In Malaysia, there is a Malay proverb that goes like so:
Air dicincang tidak akan putus.
The literal translation is ‘water minced will never break’. Some might liken it to the English proverb of ‘blood is thicker than water’, which is used to imply that family relationships are always more important than any other forms of relationships.
But the Malay proverb takes it one step further by saying that family relationships will always endure, just like water. You can unleash all manner of physical force on water under which it will temporarily shift and change before going back to normal.
Coming from a rather traditional Asian background, familial ties was strongly grounded into my values. While there are certainly benefits in being part of a strong, close-knit family, it is easy to lose one’s sense of identity when one is constantly considering what others might feel.
Because of this, I have had to spend quite some time going through internal conflict and meticulously picking at them in order to identify a healthy boundary between the self and expectations of the family. This need became much more powerful after quitting my job in order to, as Disney famously put it, follow my heart.
If you find yourself torn between personal needs versus the happiness of your family, this article is for you.
1. Understand where your family is coming from
It’s amazing how often people (me included) overlook the fact that their loved ones are only human. Being human means that they are subject to their own flaws, quirks and idiosyncrasies.
When your family says you cannot do something, it doesn’t always mean they think you’re not good enough.
Most probably, it means that they are projecting their own values, fears and insecurities on you.
If you don’t learn to stop taking everything your family says at face value, you will experience a lot of heartache, like I did.
Especially when it comes to your parents, you have to understand that before they became your mom and your dad, they were young people with their own unique upbringing, experiences, triumphs, mistakes and regrets.
What they say to you reflects their own values and beliefs. If your parents came from poverty, don’t expect them to understand when you choose to let go of stability in pursuit of passion. If your parents were forced to work in a job they hated to support themselves, don’t expect them to have much sympathy if you don’t like your job and thinking of doing something different.
What people say to each other is hardly ever objective. People see what they want to see. Regardless of how intelligent or strong or well-prepared you are, if your parents are the fearful type, they will give you 1,001 ways you could possibly fail and end up a burning train wreck.
They could be right of course. But…
2. But that doesn’t mean they’re always right
They could also be wrong. Many times over.
When I was a little girl, I thought my parents knew everything there was to know about anything. In my eyes, they could never be wrong (although this never quite translated to me listening to them).
The day I found out they could be wrong about something, a huge part of my world crumbled. I remember feeling anxious. I remember wondering how I could possibly be confident about anything anymore if I could no longer count on my parents as a reliable source.
The truth is, things never got better after that day. It’s real life we’re talking about here after all. There are no absolutes, much less so when it comes to being right or wrong.
But instead of trying to be right all the time, I learned to be comfortable with uncertainties and being open to being wrong. It’s the only constant in life, aside from change. There is much to learn when we stop worrying about who is right and who is wrong.
Here’s the deal. Humans change all the time. What I thought was right when I was 16 is very different from what I think is right today at the age of 30. And I’m pretty sure 10 years from now, I am going to look back on this post and cringe with embarrassment and scream, “NO NO NO WHY LISA WHYYYY,” until I pass out after stress eating a whole bag of Ruffles cheddar potato chips.
If I wait until I’m sure that I’m absolutely right, I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything. If I wait until I’m 40 to do something, what’s to stop me from waiting until I’m 50 or 60 or 70?
The best thing we can do right now is to do things to the best of our abilities. If you believe something to be the right thing to do right now, then you must carry on and do it right now.
Not 10 years later or when that magical, obscure time when you feel ‘ready’ comes.
Now. For your sake.
You could be oh-so-bloody-wrong, but look at it this way. When you do screw up, would you rather it be through your own doing, or because you let other people decide for you?
Personally for me, I would rather suffer through a bad decision made entirely by myself. It’s just easier to swallow when I have only myself to blame. It is also much easier to fix myself than to try to fix other people.
3. Your parents could be much worse
Another point to keep in mind is no matter how painful or scathing the things that your parents have done or said to you, consider the fact that they might actually have come a long way to reach their current state.
Sometimes I think my mom and dad say the most horrible things, but when I consider their past, I nod and think, “Could’ve been much worse. In fact, it’s rather impressive they’ve come this far.”
We can’t force our parents to change, especially when they’re already completely set in their ways. We can only understand and appreciate the journey they’ve been through to be better parents to us than their parents were to them.
When we stop looking at the flaws of our parents, we can start thinking of more productive things to do like how much we can improve ourselves.
Yes, maybe at the age of 10, you already know how to speak three different languages fluently while your dad could barely string a sentence together when he was at the same age. But that kind of comparison does not prove anything.
