I love my in-laws and my job, maybe a little too much.
December 31, 2011 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I love my in-laws and my job, maybe a little too much.

My early life was filled with abandonment. My mom left, my dad always threatened to. And it impacted me in expected ways.

I used to be crippled by the idea that nothing lasts forever and that if any intimate partner knew "the real me" they'd run away screaming. I'm better now, through therapy and a boyfriend--now fiance-- that has been consistently loving with me for long enough that I've relaxed maybe 80% on this issue.

He's got a great family, and now I'm really well meshed in with them, they treat me as one of the family. But I'm terrified they will abandon me! I'm feeling these bizarre needy impulses to call his mom just to talk, and while I think she likes/loves me, and has on more than one occasion said what a positive force I am in her son's life, she's probably not looking to have to console my fears. I've pretty much acted PERFECT around them at all times. Having spent so much time with them though there are starting to be cracks in the veneer. Recently I snapped (half playing) at my fiance in front of her and was paralyzed for anxiety for days that it has changed the way she feels about me-- that I'm not wonderful and perfect for her son. I fear she'll change her mind about me! ANd it's scary.

Oh one other thing I have this urge to "confess" my whole childhood story to her. I guess so that she'll forgive me for being kind of crazy. But I'm afraid it will reflect badly on me, like she'll think I'm a sh*t-talker or something. Only jerks talk bad about their family.

It's the same at work, I have a great female boss who I think is super neat, and I obsess for days about something innocuous I said at a meeting.

I know therapy would help, but I don't really have the time for that commitment right now. Has anyone beaten this obsessive fretting about abandonment in contexts like work or family-in-law? Any practices I can do that will help?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Not to be mean, but: lots of users will say that the one thing that helped them with these feelings was therapy.

You know what to do.
posted by vivid postcard at 8:38 AM on December 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you have time to obsess for days over something you've said, you have time for an hour a week to go to therapy.

I would not bring this up with your boss, but perhaps opening up a bit to your future mother in law would be helpful. Have you asked your fiance what he thinks about telling them? If he is close with them, is it possible he has already talked to them about this? If she is a motherly, sympathetic person, it's possible she would be happy and honored to hear about this from you and to provide more support for you.

Finally, and most important: any decent person would not blame you or think badly of you because you were abused as a child! A parent who abandons their child is fully and completely to blame--never, ever, ever the child. This thought most of all says to me that therapy would be really helpful for you.
posted by min at 8:42 AM on December 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

I have a pretty full dance card (some semesters more than others), so I go to therapy about every other week. The situation is not ideal, but it's what I can afford, time-wise, and it really seems to help to have that pressure-release of discussion with a neutral party every so often, even if I would probably get more out of it if I went more often. Maybe you could arrange something similar.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:43 AM on December 31, 2011

"... I'm feeling these bizarre needy impulses to call his mom just to talk ..."

I think she might well be quite touched that you just wanted to talk to her. If you like her and trust her (and why wouldn't you - she brought up the man you're intending to marry, who himself has made a positive difference to your life, so she is likely to be a sound and sensible person) then why not try talking to her about what's happened? Maybe you don't have to go into great detail to begin with, or even later on, but I can't see any problem with expressing to her how safe and relaxed you feel with her and her family and how pleased you are to be a part of it - she may even be able to infer the rest of the story from something like that. And I can't see her feeling anything but compassion for you.

If you do want to talk to her in more detail, just make sure you do so when you both have the time to be sitting down quietly together - if she has to rush off to do something else halfway through, you are probably going to feel uncomfortable.

