Methods to build self-esteem in troubled mother?
July 20, 2016 11:16 PM   Subscribe

How do I help to build self-esteem in my "crazy" (bipolar, BPD), overweight, aging, and unsuccessful mother, who lives in a small town with not much in the way of community, and who refuses to seek medical treatment for her mental health and physical issues?

I (27, F, USA) am moving to within driving distance to my very troubled/disruptive parents for the first time in over a decade; after living abroad for a year and having not been close to them for 10, I'm at a point where I want to rebuild something of a relationship with my parents, Mom in particular (father is a lost cause alcoholic). Backstory: physically, verbally, emotionally abusive mother with rash behavior, possibly bipolar or BPD, and a suicide attempt under her belt- me: independent, in therapy for 7 years, put myself through college and have made my own successes- good at initiating boundaries at this point. I know I can't expect to change her, but I do think she is intelligent and may respond to gentle suggestions/compassion (as I assume most people do), and as she is older generally less full of piss-and-vinegar. So, how do I help to subtly build her self-esteem? She is very overweight, never achieved much in the way of what our society constitutes successful, has a terrible marriage with aforementioned father, doesn't work (is 60), mostly knits which she is a wizard at, but- there is a lot to be "unlearned" by her, as she never felt fully accepted by her own mom. Is this a possibility, or should I stick to trying to healthily strike a balance between distance and closeness with her? I hope I've given enough details.
posted by erattacorrige to Human Relations (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Even though most people might respond to gentle suggestions and compassion, your mom is not most people. It's hard enough to try to help another person build their self esteem if they're mentally well, not to mention if they are seriously mentally ill and untreated for their illness.

I feel like it would be negligent to suggest anything but staying as far away as possible for your emotional, mental, and physical health if your mom is emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:32 PM on July 20, 2016 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Can you help her set up an etsy store, or help her find some other way to build confidence based on her true talents? Her knitting wizardry sounds like a great in road. Is she interested in outreach for the less fortunate? Could you do that together? When you are with her, you should focus on her good skills and traits. We gain self esteem when we see and believe that our actions and talents have value.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:36 PM on July 20, 2016 [13 favorites]

You are a hero for even considering this. I just want to get that out of the way.

I really love pazazygeek's suggestion. Specifically, when my son was a bit younger he had eye problems and the first organization we dealt with (we were recommended by friends and thought it was a specialty doctor's office and not also a not-for-profit, which it actually is...) well they gave us gifts at the end of every visit (especially important for a 2 year old navigating scary vision appointments) and one of those gifts was an awesome handmade blanket. Items like that were made by volunteers and donated. It meant so much to our family. We passed on a thank note.

Your mom doesn't have to directly interact to make a difference on that type of level. Etsy is one way, donating her talents is another. At Christmastime, my favorite museum has an artisan showcase where handmade goods are sold. All museums have gift shops that sell these sorts of items, FYI. She could really find a calling.

That said...go slow. This will cost you some hardship. Have support. Have a script for hard times. If you expect utterly zero nothing nada and get no positive result, you'll be better off than if you go into this with rosy expectations. I'm sorta in your shoes and would never ever attempt anything like this. At your age, and now, I can not afford the cost despite my situation. Stay attentive to your own wellbeing...

If you change your mind down the road, you are not a failure. I want you to know this deep down. It's great, but it's not very realistic. Ultimately, you can't do anyone else's self-work for them. She's an adult. You gotta keep perspective.

And you're still a hero. It's cool. What will be will be. There's a big ledger somewhere and your impetus here counts for a lot.
posted by jbenben at 12:10 AM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Fly Lady's website is hard to look at, but she is kind of great for people like your mom who need a lot of gentle boosting to get going. Among the lessons are: putting on laced up shoes every day, drinking water, moving a bit, cleaning for 15 minutes, doing all of these things one at a time for 28 days until they become a habit. And being encouraging all the while. Here's her babysteps program -

There's a podcast too, which is very encouraging.
posted by Duffington at 1:40 AM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you want to reconnect with your mother in order to make her into the mother you wish she was.

I know I can't expect to change her, but

Period. You can't expect to change her. No amount of compassion or gentle suggestions are going to get your mother to lose weight and open an etsy store. That decrease in piss-and-vinegar probably has more to do with your physical/emotional distance than any age-related mellowing.

