Relationship councilling with my mother?
February 18, 2019 5:33 AM   Subscribe

My mother wants to help me get over her parenting. How can I use this opportunity in healthy way for both of us?

I’m female/35. I love my mother very much, she has many great qualities and I know she loves me. But she was pretty neglectful and perhaps even emotionally abusive to me and my siblings growing up, and we’ve all had significant mental health issues as adults.

There were various problems with both my parents, but there is one issue that I can’t seem to get past, even though I’ve been in therapy for years off and on. It frustrates me because I imagine this is quite common and a lot of people have no doubt dealt with much worse, but it’s really holding me back.

My mother is very aesthetic. She was incredibly focussed on my looks from an early age, and was very critical of my weight during my teenage years- I was quite chubby from about 13 to 16. She put me on diet pills, bought me countless diet books (which I now know espoused very unhealthy habits and attitudes), bought me food she would yell at me for eating, wouldn’t speak to me for days at a time because she was so angry I was eating too much/not losing weight, and said many cruel things. One comment that has stayed with me was ‘you’ll never get a boyfriend because boys like thin girls’. She also left me and my siblings to our own devices on the food front- we didn't eat breakfast, and we ate dinner with our father when he came home after 8.

I lost weight at about 16/17 (due to disordered eating, surprise surprise). My weight has gone up and down ever since and I’ve struggled with over-eating, under-eating and generally weird attitudes and behaviours around food my whole life.

She continued to make comments about my weight and eating until I started therapy in my late 20s and ended up really losing it in response to some criticism and telling her she couldn’t comment on my weight anymore because of how much it messed me up. She more or less cut out the critical comments after that, which amazed me as I'd begged her to stop many times before with no effect.

I have been at a low (healthy) weight for about 3 years, which she's happy about. My relationship with my mother is better when my weight is lower (this is something my sister pointed out about their relationship a few years ago, and I realised it applies to me too). She is less critical in general, gives me more time and attention, and just seems to like me more. She also comments a lot on my appearance in a positive way.

However, I’ve really struggled with my self-image my whole life, and in the last year or so I’ve become very self-conscious about my body, to the point where I don’t want to date because I don’t want anyone to see me naked. I’m alright on the outside, but I have some flaws that would take surgery to fix or can’t be fixed at all, and I feel like a man seeing me naked for the first time would be disgusted. He'd either dump me or see me as a disappointment. I think the last guy I was with felt this way, although I may have imagined it.

My mom and I were on the phone the other day and she asked me why I wasn’t dating, and I told her I hated my body so much I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone seeing me naked. She was really shocked to hear this and asked how I could think such a thing, and said that everyone has always thought and told me I’m gorgeous, and who had ever criticised my body to make me feel this way?

I surprised myself by responding that it was probably due to her constant criticism of my appearance growing up, and I instantly regretted it. I’ve tried to speak to her before about these things, and she’s vigorously denied ever commenting on my weight. She’s also got extremely upset and defensive, said things like ‘I’m sorry I’m the most terrible mother!’ and it’s ended up with me comforting and reassuring her.

But she didn’t do that this time. She said she was so sorry, and she didn’t want that to be her legacy. She said she wanted to help make it right, and she suggested we see a therapist together.

I can’t tell you how shocked and touched I am by this offer. She’s always been dismissive of the idea of therapy, and she’s been gaslighting me for nearly 20 years about these things even taking place.

I don’t want to blow this chance, and I want to use it as effectively as possible. I’d also like to do something that will help her (I think she has dealt with unacknowledged anxiety and depression her whole life) and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause her a lot of distress (she’s not in good health).

There’s also a part of me that wonders if this is a good idea at all. My therapist told me that I need to detach from my mother and stop seeking her approval. I don’t want to foster unhealthy boundaries.

I’ve told my mother I’ll look into it. I just started seeing a new therapist and we’re going to speak about this in our next session in a couple of weeks, but I don’t want to lose momentum and I’d like to start thinking through some ideas and how to approach this.

