Growing up with a controlling and/or domineering mother can suppress your masculinity and leave you stuck feeling and acting like a boy in a man's body. My mother was the dominant figure in my family of origin, and with a passive-aggressive father and two relatively dominant older sisters, it was a disastrous recipe for my developing masculinity.
A controlling mother creates a relationship dynamic that will undermine your confidence in yourself as a man unless you take steps to counter its effects. So here are some steps to take to help you recover from growing up with a controlling, dominant mother:
Recognize that Your Mother is Controlling
The first step to dealing with a problem is to recognize that it exists. It took me a long time to even see that my mother was controlling. It wasn't until I did The Landmark Forum in my mid-30s and they started talking about how controlling most of us are that I had this insight.
When I was a child, my mother used a physical leash to control me; partly for my own safety, and partly for her convenience. As I got older, verbal stoushes with my father made it very clear that the masculine point of view wasn't welcome in our household. My mother would fight tooth and nail every time, because to her conceding anything was a weakness. She controlled my father, and by extension the rest of the family including me. Even now during phone conversations, my mother decides when the conversation is over. My sisters and I sometimes joke about her idiosyncrasies but it's not funny: growing up around this sort of behavior from a mother cuts deep into a man's psyche.
Understand That Control Is About Anxiety
Controlling people act the way they do in order to manage their own inner anxiety. In fact, most dysfunctional behavior is the result of unacknowledged anxiety. Your mother may have had your safety in mind when you were a child, and felt that she needed to control your natural boyish spontaneity and exuberance in order to keep you out of danger. But her own inner anxiety about the world is likely to have magnified that danger out of proportion to reality. Children learn the most powerful lessons by making mistakes, and sometimes this involves getting hurt. Controlling and “protecting” you may have robbed you from these valuable lessons and undermined your confidence in the process.
It is natural for a mother to worry about her children, and if your mother was an anxious person to begin with, attempting to control you was probably easier than dealing with her own emotional baggage that made her anxious. Bear in mind though that if your mother controlled you, she may be so self-controlled that you'd never guess that deep down the problem for her is anxiety. If you met my mother, you wouldn't think she had deep seated anxieties; you'd probably just wonder why she's so aloof and critical, or you might get her when she's in a good mood and just think she's friendly but head-strong. Underneath it all, anxiety is the problem.
Start Expressing Your Feelings
Controlling people act the way they do because deep down they are afraid. In addition to controlling other people, they tend to have harsh judgments about themselves and to control their own behavior. This is most evident in the way they express their feelings. I have very rarely seen my mother cry, even at funerals for people she truly cared about. Our society tends to uphold such stoic behavior as a sign of great inner strength, yet it's actually highly dysfunctional. Crying releases tension and allows us to heal our emotional wounds. Doing so publicly gives permission to other people to follow suit, which is healing and compassionate for everyone who attends. Stoic people put the breaks on this natural healing process for themselves and everyone around them. They broadcast the message “It's not OK to be emotional”. And since we are all emotional creatures, that really means “It's not OK to be who you are”. These people are a pain in the ass.
If your mother was emotionally contained, chances are you took this trait on too. You probably even magnified it. That's likely to give you double trouble, because an emotionally constrained mother will have had difficulty bonding with you during your childhood, and this will leave you with a deep wound. You're likely to be carrying a great deal of grief about this if you haven't dealt with it yet, and the way we process grief is by expressing the emotions that underlie it... which is impossible if you're emotionally constrained. The way out of this paradox is to start chipping away at the problem by expressing how your feel at every opportunity. See Step 12 in Confident Man for more on this.
Stand Up For Yourself
At some point, you need to start standing up for yourself and live life according to your rules, rather than the rules of your mother. A controlling mother doesn't drop the rules just because you've reached adulthood. She changed your diapers, and annoying though this thought maybe, in her head you're always her little boy. She'll keep treating you that way until you start thinking and acting for yourself, and taking responsibility for your own life.
