Dealing with a toxic parent
October 20, 2019 3:02 AM   Subscribe

So I was in a pretty good mood, and I had my regular Skype date with my parents. Got online and the first thing Mum says to me is “oh my gosh what is that on your nose? Is it a pimple? It’s very red?” I tell her it is a skin cancer which I recently had treated. She launches into a lecture about wearing sunscreen and asks what the doctor made of our family history.

I tell her the doctor didn’t pass comment on our family history, and it’s then that she asks if the doctor found any more, so I point out the one on my neck. She says that one looks really red too and I say it is because of the treatment. The conversation continues but I am quiet because I am angry at Mum for pointing out the skin cancer and lecturing me on wearing sunscreen, and doubly so because she knows we have a family history and has been nagging me to get checked out. Finally my Dad asks why I am so quiet. I say that I’m angry at Mum for pointing out the skin cancer and for lecturing me on sunscreen. She says “oh but you do have to wear your sunscreen!” I say “yes, but I know that, I’m 37 and can take care of myself!” She says she will remember that. This interaction is typical for a few reasons:
- Mum makes a critical comment even though she knows I don’t like them
-Mum completely fails to see any good in my actions - I got checked and then got the skin cancer treated, and I do in fact wear sunscreen
-Mum says or does something to stop me enjoying a happy moment (I was in a good mood as, amongst other things, I currently have the choice of two promotions)
- Dad does nothing to defend me against Mum’s attack even when it is pointed out

Mefites I need your help - this kind of interaction really ruins my day, when it happens, and I don’t want it to but I just don’t know how to either teach my mother to treat me with respect or not let it affect me when she doesn’t.

Any ideas?

I am currently on the hunt for a good therapist

I am not ready to cut Mum off completely just yet.
posted by EatMyHat to Human Relations (35 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
You are the only person that can let your feelings affect you. In fact, you are also the only person that can let your feelings NOT affect you as well. Really let that sink in. Do not let other people try to control you by manipulating your emotions. It takes time and practice and works best if you are also setting firm boundaries.

You cannot make anyone change but yourself. Take this interaction as a firm dedication to yourself that you felt like crap and you won't let yourself be made to feel like crap by anyone ever again. No need to cut off mom but a "regular skype date with your parents" may need to be less frequent if they are not respecting your boundaries.

Your father does not need to come to your aid when you are being attacked by your mother. It helps to reframe the situation as mother having anxious thoughts regarding your wellbeing and family history and father feeling helpless to either support his child or his wife. Doesn't hurt as much when you see it that way right?

Of course, only you know how your relationship is with your parents but previous questions on AskMeFi about dealing with toxic families are a great resource in helping with framing and emotional distancing. Also with specific phrases in certain situations and actions to take when setting boundaries. In this case, your response of I'm 37 and can take care of myself, you could have at that point decided to end the call.

P.S. I'm really sorry about the cancer. Be kind to yourself.
posted by VyanSelei at 3:44 AM on October 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


MeFi is super hard on parents of adult kids in general, so I expect this view will be in the extreme minority, but I'd personally categorize your mom's side of this interaction as "annoying" (OK, maybe "very annoying") rather than than "toxic."

You're objecting to your mom's falling back into a parent-child dynamic (parent notices threat to child's safety, is anxious/concerned about it, takes active steps to make sure child will be safe in the future) rather than treating you like a 37-year-old peer whose skin cancer is not her concern. However, within the conversation, it sounds like part of your anger at her perceived criticism is also coming from your own equally child-parent-style desire for her to approve of you and compliment you.

I'm guessing you wouldn't react with rage to a distant work acquaintance who noticed a blemish and lectured you tiresomely about sunscreen safety for 10 minutes, and you wouldn't be mad because a distant work acquaintance didn't praise you for having your choice of two promotions. So if what you need is more approval from your mom, then it might be partly on you to ask for it, rather than assuming that that level of praise/ ignoring any negatives is just part of the natural way that adults treat each other with "respect."

I wonder if it might also help if you tried to see your mom's critical comments as proceeding from (biological, hormonally-driven) anxiety, rather than disapproval. Moms go through a hugely traumatic process of neurochemical reprogramming specifically designed to make them anxiously invested in the safety of their (otherwise noisy, gross-looking, bad-smelling, unrewarding, abusive) young children. But once the kids grow up, nobody turns up to dismantle those deep-wired mechanisms; they're just left there, misfiring and producing irritatingly misdirected reactions forever and ever. That doesn't mean you need to put up with anything actively harmful, but as a 37-year-old woman, maybe one way to cope might be to try to access a place of greater sympathy/solidarity for this one of the many, many shitty aspects of women's lives, even when it means your mom annoys you with superfluous advice about sunscreen?
posted by Bardolph at 3:57 AM on October 20, 2019 [187 favorites]


This sounds like a 100% textbook normal interaction between parents and their grown child. I get that it's annoying but this seems to stem from normal concern - whether you like it or not, your parents are always going to worry about you. You will always be their daughter, though you are no longer a child.

