My friend is struggling to assert herself with her family. Should I say something? | Family

I have a close friend who I love and care about very much, who is struggling to assert herself against what her family want for her. She doesn’t know what she wants to do – career wise – but she comes from a family who have quite vocal expectations for her future, and a fairly narrow view of what counts as success.

I am lucky to have always been taught very differently, and I recognise that her family are just looking out for her, but I can see the damage it does and I want to help. I also don’t want to judge and I am of course wary of criticising people she loves. I am happy to just be a shoulder to cry on, or someone to be positive and supportive, rather than just giving the opposite lectures. But I equally want her to see that she doesn’t have to make herself do things that make her miserable just to satisfy her family. Shall I talk to her about it, or is it best to say nothing?

Eleanor says: The thing about domineering expectations is that after a while they start to live inside your head. This is true whether they’re from families or partners or institutions – you learn the script of their expectations so well that you can just do their side of the dialogue for yourself. Getting away from the source of the expectations doesn’t mean they stop being enforced: the sergeant lives on in your mind.

If your friend has grown up with vocal expectations about what she should do and be, she may be experiencing some version of this. I think you’re right to be sensitive to the possibility that your nudges might feel like another lecture from a different source. People sometimes feel a loyalty to their family which makes even legitimate criticism very hard to hear. And you don’t want it to seem like she’s culpable or capitulating because she’s affected by her family’s expectations – as if she’s failed both to meet their expectations, then again by being affected by their weight.

Instead, I wonder whether there’s a way to help her bear these expectations without pointing out when they’re unfair, or domineering. Perhaps it’s more about helping her water the seedlings of her own independence.

When you’ve been marionetted by other people for a long time it can be very hard to make even small-scale decisions about what you want. The skill just atrophies. If it doesn’t feel legitimate to make your own mind up, you’ll stop practising how to do it.

Perhaps you could try to combat that – really be effusive and encouraging about small demonstrations that she’s pursuing what she wants. Little projects can be a good way to train that muscle. “What do you want to do with your life?” is a big lift you need to train for, but “what would be a fun trip to take?” or “what’s something you’ve always wanted to learn?” can feel more manageable.

Small opportunities to introspect on what she wants might help her feel licensed to see things through her own eyes. And for someone in her position, the struggle may not just be getting the answer to what she wants to do – it may be about feeling able to ask herself that question in the first place.

For whatever it’s worth, it sounds like you’re a loving and powerful friend. Don’t underestimate how much this alone will already be helping her. Domineering expectations teach you that esteem, acceptance or love are conditional on your ability to live up to them. One way to help people unlearn that stuff is by pointing out, out loud, that it’s wrong. Another is to just let them feel first-hand what an alternative kind of love and esteem is like. It sounds like you may be doing that already.

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