What matters is where you are now in relation to where you started. If your parents were born in the depths of poverty, owning a medium-sized house now with two cars and bringing up three children who all went to university is a huge achievement on their part. It means they practically lifted themselves out of the clutches of poverty to join the working class and then further upgraded themselves to be members of the upper middle class.
If you’re born into an upper middle class family and enjoy all the privileges it has to offer, how can you say you’re better than your parents if you remain where you are 30 years later?
This is just an example of course. Not all success can be measured by social status and money. The point I’m trying to make is that your parents have done their time to be where they are now. You should stop looking at their flaws as if it makes them the worst parents in the world and realise that they actually tried very hard to be better people.
Now it’s your turn.
4. Despite their flaws and shortcomings, your family wants the best for you
Their unwillingness to support your crazy new idea does not necessarily mean they don’t believe in you. They’re probably not even thinking of your capabilities as much as going, “WTF is going on.” Our world is different from theirs and what they don’t understand, they fear. What they fear, they try to protect us from it.
In a bid to save us from getting hurt, our family members can sometimes be the biggest hurdle between here and there, ‘there’ being the life of success we’ve always dreamed of. But then again, ‘there’ could also be a state of utter and complete disaster.
Between the two, family would more often than not choose to err on the side of caution.
If you haven’t seen ‘Pursuit of Happyness’, I suggest you do. There’s this particularly memorable scene when Chris Gardner (Will Smith) told his son Christopher (Jaden Smith) that he will never be good at basketball because the father himself was ‘below average’. When the son gave up by throwing the basketball to the side, the father realised his mistake and said the following:
“Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Not even me. You got a dream, you gotta protect it. When people can’t do something themselves, they’re gonna tell you that you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period.”
I thought it was one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever seen.
Our parents may not always be able to see when and where they’ve blundered or said the wrong things to us. Sometimes it’s a huge blind spot. Sometimes it’s ego. Sometimes it’s the inability to communicate effectively.
But at the root of it all is an intense desire to protect. When we were babies, our parents kept us from dying by keeping us fed, clean and well-rested. When we grew up, this instinct does not diminish. But with the complexity of adulthood, protectiveness can manifest in many strange ways.
One of the commonly employed methods is the dampening of your enthusiasm in an effort to manage your expectations. Perhaps they remember wanting something so badly in the past and failure was so painful they would do everything in their power to protect you from the same disappointment, even if it means making you miserable now.
In their primal mind where fear rules over reason, the possibility of success is just not worth the possibility of disappointment. Sometimes they just can’t help themselves.
Now that you know family can protect us to the point of detriment, you have to learn to protect your own dreams. Some of the things I greatly value today are still treated with ridicule by loved ones, but I brush them off much more easily nowadays. I don’t expect them to understand anymore, and I don’t talk about it anymore.
Sometimes they poke and prod to see if I’m still ‘being stupid’, but my dream is my child and it belongs to me and only me. The sooner I stop listening to naysayers, the sooner I can recover from old wounds and work towards making my dream a reality.
5. Anger is a manifestation of helplessness
In an effort to save us from ourselves, family can get overly protective. By overly protective, I mean angry. Really angry with us.
Confusion is the usual reaction when they find out that someone they care about is planning on doing something remotely out of the ordinary. In Asian families especially, unconventional doesn’t go down very well which means that the initial confusion will be quickly followed by anger.
It’s not that our family knows exactly what lies ahead, but protectiveness typically comes with a lot of fear. It is an instinctive thing, built within them to anticipate danger so they can keep their loved ones alive. In fact, if your family isn’t worried about your unconventional plan, perhaps you should be a bit worried.
Our parents will never stop trying to protect us. They cannot help it. It’s biologically built into them. Now that I think about all the things that my parents let me do as a child, I’m blown away by their bravery. If I were to have children of my own, I’m not sure if I would have the mental fortitude to hold myself back while I let my children explore the world while imagining every single potential bad thing happening to them.
But we cannot stay under their wing forever. As adults, it is our responsibility to show our family that we can take care of ourselves. Even when some parents become reluctant to let go, you can start doing this by showing that you are strong enough to disagree with their views because you know better.
If you prove them wrong, it might give them some comfort in knowing that you have put in the due diligence and the hours of research to do this right. If something goes wrong, they need to know that you have the right safety nets in the right places. The best thing you can do is to think of things they’ve never thought of before, and to show them that you are capable of taking care of yourself better than they can. If anything can give your family comfort, this is it.
Don’t worry if you can’t do everything from the get go. To get started, make a stand and stick to it. They will be relentless in persuading you to forget what you’re doing. You will doubt yourself many times. You will start believing that maybe you’re not cut out for whatever it is you’re trying to do.