It bears a separate conversation with your mother to say something like "hey mom, I want you to refrain from this behavior. I get that it comes from love, but I need you to stop. Entirely. If I want advice, and sometimes I will, I will ask for it. But I want you to talk to me like you would any other grown-ass adult and not like a child."

I think your extreme reaction is coming from resentment of being put in the child role. You are treated, presumably, like a grown-ass adult by everybody else in your life. Then you talk to your parents and are talked to like their child, and it's frustrating. But it sounds, even from your description which (presumably) is tilted towards your POV, like they're trying to do this. But it's hard!

Do see a therapist. Do not cut your parents off unless there's a lot of other behavior not included in this post that requires it. Your parents don't sound toxic, I know I have two of them, your parents sound typical.
posted by jzb at 4:45 AM on October 20, 2019 [40 favorites]


So your mom never expressed concern for you, but instead went straight to criticizing you? And made you feel like the cancer was your fault? And then you shut down instead of telling her she was hurting your feelings?

I'm guessing these are long standing patterns. If you want to break them, I'd start with changing your side of things. What would happen if you told her she'd hurt your feelings and made you feel like she was blaming you for getting cancer? Would she apologize and express concern, or would she overtly attack you? If it's the latter, I think you need to stay Skyping her less while you untangle this.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:52 AM on October 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also, as a parent, I don't think this is "textbook." I don't think anybody's first reaction to "I had cancer" should be "well did you use sunscreen?" I'd forgive it if it came from inability to deal with fear, but I wouldn't call it normal.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:54 AM on October 20, 2019 [13 favorites]


To me how to interpret that scene would depend, among other things, on whether your parents were already aware of the diagnosis before the call or not. If the first reaction on being told her child has cancer is indeed to start to talk about sunscreen that would be odd and may point to more troubling behaviour patterns. If she was aware and had previously expressed concern and support in a more appropriate way I’d be more inclined to go with ‘annoying’ and poorly communicated fears and concerns.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:06 AM on October 20, 2019


When people have lung cancer, the first reaction is often did you smoke? When my brother died from testicular cancer, someone asked me if he lived near a nuclear power plant. And when I got multiple myeloma, a friend asked me what caused it. Jumping to causes is an entirely normal, if obnoxious, reply to a cancer diagnosis. Patients do it to themselves. My cancer support board is full of people who think they know the one thing that caused their cancer, even though cancers tend to have multiple contributors. And not using sunscreen is clearly connected to skin cancer. So no, that’s not weird. It’s not what you want to hear, but people say things like that all the time. And in this case, unlike most, it could even be helpful, as it’s possible to prevent more skin cancer by being diligent about sunscreen.

A child with cancer, even an easily treatable cancer, is a parent’s worst nightmare. It can definitely make it hard to be happy about a promotion. I’m really sorry you feel your mother’s reaction spoiled your good mood, but I think labeling this very normal parental behavior as toxic isn’t going to help you. I would suggest looking seriously at Bardolph’s ideas for reframing as you look for a therapist.
posted by FencingGal at 5:32 AM on October 20, 2019 [17 favorites]


Nthing your Mom might be annoying but that doesn't seem toxic.

Also whoever said that you're responsible for your feelings. No one can make you feel anything. They can't reach in and flip a switch in your head, you have to flip the switch. Or much more likely some bit of your subconscious that you don't know about flipped the switch and like most people you didn't even notice. You just started telling yourself a story about your "toxic" mom and re-enforced whatever that subconscious bit was trying to accomplish. Usually that's puffing yourself up after some insecurity has been tweaked.

You can't control your mom. You can try to educate her but she's a product of her subconscious and years of habit and good luck with that. What you can control, or at least exert some influence on, is yourself. Rather than blaming others for how you feel try taking responsibility for what's happening inside you. You can't control that either but you can influence it and with practice and time, learn to be okay.
posted by Awfki at 5:47 AM on October 20, 2019 [12 favorites]


For a long stretch of my 20s any time I was on the phone with my parents and they started saying something I didn't want to hear*, I just hung up on them. That's the magic of living 1000 miles away. I can leave a conversation at the push of a button.

These days I talk to my parents rarely (a frequency that works for all of us) but it's generally fine. They've gotten better about knowing I'm an adult, and I've gotten better about stating my preferences instead of feeling defensive.

But it started by just hanging up the phone.

