All posts by Joseph Grenny

Crucial Conversations QA

My Parents Always Correct Me, But Are They Always Correct?

Dear Joseph,

My parents correct me often. The way they do it is very blunt. When they do, I feel unsafe. I have tried over and over to explain this to them, but they just tell me it’s my problem because I’m prideful. They believe they never do anything wrong. They say I don’t take responsibility. And yet when I try to explain why things happened, they don’t listen. It makes me feel small. What am I doing wrong? How do I fix this?

Signed,
Small World

Dear Small World,

I am going to make a couple of assumptions in my response. I apologize if they are wrong. My goal is to be as helpful as possible to you, and if I am too general, I believe I will be less useful.

First, I am going to assume you are an adult. I will make that assumption because a) you subscribe to a newsletter like this; and b) you are quite articulate about the dynamic between you and your parents.

Second, I am going to assume you are living independently and taking responsibility for your livelihood. If not, my advice will be simple: become as independent as you can as soon as you can. This won’t get better until you do. If it requires reduced circumstances, or harder work, you must decide whether your emotional health is too high a price to pay for whatever financial subsidy you’re receiving. Of course, there may be circumstances I don’t know about that make this completely impossible. If so, regrettably, you will have to adapt my advice to those circumstances.

If my assumptions are correct, then my advice is straightforward: you first need to have a conversation with yourself. Then you need to have one with them.

First, you must get clear on communication boundaries you want in your relationship with them. You say that your parents make you “feel small.” The truth is, they don’t. You are making yourself feel small by acting small. You will feel “big” when you act big. Big means that you get to decide how you will and won’t be treated. For example, you might decide, “I want my parents to ask my permission before offering correction. And I will not listen to their feedback unless they are willing to also listen to mine.” Then, when people cross those boundaries, you get to decide to distance yourself from them so you can take care of your own needs. As Gandhi once said, “No one can hurt me without my permission.”

Second, you need to have a crucial conversation with your parents. First, you need to let them know the boundary you are setting. You are not asking for their permission to set the boundary—this is something “big” you do. The way you build a sense of self-respect is by setting and holding boundaries for yourself. The more you do it, the more you affirm yourself as someone worth taking care of. After you communicate your boundary, ask if they are willing to honor it. Perhaps they won’t. If so, you have a decision to make. Would you rather have contact with them or with yourself? When you fail to hold boundaries, you surrender yourself.

Having set the boundary, if they begin to correct you, interrupt them. Calmly remind them of the boundary, “Mom/Dad, I asked that you not offer correction without first asking. Would you please stop?” If they don’t honor the boundary, let them know what you will do to take care of yourself. For example, “I have asked you not to give me feedback without first asking. You have repeatedly ignored that request. I am going to spend less time with you until you are willing to honor your commitment.”

I suspect that it will feel terribly uncomfortable to do these things at first. And I can assure you it is the right kind of discomfort for you to feel. It may feel rude, disrespectful, or terrifying. But it isn’t. It may result in a torrent of criticism from them in the early stages as they are used to treating you as a child rather than as an adult. Their torrent will simply be their way of trying to maintain the status quo. If you don’t like the status quo, be willing to hang in there until the new boundaries get demilitarized. Be willing to cut yourself off from the emotional responsibility they have been taking for you so you can learn to accept it for yourself.

Best wishes,
Joseph