My mother's passive aggression hurts me. How to deal?
September 2, 2015 11:02 AM   Subscribe

My mom is a lovely, intelligent, caring person. She also has lifelong untreated dysthymia. What's the best way to deal with her frequent, subtle passive aggression? (Wall of detail inside, feel free to skip to TL;DR if you have general advice for coping with passive aggression in family context.)

First of all: I'm already in therapy, we're tackling this, but it's slow going.

I can generally brush off other people's passive aggression, so I don't think it's just me being oversensitive? But I admit with mom, even the insignificant shit tends to hurt so much more. (According to my therapist, it's because this is the way I was brought up so it triggers old pain.)

I'm doing CBAST therapy, which involves analyzing concrete situations, so here are a few examples from when I last visited my parents with my kids (translated from our native language):

Mom: [sadly] I only have cooked vegetables with rice for you, but you don't like them.
Me: [bewildered] Huh? Since when don't I like cooked vegetables?
Mom: [walks away] Yeah well you know, you don't like them.
Me: [following] How do you mean? Veggies are good.
Mom: [sighs] You don't like them because you prepare them differently yourself.
Me: ??? Your cooked veggies are good.
Mom: [turns her back, ignores me]
(NB: I have never criticised her veggies)

Me: Haha, I snored so loud tonight I woke myself up.
My kids: [giggling]
Mom: Finally! After all the years that I've been accused of it and thought to be disgusting.
Me: ???
(NB: The grammatical construction doesn't translate well; she didn't say who had accused her but seemed to imply it was me. I didn't even know she snores!)

Me: Mom, this salad dressing tastes off and the bottle made a weird hissing noise when I opened it. Also, the expiration date was weeks ago. It seems to have gone bad.
Mom: [not looking at me, speaking to my father] Oh, some people are so fussy with the expiration date...

When I put it in writing like this, it seems innocuous or trivial, like something I should just laugh off. I know that! It's just that it's like death by 1000 papercuts and I never know when to expect one; every time I visit her, I'm tense all the time, bracing myself in case my loving, funny mother suddenly starts to channel Emily Gilmore. And this is the way it has always been - these sudden remarks, subtle guilting and insinuations of how she's been criticized, mistreated or hated (by me?), acting like a martyr, all the "oh, never mind me".

As a kid, if I actually did something to displease her, the silent treatment could go on for hours. Sometimes it started without me realizing what I'd done wrong. I'd be chattering away happily and suddenly realize my mother had been offended by something and was replying with icy silence. And I'd panic and start replaying everything in my head - what did I say, what did I do? (She still does this sometimes.)

Other behavior from her that may or may not be passive aggression is that she never phones me, never emails me (but she does reply to my mails) and hasn't visited me for 10 years (while otherwise travelling extensively). She also has bouts of excessive self criticism, when she blames herself for things, calls herself an idiot (or ugly or fat or stupid etc.) and refuses to hear otherwise.

What I've done (and doesn't work):
I used to openly confront some of the passive aggression as a teenager (with admittedly the social skills of a teenager - yelling, crying, pleading). The result was invariably denial and silent treatment, for hours and sometimes days. I also got a reputation in my extended family as an angry, unreasonable, unstable person. (I swear I'm not! ...Or am I, and in denial?)

So, for many years now I simply ignore, or occasionally use very gentle humor to counter some of it. But I feel like crap every time, and occasionally it triggers a panic attack (which I deal with in private). I walk on eggshells, never criticize, keep any risky opinions to myself. Trivial incidents like the above send me into a quiet spiral of self doubt, guilt and sadness. This has got to fucking stop already.

I can't change my mom, but is there a way I can approach situations such as the examples above without making them worse, i.e. causing her to resort to silent treatment?
How do I let go of my wish to have a safe, carefree relationship with my mother?
Is there a way for this to hurt less?
Or any other advice you can give me?

I love her, my kids love her (and she doesn't treat them this way), and when she's not doing this she is a genuinely wonderful person.

