Where are you on this?
” What kind of a mother does that to her own child? I can never forgive her. She’s a horrible person.”
” But she’s my mother. Besides, she did the best she could. I guess it wasn’t that bad.”
From my psychotherapy couch the debate rages on, many times, most times in fact, inside of the same person. Adult daughters swing between cataloging the injustices their mothers have perpetrated and then lapsing into guilty denial. It isn’t unusual for daughters of difficult mothers to cycle through both blame and forgiveness. The daughter, trapped in the role of the “good ” daughter, feels both resentful of and responsible for her mother. But that’s kind of the problem. The attuned daughter feels she is carrying her mother in some profound (possibly unconscious) ways. She carries and cares for her mother instead of her mother caring for her.
That’s why she feels she must decide within herself if her mother is wonderful or horrible- a false dichotomy, in my mind. Meanwhile, mom is just being mom.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to whitewash some of the horrific crimes against maternal love some mothers commit. Consider the daughter whose mother did nothing to protect her daughter from a predatory stepfather? Or the mother who uses her daughter’s vulnerabilities to crush her self-esteem. Or the intrusive controlling mother who suffocates her daughter through micromanagement. Disturbed mothers do disturbing things.
However, most mothers fall somewhere in-between, neither angel nor devil, just flawed and human. The pressures of mothering can bring out the best and the worst in a person. And people/mothers are limited by their own imperfect psyches.
Is mom outwardly destructive, cruel, or out of control? Or does she hover, won’t let go, and hold you back through intrusive over involvement? Either way, it is hard to decipher how you should respond. t
When mom has hurt you or is holding you back -what is the best way forward?
1) Force yourself to be grateful for what you got from mom.
2) Stand angry, accusatory, and feel forever broken.
Neither stance is helpful and here is why- One keeps you stuck in denial and the other keeps you stuck in anger.
Here’s how this works-
1. Deny that mom is hurting you, and force yourself to focus on the positive. She is your mother after all. By making her right when she is hurting you and making yourself wrong – you protect mom at your expense.
The problems with this are two-fold.
A) The feelings are repressed and don’t go away. The dysfunction continues, you don’t get closer to mom, only more enmeshed.
B) What you don’t pass back, you pass on. You act in ways towards your own daughter that hurt her while you can’t see it. And what you can’t see, you can’t change.
2. Stay stuck in anger. Gather up evidence of your mother’s wrongdoing so that you will feel right by making her wrong. Blame all of your life’s problems on her and never move past the feeling of being a victim. You need her to be wrong for you to feel that you are right.
You can’t work through the feelings if you deny them or remain a victim of them.
So what can you do?
There is a 3rd way.
This is the conscious way.
- Learn about the defenses that underpin the narcissism, borderline and histrionic personality disorders. You are better off when you know what makes mom tick even if she only has traits of these disorders. Know what you are dealing with. Go here for a primer.
- Don’t stuff your feelings because you feel guilty. You can still care about your mother without enabling her behavior.
- Throw out the misguided idea that mom will wake up one day, realize what she is doing to you and stop. Your suffering doesn’t help her.
- Learn what healthy boundaries look like and put them into practice.
My experience as a psychotherapist for over 30 years is this: when daughters step out of denial, take well thought through action, find their voice, and claim their lives, they feel less anger. From victim to empowered woman, they start a momentum that can take them into a separate life that feels good . By accepting that mom is human without excusing her behavior – you can move into an adult conscious stance with her and, more importantly, with yourself.
You can hold your mother accountable without blaming her and learn to let go without necessarily forgiving her. It isn’t easy but it is possible. To find out if you are trapped in the good daughter role go here.