Becoming Adult, Becoming Free

“No one can pressure you to do anything you don’t want to do.”

I recently heard this in a setting in which I had sat through two hours of the speaker attempting to persuade me to do something that I was not willing to do. The speaker was effective and powerful, and I walked away with greater personal insight and inspiration, but I decided at this time not to engage further in his organization’s work. This post is not about that, though.

The speaker spoke to internal conflicts around domination, about which most adults have some ambivalence. Perhaps this arises from a cultural pattern of parenting, in which struggles between domination and submission are integral. Caregivers set boundaries, and children do not understand why. Eventually, children feel the urge to start pushing for more freedom, more individuality, while parents learn to keep adjusting the boundaries to keep their growth safely contained. That seems something like an ideal, however some parents respond to the steps toward autonomy with greater punitiveness and control. Or parents fear their power and responsibility and submit to their children. Some children lean harder toward avoiding being dominated, either by over challenging or surreptitious acting out. Other children lean harder toward submitting to dominion, perhaps out of fear of punishment or a longing to be loved. This is tricky, and parenting is hard work, and I honor those who have taken it on.

Flower growing on I-5 overcrossing in Albany – Chris Weigel

These conflicts only continue to escalate through adolescence to early adulthood, in which the growing young person wants to push off and launch into adulthood, though may be experiencing fears and resistance. They want to be seen as adults by their parents and treated as adults but they do not realize that they’re not yet completely acting like adults. Even in the most stable of family dynamics there can be some conflict here, emotional landmines that get set off by seemingly the most innocuous of situations. If a parent doesn’t approve of something, the adult child might become enraged, upset, tearful, or protest against their asshole parent who never did enough of something.

When these conflicts are unresolved, they tend to manifest in our relatoinships. I remember the day in my own therapy when I was discussing how upset I felt when criticized by my partner, and my therapist pointed out that I was criticizing him. What???

In a discussion with someone, they snapped at me, “Don’t tell me what to do!” It occurred to me that this person was in effect telling me what to do!

The point is not that we’re all hypocrites, the point is that our hypocrisies tell us a lot about what is unresolved within us and what needs to be resolved so we can become more free, more creative, more joyful in life. We can think of these dynamics as the child parts of us still trying to become free of childhood dominion, not recognizing that it’s over. The friction of launching is an important component. Small rebellions, assertions of autonomy, all of these generate the heat, power, and strength necessary to push away. In that respect, the touchiness about “don’t criticize me!” and “don’t tell me what to do!” serve as rungs on the ladder to help us move toward the greater self-realization: when you’re wholly yourself, it does not matter whether someone criticizes you, tries to dominate you, or tries to tell you what to do.

In this respect, an important caveat: there could certainly be consequences to not doing what a person says, especially if that person is your boss, a police officer, or otherwise has power and privilege that you do not. People who experience marginalization are well aware of the barriers that these systemic factors raise. We cannot wish our way out of structural inequality and systemic violence, but we can start freeing ourselves from within so that we can respond to with greater power and creativity. We can take the tools of personal oppression away from our families and loved ones and remember that the pain and irritation comes from within. Our closest relationships generally offer the material we need to become more adult, that is, to take more responsibility for who we are in the world.

I want to clarify, though, that this is an aspiration, something we work toward. Until we start practicing this self-responsibility, then we are susceptible to being dominated, to being pressured to do what we do not want to do, to being diminished by others’ criticism. Regarding this, Toko-pa has wonderful things to say.