TL;DR: Mom has always been passive aggressive and prone to silent treatments. How do I cope and minimize the effect it has on me?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I have people like this in my life...there is literally no way to win with them. What I do is just carry on as if they haven't said a damned thing. If she gives you the silent treatment for it, so what? She's playing a game that can only continue if other people participate. If her remarks are just there to hurt you, just keep going, stay as cheerful as you were before, and totally, 100% ignore her. Eventually, she'll either tire of the game or actually need to engage with you on some other level than childishly.
posted by xingcat at 11:18 AM on September 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

The panic attacks may be triggered by stuffing down how you feel, her discounting your reality, and your resulting hurt and anger, so can you find a way to counter all that? Mom wants drama, she wants conflict, and you're playing into her long-suffering role when you give it to her.

What about undercutting the dynamic? Try a cheerful, gentle, "Oh, Mom," with a "there you go again!" laugh and rueful head shake (or your version of the same approach) might be enough - it lets you mark that she is doing that thing for your own sanity, plus you puncture her martyr routine, and you are not actively engaging in an argument which you know you can't win. Then serve yourself those veggies, or continue on with your story, or change the subject. Don't give such a ridiculous statement weight. Don't play her game. Don't get caught up and lob it back to her. She's like one of your kids, saying something silly for attention.

You can also counter with "Aren't veggies great this time of year? I sure like carrots!" Don't argue that you do SO like them, counter with something neutral. Overall, some version of "there goes Mom, being a martyr again! Silly, muddle-headed, mostly sweet mom" or "Riiiiiiiiight. Okay, let's eat!" I can't tell you how empowering it can feel to just deflate that crap right out from under her.

It will also make her CRAZY and she'll escalate. Be ready to double down.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 11:21 AM on September 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

I can't change my mom, but is there a way I can approach situations such as the examples above without making them worse, i.e. causing her to resort to silent treatment?

You say "I can't change my mom" but you're still trying to control her reactions to what you do/say in these situations. Not only can't you change what she does to start these exchanges, you also can't change how she responds to your words/actions.

All you can do is change what you say/do. You can't even change what you feel. So don't try. You're going to feel what you feel. But think about whatever is the most consistently easy *on you* and do that EVERY TIME. Be consistent. If ignoring is easiest to ride out, then ignore. If gentle humor makes you feel the least stressed, then go with that. Every time. That way you're not reacting in the moment, trying to negotiate the least harmful response. You're just accepting what is, and letting it roll off your back.

Note though, that it's not gentle humor in order to help mitigate her responses. It's gentle humor in your head. Figuratively roll your eyes with "there she goes again" and ignore. For example, you lost the vegetables exchange as soon as you tried to convince her that her passive-aggressive comment wasn't true. A less invested approach would be to say "yum sounds good" and leave it at that. Don't respond to *her* (I need validation about my cooking), respond to the *situation* (plan dinner).

Your mom = my mom.
posted by headnsouth at 11:25 AM on September 2, 2015 [12 favorites]

Don't talk to her. When she asks why, say "Oh mom most people don't see family except for once a year at reunions." Hang up and give it a year. Never sit at her table again. It is not that hard. Someone should write the song There Must Be Fifty Ways to Leave your Mother.

If she is ill with depression, well, don't play. Figure out how to be happy yourself, remember how crazy-making it was, to live with a crazy parent, take a deep breath and forgive her, but don't play.

If she can't serve some vegetables without creating dialogue for you, vegetables are cheap. I have found the less I say, the better, in the presence of my adult kids. If they want to talk they will. I would rather hear them talk than me.
posted by Oyéah at 11:36 AM on September 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, man. I totally understand what you mean. I don't want to make assumptions about your background since this is an anonymous question, but I'm Chinese-American and I get this from my mom all the time, especially the situation where my mom will complain about me in front of me to my dad by referring to me as "some people do everything wrong blah blah blah." I also remember that whenever my mom gave my entire family the silent treatment, my siblings and I would frantically try to clean the house so that she wouldn't have anything to complain about regarding how "messy" my siblings and I were or how dirty the house was, because any mess in the house represented low-hanging fruit for her to take her anger out on all of us. We were all walking on eggshells for our entire childhoods, and even now as adults, the dynamic hasn't changed all that much. Part of the difficulty is that you can't simply address this by avoiding potentially "risky" topics, because given the examples you wrote about above, it seems like any and every topic can be spun into something negative-- hence, eggshells. I don't know if this is just a cultural norm (to be so indirect) because I have Asian-American friends who don't seem to have experienced this to the same extent, but I do think that it can be characteristic of an Asian-American upbringing, and it certainly gets interpreted as passive-aggressiveness and manipulation in Western culture. (Sometimes I wonder if my parents didn't have any issue with this kind of passive-aggressiveness while growing up themselves because this was just accepted as a norm and they never knew any other way of relating to others...?)

