Live Your Dreams

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Live Your Dreams, Not Those of Your Parents

by Dan Neuharth, PhD

Dear Dr. Dan:
I'm a 38 year-old successful attorney who pursued a legal career because it was my parents' dream for me. Actually, their dream was that I become a doctor, but when my college pre-med grades were only so-so, their hopes for "My daughter the doctor" quickly morphed into "My daughter the lawyer." As far back as I can remember, they never asked what I wanted; they just told me what to do. As a result, I've found it hard to know my heart's true desires. I increasingly detest practicing law, I feel angry at my parents, and yet I feel extremely guilty and self-critical. How do I break the news to my parents?
Mary

Dear Mary:
Your parents may have been doing what they thought was best for you, but their approach didn't help you flex your "decision muscles" as you were growing up. If you detest practicing law, maybe law was never your dream to begin with. Your parents may have been trying to live out their unfulfilled dreams through you. Out of loyalty and love, you may have sacrificed your desires to please them. Perhaps it's appropriate that you feel angry: anger is a sign that our rights or boundaries have been violated or are in danger of being violated. Choosing your career is your right, not your parents'. It sounds as if you were raised to feel guilty whenever you opposed your parents' wishes. Now, years later, you may feel as if you've done something wrong when you follow your desires
even when you are acting in your best interests.

Your job isn't to please your parents. They may not understand that, but it's your life and career, not theirs. You are an adult, equal to your parents in every way. You have many ways you can "break the news." You could use humor. For example, tell them something like, "Mom and Dad, all lawyers have a midlife crisis, and mine has come early. It'll be fine, don't worry." Or you could say exactly what you said in your letter to me. Or you could make the topic off limits for a time by saying something like: "Mom and Dad, I'm sure you have private or sensitive topics you don't want to discuss until you are ready, and right now my career is one of my private subjects."

Over time, as your own approval of your choices grows, your parents' approval or disapproval will become less important. Ask yourself questions that can help you distinguish your unique passions from goals chosen for you, such as: What do I love to do? What were my earliest life dreams?

Seek allies during this transition. Find a role model who has successfully made the switch from law to a career closer to your heart. Talk to those who encourage your dreams: your mate, close friends, siblings, relatives, or a therapist. You may want to take a break from your job or start doing part-time what you'd eventually like to do for a living. Either way, I'd encourage you to keep your state bar membership active indefinitely. Recognize, too, that in a transition like this, emotional ups and downs are normal. Avoid being hard on yourself. You are giving birth to a new part of yourself as an adult and birth is painful.

As "Bloody Mary" sang in South Pacific, "You got to have a dream. If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"

Helpful Resources on this Topic

Hand-Me-Down Dreams: How Our Families Influence Our Career Paths and How We Can Reclaim Them Mary Jacobsen
Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want Barbara Sher and Annie Gottlieb
Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood Marsha Sinetar
What Color is Your Parachute? Richard Nelson Bolles

Books and resources about difficult or controlling family relationships

Other Ask Dr. Dan Columns:

Coping with Controllers Self-centered People Live Your Dreams Get Out of Your Way 'Uh-Oh' Birthdays Balanced Parenting Choosing to Parent

Back to directory of archived "Ask Dr. Dan" columns

This column originally appeared on ShesGotItTogether.com

This column is designed for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for psychotherapy or a visit to a mental health professional. If you experience abnormal anxiety, depression, or serious emotional or situational difficulties, please seek professional help immediately
 

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If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Take Your Place in the World
Published by HarperCollins Publishers

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