I'd appreciate your general thoughts and advice, or if you'd rather answer specific questions, I guess they are:

Does anyone have advice or experience with something similar?
Are there any books/workbooks that address this sort of thing?
Are there exercises/conversations I can have with my mother?
Are there any particular types of therapy/therapeutic approaches for this type of relationship/issues?If you've worked with a particular therapist who you think could help with this I'd be grateful for their details
Finally, is it weird that this has affected me so much? I can't help thinking I've blown it all out of proportion, and I need to just get over it. Is there something wrong with me that I haven't been able to so far? Is it possible I can?
posted by Dwardles to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If your mother really means that she wants to help you, and if she is capable of helping you, then you don't need to jump on this right away. Do not get caught up in the idea that this is something you could "blow" or that you must capitalize on some "momentum."
posted by sheldman at 6:06 AM on February 18, 2019 [25 favorites]

You don't need your mother in therapy with you to get past this. I suggest your own therapist with occasional family Sessions if deemed appropriate.

Your an adult , and the impact of your childhood can't be understated. BUT family therapy isn't really designed for this. You don't need your mom to get better. Your not living with eachother, you aren't dependent on eachother.

If your mother is open to discussion and recognizing how harmful her behavior was, those are great discussions to have with a therapist. But not on a weekly basis.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:24 AM on February 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

I could've written 2/3 of this post, word for word. My advice is: Go to therapy by yourself, not with your mother. That's not going to end well. At the very least, it would be ineffective.

Congratulations on the big step of realizing you need some objective help to cope with your self-talk. That's HUGE. The next step is to deal with your self image, which CAN NOT be healed by your mother admitting her flaws and changing her behavior now. That might help your adult relationship, but it can't change your self-image. She is a force that you react to. What good therapy can help with is teaching you new ways to react, in addition to recognizing and tamping down the old behavior patterns in you--not your mother.

If your mom wants to go to therapy on her own, great. Just the fact that she offered is very sweet. But there's no way for objectivity to occur with her in the room in your therapy sessions.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 6:25 AM on February 18, 2019 [17 favorites]

To answer your other questions : it isn't wierd that your having trouble. Your mother has been acting in extreme ways about wieght and body image and treating you based on that your entire life. Disordered eating can be generational, it certainly was in my family.

There are two major themes: what you think of you now and Your relationship with your mom now. They aren't actually connected to eachother. Both are really important to you, and there are definately dynamics that influence the other. BUT you could never talk to your mom again and you will still have body image stuff to work through or the opposite, you could have an ideal mother now and still have body image stuff. You can also look this from the other side, you could be 100% happy with yourself and still have a troubled relationship with your mom, or a great relationship. It's independent .
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:35 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

She said she wanted to help make it right, and she suggested we see a therapist together.

Terrible idea. Just gives her an opportunity to try to play you and your therapist off against one another. Even if that's not what she intends to do going in, habit is hella powerful and it's a dead cert that that's what she will end up doing.

If she genuinely wants to help you achieve the most from your own therapeutic process, she will butt right out of it. If she genuinely wants to change herself into somebody more supportive, she needs to get her own therapist to help her work through her own stuff.

Therapy is not mediation. You are not attempting to bring some kind of actual dispute with your mother toward a mutually acceptable resolution; you are attempting to heal from the damage that she did you, she needs to heal from the damage that led her to do that, and both of those needs are completely independent of your relationship with her.

If you want to take advantage of some perceived momentum on your mother's part, you might want to ask your therapist for a list of suggested therapists for her to follow up on in her own time.

I’m alright on the outside, but I have some flaws that would take surgery to fix or can’t be fixed at all, and I feel like a man seeing me naked for the first time would be disgusted.

As a paid-up member of Team Man, I'm advising you right here right now that any man who feels or (worse) expresses anything short of delight at the sight of anybody he's encouraged to get naked in his presence deserves a boot up the date and the door slammed and bolted behind him. And then same again metaphorically. Life is too short to spend much of it in the presence of fuckwits of that ilk.
posted by flabdablet at 6:44 AM on February 18, 2019 [47 favorites]

While there might be a time in the future where you do decide it's a good time to have a facilitated conversation with your mother about this, I don't think you should be making that call until you've had ample time to work through this privately with your own therapist.

Your mother has forfeited the right to have any further say in this, and I think you can set that boundary now, and if you're able I think you should be pretty final about that: "At this point, the damage is long done and I have to do the work now, so I'll be doing that. If you need to take it up with your own therapist, you should look into that. But we're not going to talk about it until or if I decide we're going to."
posted by Lyn Never at 7:12 AM on February 18, 2019 [13 favorites]

It could work depending on her actual motivations. Therapy between the two of you to help you develop/work on your relationship could work. Her coming along to anything about you dealing with your disordered eating could be more about controlling the narrative than anything else.