If it is possible to find a therapist who understands your cultural background and the way you were raised, that could potentially help things along. (Although if you're happy with your therapist now as is, then stick with it!) I found that if I explained the way things went on in my family to non-Asian therapists, they tended to interpret my family dynamics as being horribly abusive and absolutely pathologic, whereas Asian-American therapists were able to take those sort of instances in stride and I didn't have to use a ton of time and energy to contextualize and explain (perhaps even defend?) my parents' ostensible passive-aggressiveness. I also found that non-Asian therapists felt that one option would be to simply "not visit," or more or less cut my mom/parents out of my life to a greater extent that I was comfortable, whereas Asian-American therapists understood that while "not visiting as often" was technically possible, that just wasn't really the way things worked in that cultural context and so they didn't keep pushing that option onto me.

But yeah, it really hurts and it is super frustrating. And you're right, I don't think your mom will change. If you have siblings who also understand your mom's behavior, perhaps you can depend on them for a source of validation that yes, your mom is being kind of emotionally manipulative. It makes it slightly easier to laugh it off, you know? Even just confiding in a friend who has the same type of relationship with her mom could be helpful. The other day I was frustrated with my parents' passive aggressiveness, and my friend was like, "Look. Asian parents are the hardest type of parent to try and gain approval from. You can exhaust yourself trying to attain it or focus on other things that are important in your life." ... though I will always care about my parents and take many of their opinions seriously and all, hearing that explicitly was kind of a relief.

Sorry if this wasn't all that helpful, but I really really feel you and I hope that you find some relief somehow while maintaining some sort of positive relationship with your mom! Feel free to memail me.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:50 AM on September 2, 2015 [20 favorites]

If you don't feel abused by your mother, or as though your own sanity is a risk here, then it is possible for you to change how you interact with her, on your own terms, without having a big throw down about how messed up she is, and how awful her behavior is, and why can't she be more positive, etc.

The vegetables thing. Stop asking questions of her - this antagonizes her and makes the interaction about her validating you. Don't wait for her to validate your feelings, and don't waste time proving her wrong. Just be proactive and direct - "I love cooked vegetables and rice. Gimme a big old plate, Mom, thank you. By the way, I was wondering if you'd read the new Sue Grafton novel that just came out? (blah blah blah onto something new....) In the alternative, just don't rise to the bait. You don't have to agree or disagree with someone when they're incorrectly characterizing your behavior. Just don't play. Change the subject, pick up a book, or just drop it altogether. All more effective than trying to convince her she's wrong and having a big to-do over it.

The snoring thing. She feels ugly and bad about snoring. Who knows who put her down that way or if she is just so used to putting herself down she's done the dirty work herself. It doesn't matter; this one requires absolutely no response whatsoever because you know this is not how you feel and not something you've done. But, because you'll want to respond, keep it light - "I scare the kids with how loud I snore! (gratuitous and ridiculous snoring noises to get the kids laughing; nobody can have a pity party around laughing kids, right?) Light, light, light and steering things away from her self-esteem issue. Takes practice but highly effective.

The salad dressing thing. She feels criticized for keeping the dressing around or being paralyzed to do simple things like care more for her own health than to eat gnarly, gross old dressing. Not your fault but that's her deal. So, leave it be. Not your house, don't worry about her salad dressing. Politely decline it and just use something else. Don't make a big production of how gross and off and nuclear the salad dressing is. Just solve the problem without pointing up her shortcomings (again, this is how she feels, not objective reality, of course.) Or suggest the activity of making homemade salad dressing with the kids earlier in the day if you know you're going to have salad with dinner and don't want ptomaine poisoning with your croutons.

