Hate being around my mother but have to be - how to deal?
September 13, 2018 2:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm really struggling with how to have a relationship with my mother/family when my mother is emotionally immature and prone to anger/belittlement/abuse. I've had to put up a friendly/nice facade of having no feelings in order to continue being around her but this is proving increasingly difficult and she is becoming exasperated at not being able to connect with me. Meanwhile, she relies on me as one of her only (or perhaps her only) real source of emotional support. Finding this very difficult at the moment, with the result of provoking more exasperation/disappointment/anger from her.

Some background:

- My mother has a very short temper and unresolved issues relating to her own childhood trauma. As a result, she has been verbally and (only twice) physically abusive towards me at various times through my teens. She still exhibits this kind of behaviour now, but much more rarely, and it'll be smaller stuff like shouting at me, calling me selfish etc, saying I don't care about her etc.

- Because of the above, I do not feel comfortable speaking to her or being around her. I moved away to a different city 3 years ago, but continued visiting for months at a time both because she said she really missed me and because I was helping her with some family issues.

- I have a brother who is 7, who I love very deeply. I want to see him as much as possible and also protect him in the future from similar behaviour towards him.

- Last year I told my mother how I felt about our relationship and her previous behaviour towards me. This caused a huge fight during which she said that she only acted that way because I was very cold/closed-off as a teenager and she didn't know what to do. We had a very long conversation and she said she was ultimately glad I told her and that she hoped we could be closer.

- Following this, her behaviour has been a bit more subdued. She still gets angry at me for small things (for example, if I ring back a few hours after she calls rather than immediately she'll say I don’t care about her). Last time I visited I told her I'd rather visit my grandparents together with her rather than by myself. They live overseas and have a lot of issues including a hoarded up apartment that I'd have to clean out by myself while fighting my granddad (who has hoarding issues) if I visited alone, plus it would be over New Years' and I'd be staying with distant family that I don't know well. I spent a lot of time with them this year helping grandma after a stroke and because of my own mental health issues and the difficulties associated with helping them I couldn't face going alone. I told her this and she said I was 'black-hearted' and was closing myself off to the world, which would ruin my life in the future. She ignored me when I spoke to her for the rest of the day and later in the evening I heard her telling my step-dad that she's sick of me and my lies and that I care less about her than I do about my partner. A few days ago she sent me a story which contained the line 'A child should forgive their parents - indeed, it is the child who must beg for forgiveness from their parents.' This seems fairly indicative of her attitude towards our relationship.

Currently my way of dealing with all this is just putting on as neutral and nice a façade as I can around my family. When she makes me upset I pretend that I don't feel anything and continue acting like nothing happened. However, the difficult part is that my mum has a lot of issues with her marriage and self-esteem in general and relies on me a lot for emotional support. I've spoken to her about her issues and at the start of the year gave her the contact details of nearby therapists, while sharing my own experiences with therapy to make her feel more comfortable with going and talking her through the financial aspect of it. She hasn't gone to see anyone so far. It's very difficult for me to be her emotional support when I'm still experiencing the kind of things I've described above and when I've never felt like I could rely on her for emotional support. To be blunt, I don't want to be her parent when I barely feel like I have a parent myself.

Every time I have to call her or go home to see her I push my emotions down and do my best exist only as someone who makes her and my family feel good, because I feel that it's my duty to make her less stressed so that she doesn't take things out on my little brother. I've been fairly successful at doing this, but I can tell that my mother knows I'm putting up a façade, and being around her is anxiety-inducing as a result. I can see that she's trying to connect with me, but the real me is too afraid of being hurt by her and too accustomed to putting up defences. She then ends up upset at me because of the failure to connect. It takes a lot of effort just to make myself call or her or plan a visit.

My actual question is - I know that what I'm doing now isn't sustainable. How can I change my perspective or behaviour to make it easier both on my mother and myself? Honestly ideally I'd just like to speak to her as little as possible, but I really want to maintain a close relationship with my little brother and be there for him. I also do have compassion for her because I recognize her behaviour as a result of intergenerational trauma. I've been getting some therapy, and am committed to continuing with the inner child work that I've already done. I would really really appreciate any words from someone who's experienced similar things - anything from suggested therapy approaches to pure sharing your experience would be amazing. I just feel really alone in this and need to find a way to feel that I'm strong enough to cope.
posted by fantasticbotanical to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
In the end, you have all the power, which is why she's reduced to doing silly things like sending you stories with "the child must beg the parent for forgiveness" and making sure you overhear her kvetching about "how sharper than a serpent's tooth" blah blah blah. Could you make continuing to go see her contingent upon her agreeing to lots of family therapy? Then in the (relative) safety of the therapist's office, you could say to her what you've said here, and include the little detail that you're terrified she'll hold your little brother hostage. She's making unspoken and almost definitely unconscious threats that she will subject your little brother to abuse if you don't keep coming around.