*This includes but is not limited to: reasons why I am dumb and bad for being liberal/living in a city, what a bad influence my dangerous friends (who I've never told them about they've never met) are, trying to get me to narc on my brother, asking if I'm pregnant when I say I have the flu, and my dad interrupting literally every story I'd start to tell to ask me out of nowhere if my car had the proper tire inflation.
posted by phunniemee at 6:07 AM on October 20, 2019 [13 favorites]


I think its best to talk this over with a therapist.
Given the strength of your reaction, the pattern you describe, the kind of odd behaviour from them (it feels like they made the cancer about them, which is flaggy), and the fact that cutting them off is on your radar as an option, I think a lot more is going on than you wrote above.

Glad you're getting better and congrats on the promotions!
posted by eyeofthetiger at 6:22 AM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I am sometimes like this and one of my coworkers used to use the phrase "Positivity Spiral" and "Don't yuck my yum" when I did this. I'm not a huge fan of this coworker for other reasons but his slightly goofy phrases have still helped stop me when I get too negative especially with people I don't know well.

All I can say is bludgeon her with positivity - you mentioned that you go quiet when she starts criticising you - interject that "I'm so happy that I took your family history seriously so that even with my religious wearing of sunscreen I've additionally made sure to get my skin checked regularly. And how happy I am that I've nipped this in the bud. And when was the last time that you (your mum and/or dad) went in to the dermatologist?"

Then the conversation will turn to them and they can complain about their health for as long as they want. They get the credit they want for their worrying and you get the credit you want for taking care of yourself.

I have some topics I don't do well with my mom. We've started to identify them - much like Metafilter, she and I don't talk about Israel-Palestine. If you can do this, I recommend it.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:48 AM on October 20, 2019 [7 favorites]


I would not categorize your mom's comments as toxic. Perhaps reactive or insensitive or lacking in social graces or tact but certainly not toxic. I wouldn't necessarily categorize your example as critical. You may be feeling self-conscious and then someone asks if you have a pimple, and pimples have negative connotations, and now you're more self-conscious. And that someone is your mother and perhaps you have a history with your mother where you felt criticized.

I imagine her lecture on sunscreen is concern for your health but she doesn't know how to convey her concerns in a sensitive way. As a Floridian with a risk of skin cancer my mother lectured me on sunscreen my entire life and continues to tell my sister (age 44) whenever she sees her that she gets too much sun and last week told me I (age 47) have too much sun and I am pretty diligent about sunscreen and staying out of the sun. I wasn't bothered by it and she was right. I didn't need her to praise me when I started using sunscreen and I wouldn't expect my father to step in to tell her to pipe down on her sunscreen lecture. She doesn't say, "I love you and don't want you to get skin cancer." She loudly and emphatically says, "You are getting too much sun!!" It's the same thing.

My mom can be reactive and nagging but she only wants me to be healthy and happy. Over the years I have seen it as criticism. I have seen my mom's concern about her weight and appearance my entire life and occasionally she projected that concern onto me. In turn I have become more sensitive to the things she says about my appearance.

About 15 years ago I sent my mom a picture of two pairs of jeans I was contemplating and she said she liked the second pair because no muffin top. I became sensitive and hurt because I thought she was pointing out that I was fat. If she had said the second pair is flattering instead of mentioning muffin top it would have probably been better and more polite but people aren't perfect. I didn't have to read into it. She wasn't calling me fat. Your mom isn't calling you ugly or bad or irresponsible because she's mentioning pimples or sunscreen she only lacks a more tactful delivery.

So, you might go a little easier on your mom and thank her for her concern. You can set the tone of the conversation. You can chuckle to yourself about her reactivity, remain calm, and notice her concern and love for you and move the conversation along.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:49 AM on October 20, 2019 [10 favorites]


Would it help to add regular emails to the mix in addition to the Skype calls? You could share your news, and kind of set the tone for the responses you expect, and try to set boundaries that way. Like after explaining about the skin cancer and how’s it’s been treated and that you’re feeling good about getting it all taken care of, you could say “and yes I promise I am being super diligent about wearing sunscreen so please don’t worry about that!” Maybe it would add some emotional distance for both of you, so you could share information without worrying about managing their immediate reactions, and they could have those immediate emotional reactions without dumping them all on you.
posted by beandip at 7:02 AM on October 20, 2019


i think this could totally be part of a toxic pattern, and i like the suggestions to take back control of the conversation in the moment, whether through changing the subject, interrupting and telling [mom/dad] that what they're doing is making you feel [x], going aggressively positive and modeling how you want the conversation on this subject to go, or hanging up.

i also go quiet when i'm upset, and for me it's because it takes me a while to sort through actually recognizing that i'm upset, identifying what did it, whether it's a reasonable reaction or if i'm being triggered by something else, whether it's worth it to bring it up in the moment, how i can politely do so, oh no it's been too long and now it'd be weird to bring it up, etc. i'm working on recognizing how i'm feeling on the regular so i can do it more easily in a heated moment and also taking the time i need in a conversation to get a handle on things, even if it's just saying, "sorry, that makes me feel weird and i don't really know why, can we talk about something else for now?"
posted by gaybobbie at 7:50 AM on October 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


"Thanks for the concern mom; I've got it under control - you raised me right and because I do wear sunscreen and went to the doctor when I first noticed it and it's all good now, just need to wait for the redness to go away. How's Uncle Fred these days?"