Dealing with this kind of mindset can be really grueling until you realize - really and truly, not intellectually, but in your own being, such that you actually feel the plates shift into place within yourself - that most of these statements are her asking you to make her feel better about herself. Since we both know you can't do that for her, or her for you, you just try to love yourself and her a little more actively in these moments by being kind and light-hearted. You're already in therapy, remember? I promise you these things get easier over time and that, as you get stronger and healthier, you'll start relating to her in a heather way without it feeling like so much hard work.

Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:53 AM on September 2, 2015 [19 favorites]

Things have changed for me a lot since I started identifying this kind of thing as "relentless negativity," probably due to depression in a person unwilling to acknowledge it. I used to be so frustrated that a person would watch so much Dr Phil and just express continuous disgust at the people on the show. It has nothing to do with me, asking "what's wrong with X?" will get a "nothing, why do you ask?" and ignoring the blathering is the best path to sanity. I repeatedly play out the comic book store scene from "Ghost World" in my head: "Don't you creeps ever talk about anything nice?"
posted by rhizome at 12:23 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I put it in writing like this, it seems innocuous or trivial, like something I should just laugh off. I know that! It's just that it's like death by 1000 papercuts and I never know when to expect one; every time I visit her, I'm tense all the time, bracing myself in case my loving, funny mother suddenly starts to channel Emily Gilmore. And this is the way it has always been - these sudden remarks, subtle guilting and insinuations of how she's been criticized, mistreated or hated (by me?), acting like a martyr, all the "oh, never mind me".

Wat? No. It sounds like someone being really vicious to you for no reason.

My understanding of this sort of dynamic is that inside her an emotional bomb is going off where she is feeling intensely unloved, even hated by you. So she acts intensely unloving, in a way that clearly indicates (at that moment) that she hates you.

This would be perfectly easy to deal with - if someone is hateful, avoid them. But in her case she flip flops from acting like she hates you to acting like she loves you and leaves you completely insecure. What do? Flee? No. She loves you! Stay? No. She hates you.

The best I have ever come up with to deal with the people like this in my life is to back off a long, long way emotionally and try to take the role of the mother of the two year old who just did something vicious to the two year old, like remove a splinter, when it had to come out and the two year old panicked for fear of the pain and fought to stop me.

There's no point reasoning with the two year old "But the splinter had to come out!" or "But I _never_ said I don't like vegetables* because that is her reality. So the trick is to find a middle ground that doesn't deny her emotional reality, but which doesn't make you the bad guy either. "Well, they smell delicious this time." (eats) "They were very good, Mom."

Basically if you throw patient reassurance at her, "It's okay, Mom, I'll just get some mayonnaise from the fridge..." and yet avoid empathizing with her because she's upset and if you empathize you will be upset too.

You know you're not the cause of her being upset. Unfortunately she cannot understand this. It would be wonderful if you could stop her being upset at you, but you can't. So every time you see your mother you have to steel yourself like you are visiting a two year old who hates you for removing her splinters.

Not getting upset at a two year old for being mad at you is a matter of being able to accept that the two year old can't help it. Not getting upset at your mother is similar. She can't help being upset. It's something that has nothing to do with you and never did. She may be a good, loving, intelligent person, but acting passive aggressive towards you is not good, not loving and not intelligent. She is in fact a more complex person that just a good loving intelligent person because she has this dysthemia situation which causes her to lose control of her misery.

If you can make sure you withdraw enough from your mother than you never come to her to have your needs met, especially emotional needs. She may sometimes be able to meet your needs and want to, but you can never predict if the emotional bomb will go off inside her and make her hurt you. It will help you a lot if you can get to the point where you don't expect or want sympathy or love or support from your mother. If you get it because she is in a good place, fine, and wonderful. But the expectation you have to take is that you have to control your emotions and not rise to her provocation because she can't control her emotions. That has to be all on you because you can't change her.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:38 PM on September 2, 2015 [17 favorites]

I had a similar relationship with one of my family members. Only instead of going silent treatment we would just generally escalate the situation with less and less passive aggressive comments until we would just start arguing. I grew up as a person and worked a lot on my own emotional states and identified where my feelings were coming from. At some point I just started confronting them with "What you just said made me feel bad/sad/angry. I love you and don't want to feel those emotions around you. What can we do to fix this? How are you feeling that made you feel you needed to say that?"