Shore up those boundaries you learned to set in therapy. They're about to be tested.
posted by headnsouth at 3:17 AM on July 21, 2016 [27 favorites]

Does she think she is unsuccessful? Does she want to have higher self esteem? What has she said that makes you think this? Is her definition of success very different from yours?
People get self esteem from trying something and succeeding. For example, every day getting out of bed when there is no reason to. Having a conversation with your daughter that doesn't go sideways. Thats the level of "success" that I think is helpful.
posted by SyraCarol at 4:25 AM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Can you explain a little why, given the host of issues you mentioned, you are focussing on the issue of self esteem in particular? Have you noticed a correlation of improved self esteem = improved behaviour towards you in the past? Has she indicated that she wants help with that?
Because you're moving back into abusing distance to your past abuser, who is mentally ill and refuses treatment. I think you should first see how her behaviour towards you is, how your boundaries hold up etc., before you proactively enmesh yourself with your mom again. Before you involve yourself unasked in her relationship with herself (her self esteem).
posted by Omnomnom at 4:34 AM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate all of the helpful, positive, and constructive responses! For those who don't have much to say besides "stay the eff away"- that wasn't the kind of response I needed, because I have been doing that for a decade now and am ready to re-establish something between us. I also don't really understand the users who don't think it's possible for positive, healthy growth to happen between us- what is that based on, exactly? I do intend to maintain firm boundaries, have low expectations for what this could be, but I also refuse to accept the "give up get out" approach- I just think human relationships are much more complex than this, and for families in particular.

I'd also like to note (should have said this earlier) that she hasn't physically abused me since early adolescence, and that as I've grown older, the extent of the verbal and emotional abuse has stopped too, vis-a-vis me explicitly stating, "stop. stop right now. This is not acceptable and I will leave if this continues."
She knows I moving relatively close (within 50 miles) and she has said to me, "what can I do- or not do- to help you while you transition here?" I felt like that was a very positive sign that she has a clear understanding of boundaries, and give-and-take in this relationship.

Self-esteem: Well, when she was at her most ill, about 7 years ago, she reiterated that nobody loved/cared about her. She puts herself down (and has done to me too, specifically weight related comments- though I run 10 Ks, have learned to pole-dance, and do yoga, etc to feel empowered in my body) regularly and I think that this is HER own mother's voice in her mind's ear- Grams never was happy with her big-booty'd daughter, being herself a petite thing her entire life- also, global beauty standards from 1922 (when Grams was born) to 1956 (when Mom was born) to 1989 (when I was born) have shifted dramatically and have certainly caused some sort of impact on the psyche of both women.

I am willing to be hurt, a little bit. I know the red flags, and I know when to back away and run away, too. I don't expect this to be painless, but because she is my mom, I want to try while I still have the chance.

posted by erattacorrige at 4:41 AM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Notice when she does something and give her praise for doing it. (But don't gush) People feel good when they are noticed.
Be curious about her life story and her perspectives. People feel good when they feel heard.
Don't use sarcasm. Use affirmations. As soon as she starts making comparisons tell her you won't listen. Don't argue with the comparisons or try to convince she is wrong.
Sounds like you are already doing things that will help: keeping a relationship, spending time together, accepting her despite her flaws. I wish you the best.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:31 AM on July 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Recently I started planting indoor plants in my small apartment -- tomatoes, cucumbers (probably not so wise for indoor spaces), herbs. They are somewhat therapeutic. They need a lot of water and some care, so it's quite nice to have something that is dependent on you, and that if it all goes haywire, consequences are relatively mild (dead plant, vs child or dog). At the end of the day, getting fruit means you have successfully done something right. Gives you a right sense of accomplishment.

Additionally, if you start planting too, you have an additional topic of conversation. You could share pictures of your plant with each other on phone.
posted by moiraine at 6:33 AM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, and I also started planting succulents and building terrariums. Succulents are real easy and fun. Also super easy to propagate. I have started giving my friends some of my plants and it has been a real pleasure.
posted by moiraine at 6:35 AM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you're at a point where she's asking how she can help—or not!—in your life transition, why don't you ask her candidly what you can do to help her live a happier life in some small way? That honesty and directness is probably what you want to cultivate and reward, isn't it? Helping her be happier for her own sake is wonderful, but you also want something here that isn't exactly that. So: work on that, too.
posted by listen, lady at 6:38 AM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm in a similar boat with my mom and have also tried to get her to leave the house, volunteer, exercise, etc. Nothing ever really stuck, and in fact, all my attempts usually just upset her.