Annoying parental comment, for sure. There's something in the parent-child relationship that makes a lot of people not realize general politeness is still necessary - bet you your mom doesn't nag their next door neighbour or colleagues at work about sunscreen, for example. But they wiped our butts and snotty noses and cleaned up our vomit, so you sometimes gotta let these things slide without getting too offended for your own mental health.
posted by cgg at 7:58 AM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


Don't go cutting your mum off for that, unless there is a whole lot of other stuff you're not telling us, that's annoying but not toxic worried mother behaviour. I suggest she poked at a matter you were yourself worried about (ie you were concerned about your family history & did I wear enough sunscreen & wear it correctly & OMG I had cancers burned off) & it pushed your buttons. All I hear is is a worried mother, worried her daughter had cancers treated & isn't telling her everything asking for more information in a, what I agree is a tactless manner.

How about next week when you skype her you talk to her about it like adults. Hey mum when you do x you make me feel like y. It would be nice if you could be more chill or whatever you want her to do, because it would make me feel more open to telling you about myself. Use your words, act like an adult if you want to be treated like one, OK that sounded harsh, but what I'm seeing here isn't so much toxic as a parent & child repeating patterns that have been going on for years & it's OK to ask to be treated how you'd like to be treated and to try to change those patterns but never do it in the heat of the moment that rarely works out well.
posted by wwax at 7:59 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


Idea for the interaction. I can picture it exactly.

One thing that works for me with my parents that might be helpful for all three of you is I don't skype. I do voice calls and speak with one at a time. That wouldn't put you all in the frame where dad has to respond directly (or not) to what mom says. There have been periods where it was quite useful to call when I could guess that one or the other was out of the house. One on one video calls might be an improvement as well but are harder to manage.
posted by Gotanda at 8:11 AM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


So your mom never expressed concern for you, but instead went straight to criticizing you?

No, the question was very clear that that the opposite is true:

she asks if the doctor found any more
she knows we have a family history and has been nagging me to get checked out.


so I don't know why you would ask a counterfactual this way if not to make her feel guilty, which seems unnecessary. Personally I think it is commendable to include material in a question like this that doesn't support the asker's thesis, out of honesty.

OP, I think you are having difficulty expressing what exactly it is about your mother that affects you this way although you feel it very clearly, and you fall back on detailed point-by-point recaps of normal conversations in hopes that others will see it from an objective outsider's viewpoint and describe it back to you in a useful way. But I think it would take a therapist or family friend who has seen the dynamic in person to do this. Therapists in particular may be able to ask questions that would let you articulate things differently, without making them leading questions that insert a whole narrative of their own into the story. but only if they're good.
posted by queenofbithynia at 8:27 AM on October 20, 2019 [14 favorites]


This sounds like an interaction that would be fairly normal even coming from a work acquaintance (who wouldn't know your family history, but I think you're in Australia and skin cancer isn't uncommon there, right?). Annoying, but not toxic. It would be weirder if you had a red spot on your nose and your mom didn't ask about it. Think about how you wish this conversation had gone. Are you feeling a bit raw about having got skin cancer despite wearing sunscreen? Do you wish your mom had given you emotional support instead of focusing on practical measures?

Since this is a longstanding relationship with a lot of context, this would also be a great thing to bring to your therapist, where you can answer back with more detail and history.

More practically, I do voice calls with one parent at a time (they pass the phone), and it works great, +1 to that. Each parent has their own weirdnesses and it gives me a chance to talk to the other privately about how to handle family trips / gifts / etc.
posted by momus_window at 8:42 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


When you want to be supported by someone and what they do instead is emotionally drain you and that’s how it always is? Yeah, that’s toxic. Individual instances often make people say “oh that’s just how it is sometimes”, which can be really invalidating. Being constantly criticized, even if it’s out of a place of anxiety for her, is draining and exhausting. And, frankly, indicates that she is the one who needs some therapy to deal with her anxiety. But there’s no way she can know that if you always just shut down instead of setting a boundary about it.

I cut off my mom for three years because she was unwilling to deal with her similar tendencies. That was the only thing that got through to her that it was serious, she got help, and now we have a pleasant relationship.