Basically you want to say to her, preferably before a neutral witness so that she can't weasel out of hearing: "Mother. Do you want to spoil your relationships with both your children? Right now our connection is fraught but I can see how with work we could be good friends. If you abuse my brother, our connection is destroyed forever, and you will ruin your relationship with him, as well. Do not do to your children what was done to you. The rest of your life can be happier than the beginning of your life, if you will only try. It's up to you."
posted by Don Pepino at 3:45 AM on September 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you'd find a lot of comfort on reddit's raised by narcissist's community--reddit.com/r/raisedbynarcissists. They recommend a technique called gray rock for disengaging with a narcissist while maintaining contact.

However, while I truly admire your compassion, I can tell you from my own experience that both the gray rock technique specifically and maintaining "normal" contact generally was absolutely toxic for me in dealing with my own narcissistic mother. The reason you are putting up a facade is to protect yourself. You should honor those instincts because they're survival mechanisms forged in abuse and trauma. Your mother does not sound like someone who is safe to "connect" with no matter her reasons for abusing you. In my experience, opening up to someone like this will cause temporary respite, but long term opens you up to more abuse. The only thing that I've truly found to help the situation is more therapy to myself and less contact. It does not make you a bad person to protect yourself, no matter what your mother says.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:46 AM on September 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

Also, to warn you, if she is a narcissist (and she sounds like one), they usually refuse therapy. If they are coerced into group therapy, they often use that setting to manipulating the therapist into taking their side and labeling the other party an abuser.

I'm sorry.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:47 AM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding r/raisedbynarcissists, it helped me with my own parent a great deal. Have a look at their sidebar.

It may be worthwhile to establish reliable communication with your brother that does not rely on your mom. I.e. email, Facebook, if texting may not work. If you have to leave this situation and be farther from your brother, you'll have to lean on these channels to give him that lifeline.
posted by panhopticon at 5:31 AM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

My actual question is - I know that what I'm doing now isn't sustainable. How can I change my perspective or behaviour to make it easier both on my mother and myself?

Your mom sounds like a narcissist, and regardless of specific diagnosis, she's abusive. You don't have to put yourself through this. It sounds like you're not ready to cut contact, but you can set up a system of rules - if mom does [thing], you leave immediately. If mom says you don't love her because you're not at her beck and call, you say "I don't love when you try to guilt me, let's talk when you can be reasonable" then hang up the phone and don't talk to her for at least a day. Set limits, and then follow through on them. Don't go for it if she says she's having an emergency - she can dial 911 just like anyone else, and if she doesn't need 911 then she's not having an emergency.

Also stop visiting for months at a time. What she wants is for you to be under her control. I'm sure she's going through some hard things, but there's no reason for you to expose yourself to her maltreatment like this - regardless of what she says or wants you to think, you do not owe her.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:33 AM on September 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

I feel that it's my duty to make her less stressed so that she doesn't take things out on my little brother. ... I know that what I'm doing now isn't sustainable. How can I change my perspective or behaviour to make it easier both on my mother and myself?

By realizing and then believing that it's not your duty to make her less stressed or more content or to manage her emotional state for her in any way. She's an adult. Coping non-destructively with the world around her is entirely her responsibility, not yours.

she relies on me as one of her only (or perhaps her only) real source of emotional support.

You're not her (unpaid!) therapist. You do not owe her ongoing emotional support.

William Burroughs has some advice that you might care to take to heart.
posted by flabdablet at 5:36 AM on September 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

Since she did try to modify her behavior following your fight, some behavioral training might pay off, and either way, setting boundaries will protect you.

One possibility that jumps out are the insults: selfish, black-hearted. I think those are a fairly easy place to draw the line. "Mom, when you insult me or call me names, I'm going to have to end the conversation then. It isn't good for me to be talked to that way." And then, after maybe 1-2 reminders that this new plan is taking effect, start hanging up on her or walking out when she does that: "mom, I told you that I can't let myself be insulted anymore, so I'm going to hang up now. I'll talk to you later."

The gray area ones are when she tries to tell you what you're feeling in a guilt-tripping way. "You don't care about me." I think for now I'd start objecting and labeling that behavior -- "please stop telling me how I feel. You aren't a mind-reader and that's intrusive." or something like that. After you have some success with the insults category, you can move on to blacklisting this behavior.