When I got pregnant a couple years ago, I discovered that asking her for advice on the pregnancy and, later, with the baby really seemed to boost her ego. I didn't really have to take her advice, just call her every once in a while and ask her opinion or thank her for helping me understand a situation. According to my sister, who was still living with our mom at the time, she could always tell when I called because mom would act like a different, happier person.

So, I'm not saying have a baby. But have you considered asking her to teach you how to knit? Or, if you already know how, maybe ask her to help you with a complicated project. That way you are appealing to her talents, can spend some time together constructively, and restart the relationship in a place of comfort for her.

Best of luck!
posted by galvanized unicorn at 6:55 AM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

It's hard/impossible to change people. It may be possible to affect behavior. Visit on a regular basis and go for walks in nature. Most areas have walking paths. Exercise has significant health benefits for mental illness, and generally promotes health. Nature has a similar effect. Listen really well. Maybe she's frustrated because she can't get the basement cleaned out, or get errands done. If you help with even 1 todo item per visit, it could help a lot with that sense of being overwhelmed by tasks.

I agree that if she can teach you stuff -knitting, whatever - that would be great. Also, look at family pictures, get family stories, maybe do some genealogy. That knowledge will go when she does.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions- I really appreciate the thoughtfulness. I agree that asking for her advice and having her teach me a skill (such as knitting, since I can't do it at all and she is a whiz) would be a great way to boost her self-esteem. I think she *wants* to be a good mom and felt like she didn't have a lot of support when we were little, and that compounded the aforementioned issues she has. I think that her feeling powerful, like she is showing me the ropes (whether I genuinely care about knitting or not) at something she is great at is really helpful advice. It also puts our relationship in new territory, wherein I am approaching her as an adult child, not a child child, to seek solutions. I liked the recommendation of asking for advice, regardless of whether or not I take it- people do like to be asked. I definitely think that a lot of her real issues are agitated by everyday problems, as some people suggested.
Why do I want to do this? I want to try. She's my mom, I guess I don't think it needs much explanation beyond that. I don't expect her to transform into a picture perfect mom or even to change her personality (and in spite of her flaws and deeper-seated issues, she has some great traits, such as a love of critters), but as people have advised, changed some behavior that might be constructive to helping her like herself even a tiny bit better.

I appreciate the advice so much, the thoughtfulness and suggestions. I don't think there's any magic bullet, and I will continue to maintain sturdy boundaries and exercise self-care, but I do believe that if she knows I appreciate her, realizes she has valuable skills to share, and feels heard, that for even just a moment her self-esteem will boost a bit.
posted by erattacorrige at 8:29 AM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

One more idea: if she expresses any interest in any form of exercise, offer to do it with her regularly. It would have the one-two benefit of the boost that exercise gives most people's mental health and the benefit of an exercise buddy, and the benefit of positive time spent together. I guess that's three!

Similarly, would she be open to going for a walk with you when you come to visit? A stroll in the park maybe? That would be time in nature, plus socializing plus a bit of exercise--all positives for people's mood.
posted by purple_bird at 9:10 AM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would drop having a specific agenda. Seeking to "fix" her is fundamentally problematic. That doesn't mean you cannot make a difference.

1) Give her genuine validation for anything you can genuinely validate.

This includes both the positive -- "Thank you for offering g to help me with my move." -- as well as her negative feelings -- "I am so sorry you still see your body so negatively. Grams can really be horrible about that stuff and the media isn't any better." Just validating people can go a long way towards interrupting their mental rut so they can move on.

2) Have faith in your new self.

When I went home years later, interactions went different because I was different, so I responded differently. As an adult, I was more able to not take it personally that I have relatives with horrible baggage. Instead of getting pissed off, defensive, whatever, I was able to bring in a new perspective and a different set of responses. This disrupted family patterns because I failed to play out the part of the pattern historically assigned to me by other people. The reactions were sometimes pretty dramatic. At one point, my mother shrieked something at me and fled the room and never brought it up again because she was so shocked by my quiet, not ugly response.

3) When you do offer suggestions, offer them quietly, non-confrontationally, without being pushy.

