I was not a happy child when I grew up. I was the only child in the family. I was super obedient. I had always done well in school. My parents would tell their friends that I never caused them any trouble.
But, deep inside, I wasn’t a very happy boy. I was keenly aware of it, but I was too afraid to question. I didn’t like how my parents were treating me:
- My parents would always pick the clothes for me. I remembered once my mother picked this ugly grayish exercise outfit for me. When I showed up at my physical education class, all of my classmates were laughing at me. I knew when we bought the clothes at the store, it wouldn’t be popular among my peers. But, my mother always decided for me.
- My mother would open mails addressed to me without my permission. I remembered I hated it when I was in high school.
- When my parents made a sacrifice or did me a favor, they would always say to me: "we’ve done so much for you. When we got older, you must return the favor". There always seemed to be something attached to whatever they did to me. I was so disgusted about the guilt trips that I refused to ask for their help.
- My mother would go to school to talk to my teachers without giving me any advance notice. When I got home, she would say that "I just talked to your teacher today. I’d like to have a serious conversation with you". Usually I’d be really confused, surprised and scared — It wasn’t like I did something wrong. I wasn’t sure why my mother went to talk to my teacher, and I wasn’t sure why "she wanted to have a serious conversation."
- Until my teenage years, my family lived a comfortable middle-class life in another country. But, my dad had always had the ambition to immigrate to the United States to fulfill his American Dream. For the first few years in the United States, life was very tough. I would hear my Dad complaining to his friends: "we came here for our kid. If it’s for us, we would have stayed". I knew it wasn’t true because I had overheard conversations between my parents — my father really wanted to get to the United States. It’d be good for my education, but it wasn’t the primary reason for them to come to the States.
As you can see, I carried a lot of pressure, guilt, and stress while I was growing up.
I was also taught that my parents were right, always right — I wasn’t supposed to question what they did. I was constantly struggling with this internal conflict — my gut was telling me that something was not right, but I couldn’t question my parents. It was hard.
Going to college at Berkeley was a huge step for me since I finally got the chance to live by myself. It was incredibly liberating.
- I only went home to see parents every few weeks. I hated to go home, and now I had a legitimate excuse — "I’m busy with school work". ๐
- I was fiercely independent. I’m proud to say that I worked all three summers during my college years, and I paid every single penny of my college expenses myself (tuition, housing, living expenses, etc.) I didn’t want to feel guilty again.
- I lived on my own and kept everything away from my parents. My parents would not longer see my mails. In fact, they knew very little about me when I was in college — I didn’t like the scrutiny from them, so I kept everything away from them. They didn’t know who my friends were. They didn’t know what I did for extracurricular activities. They only knew I was doing well in school, and I was healthy and alive. ๐
- I also found an intellectual home at Berkeley. In addition to take Computer Science classes, I took many social science and humanity classes such as sociology, ethnic studies, architecture, etc. These "soft disciplines" really helped me to develop my own critical thinking skills. I learn to reflect, introspect, and think critically.
When I was graduating, I thought I was ready to dominate the world. ๐ I got three great job offers, but I didn’t know which offer I wanted to take.
All of them looked good. More importantly, I didn’t know what I wanted. I suddenly realized that throughout my life, I was not given the opportunity to make a lot of choices. My parents were very strict, and they would always make the decision for me.
It was a painful realization. I was flipping a coin in my room to decide which job offer I should take. In the end, fortunately, I made the right choice to pick a great employer.
This was a wake-up call. I started training myself to know what I want and make decisions.
- When I ate out with friends, I made sure that I read the menu, figured out what I really wanted, and then ordered. In the past, I might have randomly picked one or order what others have ordered.
- When I went shopping for clothes, I would always ask myself "what do I want", and then picked the one accordingly
- At work, I would always make a recommendation. I didn’t give "maybe this, maybe that" answers.
I’m much better at making decisions today. I’m also much better at knowing what I want. It’s actually not that hard to figure it out because deep in my heart, I know what I want. It’s just that I wasn’t given the opportunity to do so in the past.
About ten years ago, when I was browsing books in the Border’s bookstore on University Ave in Palo Alto, CA, I saw a book called If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. I was so excited about the book that I stayed in the bookstore for a long time and finished reading the book!
I cried. I just felt that someone actually understood all of my problems in the past. It’s okay to feel that way I had felt. In fact, when I did the exercise in the book, I got a pretty high score, which meant I had "highly controlling parents".
Why am I telling you this very personal story? I thought long and hard before I wrote this blog post. I didn’t particular enjoy talking about my personal life in the public. But, I have come across so many people who have problems with their parents that I’m compelled to share this story with you.
What I learned is that your relationship with your parents will have a lot to do with your career success. You cannot run away from the problems with your parents. You somehow have to reach peace with yourself, and address the problems. Otherwise, the problems with your parents will come back you to haunt you some point during your career.
Over the years, I have talked to people who are in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s who still have problems with their parents although in some cases their parents have passed away. Although problems with parents might be caused by external circumstances, the are internal to each individual — i.e. they’re all in people’s minds. If you don’t take proactive steps to address the problems, they will still be there even after your parents are dead.
How sad is it to let your problems with your parents to ruin your life and career?! If you have problems with you parents, be proactive and take actions now.
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