But all that just deals with some of the more egregious and discrete behavior, whereas the real problem is more insidious and pervasive. She's still going to have a short temper and try to emotionally manipulate you. Developing these tools will help empower you, but it will still be challenging. I agree with the idea of trying to build a separate relationship with your brother as soon as you can.
posted by salvia at 5:38 AM on September 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

"indeed, it is the child who must beg for forgiveness from their parents"

That's true if the child has, like, burned the parents' house down.

Here's something that turned a lightbulb on for me when I was crumpling under the burden of some stuff my mother was laying on me (unintentionally, and with a lot less nasty toxicity than your mother, by the way:)

A parent's job is to support, help, nurture their child. That is the correct order. It is not a child's job to do this for their parents. A parent's reward comes from seeing their child flourish and succeed, not from sucking their kid's lifeblood in a perverse reversal.

Internalize this, and you'll be able to control this situation.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:05 AM on September 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

Offered in the spirit of 'take what's useful and leave the rest'...

1. Captain Awkward's The Worry Wyvern and The Dragon of Disappointment might help you maintain your boundaries.

2. I have found it helpful to imagine a difficult relative as a friend's difficult mother--I will chat with Mrs. Smith, I will be civil for the sake of my friendship with her daughter, and after the conversation, I will not perseverate on its dynamics. This differs from putting up "a friendly/nice facade of having no feelings" because it reduces the intensity of my walls; I don't talk about my most intimate stuff with Mrs. Smith and that's the borderline state. We can. however, have good and connecting-enough conversation on neutral subjects so that she walks away feeling like attention has been paid, and I have discussed, I don't know, the price of beans, which is not an emotionally fraught minefield.

3. Your little brother is a hostage. Do all you can to give him an alternative narrative to the one he's soaking in. Remind him that he is loved for himself. That the way things are between him and Mom is not the only way of relating.

4. A few days ago she sent me a story which contained the line 'A child should forgive their parents - indeed, it is the child who must beg for forgiveness from their parents. I hope you can call a good friend when this happens, a friend who will laugh and laugh and say "That is SO MUCH BULLSHIT." I find it helpful to have a neutral barometer so that I can turn to them and ask "This isn't right, is it?" and have them say "Oh my God, no, this is more bullshit, you're not the problem here." For the record: this spammy story she sent you is bullshit.

5. the real me is too afraid of being hurt by her and too accustomed to putting up defences. With good reason. I am glad to hear you're taking action to protect yourself. You may want to back off on suggesting that she change herself because she has clearly rejected that possibility. Sucks. But it may eventually free you to give up on hoping, and focus on yourself and your brother, and preserving that relationship. It is a bitter thing to know that the person who's supposed to love you most, without conditions, doesn't. It's a different, maybe slightly less bitter, thing to understand that she just...can't. Like she can't turn her left leg purple and her right one green. Maybe your defenses are there as a bridge to this gut-level comprehension, and readjustment of expectations and hopes?

6. Scripts. "That's not up for discussion" and other phrases are your friend. Circling back to Captain Awkward...read the comments on that post. Sometimes it's really handy to have some phrases in your pocket.

Ugh, this is a tough situation. Wishing you strength, fantasticbotanical.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:08 AM on September 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

A resource which you may find helpful is the Narcissists Suck blog. It's authored by someone who was raised by a narcissist. I've personally found the blog helpful for changing my perspective in that it helped me to see the situation more clearly, emotionally detach from the narcissist, and go low contact/gray rock.
posted by jazzbaby at 6:47 AM on September 13, 2018

Do not attend family therapy with this person under any circumstances, it will be a shitshow and an opportunity for her to hurt you more. This is true because she's demonstrated a pattern of abusive behavior, not because of any other issues she might or might not have.

Seconding the "gray rock" approach, going lower contact, and the Captain Awkward article.
posted by bagel at 8:13 AM on September 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think it's helpful to somehow set up your visits so that if she starts being extra mean and she is upset, you leave the room for a little while, to go to a coffee shop, to walk around the block, or you go to a private room and look at kitten pictures on the internet for 5-10 minutes. I'm suggesting taking a break, because I'm guessing that you probably can't ask her what set her off and expect her to be calm and patient in the heat of the moment, once she has gotten worked up. Otherwise, if you think you can work with her in the moment, I think the phrase "wow, that was harsh" is your friend, something you can say to try to stop the direction of the conversation and let her know you don't like what she said. (Without giving her much detail to grabble with). In fights with my husband, who is I think more calm and trustworthy than your mother, we can sometimes use a Reset button, by saying "Reset" or "I take it back" if someone went too far, but I think that is an advanced skill. It's a fictional construct, a convention, and both people have to be wiling to honor it.

