In the previous articles we talked about the signs of controlling parenting and why it doesn’t work in terms of raising a healthy, happy, self-sufficient individual. Today, we will look at the common problems people raised in a controlling environment have as adults.
If you have been raised in a controlling environment or know somebody who has, you may recognize some of the signs described below.
Four Common Negative Effects of Controlling Upbringing
1. Lack of motivation and self-interest
After years of working with clients and simply observing people, I have encountered many people who had experienced a controlling childhood environment and consequently lost a sense of self-interest and intrinsic motivation. People don’t know who they are, what they really want, why they are actually doing what they’re doing, what they “should” be doing, and so on.
Some say that they wouldn’t be so good at some skill or behavior if they hadn’t been pushed by their childhood authority figure, which may be true, but this is nevertheless a dangerous slope to find oneself on because this “pushing” never taught or encouraged intrinsic motivation. When the authority figure is absent, or when pushing or nagging has become ineffective, the individual becomes overly passive. In adulthood, this intrinsic motivation is still lacking.
People like that live in a world of SHOULDs and HAVE TOs. They are very good at ordering themselves around, just like they were ordered around as children by their now-internalized parents, or they are so fed up with all the SHOULDs that they don’t want do to anything and all they do is procrastinate and dissociate.
Furthermore, many people who come from a controlling environment often seek an environment where they would be told what to do, treated disrespectfully, expected to meet unrealistic standards, exploited, abused, and so on. It may be tempting under these circumstances for them to project this dynamic onto their significant other, their boss, or even their own child. In psychology, a phenomenon where the person tries to recreate an unresolved situation by repeatedly putting themselves in similar circumstances is called repetition compulsion.
2. Controlling and abusive behavior
People who possess controlling tendencies have been controlled in the past. They learned that that is just what people do, and that’s how the cycle of abuse propagates itself. It’s not at all surprising that those who come from a controlling and otherwise abusive environment develop the same tendencies. Instead of looking for an environment where they would be controlled, they find a position of power so that they get to do the controlling. For example, they become a mean boss, a nagging, manipulative spouse, a bullying peer, or a controlling parent.
They are tired of feeling powerless or being disrespected and since they have learned that you get respect and anything else you want by dominating and manipulating others, it seems a viable option in a toxic dynamic. They want an environment where they are able to act out their power fantasies, be it at work, at their own children, at pets, on the Internet, and so on.
Unarguably, some cases are worse than others. Some abused children grow up into criminals where their prison-like childhood environment is replaced by an actual prison, or they become functional narcissists or sociopaths. The rest suffer the consequences of repetition compulsion, unsatisfactory life skills or relationships, and all the other issues that plague adults who were abused as children.
Abuse begets abuse. Controlling begets controlling.
3. Lack of focus, direction, and decision making
When you come out of a controlling environment you are free. Paradoxically, a lot of people don’t know how to be free. They may even feel uncomfortable when free. This makes sense though because, if you have spent constantly being told what to do, then it can be confusing, even scary when all of the sudden you supposed to be in charge of your life and nobody is telling you what to do. You never learned how to do it yourself, you only learned how to do the things you were told.
Now you have all the choices in the world. You can do this, you can do that, you can do almost anything you want. And yet, people find themselves spending so much time in their heads overthinking and debating what they SHOULD be doing now, or worrying about the future, or even trying to solve all the possible and impossible scenarios, instead of making decisions and taking actions.
Moreover, even when knowing that nobody is controlling you anymore, your psyche still has the same fears and survival strategies. It doesn’t matter that the environment has changed, you are still afraid of making mistakes, you still try to be perfect, you still have difficulties making a decision because you are terrified of negative consequences.
All of this is a result of being over-controlled as a child. In adulthood, it results in feeling lost, passive, paralyzed, distracted, preoccupied, and chronically worried.
4. People pleasing and susceptibility to exploitation
People who were raised in a controlling manner often develop people pleasing tendencies because they were groomed to see themselves as being below others and to put others first. They literally learned that their main function was to serve.
This results in the inability to set healthy boundaries, to take a good care of yourself, and to have an adequate sense of self-esteem. An inability to say no, feeling responsible for others and for things that are not your responsibility, feeling not good enough, carrying toxic shame and guilt, feeling powerless, helpless, or dependent, and having social anxiety are just a few very common examples that I have encountered while working with people.
These tendencies can make you more susceptible to being taken advantage of, as people who like to take without reciprocation or otherwise exploit others are drawn to people who are generous and have poor boundaries.
At the end of the day, most of us know that controlling people rarely change their ways. An unhealthy family dynamic in childhood is often an unhealthy family dynamic in adulthood. Even people who are relatively well adjusted and healthy in every other part of their lives regress to whatever toxic dynamic they grew up in their family’s company.
For example, controlling parents keep controlling their children way into adulthood. They can’t rely on physical methods to control them anymore, but years of controlling and manipulative behavior already took its toll on the person, so usually pushing the person’s psychoemotional buttons is enough to make them comply. Guilt-tripping, shaming, silent treatment, gaslighting, playing a victim, and similar tactics usually does the work.
The same applies to any other relationship that the person subsequently transfers their unresolved childhood dynamic onto. Generally, this dynamic continues until the adult-child resolves it internally—which then results in improved relationships whereby the individual asserts healthier boundaries or leaves the problematic relationship altogether.
There are many other potential effects of being raised in a controlling environment that we haven’t explored here in greater detail, like black and white or magical thinking, difficulties with self-expression and reduced creativity, numerous self-esteem related issues, perfectionistic tendencies, narcissism, self-harm, various emotional problems (chronic anxiety, numbness, chronic loneliness, depression, projected anger), social and relationship issues.
If you were raised in a controlling environment, what are the difficulties have struggled with the most? Were you able to overcome the effects of it? What did you find most helpful? Feel free to leave a comment or write about it in your personal journal.