Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I grew up Catholic and my parents are pretty devout Catholics. I was skeptical for a long time, but I finally called myself an atheist after I had been living by myself at college. I haven’t had the guts to tell them this, and I often went to church with them when I visited to appease them.
Now, due to certain circumstances, I am living with them again after having graduated from college. Every week they ask me to go to church with them and every week I politely decline. I’ve begun having small arguments about religion with my father, and I’m sure he suspects by now that I don’t believe anymore. This led him to say, with tears in his eyes, that he has failed me. He wonders where he went wrong, what he could have done better. He thinks he is a failure because I am no longer a Catholic.
I think many people probably have this problem when they finally tell their religious parents that they don’t believe anymore. What can I say to reassure him that he did not fail? What can I say to make him see that I am still a good person? How can I comfort him about his idea that he will not be spending eternity with his daughter?
P.S. I really enjoy your advice! I hope you can help me.
In movies, when the villain points a gun at the hero but the hero won’t give in to his demands, the villain points the gun at the hero’s loved one. The hero then feels far more pressure to give in. This is one of many forms of emotional blackmail.
Your father, whether he’s conscious of it or not, is applying pressure on one of your vulnerable spots, your love for him and your instinct to protect him from hurt just as he has protected you from hurt. He’s holding your loved one (himself) hostage, with sadness as the threat, and your religious compliance is the ransom.
I’m not saying that your father is a villain. He’s probably a decent human being, but he has his faults as we all do. This is a manipulation frequently used by parents, because they seldom see how very destructive and self-defeating it is in the long run. His saying “I have failed you” is really an underhanded way of saying “You have failed me.”
Ouch. That’s parental guilt trip number one. Don’t buy the ticket.
It’s important for you to sort out the difference between caring about his feelings and taking care of his feelings. You have done nothing to deliberately or even negligently cause him unhappiness. He created his unhappiness and contrived guilt as a “failure” entirely within himself, so you cannot take responsibility for fixing his unhappiness and guilt. There is no end to giving in to blackmail, and there is no end to being untrue to yourself in order to satisfy someone else’s expectations.
Of course one obvious thing do is to get out of depending on your parents and live on your own as soon as you can, but that won’t really change this dynamic between you and your father. That will only make it less of a daily conflict. You will still have to draw and enforce clear boundaries between who he is and who you are, what is his, and what is yours.
Instead, keep all your remarks about you in the here-and-now, and him in the here-and-now. Use only humanist concepts and terms. In your own words, you might either tell him or write him something like the following:
As far as I’m concerned, as a father you’re a success. You have always taught me to be a good person, and you’ve done a good job.
I’m a good person because of the good things I do, not because of the thoughts I am told to think. I think for myself, yet I am not selfish. I make my own decisions, yet I allow others to make theirs. I find my own way, yet I do not stand in anyone else’s way. By my actions I am honest, kind, fair, and have integrity.
I have listened to your guidance and watched your example, and I have followed much of it, but I cannot be a carbon copy of you. I’m a little like you, a little like Mom, and I’m not exactly like either of you. I am me.
I am responsible for my feelings, thoughts and actions. I don’t expect you to be responsible for my feelings, and I cannot be responsible for your feelings. I have done nothing to deliberately hurt you. If you decide to continue thinking that you’re a failure, that’s unfair to you, and it’s insulting to me. I think you can change your mind about this if you think it out more carefully. I cannot change your mind by pretending to be something that I am not. I love you from my real heart, from the real person I am. I will not, I can not fake my love for you by faking my beliefs.
So Dad, see your success as a father in how I actually live my life, this life, not what thoughts and beliefs may be in my head.
Katherine, a statement something like this expresses that you care about him, but it does not attempt to take care of him. You are politely handing his responsibility back to him. You’re not overtly calling him out on his attempt at emotional blackmail, but you’re clearly showing that you won’t give in to it.
This will probably not immediately improve everything between you and your father. I think that you will be able to find a more comfortable equilibrium with him, and he with you, gradually over time. He may try other ploys for a while, but if you maintain both your integrity, being true to yourself while still being a caring person, and your equanimity, staying calm, above the fray, patiently dealing with attempts to manipulate, hopefully he will stop that kind of thing and begin to cherish the strong, gentle, independent, intelligent and loving daughter that he sees blossoming before him.