I have a younger brother, but only two years younger, so I can't totally relate to a young brother who is a potential hostage. I don't know how much the books about toxic parents address the sibling issue. To me it reminds me of an acrimonious divorce. The adults need to get along for the sake of the kid, but they'd rather not see each other. There might be some chapters in the divorce books that have techniques you can borrow.

Giving your mom emotional support so that she doesn't get mad and doesn't abuse her younger child sounds a little bit like "enabling". This is not a concept I understand well, but you might want to read up on it.
posted by puddledork at 8:22 AM on September 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Do not attend family therapy with this person under any circumstances"
What about the circumstance in which there's a deeply loved seven-year-old child living with this person? Call CPS? Sure, and report... what? "My mom said I was black-hearted. I fear that at any moment she might declare the color of my brother's heart." Many children of emotionally abusive parents know how the CPS calls tend to go if there aren't marks on the abusee.

The parent-child relationship might be salvageable or it might not; that's not why I was arguing for therapy. I was arguing for therapy to get outside eyes on this perilous situation. You're grown; he's seven. You love him and want to help him. Therefore, it might give you more peace of mind to stay in regular contact with your mother and hold off grayrocking until your brother ages out of danger.

Either way, you can teach your brother your phone number and tell him to call you any time he feels scared or sad. You can tell him there's a place with you for him, and you can make that be true.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:04 AM on September 13, 2018

Here's an article on why one should avoid group therapy with a narcissistic abuser.

However, you might find that your own therapist would be a good resource on how to help your brother and how to disconnect. My own therapist has been helpful in giving me terms and conditions in which I can have (very very limited) contact with my parent and still protect my own mental health and the mental health of those around me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:14 AM on September 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

Nthing that family/group therapy with a narcissist will not help and likely cause a lot more damage. The article PhoBWanKenobi linked to does a great job of describing why family/group therapy with a narcissist is a bad idea. I had my own experience with this and I can attest to what the article describes as being accurate (especially the gaslighting).
posted by jazzbaby at 10:23 AM on September 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

First of all, you are an angel and are doing so much more than you have to, give yourself so much credit for that. I would focus more on being there for your brother than for your mother, which it sounds like you're trying to do. A therapist once said to me that growing up in my family was like being IN the eye of a hurricane, but that now that I was an adult, even though it felt like I was still right in it, I was safe, and didn't need to react to what was happening in my family's life as though it was happening to me. Then the choice became what would I like to do from this safer distance? I don't have to do anything, but for me I do value helping my family out as long as it doesn't harm me. I realized years later that I was practicing a version of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, where you accept how hard it is to do what you're doing, but because it's meaningful to you you do it anyway.

My mom struggles greatly with her emotion regulation and depression, and we have intergenerational patterns at play here too. I'm not sure I'd classify her as a narcissist but she can be really challenging to be around. If she's saying something untrue to me like "you don't care" I just refute it and say "actually I do care, that is why I'm here/talking to you/etc.". If we're getting into an argument I label it as such like "we are disagreeing about X" and say that my goal is not to argue with her, that I want to spend time with her, can we talk about something else. She still directs anger and blame and other unfair things towards me but she tries to moderate that tendency.
I'm not perfect and I do tell her if she's hurting my feelings but I generally try to let the upsetting things she says slide and avoid getting riled up or defensive. The result has been that out of my siblings I have one of the better relationships with her, which is my goal, to not cut her off and further prove that she is a bad person/not worthy etc. Nonviolent communication (there's a book) has been very helpful for me as a communication strategy. I generally try to say nothing negative to her, and not give her reasons to twist what I'm saying so I limit what I share with her. However I also find that it helps to tell her something new and exciting going on for me as it serves as a distraction, and she really does care about me so sharing something is a good strategy for me, not sure it would work for you, but I try to keep things on the up and up. When she shares health issues or other things I try to listen and empathize. Harder than it sounds. Another thing I do is invite her out to things that we both enjoy, so it's a more controlled setting that being at her house, we have something to do together. She is depressed and often turns me down but I wouldn't feel right not offering, and I think it does help her. I haven't had any success with her and therapists, she finds reasons to distrust all of them, but she likes to borrow my spiritual/self help books sometimes.