And anyone who is married or in a long term relationship will know that people smoetimes snap at each other and that generally it doesn't indicate that they are a bad or evil person - just that they are human. Overall, you're making her son happy, and I think that would weigh heavily in your favour.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 8:47 AM on December 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

What does your fiancé think of all this? He knows her family better than you do. Just wondering because you didn't really mention him that much.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:48 AM on December 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Compartmentalizing can be a very useful tool, I know. However, I honestly believe that you should work toward being the same person all the time. It becomes increasingly more difficult and stressful to maintain the "mask" and keep the walls up, resulting in various forms of meltdowns. You can do this yourself over time, but therapy helps you move through the issues in a more constructive and positive manner.
posted by raisingsand at 8:50 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had a similar compulsion about people I've bonded with sometimes, especially when I've gotten into kind of a lonely place or situation and/or I've just spent way too much time with that one person.

I'd find a hobby or interest that put me in touch with more friends. Being accepted, even casually, by 4-5 other people can diffuse the compulsing about what 1-2 significant others think.

I'd also be careful about baring your soul to your future MIL. Not because she wouldn't take it well, but it's a heavy burden to place on anyone.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:04 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

My experience with this kind of thing is weird- when I got married at 21 my mother was dying- my new mother in law did all she could to be close to me and I responded with a lot of thin veiled anger (that she was around and my mother couldn't be, and in the end, wasn't) through the years I've talked with my ex-mother in law and she is so close to me in ways I could never have expected (or prevented, had my earlier self had half a chance against that kind of love), through divorce, through different jobs and even now, 9 years later....- she was just a mother of all mothers, ie- that kind of woman who will take any abandoned soul and take them in- I am just as happy telling her now about something special as I would have been to my own mother. perhaps that is what your partner's mother is?
posted by misspony at 9:21 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

He's got a great family, and now I'm really well meshed in with them, they treat me as one of the family. But I'm terrified they will abandon me!

Well, if you are your boyfriend do not eventually get married and happen to be in the happy percentage who have long marriages, the chances are that they will abandon you when you and the boyfriend break up. They are not your family until they are, and even they, they are still really his family. Very few people are constructed the way misspony's faux-foster mother is, and whether you have one of those or not is entirely down to her - it has jack shit to do with you. You really do need to sort this out with a therapist, because this kind of dependency is potentially harmful to your relationship with your boyfriend, not to mention setting you up for a bad fall wrt his family if you ever break up. Humans experience loss through their entire lifetimes and you need to be equipped with a little resilience for that.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:49 AM on December 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Therapy, yes, definitely. I used to be like you and have urges to just TALK about my awful past once I'd grown to trust people. Now (I mostly do that on AskMe XD) I'm much more comfortable in my own skin. With time and therapy, enough distance and self-knowledge has come that I'm my own person, not "just" someone who survived abuse. This has naturally brought about less dependence on others for emotional needs.

A parent who abandons their child is fully and completely to blame--never, ever, ever the child. This thought most of all says to me that therapy would be really helpful for you.

Unfortunately the thought is actually justified. I've had a lot of people tell me that I must have done something to deserve my own mother's threats to abandon/intern/kill me (yes, she even wanted to kill me at one point – it "only" lasted for about a year, when I was 6-7, so I don't talk about it much). People I trusted. Including my ex-MIL.

Interestingly enough, seven years after I left my ex, my ex-MIL is still very close with me, like misspony's. What made her come around? When I left my ex, he finally showed his true side to his family, and they realized that I hadn't been the crazy annoying complainer chick, I'd been the calm, reserved, straightforward woman who knew what she was talking about. Now that her new daughter-not-quite-in-law has shown herself to be a woman frighteningly like my own mother, my ex-MIL comes to me for advice. She's also apologized for things she said in the past; she hadn't conceived of mothers like that being possible. I don't know why some people have an easier time imagining hellish children than hellish parents, but, it happens.

So, OP, also recognize that even if the worst does happen – they don't believe you – there's still the possibility it will turn out to be a positive in the end. Yeah, that's a really weird way of saying your worst fears often aren't as bad as they seem, but still, it is true :o) Therapy will really help, you should try it again!
posted by fraula at 10:11 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know therapy would help, but I don't really have the time for that commitment right now.

Do it anyway. Contrary to what you believe, you ARE worth investing in.

