A reader wrote a letter to me asking how she could stop being so affected by her mother who is depressed, critical and manipulative. I would like to share with you my thoughts through showing you the letter and also my advice to overcome this pattern of constant approval-seeking from someone who is not at all capable of giving anything to herself nor to her own daughter.
Mary (not her real name) writes “Hi Victoria, my mother is profoundly ill and her attitude has ruined my youth. She talks in spirituality parables that tell you how to be perfect but she herself is so imperfect. She has no self-esteem; she is unhappy and blindfolded. She had me when she was about to leave my father and told me I was an accident. She has since been giving me the responsibility for her unhappiness. She blames me for everything. She seems jealous of my talent and natural musical abilities and my happiness. She rages at me mercilessly. She criticises, insults and belittles me in front of my family and friends. She takes no responsibility for anything. She constantly talks about my privacy in front of everybody. She does not respect my boundaries and tries to make me responsible to fix problems she doesn’t have the courage to solve. She’ll bring information to me in a manipulative way, so that I’ll think it’s for my good. I lose myself for a while and am taken in over and over again. She is condescending and it insults me. She doesn’t even see the adult I’ve become! When I tell her firmly to respect my boundaries, we fight and she ends up crying, and saying how much she suffers from how I am. I then feel guilt. She says that I ruin our relationship. So, I tried to stop talking to her for two years. I thought, if she missed me, she would change, but she has not. Because of my childhood, I feel disconnected from my emotions and relationships are very tough for me. I spent all those years loving her and wishing she would say nice things to me. But all the while she was hurting me. And now I feel sorry for myself. How can I take care of the hurting child that’s inside of me, that feels she isn’t worthy of love? How can I live today and have an OK relationship with her ? “
My response to Mary:
Cut the Chord
Mary, I want to first acknowledge that your childhood must have been a really tough experience, and your mother obviously has a lot of problems. She sounds like she’s depressed, probably suffers from narcissistic personality disorder or possibly borderline personality disorder as well. It sounds like you have had a life where you have not felt loved, heard, seen or wanted and you have felt manipulated. There is still a really immense energetic black, strong, tar like chord, connected between you and your mother. Even though you have made efforts to not to see her, you have not really disconnected from her.
I am not saying that you should amputate your mother but I am saying that you do need to disconnect from her emotionally because the way you relate to her now is toxic for both of you. I sense quite a bit of approval-seeking on your part toward her. I see this as one of the core issues. You need to work on stopping the looking for approval from your mother. Your mother is never going to change. The reality is, people don’t change unless they really want to and unless they really work on changing themselves. Your mother does not seem to want to change. She has found some comfort, even though she looks like she’s suffering all the time, in the way she is. Please stop looking for approval from her. Instead look within and see the great human being that you have become despite all you have suffered.
Change The Dynamic
I see that you have a dynamic, in which you try to draw a boundary in a strong way, and then she gets hurt, and then she cries and feels like a victim and then you feel guilty. The message that you are trying to convey is lost in your tone and in your anger. You need to deal with that anger in therapy as soon as possible! When you communicate, all that is really showing up is your anger and not the boundary. You need to empower your voice but remove the harshness. But even with that, she may still get hurt when you do draw a boundary. She may reflex into the victim role but really you have no control over how she is going to react. You are only responsible for how and what you are communicating, not her reaction. Try to disconnect from what she feels. Stop seeing yourself through her eyes, because really, she doesn’t see the true you. She sees something through her own distorted vision. And what she sees is her own dark side, in you.
New Rules For The Relationship
You may be correct that she is jealous that you are free, and musical, and beautiful. Your mother is probably very inconsolable, and you need to stop trying to console her. Ask yourself, “Why do I want a relationship with this woman?” And there’s probably one big answer: “Because she’s my mother.” And that is very reasonable. But you need to shift entirely how you relate to her. You need to diminish how often you see her. Make a schedule that includes only seeing her once a month, for one hour, for a meal and that’s it. Speak to her once every couple of weeks to check in that she’s alright. But do it in a very disciplined and short way. Staying in contact is important to mitigate your own guilt. But it is paramount to establish a disciplined pattern of seeing her that serves your needs and wants—not her needs and wants. This way you can see your mother, but you are not allowing her destroy you every time you see her.
A clear boundary that you need to set for yourself is to not reveal your inner private information to your mother. That is a privilege that you afford only those that earn your trust. Clearly, the only way she is going to violate your privacy is if you share with her those private, intimate pieces of information. Also I hear in your letter that you are trying to teach your mother how she should act. I don’t think she is teachable. It is a waste of your good energy to teach people who do not want to be taught. The teacher appears when the student is ready. Your mother isn’t ready to be taught. Essentially, keep your interactions with her to a minimum. That is appropriate for you, the adult daughter and for the situation at hand. The key is making your meetings and all of your communication with her, very disciplined and very short. This will mitigate trauma for both of you.
Mary it sounds to me that you really are still very damaged by this relationship. Therefore I want you to know that I am very cautious in saying that maintaining a relationship with your mother is something that you absolutely need to do. Some people just cannot continue to associate with this type of toxic circumstance. So if it all becomes too much, even within the parameters that I have advised, you need to take time away. Also, keep recovering with therapy, support and creative endeavours. This will help you to keep getting stronger and more authentic. Truly commit to completely cutting the chords of emotional dependency on your mother, in which you seek approval from her. Also when you speak to her or go to see her, make sure you are as emotionally fit as possible. You need to stop picking cherries from that apple tree. Your mother is that apple tree and she cannot give you the cherries of love, compassion and support that you are looking for. But you can learn allot from her. Mainly how you do not want to be. That is a powerful lesson that you cannot just get anywhere. The mother/daughter relationship is a key one that gives us profound learning opportunities. Mary, you are worth receiving all the good that life has to offer. So keep on being your own best friend and supporter.