Living With Inundation Anxiety1

Many– if not most– of us are walking through the world with defenses and maladaptive stories rooted in our unmet childhood needs and wounds. These cause defenses that create challenges in our relationships with ourselves and others. For those with inundation anxieties, there may be a tendency to give excessively in relationships and to have a harsh inner critic. The good news is that becoming conscious of these patterns can allow us to give and receive love more effortlessly. Understanding the spectrum of anxieties caused by unmet childhood needs can also help us love the people in our lives more fully.

How Does Inundation Anxiety Develop?

Inundation anxiety as an adult is often the result of having excessively controlling or powerful caregivers. These parents also can be referred to as authoritarian or helicopter parents. While the word controlling can bring to mind an image of an intentionally domineering figure, remember that control is simply an attempt to dictate or contain the emotions and/or actions of another. This can fall on a spectrum and may be unconscious to the caregiver. If you resonate with several of the following, you may benefit from reflecting on the way control was utilized by your primary caregivers.

Signs of a Controlling Parent

  • Interference with nearly every aspect of the child’s life
  • Being critical of choices the child makes independently
  • Hold impossibly high standards – expects perfection
  • Withholding love as a form of manipulation (i.e. conditional love)
  • Rigid and/or unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of empathy and respect
  • Harsh and disproportionate punishments
  • Lack of appreciation for the child’s individuality
  • Discouraging questioning or disagreeing with them
  • Giving a child adult responsibilities
  • Manipulation through gift giving
  • Using guilt and/or shame to control
  • Discouraging expressions of anger, fear, sadness, or other big emotions
  • Violating privacy and boundaries in general
  • Unwilling to admit they were wrong

Eight Styles of Controlling Parents

Nearly all controlling parents embody one or more of the eight “styles” of controlling parenting. Identifying your parents’ styles can help create language around what didn’t feel right as a child. The more clear our story is, the more conscious we become about what we want to keep and what we want to discontinue in our own life. Here are the different styles of control from the book “If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World.”

  • Smothering: Terrified of feeling alone, Smothering parents emotionally engulf their children. Their overbearing presence discourages independence and cultivates a tyranny of repetition in their children’s identities, thoughts and feelings.
  • Depriving: Convinced they will never get enough of what they need, Depriving parents withhold attention and encouragement from their children. They love conditionally, giving affection when a child pleases them, withdrawing it when displeased.
  • Perfectionistic: Paranoid about flaws, Perfectionistic parents drive their children to be the best and the brightest. These parents fixate on order, prestige, power and/or perfect appearances.
  • Cultlike: Distressed by uncertainty, Cultlike parents have to be “in the know,” and often gravitate to military, religious, social or corporate institutions or philosophies where they can feel special and certain. They raise their children according to rigid rules and roles.
  • Chaotic: Caught up in an internal cyclone of instability and confusion, Chaotic parents tend toward mercurial moods, radically inconsistent discipline, and bewildering communication.
  • Using: Determined never to lose or feel one-down, Using parents emotionally feed off their children. Hypersensitive and self-centered, Using parents see others’ gains as their loss, and consequently belittle their children.
  • Abusing: Perched atop a volcano of resentment, Abusing parents verbally or emotionally bully — or physically or sexually abuse — their children. When they’re enraged, Abusing parents view their children as threats and treat them accordingly.
  • Childlike: Feeling incapable or needy, Childlike parents offer their children little protection. Childlike parents, woefully uncomfortable with themselves, encourage their children to take care of them, thereby controlling through role-reversal

What Does Living with Inundation Anxiety as an Adult Look Like?

Having a controlling parent isn’t easy, and the consequences can be long-lasting. But once a child becomes aware of their parent’s behavior and how it’s negatively affecting them, it is possible to work on unlearning harmful stories of conditional love and low self-confidence.

Controlling parents can affect your ability to individuate in adulthood. It can also stunt emotional development and cause you to become approval-seeking or fiercely independent. If, in your fear of inundation, you are still acting as if you are protecting yourself against excessively controlling or powerful parents, this may be causing you to struggle in intimate relationships. You may find that your internal and somatic experience of a conflict or trigger is disproportionate to the present circumstances. This might look like having a fight or flight response when someone is attempting to get closer to you. It could also look like difficulty managing strong emotions in the face of healthy, normal disagreements.

