You developed mechanisms of accommodation, rebellion, and mimicry to survive growing up in your family. Let’s look at rebellion. What’s another way of saying rebellion? Refusal to comply with parental demands or needs and the restrictions they impose. Yes, it’s true that a certain amount of rebellion is normal and healthy in the development of a child’s independence and control. But once again, when a parent’s expectations are extreme, that child will rebel against accommodating his or her parents in order to fight their attempts to limit the normal goals we set for ourselves.
Children aren’t usually able to complain to their parents about how their parents’ specific behavior is spoiling their life. When was the last time you heard a young daughter complaining to her father, “Dad, your behavior is ruining my psychosocial development.” Right: never. So, rebellion, as a protest, is meant to signal, or communicate, to parents that their actions are not just distressing, but they need to stop—period. And that would be fine if not for one problem: Parents have their own hidden self-defeating motivations from their own childhoods. Do these cause them to keep behaving badly? You bet it does. Does it also prevent them from receiving their child’s message in a mature way? Right again. Ultimately, parents’ unresolved childhood issues wind up provoking them even more and the cycle of parent/child conflict continues unchanged. Let’s look at another case study. It’s the real-life story of Will, a stubborn man who used rebellion as a way of acting out against his parents’ demands.
Will was looking for more control. He was a wealthy businessman who refused almost all requests made of him by his wife, Tracy. Any time Tracy asked for, suggested, or requested something, Will’s response was always the same, “No!” Whether her suggestion was important or meaningless, Will’s negative response never wavered. Why did he do this, despite the fact that he was really provoking Tracy? Because Will was rebelling against his strong impulses to accommodate others. A devastating combination of parental traits created in Will a strong inclination towards giving in to others. Let’s look at his father first.
Authoritarian and pompous, he required Will to accept his point of view and to give in to his orders, and if Will didn’t, his father would react angrily. Comments like, “What’s wrong with you?” “Why are you so thick headed?” “Listen to me, I have years of experience and I know what I’m talking about,” dominated Will’s childhood. Will’s father needed to be completely in charge, and although Will viewed that as a sign of weakness, he still complied with the needs of his father to maintain his father’s position of authority and self-importance. He did this by agreeing with and doing whatever his father expected of him.
Now, for his mother, Will was a confidant and companion. Because her husband was uninterested in her (which she confided to Will), Will felt obliged to cheer her up and spend time with her. He did this so she wouldn’t feel lonely or unhappy. Pressure from both parents left Will unable to do what made him happy. If he did, he felt he’d hurt his parents because he wasn’t focusing on their needs. And so, Will grew up feeling that his role was to accommodate everyone else’s wants.
To make himself feel that he was more in control of his life (and not be the wimp who complied with everyone else’s demands), Will, without even being aware of it, developed a protective, stubborn quality of automatically saying no to people’s wishes, even if they seemed reasonable. This was the opposite of Alex’s way of accommodating everyone.
Will complained, when he came to see me, that he and his wife fought all the time. He said he couldn’t stand Tracy because she was too demanding and critical of him. Will had no awareness that his lifelong inclination to give in to people, which we now know started back with his parents, was behind his problem with Tracy. Any request from her was viewed as dangerous because he (unconsciously) worried about having to submit to her and become her servant. And the problem wasn’t just confined to his marriage, either. Every relationship caused him anxiety about having to become a slave to the other person’s requests.
Becoming more aware of the source of his problem, Will began realizing that he equated reasonable requests with the unpleasant demands of his parents. Therefore, he wasn’t able to rationally evaluate his wife’s requests and suggestions. Will gained understanding of his problem, and the effect was an increasing relative comfort with saying no to Tracy when he meant it and saying yes when that was the appropriate response.
Soon they began fighting less. Disagreements now took on new meaning for Will. They no longer served only the purpose of fighting against giving in. Now they could also reflect his actual point of view.
When children fight against excessively accommodating the flaws of their parents and siblings, they suffer so much guilt for their rebellion that they resume accommodating in order to relieve their guilt. Where does that leave them? Shifting back and forth between two evils and never finding relief.