Since you aren’t ready to do that, which is totally understandable! You have to be up front with her. “Mom, when you launch right in to nitpicking my appearance/what I’ve done wrong/criticizing/etc it is a huge downer for me and leaves me wrecked for the rest of the day. From now on, I am going to say “mom you’re doing the thing, please be supportive instead of anxious/whatever” and if you don’t change course I’m going to end the call and we can try again the next time we have scheduled to talk. I don’t want to spend the rest of the day feeling shitty about myself when we talk, I would like to feel supported and celebrated.”
posted by stoneweaver at 8:49 AM on October 20, 2019 [11 favorites]


This seems like very normal Mum behaviour. She's just (I think?) found out that her (adult, I know) child had cancer. Of course she's worried.

When my mother goes into this mode and doesn't stop, I'll usually say something like "Thank you very much for the advice, Mum" in a firm voice and she'll get the hint and we'll change the topic.

Even the mention of cutting her off over this seems like an enormous overreaction, unless there's a vast amount of context that we don't know about.
posted by Urtylug at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2019 [4 favorites]


One of the things about the parent-child dynamic is that at some point you become able to turn it around, and to realize that you too are now old enough to start caring for and dealing with your parents' emotional needs, as they have done (or should have done) with yours.

I'm going to assume here that your mother's response is more on the normal/anxious/cultural side of things than on the toxic end of the spectrum, partly because the interaction you describe - which in the context of my own experience with a not-easy parent is a relatively minor one - felt like such a major one to you and was the one you chose as a representative example. If this isn't the case, disregard the following.

A kid growing up with the most loving and not-abusive parents might still feel things like "I hate my parents, why don't they understand me, they should treat me better, I wish they acted this way and not that way, I wish I had better parents," etc. These are very self-centered feelings, which is normal for a kid. A parent might feel all those things sometimes for their child (I mean, hopefully not the hate bit) but if they're decent parents they'll also not allow themselves to be self-centered: they'll understand that their kids are acting out not because they're "bad" but because of their own complicated internal lives, their own miseries and frustrations and feelings. A decent parent has to realize that their kids might not be perfectly "ideal" in every way, that they certainly will never be whatever kid they might have imagined before having children, because they're human, and they're their own individuals with their own personalities. Even if as a parent it's your job to teach your children some things, you also have to accept them as they are, with love. To figure out what they need and try to give it to them, even when it's hard on you.

You're an adult now and part of that can be about learning to accept your parents as they are, even when some of what they are is frustrating. You can try to teach them some things, but you can also try to understand their behavior and address the root causes of it, even when that's difficult. Maybe your mother is feeling anxious about you, maybe scolding you is the way she's learned to show love, maybe it's her reaction to feeling powerless in the face of the terrible things that she knows her child will have to deal with in life, maybe it's her way of feeling closer to you, who she sees more through a screen than in person. Maybe being in the "mother" role has become fundamental to her identity, and learning to act otherwise would require a major reconfiguration of everything about her internal life. It would be nice if she were able to deal with these feelings in other ways, and hopefully to some extent you can work on that with her. But you can also work on speaking to her anxiety, on taking her mothering as an expression of love, on giving her credit where you can ("you're right, sunscreen is really important") rather than pushing her away ("you don't need to tell me, I already know that").

It can feel infantilizing but in reality it's the opposite: it's you taking the parental role with your own parents. Which is a difficult thing in its own respect (I know I don't really want to think of my parents that way - deep down I'd rather keep seeing them as figures of respect and authority and greater knowledge than me - as self-sufficient people who take care of me rather than as people who also need my care). But I think that's part of growing up.

Anyway, maybe your example was poorly chosen (or well chosen because it's the primary type of interaction you have) and in reality your parents' behavior is or has been closer to abusive or toxic. In which case working on caring more for their feelings is probably not the way to go. But if not - if the dynamic is as you described, and you're mostly just feeling infantilized and stifled by the child role but there's also love and support - then I think changing your own approach to that role is at least something to think about.

If you go this way, you have to constantly figure out a balance between your needs and theirs. Nobody here is dealing with a baby, no one's needs should be constantly subsumed in favor of another's. But I think teaching yourself to see their needs, and to think about what you can do for those needs, is an important part of building a more balanced relationship, and one where ultimately you can speak more as equals.
posted by trig at 9:23 AM on October 20, 2019 [8 favorites]


My mom behaves in this way also and I’ve found the best method of dealing with it is to shift the conversation myself ASAP. What she’s doing is venting her anxiety/controlling tendency at you regardless of your own capability—it’s not about you, it’s about her. I’ll talk to my mom about a car trip and she’ll launch into directions and a lecture on driving no matter how many times I say “Mom, I have a GPS and I’ve been driving for twenty years.” It doesn’t matter what you say, she is in lecture mode. Next time I would say “the doctor removed a couple moles for testing but we’ve got it under control and I’ve filled him in on our family history. But guess what! I have some great news about work I’ve been so excited to tell you about.”