I would first work on my own solo therapy before rushing off to group therapy, and honestly it sounds like she needs to do the same as it sounds like she has problems of her own to work on.
You can then both use that therapy to help determine what sort of relationship you want with each other going forwards. Then the group therapy would kick in to help you both develop the tools to have that relationship.
posted by wwax at 8:01 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree that it makes sense to take some time to think about what you should do next. Something that might help you in figuring out what to do is to think about the range of possible outcomes of engaging about this. There is a great book called "How Can I Forgive You", by Janis Abrams Spring, that is an exploration of the four possible outcomes of dealing with being treated poorly: cheap forgiveness, refusing to forgive, acceptance, and genuine forgiveness. It was really helpful for me in dealing with a confusing and hurtful situation where I wasn't sure what to do, to be able to think about these issues in a clear way, and it may be helpful for you too.

I think most people wish for the outcome of genuine forgiveness, but to get there, it requires the person who transgressed against you to play a major role. Spring says that the transgressor needs to fully own how they acted, to assume responsibility for their past/current/future actions, to honor the effects their behavior had on you, and to behave with sensitivity and proactive intent to heal going forward. That's a tall order and certainly not one that you can force.

It sounds like a surprise that your mother was open to accountability at all. That's a significant shift, and I think a good one. But she may or may not be willing or able to take it further. That book might help in tracing out possible paths from where you are now. It would probably make sense for you to do some work on your own in therapy to think about whether and how to see if she's really genuine enough to take another step or two along the path of accountability and healing--or whether to aim, for your own benefit, for acceptance, which doesn't require her input at all.

Hope this helps.
posted by Sublimity at 8:18 AM on February 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

I don’t want to blow this chance, and I want to use it as effectively as possible. I’d also like to do something that will help her (I think she has dealt with unacknowledged anxiety and depression her whole life) and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause her a lot of distress (she’s not in good health).

This focus on her wellbeing, plus your history of comforting her when she gaslit you, would make me hesitate to suggest counseling together. Relationship/family counseling is generally based on the idea that all participants need to compromise or grow and find new patterns of interaction. What you describe is more on the spectrum of abuse, and not something that you need to compromise about. Having a mediated discussion with your mother about the impact that her parenting had on you might be something for the future, but I would counsel working with a therapist individually first, and talking to that therapist about whether such a mediated discussion would be helpful.
posted by lazuli at 8:35 AM on February 18, 2019 [20 favorites]

Wow, so many elements of your post resonated with me. I could have written large portions of it myself about my relationship with my own mother, and the traumatizing effects of her fixation on my (allegedly excess) weight and (perceived lack of) attractiveness.

I also agree with the comments others have made about the need to be cautious and careful about the possible negative ways this could go that might damage you further. I also recognize the possibility that, consciously or unconsciously, your mom might not be coming at this from an entirely benign or constructive place.

But, the thought that ran through my head most strongly as I read your post was wow, I wish I could have even contemplated the beginnings of something like this with my mom. Mine passed away twenty years ago, and the wounds she left are still with me. Opening up to this kind of discussion with your mom is a risk, yes, but it also offers an opportunity for healing that many of us will never have.

So, my suggestion would be to take the excellent advice above about not rushing, talking to your own therapist, suggesting your mom get therapy on her own, and then, when you are both ready, looking at the best way to have the kind of discussion she offers. (My own non-professional instinct would be that having her join you in a "family" session with your own therapist might be the way to go, but the professionals will have guidance on the specifics.) But, don't let this opportunity slip away without giving it very serious consideration and getting what you can out of it (even if that is not as much or as clear as you might hope for at the outset).
posted by rpfields at 9:54 AM on February 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don’t want to blow this chance, and I want to use it as effectively as possible. I’d also like to do something that will help her (I think she has dealt with unacknowledged anxiety and depression her whole life) and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause her a lot of distress (she’s not in good health).

If you are thinking of this as a single opportunity to act on her wishes, and that if you don't do what she asks now, she won't support your healing on your terms and timeline, then deep down you probably realize that this is not a sincere offer to benefit you.

A healthy, thoughtful, contrite mother would say something like "I'm sorry, I don't want to leave you with that legacy. I want to help make it right for you, so if it would help you to see a therapist together, I am all for it." Contrast that with what she offered, which was to correct her legacy.