Do not make your suggestions into a Thing. Do not harp on them. Do not moralize. Accept that it does not have to be acted on. Do not act like her not acting on it is evidence of how terrible she is. Say it once and let it go. If you do this, it may be months before she acts on one of possibly several suggestions and you may never get credit. Decide now whether this is about being helpful or getting your ego stroked. If it is about being helpful, you do not need credit. If it is about your ego, well, please just don't.

4) Tell her you care and show it.

If you tell her you care and show it, when she is claiming "no one cares" you can rebut that with "I care." My sons do this to me when I am whingeing. But it only works if you also tell her you care at other times and back it up by being caring. My youngest used to only say he loved me when I was whingeing. I finally told him that was asshole behavior and amounted to arguing with me when I was grumpy. He copped to it and began also saying he loves me or other affectionate expressions at other times. Now, when I am whingeing, it is constructive for him to rebut it. It doesn't piss me off like it used to.

5) Magnify the positive, minimize the negative.

Put more energy into the good things. Do your best to just not get dragged into the horrible things. Focus on thanking her, engaging her as constructively as you can, validating her, enjoying her company, etc. Do not focus on fixing her. Keep walking away from the pointless ugliness like you have been doing. Over time, the positive stuff will take up more space in your relationship to her and the odds are good she will start magnifying the positive and minimizing the negative in other parts of her life. She will stop putting up with certain things.

6) Model constructive behavior. Let her pick and choose what to emulate.

Just be a good model. Do not try to tell her how to live. If you give her examples of things that work better than what she has been doing, she will likely change. People prefer to do things that work well. If they are doing crappy things, they probably do not have a better answer. Just model constructive behavior and be patient. It takes time for people to figure out how to emulate those better behaviors and they will often emulate bits and pieces and get it cringeingly wrong at first. Try to bite your tongue while they go through those awkward phases.

posted by Michele in California at 10:27 AM on July 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

OP, as a mom I want to say how much I appreciate your desire to connect with your mother and strengthen your bond. As the daughter of alcoholics, I'm compelled to mention that Al-Anon has dramatically improved my life in ways that are different than but complementary to what I've learned via therapy. Finally, as someone who lives with a chronic mental illness, I encourage you to listen to the Invisabilia podcast called The Problem with the Solution. What most humans want, more than anything, is to be loved exactly as we are. Like many honorable, worthy goals, that is incredibly hard to do. If you can pull that off, you will have given your "loser" mom the best gift any parent or child could ever receive. I am struggling to give several people in my life that gift despite their alcoholism and/or mental illness. That is the gift I want to give them. I'm working on it but I haven't succeeded yet. Still, I haven't given up. And I hope you don't give up, either. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:20 PM on July 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you do start learning to knit with your mom, the two of you could join a knitting group together. That would give her other knitters to connect with as well as your support. My mom is retired and I know she gets a ton of support and joy from the various quilting groups she's a part of. She and I have also collaborated on a quilt - we each made half of the blocks - and that definitely strengthened our connection. On some level your mom is really proud of her knitting skill. Work with that as much as you can.
posted by bendy at 9:28 PM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Daughter of BPD mother, here:

Michelle in California has the BEST advice up here, hands down and I have little to add to it except to be mindful of your needs, your self, and your boundaries.

Your mom may have the best intentions, and you may have the best intentions, but from my experience BPD can (if not mindfully managed) lead to an enormous black hole for energy, love, attention, labour, etc. Just be careful for yourself.

While the commenters who say "run!!!" may not sound helpful, they probably have known BPD to be an intensely destructive, seemingly intractable and selfish disorder. It has the potential to ruin lives.

Best of luck to you and your mom. My mom suffers with her disorder, and has caused incalculable suffering because of her disorder. Be compassionate, but also be careful.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:04 AM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another daughter of BPD mother. Short answer is: don't try, because you can't. Children of BPD parents are particularly susceptible to developing codependent relationships and the notion of "rescuing" someone is extremely seductive.