(I don’t think OP is saying she was diagnosed with cancer, but that she had precancerous moles/spots removed. While it’s normal for parents to be worried, this is a fairly common thing for those of us who are freckle-y/pale. It’s not like OP was calling her parents to break the news to them that she has cancer beyond the mole removed.)
posted by sallybrown at 9:35 AM on October 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


In general, people will put their own feelings onto your story unless you tell them what feelings to have. Your mom seems to default to anxious / continuously pushing for improvement / negative. Instead of letting her put her own feelings onto your story (skin cancer = terror = DO EVERYTHING, ARE YOU DOING EVERYTHING?), It might help to get out ahead of it and put your own spin instead. "Yeah, I went to the dermatologist because I know all about our family history, and he found a couple of small spots that he removed. I'm really proud of myself for getting to the dermatologist and getting it dealt with proactively!" "Are you wearing sunscreen? Remember to --" "*eyeroll* yeah, ma, I wear sunscreen! But hey, aren't you glad I got to the dermatologist and he was able to completely remove it? Have you been to your doctor to be checked lately?"
posted by Lady Li at 10:37 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


Kind of like driving a car that's out of alignment, or pushing a shopping cart with a wonky wheel. If you let it just keep doing what it'll do naturally, it'll get all spun around and start going in a bad direction. You have to course correct actively to keep things moving in the direction you want.
posted by Lady Li at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


You've described your only true, real choices: change yourself with the help of a therapist or reduce or eliminate contact with your mother. Both of those are very hard to do. Alas, only you can make a choice and only you can carry out what you choose.

(Let me note that therapy that is truly changing is not a comfortable or easy process.)
posted by tmdonahue at 11:05 AM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


One way you can change your behavior is gentle humor to deflect behavior you don't want There you go, Mom, with the protective approach, but it's okay, I got it treated. said in a very light tone and followed with distraction/ redirection. Yeah, yeah, it's under control. Hey did you see the news about that fault line that became active? If Mom persists, sincerity Thank you Mom, I appreciate your concern, but it's okay and I'm done discussing it. Tell me what's new with you guys? Did Uncle Pat show up to help with the Project?

Is your Mom super-persistent? Then you may need to work on getting off the phone when she's being too dogged, and praising her when she relents.
I'm a Mom, and I admit I go on a few rants.Whoa, Mom, message received. Enough already. and redirect.
Is your Mom too quick to notice flaws? Maybe you're a bit embarrassed. Mom, I have some red spots, but now that I'm a grownup, it's unnecessary to have them pointed out, and kind of embarrassing. and, again, redirect.
Boundaries. Okay Mom, I asked you to drop the subject, and you won't.It makes me feel bad, so I'm ending the call. I love you. We can talk later.

It also helped a lot for me to work on getting to know my Mom as a person, asking questions so she could tell me stuff and feel like she had a voice. She might surprise you.

These techniques helped me have an adequate relationship with my very difficult mother.
posted by theora55 at 12:23 PM on October 20, 2019 [6 favorites]


On the internet, there is no shortage of people who will tell you that your mother is toxic if she makes you feel bad, and that you should cut her out of your life for being an emotional drain on you. Even on the rare occasion that someone doesn't recommend that you cut her out immediately, they will advise you to "draw boundaries" in a harsh and punitive way (rather than in a manner intended to preserve/nurture the relationship to the best possible extent), and when your mother reacts as if she has been hurt (which she has), you will be told that it's proof that your mother is incapable of respecting your boundaries, that she's emotionally guilt-tripping you for setting them, and therefore it's time to cut her out of your life.

I urge you not to listen to these people, because that's not how relationships ought to be negotiated.

I grew up with abusive parents... who are no longer abusive. They didn't become better people. They just have no power over me anymore - instead they are "at my mercy", to put it in crude power-based terms, because I control their access to grandchildren. It's impossible for them to abuse me because I'm the one who has all the power now. It has taken the better part of 15 years for me to fully understand and own this shift.

For the most part, my parents treat me with too much deference, eager to stay in my good books. (That's a separate rant all on its own.) But every so often, they say something innocuous which nevertheless results in me feeling defensive, wary, hypervigilant - stuff that pushes some old button, and makes me feel awful. Instantly, that type of interaction triggers in me old feelings of shame, abandonment, rejection, and overall toxicity that were the hallmark of my childhood and young adulthood.

