Dear Thelma: No matter how hard I try, I can't please dad

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Dear Thelma,

I am a fresh graduate from a university in Selangor and have recently returned to the north of Malaysia to be with my parents (for context, I am an only child).

Last year, due to various circumstances from my co-curricular commitments, I slipped into depression, coupled with a feeling of loneliness (it's not clinically diagnosed, but the signs are there, i.e. drastic weight loss, have feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, risking my safety, etc).

Although I was making some progress with my depression, I can't help but feel helpless again due to the situation at home.

My relationship with my father has been strained since 2017. As my parents and I were, of course, expecting straight A's for SPM, it didn't happen. Mum and I were shocked, but accepted it. My father on the other hand, kind of resented me post-exam results.

At that point, I was already pursuing A-Levels under a 75% scholarship. Due to the "failure", I started receiving degrading statements such as "You're not going to make it through A-Levels" or "You're wasting my money and your time".

I am aware that these statements were mostly influenced by other toxic family members of his, ones he prefers to listen to instead of standing by his wife and daughter.

Fast-forward to university: I managed to do well at uni and graduated with first class honours. After all these years, my father has finally started to appreciate and be proud of my efforts.

It does irk me very much because, do I really need to achieve something continuously to keep him proud, despite my doing much better than other members of the family?

Even when I was away from home, I knew about the mean things he said to my mum.

Recently, I found out that my father struggled to trust me when I was in Selangor all this while. I came to this realisation when he blurted that out two weeks ago how distrustful he is of the people in Selangor and how afraid he was that I might return home with a Selangorian boyfriend. It was an absolute punch in the gut.

For four years, I rarely went out with my classmates and, even when I did, I informed my parents. I never had a boyfriend. I excelled academically, and constantly had my parents in mind when deciding on a career – only to be treated this way when I came home!

I had not given him any reason to doubt me, but did someone else plant a toxic thought in his mind?

It hurts even more when he started criticising the way I look: "I'm not sure if you've noticed, but you looked very ugly in your formals" or "Do something with your pimples, will you? People have to look at you." And the list goes on...

At this point, even with my mum's encouragement, I am contemplating moving to another state for my compulsory service as I am quite interested in working in the pharmaceutical industry. And bring my mum along later.

In fact, I did receive an internship offer from a reputable company in June, but I turned it down as my father had urged me to return to my hometown. However, I don't want to be seen as that child who walks away from their parents; I have that fear of not being able to take care of my parents well, just because I am away from home.

Don't get me wrong, I love my parents, but sometimes the way my father behaves towards my mum and me, just exacerbates my already bad mental state. The last thing I need is to be viewed as an ungrateful child.

At this point, as I am about to begin my career, I don't want to make the wrong move and end up regretting it for the rest of my life.

I do feel really lonely. I don't mind being left alone, but it's the feel of being unwanted that hurts the most.

Depressed and lonely

Your father has made it clear that he will only love you if you achieve a strict standard of perfection: Straight As, first class honours. And should you not hit your target, he punishes you with verbal abuse.

This is what we call conditional love; it damages people and kills relationships.

Conditional love leads to a constant fear of failure. Victims are terrified because any kind of failure leads to punishment. Pressured to be perfect, they over-focus on achievement. The unrelenting pressure typically leads to breakdown.

Those who grow up with parents who practise conditional love are more at risk of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and low self-esteem. The despair of never being loved for themselves alone also leads to increased chance of drug and alcohol abuse.

In families, kids learn that no matter what they do, it’s never good enough. They try and try because they love their family and want to succeed. However, when that wish is never granted, when they learn they can never win that love, they become tired. They burn out and often the relationship dies too.

On top of that conditional love, your father abuses you constantly, running down your looks, your person and more. That constant onslaught of emotional abuse is devastating. As a result, you have stopped living.

My dear, you should have enjoyed your years at university, making friends, figuring out what kind of partner you want for your life, and more.

University is a safe space for young adults to do a little growing up with light adult support. Instead of reaping those benefits, you shut yourself away from life.

As for that ridiculous nastiness about dating people from Selangor. Good grief, what a lot of hate!

From your letter, your father abuses your mum too. She has urged you to leave. My guess is that she knows the damage his abuse is doing.

Take her advice: Run. Go get that job with the pharmaceutical company. Surround yourself with good people with kind hearts who love you for the person you are.

To heal, read articles and books about conditional love. It will help you understand how it all works and what steps you can take to help yourself. If you can, sign up for sessions with a therapist who specialises in abuse. It will help speed up the process of recovery.

Can you fix your dad? No. He has to make his own changes. Can you talk to him? That is tricky. As he doesn’t respect you, it’s likely that trying to communicate will just get you an earful of name-calling.

So go for your sessions and figure out options for the future.

You say you still love him, so I think you will not want to be estranged. Maybe at some point your father will realise that he has driven away his daughter, and that even his own wife thinks their child should leave. Maybe at some point he will apologise and change.

But do be prepared that he may not.

In films, abusive people recognise their errors and learn new behaviour. In real life, abusers often know very well what they’re doing is wrong. They abuse their family but they are perfectly nice to their bosses and their seniors. So it’s not a matter of not knowing; it’s a matter of not caring.

I hope sincerely that your father learns better ways. But if he doesn’t, that is his choice.

Don’t go through life suffering. Build a life of happiness for yourself. As for your mum, she’s an adult and responsible for herself, but I hope she gets some help. If you get a nice therapist, pass the contact to her.

Having abusive family is always difficult but you have a clear path out and your mum’s support. So go and heal. You deserve happiness. Know I’ll be thinking of you.

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