Has anyone beaten this obsessive fretting about abandonment in contexts like work or family-in-law?

Yes, through years of hard work with the help of a therapist.

Any practices I can do that will help?

Meditation is a useful practice that can help with the obsessing. You'll need to sit for about 30 minutes every day. The link I've provided is for breathing meditation, one of the easiest to learn and practice.

Honestly though, with the self-esteem issues you are working with you are likely going to need help staying on track. A third party with solely your interests at heart will be a very powerful tool.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:17 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

(btw, I can't say enough good things about Insight Timer or any other meditation app that has an interval bell. I cannot count the number of times my mind has wandered off on some obsessive track and the bell has helped me come back to breathing.)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:26 AM on December 31, 2011 [4 favorites]

I call my mother in law about once a week to chat and did so for several years before I married her son. I don't have a family history of abandonment - it seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do, particularly if you're happy to chat when you see her in person. I do the same with my sister in law as well. Keep it light and short to start and think about whether you're calling them to talk or whether you just want them to listen to you talk (hint: the talking needs to go both ways).

That said, for long term health, therapy will be your best bet.
posted by eloeth-starr at 1:52 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would be very careful about "confessing" your entire childhood in one big scoop to anyone. Not because jerks are the only ones that admit to having complicated families, but because that's not a terribly healthy way to build intimacy with anyone. Since you say you're still trying to be perfect around your fiance's parents, I'm guessing that you don't tell them much about your minor screw-ups or smaller problems. So to go from a very basic, somewhat superficial sort of emotional intimacy to the very deep emotional intimacy of explaining your childhood is way too big of a jump. And that's for two reasons.

First, you probably don't really know her well enough to know how she'd react to your story, and if she ends up reacting badly, you might feel so hurt that you don't try talking about it again for a really long time. And second, because when you tell someone something big like that, it puts an emotional responsibility on them both in how they react while you tell them and then in how they incorporate that information into their daily relationship with you. It's not really fair to just drop that responsibility on someone before you have any sense of whether they'd be open to it.

So I think your first step is not sitting down and telling her (or your cool boss) your entire life story. It should be to deliberately stop trying to be perfect for all of these amazing older women in your life. So start telling them about small things that aren't a part of the perfect image you've been trying to project. Stuff like: you like to read "beach novels" all year round and not just while you're on the beach, or you've never been able to stand [insert fancy grown-up vegetable here], or how when you were a kid you poked your brother in the ear every day for an entire year. Telling someone small dumb stuff like that will teach you a lot about their reactions to you, and if they respond kindly all the time, you'll realize the world won't explode if they don't think you're perfect and you can work up to the bigger stuff slowly.

Also, I have found that when you open up gradually like this, it helps you understand more clearly that it's safe to be the real you around a lot of other people, and that can help you feel a lot more stable in general.
posted by colfax at 5:13 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

You MUST get therapy. I spent years of my life obsessing over minute details and spilling my life story to anyone who would listen and it alienated everyone around me because, quite frankly, I sounded like a major, needy drip. Once I had a designated outlet for all my emotions, my desire to feel wanted and understood by random strangers dwindled and now I only have those paralyzing moments of obsessive thinking when I am under extreme stress. Colfax is right: intimacy is developed over time and in small doses. Don't drown others in you just because you think that will bond you to them immediately.

Additionally, you've gotta start to remember one big important thing: you're human. Humans are weird, they make mistakes, they snap at people, and they do and say stupid stuff sometimes. When I tried so hard to be perfect for someone I loved very much, the anxiety and outbursts the process caused pushed him away and I no longer have him. It's something I've been working on for some time now. Forgive yourself and relax and learn to laugh at yourself.

Do this for yourself. Do seek out a cognitive behavioral specialist and, better yet, someone who can do EMDR with you, which is designed to increase communication between your right and left brain storage centers to help deal with trauma like abandonment and rejection.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:49 PM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

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