Women actually love men who stand up to them and part of her is actually waiting for you to start doing this so that she can stop worrying about you. But another part is deeply enmeshed in the idea that you need her to tell you what's right and wrong so that she can keep you on the straight and narrow. Trouble is, her straight and narrow will wreck your life because you're a man, and she's a woman and we see things very differently.
If your family are like mine, your siblings may not have dealt with having had a controlling mother, and may conspire with you to play games like keeping secrets from your mother in the hope of avoiding conflict and her harsh judgments. You can't control your siblings, but it's time for you to take the lead and start telling the truth about what is going on. Your mother needs to start letting go and dealing with her fears by herself, and that's not going to happen until you start being a man and standing up to her.
Take Some Time Out
If you're a particularly sensitive guy, you may need to take some time out away from your mother's controlling influence before you can learn to stand up to her. Travel overseas for an extended period, or even live in another country out of her reach for a while. Keep in touch, but don't fall into a rut by establishing a structured pattern in the way you communicate. Start talking to your mother on the phone because you want to, rather than out of obligation. If you never feel like you really want to talk to her, taking a break from communication will allow these feelings to surface. She may resent you in the mean time, but that's normal especially in a mother who lacks self-awareness as you individuate.
In my family, Christmas day was sacrosanct. Our mother would begin planning it months ahead, and be so stressed out on the day that nobody could really relax and enjoy it. One year I headed up the north coast on an open-ended motorcycle road trip and decided not to return in time for family Christmas. Mum got over it eventually, and the rest of the family actually missed me rather than taking my presence for granted. Best thing I ever did. Nowadays, Christmas day is more relaxed and much more fun for everyone.
Be Honest With Your Father
If your father has been under your mother's thumb most of your life, he may turn out to be a worthy ally in the battle against the control of your mother. My father has been pandering to my mother's whims most of his marriage, and certainly all of my life. He really values the opportunity to talk with me about what's real without the interfering presence of his critical wife, my mother.
It's a bit weird because he doesn't really see just how negative an influence she is on him, and still describes her as “the best thing that ever happened to me”. Well that's great for you Dad, but it's not so good for me having a cold, critical, emotionally shut-down woman as a mother. That kind of thing has a damaging effect on a man. Being able to talk about these sorts of issues with my father has helped me to deal with the effect of my mother on me, and shrink her overbearing size in my subconscious.
Forgive Your Mother
Forgiveness is a highly misunderstood concept, so let me explain it in this context: Forgiving your mother means breaking the emotional attachment that you have to her and the harm her controlling behavior has on you. It doesn't mean letting her off the hook, it means letting her do what she does without it having an emotional hold over you. This requires you to deal with the feelings you have about your interactions with her in the past, allow her to do what she likes in the present, and set a course in the future where you do what's right for you regardless of the impact on her.
Start taking mental notes of the times when you change your mind or behavior because of the thought “what will mum think/do”, as these are clues to areas where you are still emotionally enmeshed with her. Forgiveness is about being free of this emotional dependency that allows her to control you. Once you see it this way, the notion of forgiving your mother for the things she's done that have hurt you, becomes a lot more appealing. There's a whole chapter in The Confident Man Program Guide about this: Step 8.
Heal Your Shame
Teaching you to be ashamed is one of the best long-term strategies a mother has to control your behavior. It's better than reprimanding you each time you do something she doesn't like, because once you're taught to be ashamed, you start reprimanding yourself internally and she doesn't even have to be around to do it. This can cover anything from having emotions and the way you feel, to your male sexuality and sexual appetite.
The problem with being shamed is that it damages your psyche deeply, and the effects go on long past the point where they may have been useful. To release yourself from the internal control of shame, you need the support of other people. You simply can't do this alone, because shame is all about fear of other people discovering the truth about you and so they are essential to the healing process.
