Parent Hyperactivity Means 'Not Worthy of Keeping Your Attention'
August 1, 2020 11:04 PM   Subscribe

How can I stop emotionally interpreting my mother's inability to give me her full attention in a conversation as having the message "I do not consider you worthy of my full attention"?

When my mother and I speak, she is constantly needing to do something else. To have her sit still and do something, or not turn away to go make a sandwich for the next day or something, is nearly impossible. Although she's currently a senior citizen, this has been a behavior throughout much of her life.

Thanks to my own hangups – they're very entrenched re: me being unworthy of love and respect and friendship and I realize they're most of the problem – on a deep level, I can't help feeling as if the underlying message is "you're boring, you can't fully capture my attention, you're not worthy of it".

It's really more likely a sheer inability to sit still; she usually won't sit still for telephone conversations, movies, television, what-have-you, she's always got to be moving. I suspect if testing was a possibility (it's not), she'd be classified as ADHD.

I am not so much wanting to change her as I am looking for ways I can stop telling myself that it means I'm not of interest to her, that I'm not enough. Since this is anonymous, I'll emphasize that talking to her about this issue is a complete and utter no-go, the solution has to lie in how I reframe my own thinking on the situation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My first thought is that if your mother has something to do with all of this entrenched feelings of unworthiness, this is going to be hard. In that case, I would focus away from your mother and instead look to all of the other sources that are more capable of reflecting back your basic worthiness as a human being.

But if, in your logical moments, you can feel pretty confident that your mother does care about you, then I would spend some time thinking about how she does express her caring. What is her love language? Maybe there are others in your family who can help you see this? You want to figure out in a real way how to let in the ways that she shows that she loves you and cares about you. If you can feel more confident in the relationship, this stuff which is just "Mom being Mom" won't bother you as much.
posted by metahawk at 12:01 AM on August 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Lots of women are socialized from a young age to always be busy with something, and get a lot of static from authority figures for "just sitting around talking/gossiping/clucking like hens" can get basically as derogatory as you want with these descriptions of how unbecoming it is to see women paying full attention to social interaction when they "ought to" be cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc. This kind of internalized misogyny is very hard to unlearn. There are tons of craft communities that have arisen in part from women's internalized need to be producing something while they talk with one another.

In short, this may well be a reflection of her own deep insecurity about her own self-worth and shouldn't be considered a reflection on how she feels about you at all. I read her behavior as indicating that she thinks of herself as someone who has little inherent value outside of what she produces. It isn't that you're not enough, it's that she thinks she's not enough.
posted by potrzebie at 12:08 AM on August 2, 2020 [34 favorites]

I often remind myself that other people's behaviour has very little to do with me. Some people will behave poorly regardless of who I am, how I behave, or whether I'm even there. Doing this with a parent can be especially difficult because parents are supposed to look out for us. It can be confusing and disorienting when this doesn't happen or we have to swap roles in some way.

I try to consider the person and their challenges without regard to me or my relationship to them; as if the person was a stranger. If you can get to a place of feeling compassion for your mother (not saying you don't already) particularly around her inabilities to give you her attention, then it might help you to frame it in terms of her rather than you. She's not like she is because of you. She behaves the way she does because she's probably not doing great for whatever reason.

I had a father who mainly expressed himself to me via neglect and criticism. It only stopped hurting me when I was able to see him as a damaged man who really didn't know how to relate to people, especially children. He experienced major traumas as a child and it really affected him. Funnily enough. What unlocked that for me was thinking of him as the loveable boy he no doubt was and how someone should have loved and protected him.
posted by mewsic at 12:11 AM on August 2, 2020 [8 favorites]

I need to be doing stuff to listen to other people sometimes. It helps me stay focused, as counterintuitive as that sounds. Maybe you could frame her activity as her doing what she needs to do in order to give you her attention? (Unless she's checking out of your conversation -- then it's a bigger problem on her end.) But it isn't you.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 12:17 AM on August 2, 2020 [15 favorites]

How much do you know about ADHD, because this behavior is not about you!
ADHD is an executive functioning disorder. The brain essentially doesn't distinguish importance of tasks. It says everything is the most important thing right now.

This can lead to feeling you are unimportant, and I'm sorry, and that isn't your fault. But more importantly it does not actually reflect the emotional feelings your mom has towards you. Many people with ADHD can talk about what's important to them and why, but in the moment, instead of doing x they end up doing y. It's why ADHD makes it hard to complete school or have a job, even though people with ADHD can be very smart and they know that those things are super important, but in the morning getting dressed for work, making and sandwich and changing the lightbulb, and finishing the dishes from last night's dinner all have the same importance and they end up late or missing work.

