Help me talk to my smothering mom.
July 22, 2011 7:57 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to individuate myself from both of my parents, who are controlling in completely different ways. My mom is the smothering type. My question is this: Since I am becoming an individual and doing my own thing, how do I interact with her when I talk and see her from now on?

I am really enjoying making my own decisions and taking care of and respecting myself. Yes, it was tough for me to even realize that I was being controlled, much less break that cycle and realize that I have my own thoughts and opinions. I'm 42 with a husband and kids. Yes, my parents are really controlling.

So, at this point, I have no idea how to simply talk and be with my mom.

When I speak with her, she panders to everything I say. If I say, "I love red carpet," she'll agree all the time and be all excited about red carpet while she's with me. If I mention that I like something like eggs, she will buy me eggs for the next 5 decades. She devalues me and my opinions and choices because she acts as if everything I do is good or the same or whatever. She never disagrees, so I don't get a realistic sense of anything I believe.

Hm, maybe I'm needing too much approval or reaction from her. I shouldn't look for that from others.

I don't know if I've made myself very clear. I do feel rather murky about my relationship with her. I can tell she cares about me, but I feel so devalued and smothered when I'm around her. What do I do? I want to continue to have a relationship with her, but obviously it must change.
posted by minx to Human Relations (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
From what I read, it seems like your mum has some trouble individuating herself from something or someone, too! Have you tried asking her questions that can pinpoint her ideas and opinions? So right before she starts to nod her head emphatically over that red carpet, try jumping in and asking something like "what colours do you like? Or are you more about hardwood floors?" I would do this with the hopes of highlighting that you two are independent of each other, complete with different sets of likes and dislikes. And that this state of being is okay.
posted by Ashen at 8:16 PM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Interesting point Ashen. I think you're right; she has not individuated and never usually has an opinion of her own, even when pressed for one.

Although, because I am just beginning to know myself and my opinions and have spent the last 40 years being my mom and dad's third arm basically, I think I shouldn't focus the conversation on her. Don't you think? I have over the years obsessed about how to help her psychologically and emotionally, etc. I've only begun to turn that perspective to myself instead where it belongs.
posted by minx at 8:32 PM on July 22, 2011

Best answer: Two points:
- if she has a habit of taking your thoughts, feelings etc and making them her own you have to create a bit of distance. Not share everything. And then when she implicitly claims "we're just the same, I feel exactly like you" that won't be true. Since she doesn't know what you exactly think and feel.
- There's a possibility though that when you create a bit of space she'll frantically work even harder to eliminate the distance. If there's a fear of you not loving her any more behind this strong need of hers you might try pointing out that a bit of space between you two won't mean that you won't love her any more and leave etc. But that predicates on her being able to reflect on her actions in a productive way. She'll have to find a different source to fulfill her neediness though. And the only way to help her do that is that you stop being that source.

It might be a bit messy in the beginning. But it starts with your determination to change things.
Old patterns have a strong draw on anybody. So it probably won't be an overnight change for all of you.
posted by joost de vries at 1:28 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're going to self-evaluate, step a little further out of the box. To put it differently: I have no idea how to simply talk and be with this person who happens to be my mom.

FWIW I've had a difficult relationship with my mom who also lacks her own personality (at times, it really seems). She also latches on to other people's opinions rather than express her own, even things as trivial as needing to go to the grocery store! In putting distance between us and re-evaluating, sometimes I see her more as scared that she doesn't have anything to offer or be valued by on her own (hence her enmeshment). The family she grew up in certainly didn't value her beyond her reproductive/marriageable value... maybe your mom experienced some things similar?

For my mom I think on some level it's terrifying to her that even though we're both women, I grew up with a lot more autonomy and freedom than she can ever imagine. To expect her to understand and relate to a "modern woman" like myself just wouldn't get us very far. Plus her behaviors still serve a purpose in her FOO, and so I accept that they'll probably never go away. But that doesn't mean that we can't have a very different relationship that works for us. Right now that's where she and I are at: recognizing and working on the very unique mother/daughter relationship that we have that is so different from every other relationship she knew of growing up. Sometimes it's like having a low-self-esteem friend (this might sound mean but it's true!) but overall I feel it's far more healthier for both us of interact as adults than as people who are protecting each other from themselves... if that makes sense(?)

In summary, try to see your mom as a person who happened to have kids. Try to focus on that person when you talk to her, rather than focusing on the mom she's "supposed to be" for you. Unfortunately it sounds like the person your mom happens to be will never be the person to approve (let alone reaction much to) the strong, positive changes you're making in your life. Find a place for yourself where you can accept her for it, and challenge yourself to cultivate friendships with folks who can recognize and give feedback/support on healthy self-growth. Good luck!
posted by human ecologist at 8:15 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

You don't need to make her individuation the focus of your conversation, but you could show an interest in her. Ask her questions about her life..."Mom, I've been meaning to ask you about what it was like to give birth in the early 70's..."