Your mother's anxiety and depression are not your problem. You've reversed the parent/child roles here - your mental well-being was her responsibility! And taking care of her needs, whether expressed or unexpressed, takes you away from taking care of your own.
posted by headnsouth at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

I understand where you're coming from in terms of a very difficult mother-daughter relationship. The cool thing is that now, in my mid-thirties, I've been able to reestablish a healthier, happier relationship with my mother and things are better than they've ever been before!

Our mothers grew up with a ton of toxic thoughts and ideas from society. In any ways, they were able to escape them but there was still a lot of damage and therapy options were nothing like they are today. It's not an excuse for what your mother has done but rather context. She wants to do right by you but needs help figuring out how. You are the one to set the tone and the boundaries and she will be able to react in kind.

I am a big Marie Kondo fan and especially love this point: focus on your own mess and don't tell -- or yell -- at others to tidy up. When they see you cleaning -- how your home looks and how you're happier, they will likely be inspired on their own. This is the same way for resetting our interpersonal relationships: we take the lead and others may follow. I never thought that this would happen -- so much of therapy is about changing yourself because other won't change for you -- but it really has. Not with everyone but very possibly your mother since she's finally open.

Things that helped me:

- Individual therapy. As others have said, first focus on yourself and then the others. The fact that you've found a good therapist match is so promising!! Chances are that it will be incredibly hard at times but, if you trust your therapist and trust their process, you will make progress and eventually be much happier and healthier.

- New boundaries. You're going to have to radically change how you talk to your mother for awhile. I essentially went no contact with mine for about six months, then gave her clear boundaries and the choice to accept them or not. She chose to accept them but it was a process. That was a big step but it's really about the tiny tweaks that add up: for example, you don't go into discussions about weight with your mom, full stop. Your therapist can help you with specifics; self-help books have given me great tools, too.

- Connection with other family members who get it. I'm so glad you have siblings who are supportive and validating because that is a huge gift. Everyone experiences childhood differently, even siblings close in age in the same home, but having people to commiserate with and share strategies is amazing. Every family has a unique dynamic and even the most dysfunctional family has some happy moments: non-professional outsiders can struggle to see this, either focusing too much on the positive or too much on the negative. That's OK but complicates the process.

- Self-care. This process takes time. Please be gentle with yourself and treat yourself with love and care. You're already doing great!! Give yourself compliments -- as dorky as it sounds, it helps if you find the right mode for you. You may not feel sexy or beautiful -- yet-- but you can only wear clothing that you find pretty and positive. I got rid of most of my clothing and now only wear what I love and it really makes a difference on a hard day. You could go through current outfits with a friend or go to a store and ask a salesperson for help, explaining that you've struggled with weight and body image -- so many of us have! -- and could they give you gentle but honest feedback.

- Don't worry about dating for now. Focus on yourself and becoming the person have always wanted to be, which you already are and are finding. Once you are happier and healthier, you will have many options: you'll sense the the bad apples, they'll sense your strength, and you won't be wasting any (more) time on them. (Oh, I've been there!) You'll have a confidence that is so sexy, that has nothing to do with weight but rather an inner glow that radiates out. This is so cheesy but true and can't be rushed.

Good luck!!! We are all rooting for you!!
posted by smorgasbord at 10:35 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

From what you’ve written, I don’t think either of you are ready for family counseling. Your mother is, for whatever reason, partially seeing and confronting the consequences of her emotional abuse. (She was, uh, very much emotionally abusive, like more so than you acknowledged in this post.) And she feels bad. She doesn’t want to feel bad. She wants to “fix” things, but based on this it sort of seems like she doesn’t have a good idea of what that will entail.

Short version: you can’t improve your relationship with your mother until your mother herself improves.

She needs her own therapy. It will take a while, and it will be hard, if she’s really committed to it, because it’s really hard to confront how much you’ve hurt your children.

And you need your own therapy, too.

I would recommend trauma-informed therapists for you both.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:38 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh also: I think people generally warn adults with abusive parents away from this sort of thing because it rarely works out because it’s so hard, and because a lot of people find it really difficult to preservere through something so difficult, so they eventually just...give up. And if your parent letting you down like that is part of your own history of trauma, watching them do it again in the present is gonna be rough. It’s a risky bet on someone else’s ability to follow through.

And family counseling is like...triple black diamond level therapy. It is vastly more complicated, and is NOT appropriate in abusive situations. Like if you view “improving your relationship with your mother” as the goal you’re working towards, for her sake, that’s not gonna work. That’s another manifestation of putting her needs before yours, which is one of the dynamics that fucked you up in the first place.

