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Coping with a Critical Family

Therapist: “You say you want a relationship with your mother. Well, you’ve got one, but it’s destructive. You cannot begin a constructive relationship with her until you put an end to this negative one. It sounds like you are feeling helpless and discouraged. I’m willing to guess she expects you to give up on her and confirm her feelings of worthlessness.”
Barb: “That’s what I feel like, all right. I’ve had it with her.”

Therapist: “But if you give up on her you will feel guilty, irresponsible, negligent and worthless.”
Barb: “She tells me I’m selfish – I only think of myself.”

Therapist: “That is a confession, not an accusation. She is entirely preoccupied with her own distress, her own anger. She is in no position to tell you what you are and are not. That accusation keeps you proving to her over and over that you are not selfish! But no matter how much you try it’s never enough to satisfy her.”
Barb: “Exactly!, Its never enough for her. What can I do? I feel so guilty for disappointing her!”

Therapist: “No, you aren’t guilty. But you plead your case to defend yourself against your mother’s false accusations. You take her accusations literally, personally, and serious. When you do, you make the mistake of choosing to plead your case in an imaginary court of law with a judge and jury of one. You defend your innocence to avoid being convicted as guilty and deserving punishment.”
Barb: “What’s wrong with that?”

Therapist: “It doesn’t work. Your mother hasn’t change her mind and your pleas are disregarded. Thus, you feel like you failed to make your case, which only compounds the guilt and escalates the miscommunication as you retaliate with your own blaming accusations.”
Barb: “But if I stop trying, I’ll lose her altogether.”

Therapist: “One thing you can do is disengage from your mother’s antagonism and do the unexpected. For instance, she expects you to defend yourself against her accusations of failure.”
Barb: “That’s right.”

Therapist: “Can you stop defending yourself against your poor irrational mother? Her accusations don’t make sense. As you replace your childhood beliefs of “control” with mature ones in the present, your anxiety level comes down. You are freeing yourself to override your own inappropriate attitudes as they rise up, and choose to operate out of your civilized judgment. You are freeing yourself to do the last thing he expects you to do. This includes agreeing that she feels the way she feels: “I don’t blame you for being angry.” She can’t fight that. You are not agreeing that she is “right” in her facts, merely that she feels the way she feels at the time. By agreeing with feelings, not the facts your doing the unexpected. Can you say, `It seems that way, doesn’t it,’ or `You must be very angry,’ or `I’m sorry that you are so unhappy’.”
Barb: “It will sound like sarcasm.”

Therapist: “Not if you say with the right tone, one of compassion for a person in terrible pain. If she accuses you of sarcasm, you can disengage from that too, `I’m sorry you feel that way,’ or `It sounds like sarcasm sometimes, doesn’t it?’ In other words, you are refusing to be drawn into a fight with her, a fight that you will both lose.”

Coping with a Critical Family

Aaron Karmin

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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2018). Coping with a Critical Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 26, 2019, from


Last updated: 25 Nov 2018
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