What you get with individuation is that you're no longer the center of your parent's attention. Decenter yourself--center her.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:18 AM on July 23, 2011

I can tell this really bothers you, but what you're describing really doesn't sound like your mother has some hidden opinion of what you're doing that she's keeping from you to perplex you or make you doubt your own opinions... I definitely wouldn't think she's 'devaluing' your opinions in any way. It seems to me that your mom is desperately seeking your approval and hoping to please you, and that she may not be able to interact with you in the way that you would want. Can you explain better what makes you feel devalued here? Your mom sounds like she's trying very hard to make you feel like your opinions are supremely important. She may not be capable of evaluating, them individually and give you her opinion about them, and it's not clear why you need her to. ?
posted by namesarehard at 4:12 PM on July 23, 2011

Totally agree with human ecologist. What would you think of someone who agrees with everything you like and gets you stuff related to those likes? I would say they really want approval, want to show they support you, and don't want to cause strife by ( gasp!) disagreeing with you. It's harder to see these things in people who are your family, but try reading your post again as if an Internet stranger had written it about a friend or acquaintance. What would you say is going on with that person?

I'm also not sure what you mean by feeling devalued when your mom is like is. It seems like she's trying to really value your likes and opinions. I'd interpret devaluing and smothering as when someone disregards your opinions and forces you to adhere to theirs, doesn't give you space to think for yourself. Or maybe she's trying to make you value her overvaluing of your likes? Why do you need her to disagree with you to get a sense of what you believe?

Anyway, how to deal with her. Maybe spend less time with her, if possible? How often do you see her? Maybe just limit it to a few times a year... Keep the visits short, don't get into topics that are important to you, just keep things light.
posted by foxjacket at 12:55 AM on July 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone; all of your comments are thought-provoking and I will use them to ferret out my situation. Yes, I'm quite emotional about this, and probably not doing a very good job of just being clear with her and keeping clear boundaries -- at the very least.

What I mean by her devaluing me and my ideas is like the old saying: if everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful. She tells me every idea I have is great; she isn't giving me her actual opinion, perhaps because she doesn't know what it is because she's not individuated herself (that is very true). She would even support me in having an affair on my husband (who is excellent btw) if I told her I was interested in another man, no matter how worthless he would be.

I'll let you know a little background on the gift thing, because it's not just me. Several people in and around my family have mentioned how many years they've received the same kind of gift from her because they once told her they like the thing. Cow statues -- a family friend was getting them for 10 years before she finally told my mom maybe they shouldn't buy presents anymore for each other. Chocolate cherries -- my husband and I told her we liked them for Christmas one time, and then that's what we got for Christmas from then on -- even 6 pounds of them one year because they were on sale.

Yes, I've tried many, many times over all these years to get her to talk about her ideas, her experiences, her thoughts. To little avail. I get the very canned stories back about her getting pregnant before she got married in the 60s, giving birth in the 60s, having a raging alcoholic man as a father who beat them all and took their belongings to sell, and a mom who was an enabler and weak. Very bad childhood she had, but ironically she is writing a book about her father. She is so scarred. It seems like she has no emotions whatsoever -- she's probably bottled them all up and stored them away because opening one would bring a huge cascade of pain into her head. It's bad. She's also a semi-hoarder, which makes some sense as well in light of her circumstances. She's 62 though, and should probably have faced this and dealt with it by now, right?

Anyway, it's very hard to talk to her because she doesn't feel comfortable talking or thinking about more than the physical facts of what happened in her life. I've tried to help her. I don't know what else to do, especially since I'm her daughter and maybe she needs to see a therapist instead.

Any other thoughts on how to act around her? I don't even know what a mom/daughter relationship should be like, or not like. Who knows?
posted by minx at 1:10 PM on July 24, 2011

She seems lonely and eager to please. Perhaps she senses your disapproval (and the disapproval of others) and tries to compensate by trying to never rock the boat with you.

"She never disagrees, so I don't get a realistic sense of anything I believe."

I don't see how this alters what you believe - you believe what you believe, right, independent of your mother? I'm not sure why she needs to provide you with a framework through which to determine whether your beliefs are real or not.

You should try asking her more questions about basic stuff - what she likes and doesn't like. It's not really your job to play her therapist and to get her to unload her deepest, darkest secrets on you.
posted by mleigh at 3:15 AM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: Update: I talked to her about the truth, that her childhood was really bad, that her dad was really abusive, and that I love her and care about her. Then I offered her some books that might help if she reads them and works on it, and I finally said that she may want to talk to a therapist or counselor about it, but not to me because I want to establish better boundaries between us.

She comes back with "yes, I understand about boundaries. But, well, I think I'd like to talk to you because you have such keen insight into human nature".

She had no sense that it was highly inappropriate for me to talk to her about that. None.

So, I told her once again that I did not want to discuss this with her, because she couldn't be fully open with me about it, etc., and that a trusted friend or counselor would help her more.

So, I think I did the right thing and kept my boundaries with her. And, I realized that that's where she's smothering me: she doesn't want to give me a choice about how close or unhealthy, or respectful and healthy, we are with each other. She wants us completely in one another, as a unit. Does she really want to tell me about her childhood, all the really bad details? No, and she couldn't anyway -- I've never heard her tell the full truth of those times. She's not interested in my well being, or even hers, she wants what she wants, and that is so that I'm stuck to her, enmeshed forever with her in a symbiotic relationship that's got no boundaries. She wants someone to never leave her, and she wants that someone to be me.

Did I mention that she used to tell me about her sex life with my dad? And that when I was 17 I used to tell her about my own sex life? Hm. Issues, right?

So, anyway, thanks to all of you here. I feel that when I finally faced her and spoke the truth and stood my ground on what I knew was psychologically good for both of us, I have a weight lifted off my chest. I feel great! :) I was able to make a choice. As long as I have the right thinking going into a situation, the actions and words work themselves out just fine.

Thank you!
posted by minx at 8:58 PM on July 29, 2011

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