I always tried to steer the conversation away from whatever the subject was to instead talk about our emotions and WHY we were feeling this way. It took a lot, sometimes leading to escalation worse than anything we had before, and we still have issues, but our relationship has greatly improved. I just kept doing it every time.

Even when it didn't work or made things worse I always felt better afterwards. I think a lot the stress and anxiety I felt was from the power dynamics of the relationship, and so by confronting the situation and trying to resolve it, I was taking control of my life/emotions and so I didn't feel powerless.

Your situation seems a little different, and I would definitely discuss trying this with your therapist first, but yeah, worked for me.
posted by mayonnaises at 12:44 PM on September 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd limit how much time my kids spend with her, especially when she is unaware (or doesn't care) that foods that react when exposed to oxygen aren't healthy for human consumption.
posted by SillyShepherd at 1:11 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

You need new scripts.

The passive-aggressive person feeds off seeing you change your behavior without them actually taking an action. You need to meet passive-aggressiveness by shutting off topics before they start, and divert to new topics.

Mom: [sadly] I only have cooked vegetables with rice for you, but you don't like them.
Me: I don't know where you got that idea. But believe me, I like cooked vegetables.
*** move to new topic ***
Me: What I really like is XYZ.

Mom: Finally! After all the years that I've been accused of it and thought to be disgusting.
Me: (you say nothing)
*** move to new topic ***
Me: You know, I heard a funny joke about snoring...

Mom: [not looking at me, speaking to my father] Oh, some people are so fussy with the expiration date...
Me: (you say nothing)
*** move to new topic ***
Me: There was this one brand of salad dressing I always wanted to try...

There is literally nothing to say to her about the last two. Her words are not statements that require correction, like the vegetables one. Neither are they questions. There is no logical response. Just move to a new topic.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:14 PM on September 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Someone upthread mentioned this already, but I came in to say that Asian moms tend to be this way. My mom wears her heart on her sleeve and passive-aggression isn't in her nature, but my grandmother is exactly like this. My mom dealt with it, my uncle... not so much. He would constantly counter her remarks, escalating them into arguments that would lead to temper tantrums on my grandmother's part. I remember very little of this growing up, but how my poor beleaguered grandfather would deal with it was to ignore her. She would basically talk to a blank wall, in his case, and had nothing to fuel her passive aggression, and he wouldn't get frustrated/ hurt/ irritated/ angry, whatever.

It looks like years of this have accumulated within you, and I'm glad you're dealing with it in therapy. My uncle hasn't spoken to his mother in 20 years, and I think that sort of thing is the result of an extreme case of your particular situation. It's important that she doesn't talk this way to your children - my grandmother never did that to me, and I honestly would not have known how to deal with that. She had been diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder (this was taboo to talk about in detail in our culture and her generation) - I believe we would now attribute this to chemical imbalance and unresolved insecurities stemming from her own life and childhood. Your mom isn't going to change any time, so perhaps, for your sanity... adapt your responses to take the sting out of her words. You know, logically, that this is an illness. Treat it so, and continue to work on yourself.
posted by Everydayville at 1:28 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

This: "I feel like crap every time, and occasionally it triggers a panic attack (which I deal with in private). I walk on eggshells, never criticize, keep any risky opinions to myself. Trivial incidents like the above send me into a quiet spiral of self doubt, guilt and sadness. This has got to fucking stop already."

Does not agree with this: "she is a genuinely wonderful person."
posted by hush at 2:08 PM on September 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, if you want to risk making her escalate because she can't get her fun* response out of you, just agree with everything. "You're right, *getting some carrots out of the fridge because she wouldn't make any*, I hate vegetables, always have." "Yep, I went to a doctor and had them give me a snore so people would think you were disgusting." "You know me: bigoted about botulism!"

Just let her have what she wants. It will be such a hollow victory.

*It's probably not actually fun for her, but it's a reward-response she programmed into herself. It may be her way of connecting with you. It may be her anxiety manifesting like a verbal tic - her fear that you don't like her cooking, her fear that everyone hates her because she snores, her fear that you think she's too poor or dumb to throw out expired food.

If you want to go at it from that angle, there may still be no response that helps. Maybe just pick a neutral phrase to acknowledge her fear - "it's okay, mom" - and move on.

