Love Letters to Humans (no. 49) — on Paternalism

Paternalism: The relational fuckery of making decisions for someone else without regard for or understanding of their desires and our impact.

See also: Control, overprotectiveness, authoritarianism, condescension, saviorism

Underneath all of the ways paternalism manifests culturally and in our relationships lies contempt—believing our decisions for others are better than their decisions for themselves, believing we know better and understand better, usually without asking what they want, need, and know, without listening to them deeply and trusting that their answers are true… without relating.

Overt expressions of paternalism are easy to spot. Control, overprotectiveness, and condescension can be fairly obvious because they are blatantly obnoxious. The sneakier ways we participate in and perpetuate paternalism sometimes look a lot like people-pleasing and niceness. (Yeah… I didn’t see that one coming, either.)

We attempt to manage other people’s feelings and reactions, rather than asking what they want and trusting that they are responsible for their own emotional states. We discover that our well-intentioned decisions and our impact were woefully misaligned. We exhaust and upset ourselves trying to make other people happy. We resent doing so much that others don’t know about for so little appreciation. We caretake and give and make sure everyone has what *we* think they need, and we still don’t feel joyfully connected.

A desire to serve can be a beautiful aspect of relating deeply and joyfully. An attempt to manage, control, fix, protect, or even please another without relating with them isn’t service—it’s paternalism, and it rarely brings us the intimacy, peace, or joyful connection we’re looking for in our personal relationships and in the world.


Relational practice: Consent

Where do you attempt to serve, protect, manage, control, fix, help, or please others before understanding 1) what you really want and 2) what they really want?

What conversations do you need to have so that your intentions and impact are more likely to align?


If you want to dive deeper into your practice of right relationship in your life and your leadership this year, let’s talk. I have space for 1:1, couples/partners, and small team coaching (and I love it).