So again, you need your own therapy, and she needs hers, before you even consider this.

THAT SAID. It’s not impossible. My relationship with my mother has gone through this. Like I confronted her with how much she’d fucked me up for the millionth time and for some reason, that time, she got it. She started reading the books I told her to read, she started to see more and more of her own behavior and issues, and now she’s in her own trauma therapy. And now our relationship is the best it’s ever been. We’re not friends yet, and I’m still working through a lot of the issues she left me with — and crucially, I am able to demand the space to do that; sometimes I’m really fucking angry with her — but things continue to get better. She continues to get better. And she’s over the hump where I would worry about her abandoning the whole project; she sees her CPTSD for what it is, she’s working with trauma people, and now she’s not just doing it for our relationship, she’s doing it for herself.’s possible. But your mom has got to commit to doing a whole bunch of work on herself first.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:49 AM on February 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

Oh last post, sorry: even with all that work, my mother and I are not in therapy together. And now I don’t think that’s something we’re going to need, even, given how our relationship has changed as we’ve both changed.

To give you a sense of scale: I’ve been seeing a trauma informed therapist for just over four years, and my mother has been seeing one for less than 6 months (though she started reading all those books etc maybe 2 years ago).
posted by schadenfrau at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I... ended up really losing it in response to some criticism and telling her she couldn’t comment on my weight anymore because of how much it messed me up. She more or less cut out the critical comments after that, which amazed me as I'd begged her to stop many times before with no effect.

Don't let this amaze you. She stopped directly abusing you, and then switched to:

My relationship with my mother is better when my weight is lower... She is less critical in general, gives me more time and attention, and just seems to like me more. She also comments a lot on my appearance in a positive way.

Indirectly abusing you. Does this indirect abuse feel any better to you than the direct abuse? At least you can confront direct abuse. What happens when you confront her about the indirect abuse? Do you get more of the same gaslighting?

But she didn’t do that this time. She said she was so sorry, and she didn’t want that to be her legacy.

Im sorry, but this isn't some new big change or momentum you're seeing in your mother.
This is all about her, what she wants, and her continued desire to gaslight the shit out of you about her abuse.
Note that she's really sorry about her "legacy," not about being abusive.

She said she wanted to help make it right, and she suggested we see a therapist together.

It is NEVER reccomended to go to therapy with your abuser.

I have been at a low (healthy) weight for about 3 years, which she's happy about...
There’s also a part of me that wonders if this is a good idea at all. My therapist told me that I need to detach from my mother and stop seeking her approval...
My mother wants to help me get over her (abuse)

Listen to this part of you.
Your therapist is 100% correct.
Keep going to individual therapy until you can stop thinking in terms of, 'what my mother wants/makes her happy,' and start thinking instead, 'what I want/makes me happy.'
posted by OnefortheLast at 11:06 AM on February 18, 2019 [11 favorites]

I think OnefortheLast is also correct, btw, that she is continuing to be abusive, and that this relationship is probably not a safe one for you yet, but it doesn't sound like your mother (or you?) are fully aware of that yet. Please remember that people who are abusive don't ever call themselves abusive, and they rarely acknowledge the nature of their behavior while they're doing it, so...don't let that trip you up.

The other reason to make sure you're in a bunch of therapy for yourself and that you have sufficient distance from your mother is that sometimes abusive people go to therapy and learn how to be more effectively abusive. Like it doesn't change their tendency to externalize their own emotional regulation needs by lashing out or controlling others (or whatever their thing was), it just gives them more tools to do it.

IMO you need to be really far along in your own recovery, and really far along in your ability to see and enforce your own boundaries, before you can safely see if this is a relationship you want to negotiate.
posted by schadenfrau at 11:30 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

It sounds like maybe your mother thinks she can help you resolve your body issues by going to therapy with you.
You are an adult now. Your body issues are your problem and you are going to resolve them for yourself. Your mother can't help you with this part. If your mother is offering to counseling to help resolve this, she still taking a role in your life that is no longer hers and it won't work. (She can't fix you!)