When I felt triggered, I used to react like the abused child I was. I would feel the flood of shame and hurt, then I would remember I'm an adult and I don't have to take this bullshit anymore. So I would react with rage: make a cutting remark, hang up abruptly, cry furiously after hanging up the phone, vent to my friends, and feel very tempted to cut them out of my life.

And hey, let's be clear: at any time or even today I would be justified in cutting them out because of the childhood abuse. No victim of abuse should feel obligated to keep their abuser in their lives. The abuser doesn't "deserve" forgiveness or inclusion or whatever.

But you know what? I don't think I would be justified in cutting them out for whatever shit du jour that triggered me. The fact of the matter is: they are no longer toxic or abusive. They were trying their best to get along with me now. My bad feelings are not coming from what they said today - they're coming from what happened before.

This distinction has became to me a matter of being honest with myself. I am allowed to say they were toxic and throw them out of my life because of childhood abuse at any time, on any day. I am not allowed to falsely call their current actions abusive or paint them as "still toxic" for saying something innocuous that triggered me.

(1) If I am labeling the relationship a certain way, then I need to be very careful and intentional about the reasons.

(2) My triggers are the fault of my childhood parents, not my current parents. And my triggers are mine to deal with.

Through two years of therapy and a lot of related effort to work on myself, my history, and my emotional wellbeing, I've found a secure emotional base within myself. I've also become confident in myself, finally feeling sure - down to my bones, not just intellectually - that my parents can't hurt me anymore, they can't bully me, they have no control over me. Even if I suspect they are trying to manipulate and guilt me into something, it's sort of like a toddler holding their breath to force me to give them candy. They have no power over me. And even if I feel they are rejecting me, maybe covertly dissing me, failing to support me, or covertly insulting me, it's once again like a toddler who screams at me that I am a loser meanie doodoo head. They don't define me.

In other ways, my parents are ideally my peers or elders. There are kind, gentle, and nurturing ways to say 'no' to peers and elders, to tell them they hurt us, or to let them know we wish they had said or done _____ instead. The hallmark of a healthy adult is when we can negotiate these difficult, emotionally fraught conflicts with others without falsely labeling them as toxic or abusive just because we are triggered by the past.

And hey, in some cases, the label of "toxic" is correct and justified even in the present. Especially when someone still has power over us, and they are using their power to control, manipulate, or hurt us, hell yes. Labeling that relationship as "toxic" is a psychological tool we can use to extricate ourselves from it. Abuse happens to adults, too.

But that's not what seems to have happened here, with your mom. And in cases like this, I think we need to be wary of internet culture which encourages us to label relationships as toxic based on just our bad feelings rather than what actually happened in the here and now. Instead of seeing our bad feelings as something we can control and deal with, we are encouraged to blame our bad feelings on "toxic" people and solve the problem by cutting those toxic people out of our lives. That's a difficult way to go through life. We miss opportunities for growth, connection, and evolution by failing to claim our power to renegotiate relationships. At the end of our lives, we will be poorer for it.
posted by MiraK at 12:47 PM on October 20, 2019 [18 favorites]


Yes, one's feelings are one's own and it's hard to stop being a parent but what really resonated with me about this Askme is that the comments from the mom likely came from concern about someone having cancer that they love BUT the comments also came from a place of 'it must be your fault that you didn't do X to make sure Y didn't happen'. My father used to do this to me - if I had a cold, the implication was that it was my own fault. I called him on it one time (Dad, you're acting like getting a cold was my own fault) and he didn't have much by way of response. I think it might've been more effective if I had the presence of mind to say it more than once. Anyway, this is what I see in this conversation and it might help to as was previously suggested, calling out this unhelpful behavior and maybe your Mom will have the presence of mind to try and change, rather than get defensive.
posted by bluesky43 at 1:47 PM on October 20, 2019 [5 favorites]


Bluesky43 here is right: in practice, what I wrote about in my comment comes down to repeatedly speaking up when your parents say or do something that is hurtful.

"Whoa, mom, that's rude," in response to her manner of pointing out your "pimple".

"Mom, one second, one second. Can I get a little poor-baby-how-are-you instead of this lecture?"

"I was hoping for some sympathy here, hello!"

"Ugh, this conversation is making me feel way worse. Thanks for the chat. Talk to you next week, bye!"

It's not easy, takes waaay too much emotional energy to be honest about your feelings in the moment without letting your hurt turn into anger or sarcasm or yelling. But it does get easier with practice.
posted by MiraK at 2:50 PM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


Um yeah just to clarify I did tell them what was bothering me. I have told them this sort of thing bothers me many times before.
posted by EatMyHat at 3:15 PM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm sure you have! Didn't mean to imply you haven't tried it as a way of getting them to stop. I was recommending it more as a way of being true to yourself and honest with your parents while you negotiate your complicated relationship with them. In other words, instead of telling them what bothers you and expecting them to stop, you tell them what bothers you as an end in itself. Learning to do this has been hard for me, but helps me to let my frustration go. I feel like, I've said it and now I can move on.

