Dysfunctional Relationship With A Tiger Mum
The saying “blood is thicker than water” suggests that no matter what happens, family relationships are the strongest. While that might be the case for some, not everyone is born into a family with a healthy relationship as the default.
During a previous episode of Ask Zula, John, a media creative, opened up about the relationship struggles he has with his family ‒ particularly regarding the one with his mum. Having lived together for 30 years, John shared how it affected his mental health growing up, and the steps he took to improve. Here, he shares his story.
Relationship with mum growing up
Kids are curious by nature and sometimes, their curiosity would cause trouble and scoldings from their parents. This was exactly the case for John.
“As a Catholic family, we went to church every Sunday and I remembered being caned every time we got home. My mum was angry because my younger brother and I were noisy and fooled around at church. Over time, we actually expected the caning to happen by the time we reached home,” John shared.
John explained that at that age, it was hard to control himself as he was “excited about everything.”
“As a result, I grew to fear the entire church experience, to the extent that I didn’t even want to go to church. It caused me to prepare for the worst, and eventually led to me tiptoeing around my mum and becoming defensive.”
In the end, any little noise John made would cause him to look out for his mum’s reaction as he was afraid to get scolded by her.
His fear wasn’t exclusive to church either. “Because of how I was aware of every little thing, I shielded and guarded myself when I was around my family. It made me wonder if home was a safe space for rest and comfort, because it didn’t feel like it in my case,” John continued.
Growing up, John noticed how the incidents led him to become a chronic liar so he wouldn’t get an earful from his mother. Over time, this became habitual and subconsciously built to become part of his personality. However, as integrity is something John held high, he hated the fact that he wasn’t able to live up to it at home.
“I felt that whenever I gave an answer or was asked about something, I got questioned for my actions. In the end, my instinctive response was to get irritated. My thoughts would spiral and I would think of reasons to defend myself, especially if there were follow up questions.”
As a matter of fact, John even felt like his family members became allies when it came to matters of finance and provision, while they were never on his side for emotional support.
Getting verbally abused and opening a private bank account
Nothing changed even when John became a legal adult. When he was around 21 years old, a misunderstanding related to the money in his shared bank account caused his mother to lash out at him.
“The verbal abuse went on for so long that I started to doubt my reality. It made me wonder if I really did spend the money when I actually didn’t. For about 3 hours, my mum was telling me how I was a failure and I couldn’t handle money properly,” John recalled.
At that time, John felt so helpless to the extent that he even contemplated self-harm.
“I took a knife and started to cut my clothes and bedsheets that were near me. I was so explosive and I didn’t know what to do. Since my mum barged into my room, I was cornered and there was no other way to back out. That was when I was closest to losing it.”
Ever since that incident, anything related to money like insurance or savings would cause John to feel traumatised. The first step of action he wanted to take was to open an additional bank account without his mum’s knowledge.
“Even then, I wouldn’t be able to share that fact with her. It felt like once she questioned me about the bank account, I wouldn’t know what to say. My hateful and vengeful emotions surfaced whenever she asked me about my finance. I was simply triggered easily.”
When John actually told his mum about how he felt, she turned to blackmail him emotionally instead. Accusations of doubting her intentions and guilt-trip comments such as being a “failure as a parent” were brought up.
“That’s why I would rather not say things to her because I knew she would react this way and get offended. There were multiple instances that led to the way I am now and nothing I said felt right, or safe,” John admitted.
Since no other family member stepped in to fix their familial breakdown, John found his mental health suffering over time.
The toll on mental health
Situations like these are undoubtedly mentally draining, especially when John wasn’t able to express how he felt.
“I started to do things without considering how my family would feel. As someone who overthinks a lot, it takes me 2 to 3 hours to simmer down before I can even try to sleep every time an argument happens. It is detrimental to my physical health too if you think about it,” John shared.
It became so taxing that John’s approach was to be emotionally magnanimous so that he could “get over them faster”. He turned to accepting and agreeing with his mum on anything just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the issue for a longer time.
To let go of the steam and heal emotionally, John sought comfort through his friends and personal relationships. For him, those were his saving grace in maintaining his identity.
“Thanks to them, I think I became more patient and kinder to people. In a way, I don’t get emotionally stretched outside. Being outside of home helps to rejuvenate my mental health and I get to adjust myself better for home,” John added.
John was also grateful to his friends for understanding him and not being judgemental on days when he had family problems. On the other hand, it made him feel guilty about having to take time off from work to deal with the issues because technically, his family was not the traditional meaning of “broken”. Compared to other problems that people might face, John knows that his problems are rather trivial.
“To be honest, a part of me feels lucky also, because not everyone is able to talk about their family issues easily,” John expressed.
Where his mother’s behaviour stems from
John and his younger brother when they were kids
Just like how a child mirrors their parents, John’s mother’s behaviour did not arise from nowhere. He believes that it might be attributed to his grandfather.
