My Parents’ Bad Example Has Affected My Entire Life

29 August, 2017
Q I am an unmarried lady in my mid-thirties. I live with my parents and have 1 younger sister and 1 very younger brother. My sister and I are well educated and we work. My parents are independent, work hard and we do not lack anything regarding basic necessities, Alhumdulillah. But I believe parents should set the right example and be a model of good behavior and conduct. My parents’ behaviors have become unbearable to the point that I am losing affection and even respect for them. But I do not want to be undutiful and ungrateful. 1. My mother does a lot for the family and we get along fairly well. However, (a) she’s a compulsive liar and gossiper; she’s petty and has an argumentative nature. She has a weak understanding and does not want to change even though we talk to her and show her the harm she is doing. She does not even spare us, her kids and husband. When confronting her, she plays the victim, cries and argues. She behaves in a childish and sometimes vulgar way and tends to forget that she is a grown-up who has to conduct herself with respect and dignity. (b) In addition, at the age of 9 years old, I was a victim of inappropriate touching of sexual nature on the part of my mother’s younger brother. Other female cousins were similar victims. When I was 19 years, my mother’s family came to know about this, but they humiliated us claiming we made false allegations as my uncle seems a model of perfection in the eyes of the world. Some still curse us for this. This is humiliating and unjust. When my mother came to know about this, she believed me, was shocked, but then acted like nothing happened. I have never told my dad about this incident. She continued acting normal towards her brother and family, even forcing me to talk normally to my uncle, but I do not talk to him. I cannot forget this lack of consideration and pity for her own child. I have got over this incident only recently in my life, but I have a lot of resentment towards her. (c) Lack of hygiene (personal & the house). I will not elaborate, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable to be near her or even touch her. I have the same problem with my father. 2. My father (b) is a hard-hearted person with a very abusive tongue. He is never satisfied and happy about ‘anything’. No smile on his face. He is intolerant, always complains, yells and finds fault with us. He has a big ego; he will not accept a good thing that you tell him simply because you have ‘dared’ to tell him. He never checks on us or shows any affection. He is very miser person, although he prays 5 times a day and reads Quran. He thinks he’s a perfect Muslim and that everyone has faults except him. I am more like a son than a daughter - even my parents proudly say so. I shoulder all responsibilities that normally a father or a son should be doing. I drive around, look after my brother’s well-being, do all social calls and shopping alone with my mother (even carrying heavy things), bring everyone to the doctor’s/hospitals/tuitions etc. while my father stays at home with his daily routine. My sister & I have grown up with low self-esteem. For years, I did not want to get married as I have a bad image of marriage, but hamdulillah I’ve overcome this. But my sister suffers from depression because of this constant dissatisfaction and unstable environment. This is sensitive matter as Islam asks you to behave well with parents, but I feel overwhelmed and angry. I pray for my family every day, but I find it hard to continue living like this. Please advise me.

Answer


In this counseling answer:

“First, consider what you can change in your “inner environment” of thoughts, feelings, responses, communication styles, interpretation styles, etc. Then look at your external environment from a creative view and see what you can change to make your life more comfortable. It is possible to take good care of yourself and be helpful to your parents without putting yourself in a compromising position and without dishonoring your parents.”


As-Salam ‘Alaykum,

First, I must give you my disclaimer in that I am not a scholar, or Sheikh, or Imam. I will respond as a psychologist. With that said, as I hope you might benefit from the perspective I am offering here, please also look at our “Ask the Scholar” section. You will find Islamic specific answers there. You can also write them.

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Although you may be feeling otherwise, this is not a hopeless situation. From what I read, it sounds as if you have a good relationship with your younger sister. You are also very busy with possibly added stressors of work, and errands, and managing a household. We always have a choice to either change our environment, ourselves, or both.

I will get back to the idea of changing environment and self, but first, I want to introduce you some concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the concept of acceptance. It might change your experience regardless of whether your external conditions change.

Think of what is happening with your parents as a tape recorder that keeps repeating itself over and over again. Your parents’ inner world, which includes their world view, beliefs, self-talk, and habitual ways of reacting is deeply ingrained in them. We are not our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, world views, etc. Those are our tape recorders, and if we are “awake” and want to change these tape recorders, we can. But not everyone is able to understand this. Not everyone is able to do this work.

Some people live their whole life dictated by whatever “tape recorder” is “animating” them and triggering their emotional, cognitive, and physical responses. If your parents are telling you that they do not want to change, then maybe they actually don’t understand how they can, and thus, cannot change. This is not for me to judge. It is not for you to judge either. Why? Because putting energy into that would not be the most efficient use of energy. Your goal will be to work toward the best quality of life experience that you can create for yourself. Sounds selfish? It isn’t.

