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Emotional Smothering Is a Type of Abuse

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I blog a lot about abuse: how to recognize it and deal with it. Somehow I haven’t written much about one particular type of abuse and that’s called emotional smothering. It begins when parents stifle your wants by trying to make their desires yours and vice versa. They often don’t do this intentionally but, nevertheless, smothering literally takes your breath away. And along with your breath go your rights and power to make your own decisions and take pride in them or suffer the consequences.

Children and adults in this situation may become so used to the blatant and subtle ways parents smother them that they fail to realize what they’ve given up until they have no voice left to govern their lives. When this occurs, they may act out in anger at others  or themselves because they feel robbed of making choices. Or they may become depressed that they’re defective in some crucial way and constitutionally incapable of being an adult, crippling their desire to act like one. 

Alternately, they may become over-anxious about normal things that happen to humans like making mistakes, failing, or disappointing others. When parents figuratively pick them up every time, they come to believe (erroneously!) they’re not competent to get up on their own, brush themselves off, and move forward. Moreover, when these same parents pull back from or cease intervening, they feel at a loss because they’ve become dependent on someone doing for them what they could have done for themselves. 

I had a client in her early 40s whose mother would button her sweater for her at the front door as she went out. This same client vowed that if her mother died, she’d throw herself on her grave and beg to be buried along with her. This is an extreme case but illustrates how a sense of self can be obliterated when it’s whittled away little by little. 

Another client, a man whose single mother with severe alcohol use problems had convinced him she couldn’t manage without him. She made sure he had all the creature comforts he needed to stay with her and smothered him with affection. She also kept him isolated from friends and the larger world, reminding him that she couldn’t be alone or she’d end up in a psychiatric ward or die of alcohol poisoning. He felt trapped in her neediness and saw no way out.

If you feel smothered, maybe that’s why you eat emotionally. What would you do with your rage if you didn’t stuff it down? My guess is that you might direct it toward whoever is trying too hard to do what it’s time you do for yourself. It may be scary to take back your power, but as poet Robert Frost said, The best way out is always through.”

Best,

Karen