Perhaps after 1000 repetitions, your parents will change, and perhaps they won't. But it will help you to let go of the expectation that they should change. Unless the behavior you are trying to get them to change is inherently abusive/harmful/etc., it doesn't help you to make their capacity to change into a bigger issue in your mind - so big that you measure the toxicity of the relationship based on it.

You're still going to be left with your own bad feelings after the interaction, no matter how "minor" their transgression. I don't want to minimize that. I'd strongly recommend therapy and other forms of self-help to learn to deal with your triggered feelings. That's how you learn the skill you asked about in your OP: how not to let this interaction ruin your day. You were on the right track when you asked that. This is absolutely a skill you can learn, without waiting for your parents to change.
posted by MiraK at 4:50 PM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I tell her it is a skin cancer which I recently had treated. She launches into a lecture about wearing sunscreen and asks what the doctor made of our family history.

I tell her the doctor didn’t pass comment on our family history, and it’s then that she asks if the doctor found any more, so I point out the one on my neck. She says that one looks really red too and I say it is because of the treatment.


I wanted to stop here to point out that you didn't have to tell her any of this. If this is a pattern around medical subjects, or specific subjects that you know bring up this interaction, then restrict the information. If you want to keep them apprised of things like "I had X treated", you can still stop at "the doctor and I have it handled, how bout that sports team?"

I don't mean this unkindly, we are often very trained to think it's rude not to supply requested information, especially to our parents. But there's nothing wrong with choosing to be circumspect when you know this isn't a subject that goes well.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:09 PM on October 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


It’s not about the particular subject- she’s like this about everything
posted by EatMyHat at 6:32 PM on October 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm really puzzled by the comments here, especially the novels about how the commenters' own abuse history is worse so you shouldn't be complaining, treatises on the way pregnancy changes mothers' neurobiology that imply that all children are gross and "abusive" and shaming you for being upset you're being criticized when you're going through the incredibly stressful process of treating melanoma... yikes. I feel like we're on the flipside of issendai's often-linked estrangement forum studies.

Anyway, I have a parent who does this-- my father, so it isn't about some kind of gendered, gestational neurobiology shift. It's a combination of poorly managed/unmedicated anxiety, obsessiveness, control issues, and an inability to self-soothe. Going to a parent when you're sick and then having to manage their over the top horror, anxiety, and critical verging on cruel comments about how bad you look is a really painful experience and I hope you don't have more of those in the future.

The conversational pattern you're describing is a self-amplifying loop. Giving these people the information they're requesting and indulging their maladaptive reassurance-seeking is sending them down an endless spiral of obsessive causality seeking, blaming, and running mental consequence chains (but are you wearing sunscreen? but are you wearing enough sunscreen? If I'd made you wear sunscreen on that really hot day in 1998 could it have prevented this??? it looks really red... maybe something went wrong? maybe she needs to go back to the doctor??? does the dermatologist know our family history? if the dermatologist didn't know the family history, maybe he won't have checked for more suspicious moles! But if he does, how can I be sure he did a thorough job?") The thing is, they will never actually gain control of the situation, and the more they're allowed to ruminate, the more details they demand and are given to factor in to their catastrophizing scenarios, the more anxious they get. These conversations are miserable for you, but they're miserable for your mom, too.

As an adult, you're going to have to enforce the boundaries that your mother doesn't know how to. Doing this in an open way doesn't work, either-- when you ask her to change her behavior, or say that you're upset, that isn't actually constructive, it's just feeding more negative emotions into the conversation, and giving her an outlet for the free-floating anxiety she's already trying to dump on you-- it's not working through your issues, it's just providing a momentary outlet for the cathartic criticism/fight/worry spiral she already wants to have. It may or may not actually be possible for you to have a calm, real conversation with your mom about the way her behavior makes you feel, in general, but I think it definitely is not possible to do this in the moment, when she's overwrought and anxious and will instinctively engage in negative conversations because she wants to express those feelings.

I think you're going to have to do some serious expectation management with your mom's ability to give you support, or to engage with you emotionally. I think the other commenters who suggest you just redirect the conversations, in an honestly dog-or-toddler training level, are on the money. Brush off questions, use discernment about how much of your personal and medical life is actually your mom's business, learn to deflect and redirect, and maybe think about what your relationship with your parents is going to look like as you're an adult, and whether or not your parents can actually handle medical news, or whether you want them to-- if I were in your shoes, I would have said the red bump on my nose was a mosquito bite without a second thought. Good luck.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 4:39 PM on October 21, 2019 [8 favorites]


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