
In order to keep your sanity when navigating tough conversations with emotionally immature parents, you need to define what ‘success’ is. It may never be your parent seeing your point of view.
“Success is going into [a tough conversation] realistically, staying in touch with yourself, treating that person [as] who they are. In other words, not expecting them to be able to go very far into emotions, and then not expecting that your communication skills are going to right every wrong or take you to a place of closeness with them, and that’s no fault of your own,” Gibson says.
4. Or Maybe Avoid Tough Conversations Altogether
Having tough conversations with an emotionally immature person can be like talking to a wall — a wall that either ignores you or reflects you with defensive posturing. Another way to handle this strained relationship is to let that relationship stay surface level. You’re focusing on what you can control: your part in the relationship.
5. Don’t Get Sucked In. Stay Connected To Yourself
When you do have tough conversations, or feel like you’re about to get sucked into that “vortex of weirdness,” stick to your values. It goes a long way.
“... Just go at it from the standpoint of you’re going to stay in touch with yourself. You’re going to stay connected to yourself, and your own observations of what’s going on, both inside you and in the outside relationship. And you’re going to maintain a healthy detachment from their emotion,” Gibson explains.
6. Stay Present In Your Body
Other strategies for talking to the emotionally immature parent: Pay attention to your breathing, and the feeling of your feet on the floor. Touch your own arms, squeeze them. Glennon said she holds a mug of hot tea and focuses on the sensation of the heat. Grounding techniques go far. Bring yourself back to you.
7. Let The Cycle Stop With You
Stopping the cycle is not easy — but if you’re already reckoning with your place in it, then you’re taking a strong first step. By looking at your tough relationships with your parents and accepting the fact that you may never be able to make them change and give you what you deserve, you’re already starting to set emotional boundaries, engage in self-regulation, and practice communication skills that you can pass down to your children by the way you deal with them.
From there? “We can begin to acknowledge that their way of doing things is not ours,” Gibson says. “We don’t want to be that way... We’re losing the hope that these people can change in ways that would give us what we need... Stop trying to claw back what you didn’t get, and instead turn your attention toward what you can get from other people, from yourself, from your own pursuits. There’s a whole life waiting for you that, by recovering from your passivity, recovering from your sense of owing your life to other people, and making them feel better about themselves, when you recover from that, you have an opportunity to really have the kind of life that you wish your parents had given to you.”
In turn, your whole sense of self can shift, the way you approach being a parent can change, and your relationships can deepen, because you’re focusing on what you can control — yourself.
The whole podcast episode is full of wisdom, which you can listen to now on “We Can Do Hard Things.”