This brings us to the next point.
6. You have the right to make your own mistakes
A lot of success stories are highly romanticised. Someone dropped out of college and became a billionaire. Someone born into poverty had a dream, worked hard and became a worldwide success icon. Yet another person left a full-time job to work on a passion no one has ever heard of, and now this person has a thriving business.
The problem with these stories is they are probably compressed a thousand times. A 20-year struggle compressed into one sensational article. All the fears, uncertainties, blunders, lessons, luck, favours given and received left untold.
Just because you have the tendency to fail in the most horrendous way a hundred times does not make you a failure. Just because you keep running into roadblocks and uncertainties does not mean what you’re doing is wrong.
What is wrong? What is right? Is working in a 9-5 job the only right, acceptable thing to do? For who? By whose standards?
Some things, we can pick a book and learn from someone else’s mistakes. These could be things like how to analyse competition or how to identify the right opportunities.
Some things, we really, absolutely have to go through on our own to really understand. We can read as many books as we like and talk to as many people as possible, but no one and nothing can protect us from something like our first heartbreak. Nothing can prepare us for having our expectations crushed. How about our first injustice or disillusionment? A lot of life’s lessons need to be experienced to be fully understood.
Don’t look at your mistakes with regret. Look at it as something that has to be done, and you can be grateful that it happened with minimal damage. In life, things can always be much, much worse. If you still have air in your lungs and you’re still sound of mind, you’re okay.
Mistakes are literally solid pathways to betterment. I believe what made my parents so wise are their own personal mistakes. It could’ve resulted from their own stubbornness or it could’ve been because no one was there to guide them. But nevertheless, they had the chance to make their own mistakes.
Failure is painful but looking back, I am most grateful for my failures. I am proud of my success but my strongest, biggest lessons with the most powerful reflections all came from my most spectacular mistakes. No matter how painful, my biggest, proudest takeaway from all of them is that I came out of it better and stronger and wiser.
Did I cry like hell when I was dwelling in the middle of the bottom of the pit of mistake I dug for myself? Hell yeah. But I learn to take it in my stride.
After all, in order to learn to stand up again, you have to fall down first.
And the more you fall down, the better you get at it. One day, it’ll stop hurting all together and you can simply brush it off like a pro.
7. You don’t have to tell your family everything
Not everyone can stomach the things that you do. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and you like making videos of yourself wingsuit flying, you don’t have to rub it in your mom’s face that you’re putting your life at risk every day.
Our loved ones already feel helpless and afraid enough of all the bad things that could happen to us. Why put them through more pain by telling them things they have no power to stop?
Sometimes, we have to learn to protect our family from ourselves.
Different people are made for different things. If you can identify the strengths of each individual family member, you can avoid discussing the wrong things with them and gain valuable insight by drawing from their expertise.
I am extremely close with my family, but I talk about very specific things with different family members. For instance, my dad is great help when I need to see the big picture, my mom is good at empathising and helping me understand human emotions, my eldest brother the best at playing devil’s advocate and helping me structure my thoughts and my second brother the one I seek when I need to feel like someone is on my side.
Learn to see them for the help they can offer you, not the resistance they place against you. The more you make them feel needed and included, the less they will be against you. Sometimes, to allay fears, you need to let people feel like they’ve done something to protect you. If they’re not being obnoxious, don’t shut them out.
8. Don’t take it personally
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our family might choose to distance themselves from us.
Perhaps they have reached the end of their tether, perhaps they simply cannot handle the idea of not understanding what the hell you’re trying to do or maybe they truly believe that you’re headed for the cliffs and they simply refuse to be there to watch you fall to your (hopefully figurative) death.
Whatever it is they choose to do, these are all acts of emotional self-defense. If you have chosen to do what you must, then they too have the right to do what they must to protect their feelings. To a parent, nothing is quite as bad as watching their child heading for disaster and not being able to do anything to stop it.
Don’t badger them or force them to talk to you. If what you’re doing turns out well, there’s a chance they might come back. If it doesn’t, they might still come back. That’s what family is for.
Sometimes, the opposite can also happen.
If your family is so against what you do to the point that it’s affecting your mental and emotional health, distancing yourself from your family is necessary.
Distance does not mean cutting off family ties. Far from it.
It just means putting enough physical and emotional space between you and your family’s strong influence so you can breathe and hear yourself think again. It can be really hard to figure out what you really want when in the background, your family members are constantly trying to manipulate you into doing what they think is best for you.