You have choices here about what you do, but not about what she does. You can do some CBT on yourself by picking a plan for a response and sticking to it, and teaching your brain that that response is the end of your engagement with the provocation, if you still want a relationship with her. There's not much else you can do aside from just removing yourself and not having a relationship.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:17 PM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

This: "I feel like crap every time, and occasionally it triggers a panic attack (which I deal with in private). I walk on eggshells, never criticize, keep any risky opinions to myself. Trivial incidents like the above send me into a quiet spiral of self doubt, guilt and sadness. This has got to fucking stop already."

Does not agree with this: "she is a genuinely wonderful person."

To follow on from hush's point, I think you would do yourself a favor by stepping back and trying to look at your mother in an objective light (as much as possible). Think about her, with all her strengths and flaws, and really let it sink in what kind of person she is. I don't think your image of her in your head and in your heart matches the live person standing in front of you. At least a part of you has her on a pedestal; forgive me for making assumptions but this could be a part of a cultural context where parental worship and idealizing is quite heavily emphasized, and where criticizing a parent is unthinkable. Emotionally this can be difficult because if there's a part of you who feels like your parent is so wonderful, then you take on these burdens and twist yourself all around trying to fix yourself, when it's not you who is the problem. I know you say you understand this but I don't think you've truly internalized it.
posted by JenMarie at 2:23 PM on September 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Natalie Lue talks about something similar to this on this recent episode of her podcast.

One of the things she says is that being mindful of the fact that you're entering a conflict with baggage from the past (which you have some awareness of) allows you to empathize with the other person by recognizing that they're entering that situation with baggage, too, and that this can help keep you grounded in the present. It sounds like your mother has a lot of baggage.

Your question also reminds me of the verbal attack patterns Suzette Haden Elgin writes about in The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Elgin sometimes gives the caveat that her advice is applicable only to native speakers of English when the attacks rely on the way words are said, but I think her writings are worth a look because the structure of the attacks is very similar. Or I could be completely wrong.

In cases 2 and 3, your mother is trying to bait you into a discussion by implication. here is a list of response scripts for such situations. Maybe the tactic of agreeing with the statement in order to force your mother to make the accusation explicit would work?

"Finally! After all the years that I've been accused of it and thought to be disgusting."

"That must have been very frustrating."

"Oh, some people are so fussy with the expiration date..."

"Yes they are. Anyway, the dressing is bad."

For the first case, you could try the Elgin-approved route of "When did you start thinking I don't like cooked vegetables?," which Elgin says is the least confrontational formulation. It also makes the discussion about the other person's thoughts about the situation rather than about your actions. I think, though, that you allowed yourself to be too quickly inveigled into a back and forth and might do better with, "That's not true."
posted by alphanerd at 4:21 PM on September 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think just turn the tables- like Amy Tan (to keep with Chinese-American theme) did when she saw her formerly formidable mother as a frail older lady (while sleeping, who then turned back to being formidable while awake). She is older, insecure, and it is exhausting for her (as well as you) to carry all that bagggage. I think you have to treat her sympathetically and keep your reactions separate. (Therapy is good for this). Reassure her that you love her vegetables, but don't engage further, she will hear the compliment underneath and if not, you still did the right thing. The snoring, say 'oh maybe I'm turning into you, that's wonderful news' or something less sugary but again, the reassuring but not engaging. Same with the salad dressing, just say 'oh, I guess I'm paranoid, but I'd hate for any of us to get sick, just humour me, ok?" Etc. Definitely don't be sarcastic with older and mentally delicate parents, especially if you are from a culture (which should be most) where elders should be respected. BUT you have to separate your feelings, and get to a point where they 'barely even rise up'. Therapy definitely be required to get to that level...but in the meantime, no flustered engaging!