Other signs you have inundation injuries from a controlling caregiver include:

  • Feeling perfectionistic, driven and/or rarely satisfied
  • Feeling intimidated or easily angered around controlling people
  • Worrying or ruminating over confrontations with others
  • Losing yourself in relationships
  • Putting others’ needs ahead of your own
  • Having difficulty relaxing or being spontaneous
  • Feeling as if you are under scrutiny
  • Struggling with an addiction or eating disorder
  • Expecting others to hurt, judge or take advantage of you
  • Having a harsh inner critic
  • Having difficulty asserting oneself
  • Having difficulty feeling proud of accomplishments
  • Being unable to take advice or feedback from others
  • Saying no reflexively
  • Having difficulty sticking to personal goals – rebelling turned inward (saying no to yourself)

Inundating Situations or Triggers as an Adult

Common situations that may increase feelings of inundation include:

  • Crowds, confined spaces like airplanes and elevators.
  • Events of duty such as graduations, weddings, funerals, and holidays. These may trigger overwhelming emotions from the past and present and may add pressure on you to live up to the expectations of others.
  • Relationships with individuals who lack good boundaries, especially if they repeatedly disrespect or violate the boundaries of others.
  • Working with or for someone who constantly checks up on you or criticizes your work.

How to Reduce Inundation

These are practical suggestions for keeping your inundation anxiety level low. Creating breathing room is most important. You are not bad for needing more. Firstly, remember to remind yourself that you are not a vulnerable child and no one can control you. The following suggestions may also assist you in healing, especially when practiced consistently over time.

1. Keep your body relaxed and flexible. A tight body limits internal breathing room and makes any encroachment seem like suffocation.

    • Balance weight training with stretching or yoga.
    • Receive a massage
    • Engage in a healthy sexual relationship

2. Put your own inundating thoughts onto paper before they overwhelm you. Notice how much pressure you apply to yourself.
3. Create space for yourself; open your collar, loosen a tight belt, wear loosely fitted clothing.
4. Take a breather when things begin to feel oppressive. Provide your own transportation when you can, so that you can escape when you have had enough.
5. Don’t say yes when you mean no.
6. Remember that you have a right to be alone and to set boundaries, to shut the bathroom door, and to display your belongings and your taste somewhere in the house.
7. You have a right to make reasonable demands for punctuality, cleanliness, neatness, quiet, and other things that are important to you.
8. You needn’t divulge your innermost secrets nor be as close as your partner wants. As with abandonment fears, the feelings of inundation are more often imagined than real. Early detection, plus physically changing something can do wonders. Remember, too, that many people are working through an abandonment-inundation set of defenses because they experienced both types of wounding. So, if you are always protecting against inundation in relationships, your unguarded backside, abandonment, may be your Achilles’ heel.

Supporting a Loved One with Inundation Anxiety

Should you love someone who has a fear of being inundated in a relationship, there are ways you can support them while they heal. Remember it is their responsibility to learn how to identify, interrupt and repair their fears and it’s not always about you and what you did/said that triggered them. Do not take on the responsibility of healing this for them. What you can do is validate their fears and allow them to feel seen and heard by you. This means that you should acknowledge their feelings of inundation without judgment. This move is vital to maintaining open communication. Validating a loved one’s fears doesn’t mean agreeing with them, but instead, supporting their feelings to further build on trust and compassion.

You can do this by following the six-level approach mentioned in Psychology Today.

  • Be present and actively listen to their concerns.
  • Reflect and summarize your loved one’s feelings verbally and without judgment.
  • Listen to what they say and help them identify their emotions.
  • Understand their history so you can openly state that you understand when circumstances trigger their past history of being controlled of feeling powerless.
  • “Normalize” their fears by acknowledging the fact that others with their history have fears of inundation and that their feelings are understandable.
  • Use radical genuineness to deeply validate your loved one and share your loved one’s fears as your own.

When you get into an argument with someone with a high level of inundation anxiety it’s crucial that you give them space and breathing room. Taking a break when triggered is a healthy choice so you don’t create further damage that requires more repair work. Ask the partner who needs space what specific time they feel they will be ready to revisit the subject. A minimum of 20 minutes is how long it takes to calm the nervous system down after a trigger; however, you have a right to ask to reconnect within 24 hours at the most. Respect their boundaries while they calm down – this could mean not calling/texting them or leaving them alone with the door closed.

What now?

This article lays the foundation for understanding inundation anxiety and how to work with it. Continuing to work on creating more consistency in boundary setting and positive self talk will be vital to your recovery. Be all that you need for yourself now – you are the only one who can internalize the kind of parent you wished you had. Some of us struggle more with abandonment or a mixed abandonment-inundation pattern. If so, make sure to check out the other posts here.

Author: Lindsay Rosser, LMFT #87065 – Lindsay is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of WellBeings Therapy. She is a Certified EMDR and Integrative Body Psychotherapist who primarily works with adults who experienced complex trauma as child. For more on Lindsay you can read her bio.

Editor: Mckenna Coffey, Pre-Licensed Therapist – Mckenna is a pre-licensed provider who joined WellBeings during her graduate studies at the University of Southern California. She is an integrative therapist with a trauma-focused, identity affirming, and sex positive practice. For more on Mckenna you can read her bio.


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