The best way to build her self-esteem is to:
1) Validate/console her the exact same way you would with anyone else;
2) If she has an extreme reaction to a success or setback respond proportionately to the situation, not to her reaction to it;
3) When she requests validation for the same thing more than twice tell her you're to going to do that;
3.a.) Don't do that
3.b.) If she gets angry about you asserting that boundary, don't apologize. Tell her you won't be a part of that and either hang up or leave or whatever. You can't be her self-esteem, you can't be her confidence.
4. My rule toward my friends: you get to complain twice. The third time, I'm going to ask you what action you're taking to change the thing that upsets you. I'm not listening to you talk about it again until you take action. I hold myself to this too.
5. When she asks you for advice, give her advice. When she gets to the point where she wants you to be her mentor/life coach/teacher, draw the line. If you're trying to lose weight and you WANT to be her "weight loss buddy" then do it; if you're not trying to or don't want to be her buddy but she wants help then point her to a few resources and if she circles back say, "I'm not you coach. You need to own this process."

You are never, ever responsible for her response or reaction to you when you assert boundaries. You probably know that, but for me it's a something I can't ever hear too many times.
posted by good lorneing at 8:17 PM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't know how you can help her self-esteem when you yourself don't sound like you hold her in high esteem.

The fact that she was abusive of course understandably colors your feelings about her, but much of the other stuff you say just seems harsh on your part. So she's aging, how does that belong in list of negatives?? So she's overweight, that may be something she wants to change, but doesn't belong in the same list with "abusive". And when you categorically label her "unsuccessful", period, full stop, that just seems so uncharitable and ungenerous.

If you want to help her with her self-esteem, first cultivate more esteem for her yourself. Realize that she gets to determine what is and isn't success, and that something like being a great knitter can be viewed as a type of success. Don't add to the already collosal devaluing our society does of aging or hefty women. Change your attitude and maybe some of it will rub off on her.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:59 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the additional comments, everyone. I see where it's coming from and I also appreciate those who have shared some from their own personal experiences. The general rules/boundaries advice is great too, especially because for me, it's incredibly relatable.
@mysterious_stranger: Sure, I don't always think the highest of her, for example, when she drives like a lunatic or argues with people loudly, but I included that other information about her weight and age not because I devalue her for those things, but because those are variables that she devalues herself for. As long as I've been alive she's been bemoaning her age (even at age like, 40), and weight. I mentioned those specific factors because I was hoping that someone might have some insight for how to negotiate those factors, not because I value her less for them. She's my mom, man. I love her regardless of how much derriere she has, and have told her as such many times. I more need suggestions that might be helpful to navigate them.

Finally, I am not looking for advice on whether or not I should be staying in contact with her or whatever. That was never a part of my original question and I'd like everyone to please respect the guidelines of MeFi and not stray from the topic of the original questions. I'm really looking for strategies, not condescending life advice.
posted by erattacorrige at 5:54 AM on July 23, 2016

I will suggest you read "Children with emerald eyes." One part of it is about when she worked somewhere with a lot of troubled teen girls and part of the issue she had to deal with is that they basically all saw themselves as "whores" and that the value of a woman is rooted in her sexual attractiveness. She had a great answer for how to deal with that.

I strongly suspect your mother's complaints about her age and weight are rooted in pretty much the same thing. In a society where women are primarily wives and mothers, they wind up financially dependent upon a man and being conventionally attractive winds up being a huge burden. Men tend to prefer women their own age or younger. Successful men have no trouble getting pretty young women to sleep with them, marry them, whatever. So older women know they are in competition with pretty young things, even for men their own age, and it can be deeply threatening if your entire concept of yourself hinges upon attractive a good man.

I am 51. I was a homemaker a long time. I have zero plans to do that again. I plan to always have my own income, even if it isn't very much. Having plans of my own and an income of my own has been the single biggest and best antidote to my worries that I am too old, too fat and too ugly. Because I will still eat, even if no man ever again wants to sleep with me. I may not ever get laid again, and that does stress me, but it is a completely different level of stress than feeling like my entire lifestyle hinges on being pretty enough and young enough for some man to want me as a bauble on his arm.

Most women will not consciously make this connection. Many will even vehemently deny it if you point it out, even if they brought it up first. But I think this is a big part of what drives women to complain about being too old, too fat, etc. And "Children with emerald eyes" has the single best antidote I have ever seen anywhere.

posted by Michele in California at 10:02 AM on July 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks @Michele in California. I will look into this book as soon as I am stateside. And thank you for your additional comments. I love that you are living your life for yourself. Good for you. I wish my mom had your courage...
Your advice has been wonderful. Thank you so much.
posted by erattacorrige at 10:28 AM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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