(You have to see her in a non-threatening light- non-emotionally threatening. That's very important. She is just an older person who probably had difficulties, continuing to struggle and acting out her struggle. So sympathy..and detachment. But caring detachment if that makes sense. If it was someone else's mother you would just compliment their vegetables and be mildly confused at their protestations but it wouldn't drive you need to get closer to that, but still loving..if any of that makes sense. Which is does- she loves your grandchildren but doesn't nitpick them, it's similar. She sees just the good. So be that person- slightly removed, but loving. She is somehow hearing you criticize her and you need to now just be the more mature, calm and reassuring person. I love you and your vegetables mom, period. No protestations, no panic attacks. )
posted by bquarters at 7:02 PM on September 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

You are an adult and so us she. The best way to deal with the hurt is to accept it without investigating it and remind yourself that this is who your mother is. Maybe it comes from a hurtful place, maybe it comes from one of anger and frustration. Those are her issues to sort out, thankfully. The only thing I would suggest you do about it is to be mindful of the behavior and never, ever treat anyone like that. Then give your mother a hug and tell her that you live her. Any other way suggests that you only have affection for her if she behaves the way you want her to. If you can do this very difficult thing, I guarantee that you will feel better. At some point, your mom will do this to you, and you won't even notice.
posted by Mr. Fig at 10:20 AM on September 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Things have changed for me a lot since I started identifying this kind of thing as "relentless negativity," probably due to depression in a person unwilling to acknowledge it.

Yes! This! I think the thing to do is just hold the thought in your head, whenever one of these comments happens: "wow, Mom really is so negative all the time" and then just kinda move on. Because now it's about her negativity, and not about you, and I think the more you can externalize all of this, the less you feel like you can or should control it, the less anxious it will make you. Unfortunately, I think your strategy of just trying to engage at a surface level and stay positive is probably the best one. I wrote a couple comments in the past about parent relationships and I'd repeat this advice.

You mention a "wish to have a safe, carefree relationship" with her and I can see why it's really upsetting to feel like that's not possible. It also totally sucks to categorize someone you love as A Negative Person and I get that too. So I think the key is really just to cherish the safe, carefree moments in your relationship. The times you've shared something joyful and fun. And to accept those thoughts right next to each other. "Mom's a really negative person. Also, I love my mom and that time we walked together on the beach was such a wonderful, carefree moment."
posted by capricorn at 2:08 PM on September 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't come from an alcoholic family, but I've found the Al-Anon Big book (How Al-Anon Works for Families & Friends of Alcoholics) to be very helpful in my dealings with my own family and in-laws.

Another good book is Emotional Blackmail by Susan Forward. Codependent No More by Melody Beattie is also really good.

One of the tenets of Al-Anon is "take care of yourself and your needs." Don't argue or debate. If the (alcoholic) wants to pick a fight, leave the room.

Family is hard. My sister is still terrible to me and we're in our 40s. I've just had to disengage from her slowly over time: don't email her (but respond if she emails me), don't call her (but answer if she calls me), etc. I do tend to walk on eggshells when we do hang out together at family gatherings. It's great that you're in therapy: keep at it.

Another thing a friend did with her mother-in-law is play "bingo" with her siblings. "Every time MIL sighs loudly at family picnic, you get a B" etc. It brought some levity to a painful situation.
posted by Piedmont_Americana at 3:53 AM on September 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think your emotional reactivity to her is very high. That's normal for parent-child relationships, especially difficult ones, but it will make it much more difficult for you to come to a place of equilibrium.

Therapy should help bring down your emotional reactivity. Perspective might too - I always recommend Harriet Lerner's books for these kinds of family dynamics. They are the best. Dance of Intimacy or Dance of Connection, or any of them really. Good sensible reading with helpful insights.

I also think distance would help. Just plain old physical distance. It's like a bruise that keeps getting bumped and never gets the chance to really heal. I don't know what the dynamics are but if there's any way at all you can get out of 99% of interactions with her that would be great. Not forever. Think of it like a cast. To give yourself time to bolster your equilibrium and resilience. You're doing it *for* you and for her, not against her.

For times you do need to interact with her, see if you can find things you admire about her and, however difficult, keep those at the front of your mind in interactions. Not what you find annoying, not what you want from her, but just things that you do think she is a good role model for, or has overcome/accomplished in her life, etc. Part of this is help move the focus off of the relationship between the two of you and keep it very firmly on her. That will hopefully help shield your vulnerable parts and also help you see her flaws in relationship to the rest of her, as opposed to in relationship to you.

Good luck! And I really really really recommend the Harriet Lerner reading.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:46 AM on September 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

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