Find yourself a supportive group of men that you can trust, and start telling them about the things you feel ashamed of. Sex is a ripe area of shame from your mother, as is masturbation, addiction to drugs/alcohol/pornography, relationships, affairs and any kind of failure or mistake you may make in life. Join a mens group that focuses on expressing feelings. Confess the things you're most ashamed of, and hear other men do the same, in a supportive environment where you get unconditional love instead of judgement. Sharing your story heals your shame and helps you break free, so I encourage you to talk about your experience with a compassionate, understanding professional.
See Step 13 in The Confident Man Program Guide for more on how to heal shame.
Notice When You're Being Controlling
Finally, we can't help but take on the behavior of our parents even if we found it abhorrent. Sometimes we promise ourselves never to be like them, without realizing that the other extreme is almost indistinguishable: A pledge to be the opposite of someone who is controlling means we're still controlled by them and their behavior because we must always do the opposite instead of being free to choose for ourselves.
If you had a controlling mother, there will be times when you yourself are controlling; either of yourself or of others. You need to suspend your judgment about this long enough to recognize when you do it, and decide whether it reflects the kind of man you want to be. It may be a bitter pill to swallow that you engage in exactly the sort of behavior that you hate from your mother. In my case, the person I controlled was me. Somehow this seemed more noble than to afflict someone else, but it's not; it's still controlling. Breaking out of this has taken a long time for me, and it's still a work-in-progress, but the sooner you start the sooner you'll get there. Let yourself cut loose and live a little.
Repressing jealousy, envy, anger and hatred can all lead to controlling behavior on your part. The solution is to acknowledge and express these emotions directly, rather than letting them influence how you act. You may have a belief that these emotions are somehow socially unacceptable. When you start expressing so-called “negative” feelings, other people will identify with you because they have them too. Stop pretending that you're perfect because it makes you come across as a robot that other people, women especially, will have difficulty relating to.
Question Your Religion
One of the easiest ways for powerless parents to control their children's behavior is to send them off to church and have them indoctrinated with a set of rules and regulations, backed by a God who sees and knows all, damnation for eternity if you get it wrong, and a sense of guilt that keeps you in line. Once you internalize this, your mother doesn't have to worry about controlling you so much any more to stop you straying, because you'll do it yourself.
If your parents did this, it's probably because they believed in the religion themselves and thought it was for your own good. They may even still believe in heaven, hell and eternal judgment if they've never questioned it nor acknowledged the damage it's done to themselves. If your mother thinks it's OK for God to be fiercely judgmental, then she has no reason to question her own self-righteousness. She's just being Godly. But it's really just another strategy to assuage her anxiety about you getting into trouble, and hurting or possibly embarrassing her.
Organized religion both attracts and produces judgmental, controlling people; that's what keeps it organized. Everyone involved gets to avoid dealing with the underlying problem of anxiety by being controlling of self and others. Fundamentalists are the obvious tip of this iceberg.
If you still believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, it's time for you to grow up and start questioning what you've been spoon-fed. Then the next step is to release yourself from the shackles of the psychological harm it's done to you. See Step 10 in The Confident Man Program Guide for more details.
Get Professional Help and Support
Recovering from the damage done by a controlling mother is one of the most challenging tasks we can face because the emotional scars can go deep into our nervous systems. Often other members of the family have also been affected but may be too afraid to face the truth; which is why your siblings and father are more likely to side with your mother than to support your recovery, despite the negative consequences of her behavior on them too.
In some cases it may be necessary to cut contact with your mother for a period of time, which is likely to incur the wrath of siblings who are in denial of the impact their mother has had on them, and too afraid to take such action themselves. As a result, the first person in a family to stand up to a controlling mother tends to feel very isolated.
I highly recommend getting professional help and support on this journey. Since I've personally been there myself, I now specialize in helping people recover from the devastating emotional impact of growing up with a controlling mother. I can offer emotional healing sessions via Skype wherever you are in the world. If you're suffering the effects of a controlling mother and want to set yourself free, contact me about coaching.