Maybe she wants to do therapy because she doesn't want you to be mad at her. That sounds promising but as many people suggested above, there are good reasons why you need to figure out your side of this better before you are ready to engage with her. Furthermore, I'm not sure she is really willing and able to hear you talk about the impact that her parenting had on your life. Go slow

My suggestion for now is that you express your genuine appreciation for her offer - it clearly meant a lot to you that she was able to hear something about her impact on you that she had never taken in before. I would explain that as an adult, your body issues are your problem to work out and that the thing she could do that would be most helpful is to make no comments whatsoever about your weight or appearance. Even compliments! It may be hard for her to understand why compliments are also a problem (because they mean that she is still judging you, even if the judgement is positive) This would be good way to you to begin to shift the relationship and to get a sense of how willing she is to listen to you and respect what your needs.

ps. You are not making too big a thing about this -if your brain is a garden, she planted the seeds that are now producing toxic flowers. You are the gardener - it is up to you, not her, to root out the toxic plants but it is not your fault that she planted them and it is entirely reasonable that you are upset about the experiences which have had such a big impact on you.
posted by metahawk at 11:44 AM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Falling back to the general issue, it's not weird at all. I will say that my mother did/said similar (honestly, much less bad) things to me when I was younger and weight was more of an issue. A number of years ago, I flatly forbade her to say anything unsolicited about my appearance except "you look good" (if she wants), to avoid any of the sort of back-hand encouragement of disordered thinking that you are now experiencing.
posted by praemunire at 12:10 PM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it would also help you to realistically examine what appears to be your mother's thought process in this, ask yourself how healthy it sounds, and if you think any changes are reflecting actual inner changes:

Your mother is a person who's belief of herself is so grandiose that she acts as though her self and your current relationship with her to be a reward for your number on a scale. She believes herself, her attention, her approval and her indirect abuse to be something that you earn from her by changing your life and self to appease her personal taste in aesthetics. When you perform to her expectations, she rewards and encourages you to keep performing, and when you don't perform, she withdraws or punishes you with abuse. These are control tactics.
She has also stated that she wants to "help" you "get over" this aspect of her, vs. her changing these sick/toxic beliefs she holds about herself that cause her behaviors towards you and your sister.
Unless she can see this clearly and honestly about herself, then this is not a person ready to change. She sounds like she could be personality disordered imho.
posted by OnefortheLast at 12:12 PM on February 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

I would say that you should continue going to therapy on your own so you can undo the damage your mum has done.

Your mum however does not get to use you as an instrument of healing (if that is what she really is trying to do, as opposed to justifying or rewriting history or forcing you to change your mind about what really happened). Once your mum has done her homework it's her responsibility to incorporate this in the relationship, if you at that point are comfortable with that.

Oh, and I am not thrilled that when you told her about your concerns, her response was that you are actually gorgeous and everyone says so. The issue is not whether you are gorgeous or not. The issue is that she has made your physical appearance a pathologically important factor of your self worth and she continues to do so. Even in this question it's clear that she is okay with you now because you are at a low weight. What would happen if you gained weight?

In short, the issue is her prejudice and sick objectification of her own daughter as an ornament that is valuable insofar as it's attractive. Your trauma is the result. She wants to avoid working on her fucked up prejudice by focusing on your trauma.
posted by Tarumba at 12:25 PM on February 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think you should go to individual therapy to break down the lies that your mother raised you with. Specifically therapy focusing on self image and body acceptance. I’m so sorry you had to grow up like that. There is nothing wrong with your size. Your body is not faulted or flawed or in need of surgery. There is no one way to look. You don’t need to eat a certain way. You deserve and are allowed love exactly the way you look now AND however you body looks or changes - from partners and family.

I would not go to therapy with your mother. In fact I would work on the opposite - separating your self imagine from the broken mindset that she has about you
posted by Crystalinne at 3:23 PM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another vote to go to therapy solo. Your mother cannot help you now. Even if she approved of you unconditionally and told you were beautiful every day.

Your mom is kind to offer and I would view it as gesture of good will. She sounds like a good person.

My story and your story have so many similarities.

Like your mom, when I'm fit and thin my mother comments positively. As does my father. I will say the amount of comments about appearance in general have decreased significantly. I think we are all more emotionally healthy and don't feel compelled to comment on looks, good or bad. Even though my sister and I are "thin" now.

Like your mom, my mom was also emotionally neglectful when I was a kid and had preoccupation with appearance. How she presents herself is very important to her --sporty! healthy! young! thin! When I was a thin teenager she would take me shopping for clothes often. I don't think I wore the same outfit twice when I was in the 11th grade. When I was a chubby thirteen old we went to Weight Watchers instead of the mall.