The only way you can facilitate a better quality of life for anyone else is to cultivate a positive quality of life experience for yourself.

My suggestion is that you have regular weekly strategic planning meetings with your sister. It seems as if you have common goals of honoring your parents, taking care of them in their old age, and living as full adults. See if you can perceive your parents in a different light now that you are a grown adult woman. See if you can accept that they are simply who they are and behave as they do.

If you can learn that this is not personal and is more a reflection of the condition of their mental state rather than anything “real”, you might be able to consider new approaches to the situation. You might be able to make conscious choices about how you will respond to their behaviors and to what they say to you. You might be able to feel less defensive and less humiliated.

Once you see that none of this is personal but really more of an expression of a very entrenched “tape recorder”, it might become easier for both of you. You have already changed a lot of the “tape recorders” in your own “programming” as you have learned different ways of relating to people and different behaviors. If you and your sister work on this together, while also considering what your parents actually need from you, you can develop creative approaches to meeting those needs. From my own perspective, that is authentic honoring of the parent.

You may also benefit from working with a family therapist. A family therapist is trained to look at the family dynamics and assess the family interactions. Look from the outside to find patterns of communication and relating and understanding that can be brought to light to the proactive family members who are consciously working toward creating a new “environment”. Perhaps you and your sister could go together.

I wouldn’t worry about what other people think. If your father wants to wear raggedy clothes, then that is part of what makes him unique. Of course, if there are hygiene issues, that might not only be a problem for living with someone, but this could also potentially become a medical issue. I am not sure how old your parents are, but perhaps it is time to talk to a medical doctor. I am wondering if they were always using poor hygiene or if dementia is setting in? Consider looking into that possibility.

With that said, if you learn some positive behavioral techniques, you might be able to influence some change with your parents in this respect. If not, you will only have two choices: you stay where you are and negotiate your own personal space so that their un-cleanliness does not interfere with your ability to be clean yourself. The other option is that you move out.

Sometimes, people who feel an obligation toward a loved one will move out but stay close by so that they can continue to help out. If your parents are dependent on you and your sister, then you will want to have some serious discussions with them about how to make things work.

Another reason I am suggesting family counseling is because your parents may be feeling more and more insecure as they age. They might sense they are becoming dependent on you. This will no doubt cause additional friction within the family dynamic. Fear usually breeds defenselessness, so this is an area to look at.

Finally, your past does not define you. The past is past. We cannot change the events of the past. However, if you still feel wounded or damaged by something that happened to you in the past, such as being touched inappropriately, then those feelings are your present feelings and deserve attention.

I got the sense that you have already worked through feelings of self-esteem and boundary issues. You have completed a lot of recovery work as an incest survivor. Whether you have or have not, it is always good to get counseling and seek out someone who can facilitate your complete healing from the events that have affected you.

In regards to visiting this person who is a perpetrator, who victimized you, and who has not ever tried to repair that damage he caused to you, as a psychologist, I would support your decision not to go if you do not feel comfortable being in his presence. It is not up to anyone to judge how this has affected you. 

Although I am not a scholar, I have read the Quran many times and I highly doubt that having healthy boundaries that protect your own feelings of emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical safety could possibly be considered as disrespectful to your parents. Even if their tape recorder is not able to comprehend this.

As an adult woman, it is now your responsibility to protect yourself from harmful environments and people. Your mother might say a lot of mean and hurtful things that are part of her programming and are entrenched in her tape recorder at first. But eventually, your family will get used to that you do not visit the environment where your perpetrator lives. If they don’t and are so upset that they throw you out of the house, so be it. Get an apartment close by and enjoy the clean environment. That is not disrespectful. You might even be able to improve your relationship with them from a healthy distance that empowers you to improve the quality of your care for them and your relationship with them.

So, first consider what you can change in your “inner environment” of thoughts, feelings, responses, communication styles, interpretation styles, etc. Then look at your external environment from a creative view and see what you can change to make your life more comfortable.

It never works to try to change others, especially if they are resistant to change. We can only change ourselves. Yet, sometimes, it is possible to also help to shape and motivate others to change once we learn some approaches.

It is possible to take good care of yourself and be helpful to your parents without putting yourself in a compromising position and without dishonoring your parents. It will take a lot of effort and attention at first, but it can be done, in sha’ Allah.

Salam,

***

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