Distance can be achieved in several ways. If you have the resources, going away to a different part of the world helps. If crossing countries is too expensive, cross a state. If that’s not an option, move out of the house. If that’s not an option, go out of the house every day and work in a library and get a friend to accompany you. If that’s not an option, lock yourself in a room and don’t let anyone enter your private space. If that’s not an option, stroll out of your dwelling and find any quiet space outside where you can be alone. If that’s not an option, I think you might be a victim of abuse and you should call the police.
Distance can do wonders for the soul. For someone like me who was previously subject to a lot of stimulation and mental goading, a period of solitude helped me figure out what I truly enjoy as opposed to what I’ve been doing to fulfill the expectations of the people around me.
It’s quite scary how the voices of others can quickly sound like your own voice if you hang around the same people too much. This is how people think they are working towards something they want for years, only to find out at the end of it how miserable they really are.
9. Stop seeking your family’s approval and just do it
Unless you’re a slave, you don’t need anyone’s permission to do anything.
I understand how lovely it would be to have your family’s blessing in whatever you do, but if they refuse to give it, you’re not going to die.
If your family members truly care for you, they will come round eventually (unless their ego made them stupid).
The only approval you need is your own.
10. It is not your responsibility to make your family happy
Happiness is a deeply personal and subjective thing. It is also something I believe to be the personal responsibility of each person to find ways to see the good in whatever circumstances they are in.
Despite this belief which I impose on myself to a great degree, I still find myself striving to make my parents happy.
Perhaps once in a while, it’s alright to indulge the whims and fancies of the ones we love. We can take them to their favourite restaurants, buy them presents out of the blue and do chores for them.
But ‘making others happy’ should never be at the expense of your own life. Staying in a job you dislike because you think it makes your parents proud is wrong. Marrying or not marrying someone because your parents like or dislike that someone is wrong. Forcing yourself to do things you will not otherwise do because they will be sad is wrong.
It sounds like a horrible thing to say.
But if you read articles on parenting, most of them assert that it is not the job of the parent to make the child happy. Instead, the parent has to teach the child how to be happy with what they have. This difference will mean the child can learn to look inwards for their own happiness and not expect the world to owe them anything.
It’s the exact same thing with family. Instead of doing everything you can to make sure your parents are happy and proud of you all the time, you should be doing things you feel is right for you. Whether or not they like what you do is something that your parents have to learn to deal with, because they are adults. Just like parents can train children to be happy with what they have, grown children need also train their parents to find other sources of happiness outside their children’s achievements.
My mother has so many hobbies I can’t even count. When I leave her alone, she would probably be sewing new clothes, gardening, reading books, writing a memoir, watching movies, cooking, rearranging the furniture in the house, looking at new places to travel with her sisters or going out for lunch with her numerous friends. She literally has more friends than I do.
My dad left to his own devices would spend hours reading anything ranging from the economy, politics, religion, comics (his favourite) and occasionally columns where people pour their hearts out and expect magical solutions, just because it’s entertaining. When he’s bored of reading, he’d probably try to build an aquaponics system or go cycling in nature.
If you have family members who constantly look to you to make them happy and even resort to emotional blackmail to get you to bend to their will, you must find a way to get them to focus on other things.
I know there are people out there with not so healthy parents that need taking care of. But taking care of physical needs is nowhere near as exhausting as taking care of someone’s emotional needs. It’s one thing to bathe someone and clean their clothes and feed them. It’s a different thing when they are constantly unhappy about everything under the sun. It can eat at you from the inside out and by the time you realise it, you’re already deeply miserable.
I understand how easy it is to blame yourself as an irresponsible, unfilial child when you see your parents are miserable. But if your parents’ physical needs are well taken care of and you show love and attention on a consistent basis and they’re still unhappy, the onus is on them to make themselves happy, not you.
Obviously you can’t just tell them to grow up. Especially in Asian cultures, we have to respect our elders. No one likes to be patronised, least of all parents by their grown up children.
The only thing you can do is suggest certain things they can do, like joining a book club or taking up a new hobby, then retreat. Don’t force them. Just drop the idea on them and let them mull over it. Whether or not they take it up and whether or not they learn to be happy with themselves, you need to learn to let it go.
I’ll say it again: It’s not your job to make your parents (or anyone for that matter) happy. Not your siblings, not your girlfriend or boyfriend, not your spouse, not your friends. Your responsibility is to be a good person and to use indicator lights sensibly when you switch lanes while driving.
You’d be surprised
Parents are not as weak or dependent or as manipulative as you would sometimes believe. Sometimes, it’s just you misinterpreting their behaviour. In fact, if you take the time to talk to them, you might even see this look of utter shock on their faces when you tell them how burdened you feel in trying to meet their expectations and make them happy.
In the end, any sane parent will always end the conversation with, “But we want you to be happy.”