“My grandfather was from a time when gender was not seen as equal. He was very much harsher on his daughters. Now that my mum has grown up, is away from the system and has found success, she still has the fire in her to fight very hard. As one of the more successful siblings, she also feels that she has the right to tell people off,” John elaborated.
John shared that despite positive actions by his mum, rejecting them would even lead to accusations that left no room for negotiation.
“One time, I came home after dinner and I was really full. But my mum made a tonic drink and wanted me to have it. Even though I told her that I was full from the meal, she couldn’t take no for an answer and questioned why I couldn’t even finish one drink.”
It became irritating to John as every contact with his mum would lead to emotional drainage, preventing him from being himself. In the end, it left John with only 2 options ‒ to give in to his mum or to completely avoid the situation.
Eventually, John went with the latter option and most of the time, only returned home when his family was asleep. To him, his house was not a home.
Attempts to patch the relationship
John and his family out for a meal
Despite having a strained relationship, John still wanted to make things better.
“I actually suggested getting professional help, but being the traditional boomer, my mum shot down the idea immediately. She thought our problems were not “serious” enough for us to seek help. And it made me think twice if I’m the one who was making a mountain out of a molehill.”
While John bid farewell to the idea of his family receiving professional help, there was an incident which he felt made his mum realise what he had been going through.
“I think it opened my mother’s eyes a bit more. After an argument, I told my mum that it might be inevitable for how I behaved because I am her son and that’s who I am. I said, “Maybe just like how you are gong gong’s daughter, you take after him and I take after you.” There are just things that can’t be changed.”
At that moment, John saw something different in his mum’s eyes. Perhaps a rare connection and a glimmer of hope for the relationships in his family to improve.
“She was silent for a few seconds and it felt refreshing because for once after a long time, I felt that I was heard. But, the feeling didn’t last and my mum reverted back to her usual ways. However, it still showed that something I said must have touched my mum’s heart that time.”
Moving forward, John wants to be a person to “pull” his mum closer instead of pushing her away.
Finally moving out and future plans
John’s room at his family house
While most of us have the freedom of chilling at any part of our house without a second thought, for John, his room is his only private space at home. As such, he had many thoughts about moving out while growing up. The only drawback? Finances.
While John was still living with his family when the Ask Zula episode was filmed, he recently made the decision to move out and is currently living with 2 other housemates. His money worries were also slightly eased, as he revealed that he managed to negotiate for a promotion at work and of course, received a raise.
“My super capable housemate, Chow, managed to get us a steal for the current house we are living in, in terms of rent. So everything just kind of came together,” John explained.
When asked about whether his mental health has improved, John was delighted to share that he felt freer and more independent.
“I discovered that I now enjoy doing things that I used to dread like waking up early to clean the house and to do my laundry. These might sound basic but because of how my parents kept such a tight grip around us, there was always an element of inadequacy or guilt that was so deep-seated.”
As the saying goes: “better late than never,” and John is optimistic about his belated newfound freedom and space to grow independently.
Relationship with family members today
John with his family
Previously, with what John went through with his family, he felt “damaged” to not even have conversations with them. He would hide in his room and preserve his safe space, but now, things have changed for the better.
“My dad is the good cop in the family and he’s someone you can have fun with. But, at the same time, he’s not exactly the pillar of support you can find. As for my younger brother, he is the exact opposite of me. Perhaps because of our differences, there’s also nothing much for us to talk about.”
Now that John has moved out, he feels that “the changes have been marginal but observable” since it has only been a month.
“I can tell from the way we communicate that we are on better terms in general, and our topics are more lighthearted and less intense,” John shared.
As they say time heals all wounds, and it seems John’s relationship with his family can only get better from here on out.
Advice for those who are suffering from a dysfunctional relationship
Sharing advice for those who might also be in the same situation, John suggests that “prevention is better than cure, and a lot of things come from good intentions but misplaced actions”.
“As a child, you can always help your family out by telling them in advance about what you’re planning to do or where you’re going. Be an accountable person so that the situation won’t escalate to something like mine.”
He also brought up a Chinese proverb that aptly fits his situation ‒ “It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a metre deep.” For context, John suggests that situations like his build up over time, so it’s always better to deal with it ASAP.
He even extends his own personal experience to be a guide for others. “Talk to someone and if my experience can help you, I don’t mind if you even reach out to me too. We can have a conversation about it.”
Handling A Dysfunctional Relationship With A Tiger Mum And Struggling With Mental Health
No one gets to choose their family members in life. Despite differences, the best anyone can do is to try and resolve any misunderstanding and strengthen the relationship. After all, John’s story shows that family is for life and there’s always a solution for problems.
Watch the full ZULA episode below:
All images courtesy of John.
Some quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.