I have been skinny. I have been fat. I was ten years into my marriage and overweight at the time and my mother said, "Poor John." twice. She repeated it in case I didn't hear the first time. John is my husband. The context of her comment: What a pity it is for John to have a fat wife. One time I had a crush on a guy and she said, "Surfers don't date fat girls." It is true, parents can say cruel things that affect us deeply. Parents say these cruel things not to torment us but because they are so tormented. My dad used to call my sister and I heavy duty beauties when we were teenagers. That comment didn't bother me so much. There was no disdain in his comment. There was contempt and discomfort in my mother's comments. It was self-contempt. My fatness made her deeply uncomfortable and she didn't know how to cope with those feelings so she would comment. She wanted to control my body size.

As you can imagine I had lots of body image issues growing up. Not so much now. My thoughts are no longer self-hating. My thoughts on my body are mostly of gratitude, acceptance, and even love. And lots of the time I have no opinion about my body.

Self-absorption creates neglectful parents. My mother was dealing with her own dramas and shame and she didn't intend to injure. It's the same with your mother. At the end of the day it's all about understanding. No therapy necessary and I've done lots. My mother has/had anxiety about her appearance. My mother felt crappy about her body. My mother felt shame. Appearance anxiety was her problem. It didn't have to be mine.

Who a person is in outer form (thin or fat) has nothing to do with who they are as a loving and worthy human. Our mothers knew this but at the time they still couldn't help it. Their pain and anxieties overwhelmed them. Your mom doesn't have to apologize or go to therapy or be a certain way for you to accept and love your body. I hope you know that you are worthy and lovable. Just as your mother is. Life is too short to hate on our bodies. You can have no opinion if you would like but try not to hate. Soon they will no longer exist. Practice gratitude and appreciation for your physical body. That practice can turn your feelings around. Love and peace to you.
posted by loveandhappiness at 4:04 PM on February 18, 2019

I am the daughter of a bi-polar, alcoholic Mom; it was difficult, to say the least. I have siblings. Mom died over 10 years ago.
Some things I have learned: She's still your Mom, still parenting you. You can't change her, you can only change you. She may never be the Mom you need, but you can probably have a better relationship. It will take time. She is probably doing her best; she may have had a lot of unhealthy messages from *her* parents. Boundaries are critical.

You asked for what you wanted and she responded with an offer to try to improve things. Pretty big deal, not a magic wand. Do the best you can, but there are no miracles. Some therapy will probably help, but it shouldn't be so fragile that you can blow it. She sounds interested in changing, that's a positive sign.

I changed my behavior towards my Mom. I didn't confront her, but if she was mean or abusive, I hung up the phone, left the house, left town, etc. I don't like it when you treat me this way, I have to go now. It took time, but it got better. I asked for what I wanted, sometimes. It worked sometimes. You asked for what you want and need; that's awesome. It sounds like she's still a major figure, and it sounds like you want her approval. In the long run, you have to decide how to be the best you; and to get approval from yourself. Therapy can really help.
posted by theora55 at 8:05 PM on February 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

My mom was also incredibly weight and body image focused - with friends, family, strangers on the street, herself and her two daughters. She weighed and measured our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Including liquids other than water. At 73 years old, she is still on a diet, despite being a normal weight. I was bulimic for a good 17 years. I am still horribly fucked up around body image.

Solo therapy has helped me tremendously. I need to pull out where I can forgive both her and myself in this and, being a narcissist, it is all about her, which is what it sounds like with your mother. She's focused on what she's going to get out of therapy (your forgiveness), not what you'll get out of it. Keep going to therapy. Work with someone who is an eating disorder specialist if you can. They are usually trauma trained as well. My best wishes to you.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:16 PM on February 19, 2019

I don’t want to blow this chance, and I want to use it as effectively as possible.

No. No. No. No, no, no, no, no.

The measure of a person is their intention to avoid harming others, plus their willingness to apologize and make amends when they do.

There is no such thing as momentum here. You can not do it for another person.
posted by karmachameleon at 4:01 PM on February 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't think it's weird at all this has affected you so much. One of the issues from my childhood is that my mother used to comment on my looks and clothes, as well as rope in others to comment on my appearance (friends and boyfriends). There were also issues around how food was used in the house. I've ended up judging myself on how I look and others perceive me. It's very pervasive to how you feel about yourself to the core.

However, as others say, it can get better. I finally found a very good therapist about six years ago (before that I generally seemed to stay with people that didn't help, this was also reflected in other areas of my life) and having psychotherapy and EMDR really helped.