For the overseas thing, you need to just say that it's not happening. I wouldn't go at all if I were you, that sounds terrible. It's not fair when our parents use us to do the things that they are trying to avoid.
posted by lafemma at 11:03 AM on September 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

You do not have to set yourself on fire to keep her warm.

I moved 1,000 miles away from my Mom. I didn't have a phone for a year (landline days) to limit contact. When she behaved appallingly, I would get off the phone, leave the room/ house/ town. I learned to see trouble coming a mile away and distract her with shiny things What should I wear to the play? Did you see that thing in the paper? Let's have ice cream! My Mom was alcoholic, bipolar, maybe narcissistic. She could be funny, smart and generous, too. You never knew who would show up, except that she really had a mental illness that was going to go off, and drinking was always a lit match.

Once in a while, I would let her know that a thing was mean. She literally did laps around her house one holiday, trying to pick a fight with each sibling/ spouse/ grandkid. We all decamped to my sister's house in the next town. I later got a lengthy screed in the mail, detailing how hurt she was, how we had mistreated her, etc. Next time we spoke on the phone, I said Do you remember saying %mean thing, %cruel thing, %vicious thing? She waffled, I explained again that if she needed to have a fight, or said mean stuff, I wouldn't stick around for it. I always told her I loved her. I tried to tell her I wanted her approval and love. Over time, we built an adequate, if fragile, relationship. It took years. She did not have more than that to give me, which sucks, but that's how it was. I visited, but always got a rental car so I had an escape route.

Read Stop Walking on Eggshells. The hardest time is when you really start enforcing boundaries, and you have to be very disciplined about Mom, I'm sorry you're in a bad mood, but you're upsetting me and I am getting off the phone now. Bye. *CLICK* Check in with your brother, make sure he knows you're there for him. Praise your Mom when things go well. it's so fun to talk to you about %subject she isn't horrible about. You seem happy today, that's awesome.

You can't change her. Therapy might help her be happier, or not; that's up to her. You can only affect your part of the relationship. You do not have to accept her crap. You don't have to have her in your life. I'm a Mom; it's not easy. If nothing else, remind her you love her as you reject her crap.
posted by theora55 at 1:34 PM on September 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Are you in therapy for yourself? You're in an extremely difficult situation. Even if it's just talk therapy, having an expert on hand to validate your feelings and tell you that the situation is not normal or OK is really helpful.

Do NOT go to family therapy with your mother. Jazzbaby and PhoBWanKenobi know what they're talking about. It will be an hour of your mother dominating the session, complaining about how horrible you are and how bad she has it, and manipulating the therapist to her side and against you. For family therapy to work, both sides have to be willing to compromise. Your mother will not be going into it with that on her mind. She will see it as a potential source of narcissistic supply.

You do have an edge here. Your mother needs you emotionally. You can use that to assert your boundaries and train her behaviour. It will take time and she will absolutely freak out at first (for example, my mother once called the police when I refused to answer the phone), but eventually she'll learn that if she wants to keep you in her life, she has to behave a certain way. You can start by refusing to visit her for more than a week, only talking to her on the phone one or two days a week, and freeing yourself of any responsibility for your relatives overseas. Having a therapist on board will help you keep your resolve and help you deal with the blow back.
posted by Stonkle at 2:08 PM on September 13, 2018

If your goal is for your parent to change or benefit from therapy and your parent is a narcissist, I absolutely agree that you should skip it and save your money, time, and sanity. But if you have another goal, as in this case, and if they want something from you or if you have something you can hold over their heads, it can definitely work.

My father has a PhD in neuropsychology or psychoneurology or whatever the hell it is, but when he tries to talk about his children or wives or any aspect of human-to-human relationships, his complete failure to understand human beings is comically obvious to everyone in the room. My brother needed something and my father was as usual standing in the way, so I made an ultimatum and got him to agree to talk to the therapist and follow the therapist's advice. He came in and of course proceeded to take up the entire session trying to prove himself the wronged party. But so? All the better. The therapist understood--of course, since the eloquent whiny guy was the father and the supposed criminal wrongdoers were the children--that it was nothing but narcissistic nonsense. It is true the therapist immediately became very gentle and spoke to my father as if he were a wounded child of three, but that's merely because he was demonstrating the mental capacity of a three-year-old child and because narcissists respond beautifully to coddling. It was very definitely not because my father had convinced the therapist of anything. All anyone else in the family had to do was sit in the comfy chairs while my father yacked and demonstrated his own profound and appalling culpability. He did not get his way; I got mine; my brother got what he needed; I was not, in the end, sorry I dragged my narcissist father into the therapist's office.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:50 AM on September 14, 2018

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