When Rules Can’t Be Broken

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

Having too many rules is just another way of saying: “I don’t trust anybody to love me.”

“I’ll never forget my father’s funeral. It was tragic beyond words. Several people came to our family church to say goodbye to Bill. He had been a dutiful member of our community and responsible breadwinner of our family. He was old school. Rules – especially his rules – could never be broken, no matter what. Sadly and much to my embarrassment, no one at the funeral really had a good word to say about him personally. Oh someone tried to tell a joke about his fretting over a dollar he owed them but it went over like a lead balloon. Even the minister he had volunteered under for thirty years said he hardly knew Bill. How could a church volunteer not be known for thirty years?! Wouldn’t there be some moment when he stood out and you remember what he did? Well unfortunately there wasn’t with my dad. He just showed up, did his duty and stayed invisible. That’s my dad. Oh how much I wanted to have stronger feelings for my dad! You know there are some losses that go beyond death. They even occur long before a loved one ever dies. It’s only later you realize what you’ve never had all along and the tears you shed are for yourself.”

Many of us us with over controlling parents have bittersweet memories about them and how we were raised. We may have liked being taught right from wrong and having a parent who cared enough about us to set firm rules. By God we learned to do things the right way. Doing otherwise was a big mistake. We may even laugh today at how flipped out our controlling parent got when we set him or her off. But it wasn’t very funny at the time. Often then we would be terrified and feel put down especially when his or her rules seemed arbitrary and inconsistent. We may have understood that the rules were more for his or her benefit and not our own. We may have strongly disliked how our other kinder parent was also constrained and put down by excessive rules. Today we may even harbor some mild resentment for not being protected from childhood tyranny.

Unfortunately even the good times of the past were hard to take. Sometimes, out of the blue, our controlling parent would soften the usual harshness and we would receive some temporary tenderness. We’d crave more of where that came from. Most of all we would settle for just being seen by our controlling parent and perhaps get a shred of his or her approval. However often we weren’t seen and we rarely, if ever, heard a good word about ourselves from our stricter parent. Indeed, as the vignette above indicates, there was something very basically missing in our controlling parent and what was offered us. Some of this may explain why today we feel there’s something essential missing in ourselves.

How am I affected today?

Those of us raised in overly strict households may today have some of the following traits:

  • Either do what we are told unquestioningly or conversely continuously rebel against authority figures
  • Lead diminished lives and accomplish far less than what we expected of ourselves
  • Are quick to startle in situations of conflict
  • Put a tight lid on our own anger and never rock the boat
  • Have a poor opinion of ourselves no matter how many life successes we have
  • Find it easy to space out and act like a wall flower
  • Can feel at times we have no identity of our own
  • Have periods of agitation and depression with no clear cause
  • Constantly strive to have people like us
  • Lack the ability to see ourselves in a realistic balanced way
  • Are easily prone to blame ourselves for other people’s distress
  • Get depressed, irritable and perhaps controlling for no apparent reason
  • Are out of touch with our own body states and emotions
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What does over control look like?

Over control isn’t the same as having rules. All families need some rules to adequately function. Over control is where the rules become more important than the people in the family. They are often rigid ways of keeping people in their places rather than ways to learn about life. People who are over controlled feel humiliated; people who are reasonably disciplined feel cared for and educated. Oddly, over controlled families sometimes have inconsistent rules. What was not OK yesterday somehow has become OK today, especially if it pertains to the rule maker’s behaviors. Excessive rule making is a petty dictatorship. Control over children is usually done psychologically. If rules aren’t followed, then children may be severely punished for even slight infractions or they may be given the cold shoulder by the strict parent for a considerable period of time. Such shunning and withholding of approval is devastating to kids who, due to their own immature identities, very much naturally seek out the warmth and approval of a severe parent.

