by Niall Doherty

Read this article in other languages: Español, Italiano

As this blog continues to grow steadily, I find myself getting more and more emails from readers (which is great by the way, keep them coming). I’ve noticed that one topic comes up over and over again.


Seems there are a lot of us out there who have big dreams, who want to do something meaningful with our lives, away from the safe and forgettable… but we’re worried about what our parents will think.

We’re worried about abandoning them. We’re worried about disappointing them. We’re worried that, if we are to trust our guts and follow our hearts, that we may end up being disowned by the very people we owe our lives to.

What to do?

I’m lucky

I’ll state right up front that I’m not the best person to address this issue, since methinks I have it pretty easy compared to most.

See, while my parents aren’t exactly thrilled with the lifestyle I’ve chosen for myself — if my mother had it her way I’d marry a nice Irish girl and build a house next door — they haven’t offered up much resistance to it. As long as I’m happy and not hurting anyone, they’re pretty cool with however I choose to live my life.

I’m also fortunate in that my two older brothers have built houses very close to home, so my parents won’t be all alone or lacking in support as they grow older and less independent.

Oh, and I’ve never been a parent myself, so I have no idea what it’s like to have my kid abandon apparent sanity and chase a crazy dream.

So yeah, I can’t really tell you anything here from personal experience. But I’ll share my perspective anyways. Hopefully it helps.

Mr. and Mrs. Coelho

When folks email me about the parent issue, I like to bring up Paulo Coelho.

You’ve heard of him, right? One of the most successful authors alive today, he’s sold several billion books (give or take) worldwide. He doesn’t just write, he inspires. The world is undoubtedly a better place for him and his work.

But flash back to when Paulo was a teenager, and his parents had him committed to a mental institution. On three separate occasions.


Because he wanted to be a writer.

See, Mr. and Mrs. Coelho didn’t think “writer” was a practical career choice. They were full sure that their son would end up starving in a slum somewhere if he pursued his passion, and so they tried to talk him out of it. When he wouldn’t listen, a trip to the local nuthouse for a little electro-shock therapy seemed in order.

Thankfully, Paulo resisted his parents resistance and managed to become his best self anyways.

But what if the young Brazilian had succumbed to all that opposition and given up on his dream? What if he’d been a good son and obeyed his parents? Sure, he’d probably have become a successful lawyer and helped a lot of people anyway, but he would have had nowhere near the positive impact that he’s been able to achieve through his writing.

Fact is, the world today would be a little less bright had Paulo been a parent pleaser.

But here’s what I love most about Coelho’s story. When asked if he’d forgiven his parents for how they treated them, he responded

I did not need to forgive them, because I never blamed them for what happened. From their own point-of-view, they were trying to help me to get the discipline necessary to accomplish my deeds as an adult, and to forget the “dreams of a teenager.”

Why your parents don’t want you to be you

When parents offer resistance, I believe it’s for four primary reasons.

1) They want to protect you

The higher you set your aspirations, the bigger the potential for disappointment. Your parents don’t want to see you fall. They want you to succeed at everything and never get hurt. Of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Shield a kid from pain and she’ll never really live.

I truly believe that going all out to achieve your dream is reward enough in itself, even if you never quite reach it. Just in that journey you’ll feel alive more than you ever have before.

2) The fear of change

We’re all a little selfish, and we all resist change. Many parents don’t want their kids deviating from the norm because then the parents themselves will have to figure out a new reality, a different and uncomfortable reality where their kid doesn’t follow the rules and act predictably.

But hey, everything changes. Nothing stays the same. We adapt or we die.

3) That unflattering light

Then there’s the possibility that you going off and living your biggest dream will shine an unflattering light on the unfulfilling life your parents might lead. Because when we see someone else doing something that we’re too scared or lazy to do, it’s easy to feel bad about ourselves, and to resent that someone for “making” us feel that way.

Usually this will be subconscious if it’s there at all. So expect it, and forgive it. It comes from a place of low self-worth, of regret and despair. It’s nothing to do with you.

4) They really do need you

If you’re an only child or somehow your parents’ life support system, you can’t just drop everything and head off into the world to chase your biggest dream, leaving your parents to fend for themselves. I totally get and respect that. Giving up your own ambitions to care for loved ones is nothing short of heroic.

You need to be careful here though. I get the impression that many sons and daughters tell themselves that their parents can’t live without them, when in fact that’s just a convenient excuse to keep them from taking a scary leap.

Momma doesn’t always know best

A friend of mine dropped out of school at sixteen. His mother, herself a school teacher, almost killed the chap. She wanted him to follow in the footsteps of her eldest son, who had finished top of his class in high school, aced all four years at a fancy university to secure a prestigious degree, and landed a damn spiffy desk job before his grad hat hit the ground.

Fast forward a decade, and the eldest had abandoned the corporate life. The big paycheck didn’t compensate for all the uninspiring work and mountains of stress. He found himself much happier helping out his uncle laying hardwood floors, prestigious degree be damned.

And by that time, his younger brother (the dropout) had become highly-successful running his own garage, showing remarkable business smarts while turning his passion for everything on four wheels into an auto repair shop. He’s more artist than mechanic.

So one son did everything momma wanted, while the other listened to his gut and went his own way. They both ended up in their happy place, but the eldest needed a big detour to get there. Gotta be careful who you take directions from.

Honoring your parents

I feel my biggest loyalty lies with the world at large, and the potential I have to make it a better place, to reach as many people as possible in my lifetime and leave them better than I found them.

If you want to truly honor your loved ones, go out in the world and live your absolute best and brightest, make the most of that gift your parents gave you. And you have to be okay with the fact that they may always resent you for doing so, and you have to forgive them that resentment.

The alternative is for you to live your life the way your parents expect you to and never reach your dreams. And if you do that, it’s not just you who suffers, but everyone who stands to benefit from the gifts your best self has to offer.

I also like to believe that there’s an abundance of love in the world, and if my parents were to suddenly disown me for some reason, that other, more supportive people would step up to take their place.

They say family is everything, but I don’t believe you have to be related to someone by blood to have an extremely strong and fulfilling connection with them. On the flip side, many of us have family members who are terrible people and do nothing but drag us down. It’s just not smart trying to remain loyal to folks like that.

Have your parents ever held you back?

Like I said, I don’t have much in the way of personal experience to draw on here, so I’m interested to hear from others in the comments. How have you dealt with parental resistance?


Further reading/viewing on this topic:

  1. 6-minute TED Talk by Lisa Bu: Honoring your parents and obeying your parents are not the same thing. You don’t need to obey your parents to honor them, and quite often obeying their wishes that conflict with your own, will bring them dishonor in the long run.
  2. Mark Manson’s article on boundaries is a must-read for anyone who feels their parents don’t respect their wishes.
  3. Derek Halpern has a great video recommending the try-it-and-see approach when it comes to family resistance. That is, you tell them that you just want to try following your dream for a year, and if it doesn’t work out, then you’ll try it their way.