I would keep doing what you are doing, work with your current therapist and take care of yourself. You could have therapy with your mother but there is no rush. Look at this as the relationship with yourself, you deserve the best and your mother's needs aren't yours to look at. It also kind of sounds to me as if she's doing the "poor me" act. Whenever my mother found out things about me, that I was taking anti-depressants or in relationships that weren't right she'd basically have hysterics to others about it all and make it about her. Your mother is mentioning her legacy, that's not what's important here, you are. Your mother may be wanting to try and help but her natural reaction is likely to be to go to her default setting of making it about herself. I find that people who have been abusive (and there is no mistake here, this is definitely emotional abuse) can "behave" for years but when under pressure it will come out again. If she's in therapy I'm not sure she'll be able to be civil. The therapist may bring her in line and you can talk about it but explore whether or not this is right for you for now.

Re. dating, do whatever is comfortable for you, don't date now if you need time. It has got better for me, and I no longer pick people who say anything negative about me. If you meet someone that does, that is their issue. You'll work it out the more you keep doing what you are doing. Good luck.
posted by blue_eyes at 3:36 AM on February 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Some of this was hard to read but it helped give me perspective and allowed me to take a breath and slow down.

I had a session with my therapist today and he pretty much echoed the consensus here- that my mother seems narcissistic and motivated by selfish reasons, and therapy with her would likely be a traumatising continuation of abuse from my childhood. In fact, our relationship as it stands is a continuation of abuse from my childhood.

I need to let go of the hope that she can change- I had really thought I'd given that up, but I guess it was still alive under the ice. And I have to stop letting her have any access to my emotional life. My aim is to move our relationship from close (but toxic) to friendly and superficial. I'm feeling pretty devastated to be honest as she's a big part of my life. But I suppose it's for the best.

Thanks again to everyone who took the time to comment and share your stories- I'm sorry so many of us grew up hearing the message that looks are everything, and we never measured up.
posted by Dwardles at 4:15 PM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I need to let go of the hope that she can change

I don't think there's anything wrong with that hope. If she does, her life and that of everybody around her will contain less destruction drama. That's a fine thing to hope for.

What I recommend you let go of instead is your own view that change in her has got anything to do with your own ability to experience contentment with your body and in your life. You can be just fine without her approval - indeed, without paying any attention at all to what she thinks or says or does - and internalizing the truth of that is a necessary step on the long road you need to walk toward getting that way.

Instead of letting go of the hope that she can change, better to embrace the hope that you can.
posted by flabdablet at 5:35 PM on February 27, 2019

I'm feeling pretty devastated to be honest as she's a big part of my life. But I suppose it's for the best.

Hey Dwardles, in case you come back to read this thread - depending on how toxic your mum is, you don't have to necessarily go "country club nice" with her forever.

The main thing is for you to develop your own self worth, independent of her opinion, and particularly in subjects where she is 100% wrong and toxic. Growing and getting over your own inherited hangups will require some distance, I think. But ideally, if it makes you happy and your mum allows it, you may be able to forge a new relationship where you take the good and ignore the bad.

It is 100% your right to develop a loving relationship with her which includes a very strict set of boundaries about this particular issue, but this can only be done if you work hard at identifying those boundaries and if your mum truly has some positive aspects that make the arrangement worthwhile.

My own relationship with my mother was very conflicted. I adore her in some ways, but she was incredibly abusive in others. I have done my own share of self analysis and I have learned that she will never really understand the damage she did to me. I have forgiven her even though she hasn't really repented. In my emotional arithmetic, it was worth it.

The net effect she has in my life is vastly positive. Whenever we veer towards dangerous topics (for us it's religion) I politely stop engaging. In comparison to my sisters, this has given me an advantage. I never lie to her. She respects my boundaries. I don't need to please her. She knows she has no power over me and I can stop contact if she gets too controlling.

Since I no longer have an urge to please her, I feel no need to explain or justify myself and I sure as shit don't feel hurt if she disapproves of me. I still love to hear her input and consider her ideas because she is smart and loving, but I feel totally free to ignore the crazy shit she sometimes says. It's freeing.

Just make peace with the fact that you have to resolve this on your own, but if having her in your life brings you joy, identify to what extent you can involve her and learn to militantly ignore any ridiculous crap she says in the areas where she obviously has issues. You don't have to say goodbye to her forever unless you want to or if she's (to put it bluntly) not worth it.
posted by Tarumba at 1:13 PM on March 1, 2019

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