The withholding of love and degrading character are the most severe and devastating damage a parent can do to a childAdditionally, such children may also feel the sting of being told by the bullying parent they are never good enough and never will be. Unbeknownst to them, the children are made to feel that they are the failures for what actually resides inside the bully himself or herself. Dictators can never allow their children to show them up. They use put downs to keep kids in their place. Sometimes the other, kinder parent may also be enlisted in such psychological control through the threat that he or she too may be rejected if the dictator is not catered to. Outsiders may see the family as perfect when in reality just the opposite is true.

The withholding of love and degrading character are the most severe and devastating damage a parent can do to a child. Often the controlling parent sees what he or she is doing as justified under the guise of teaching children a lesson. The reality is that no real life lesson is being learned other than that those who have power can do whatever they want to do. Such bullying is often automatic. Bullies have no other way to parent other than being a bully. Typically they lack the ability to empathize and use rule-making as a feeble attempt to appear competent. At some level they know they are incompetent and have injured their children. However their need to be right will trump any desire to admit their wrongs and make amends.

Why were my parents so crazy about rules?

The key to understanding over control in a parent is to realize that the rules were not made for the sake of the children. They were made for the sake of the parent. Sometimes such rules actually benefitted the children by default. Parents who are over controlling may have a genetic predisposition to be over focused. Often they cannot see the forest from the trees in other areas of their life. They are not flexible with people in general and often have to be right. They don’t see their impact on others and feel it is their mission to straighten out the world. They make poor leaders due to their lack of people skills. Typically they have been neglected or emotionally abused in their own growing up years. The pain from their own abuse compels them to organize other people’s lives in a vain attempt to straighten out their own. They cover up their pasts by repeating it. Effectively they say to themselves, “If I had to follow the rules then so do you.” They do to others what was done to them with no awareness of how the two are connected.

Also they have utter contempt for their own vulnerable feelings in a useless attempt to justify how they were treated as children. They tell themselves, “I deserve what was done to me and I have no right to complain.” Needless to say, other people’s feelings have a similar place of infamy for them and they typically disregard or see feelings as manipulative. The entirety of a parent’s being crazy about rules is an enormous unconscious reenactment of their own emotional abuse.

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Helping myself today

It’s best to focus on yourself and, however imperfectly, develop your own identity. This goal is long overdue and will take time to carry out. Only God can create the universe in seven days. The rest of us take longer. You may start off by seeing the movie, “The Great Santini” and reading Children of the Self-Absorbed by Nina W. Brown. You may relate to both resources more than you wished you did. It would be best to share your reactions to those resources with someone you trust or a professional helper who has had considerable experience in helping people who were controlled as kids. The many exercises in the book may help you peel away layers of denial both in your view of your family of origin and in your view of yourself. Most of us want to think we came from the perfect family and that the problems we have today have nothing whatsoever to do with our growing up years.

When you work with a helper not only do you see your life experience more realistically but you also learn how to cope with it and heal it in the present. You do not need to stay stuck in your past. You may learn from your helper how to set limits with your parents and others who exploit you, how to know your own feelings and thoughts and not get over aroused, how to detach yourself when necessary from other people’s distress, how to handle your anxious reactions when you stand your ground and how to maintain your identity when you allow another person to love you. It’s best to give up seeking approval from your controlling parent, trying to change how he or she behaves around you today, trying to talk through the past with your parent or trying to get help for your wayward parent.

The person you really need to face is yourself. At some point the help of a good Al-Anon group may assist you in staying connected to yourself. Also, it may help you to take a therapeutic yoga (or CranioSacral therapy) class where you can learn to be more in touch with your body, how to make it more flexible and how to relax it when it gets tense. To have an identity, a person needs to be in his or her body. Painful feelings of grief over your difficult past are likely stored in your body and will probably arise in your yoga class. These are feelings you can discuss with your professional helper to allow you to get some distance from your past and not have to keep reliving it. Once you have a complete story about your past, you will be free of your psychological prison. If you’ve been strong enough to survive your own abuse you are strong enough to have your own identity. Believe in yourself. There will come a time when you stand on your own two feet, when the air you breathe is your own and when the person you most love, among others, is yourself.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men.

This article was first published in our Jan/Feb 2012 issue. We may earn commissions via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support the website.

Last Updated on October 26, 2022

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