This is really hard. You might want to try some foundational CBT (cognative behavioral therapy) kind of work on this. Where you think of the trigger "I was talking with my mom and she walked away" then identify the belief "this means that my mom thinks I'm not worthy of her attention" and the counter statement "my mom says she cares but has a hard time sitting still. I am a good person." You can go pretty deep with this and there are a ton of workbooks and other things out there if you would like. But the basic idea is to counter the beliefs with postive statements about yourself over and over and over again until it kind of clicks in your brain. (This is actually an extraordinarily simplistic way of explaining CBT and not quite accurate, but for these purposes it's good enough).
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:37 AM on August 2, 2020 [9 favorites]

Neurodiversity is a thing. I definitely listen better when I can pace, or do dishes, or water plants. This is a recognised, accepted behaviour variation in both children and adults, and is the reason why stealth fidget items for adults are made for those awful meetings where you just have to sit there and listen as a form of corporate torture.

But with my friends and family, I don't have to be tortured! I can paint my nails or wash the dishes or groom a dog while talking and it's really great.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:42 AM on August 2, 2020 [15 favorites]

Yeah, I was going to say maybe you could imagine her occupation with making a sandwich as a cute old-school fidget. Born too early for custom gadgets, she makes do with sandwich making (etc.)

You could think of it as something that allows her to listen to you at all. If her attention problems are really bad she might be completely unable to just sit and process a single stream of information. In that case finding ways to split the stream would be her alternative to just running out of the room in mental pain - her way of making herself available to you.
posted by trig at 3:04 AM on August 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

One other way to think of it: you know how often people find it easier to have deep conversations when they're both in the front seat of a car, both looking ahead, possibly one of them driving? Or, stereotypically for guys in the US, when they're out fishing or tossing around a ball? Emotionally and often cognitively, sometimes it's easier for people to approach things a little sideways. Reading the other person's body language takes cognitive bandwidth, making eye contact takes cognitive bandwidth and can be emotionally intense, and often doing something rote and automatic that lets you keep your eyes and a fraction of your attention elsewhere is what lets you really process the information you're taking in and gives you a bit of space and distance to really think about it.

Have you ever tried talking with her while taking a walk? That might fill her needs but still feel less distant to you.
posted by trig at 3:12 AM on August 2, 2020 [13 favorites]

Nthing that physically moving around can be a way for some people to achieve intense focus, not a signal that they are refusing to pay attention. It actually hadn't occurred to me before this moment that anyone wouldn't find it more comfortable to have deep emotional conversations while walking (/cleaning / drying dishes/ other low-key physical task). Having your body comfortably occupied just frees up your mind to think. Maybe it's a neurodiversity thing, but I don't think it's accurate or helpful to frame this as "My mom can't focus on me the right way (by sitting perfectly still and staring deep into my eyes), because she has a disorder." There are many, many instances out there of people integrating motion into reflective practice and social bonding.

I do think that watching someone else work while you sit still can feel alienating, though. Could you find ways to be moving together (like walking, mall shopping, gardening, or washing up after a meal), and then time intimate conversations for those contexts? Talking in cars is good for this, too.
posted by Bardolph at 3:20 AM on August 2, 2020 [10 favorites]

I too have a parent with ADHD (that was not well-managed) and have been similarly frustrated, though I think I've been able to compartmentalize more. You're describing her doing other things with her hands or body while you talk, but does she hear what you say and respond thoughtfully? Does she interrupt you? Does she give you any cues that she's listening (like little noises or saying "go on" or head nods)? I would look at those things.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:07 AM on August 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Twitchy, ADHD person hear. It took me years to stop doing stuff and sit down with my family at mealtimes. So annoying, I realize in retrospect. A few suggestions:

1. As others have suggested, can you do things with your mother that help you feel like you are doing things together but still involve an activity of sorts? Taking a walk together, gardening together, maybe sitting down to look at old photo albums together and talk to your mom while you both look at pics are things that might give your mother a way to move a bit and help you feel more connected.

2. If you want to talk about something truly important, might your mother be responsive if you said you wanted to talk about something important to you? With both my ADHD dad and my twitchy kid, I have sometimes requested their full attention and asked them to sit down at the kitchen table with me for just 10 minutes. Because I don't do this often, it usually works. It's harder with my kid because it involves insisting that my kid put down their phone and move it away so they will actually look me in the eye. It is now impossible with my dad because he died this year, but before that, we sometimes played cards together and that was a way to feel connected.

3. In Al-Anon, one of the daily readers (might be Hope for Today) has a reading about parents who did not love us the way we wanted to be love. It says that we are the only ones who can love ourselves the way we want to be loved. That can be a depressing thought; that can be a liberating thought. In truth, neither of my parents were capable of loving me in all the ways I needed (and need) to be loved and that is just how it was. That you recognize that you need to reframe your thinking is wise. It is okay to mourn and grieve for the mother you wanted and never got. For your sake, it would be wonderful if you became able to meet your mother where she is without resentment. That is hard to do but not impossible. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 4:16 AM on August 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

TLDR: This framing doesn't work for everything, but when X relative is driving me crazy because of certain behaviours, I try to remind myself that it is not X doing annoying things but X's brain directing X to do annoying things. X is not doing any given annoying behavior at me, it is just what X's brain has X do on the regular.

Speaking as someone with ADHD and a mental illness, we don't choose to be this way. But you are always free to decide that some behaviours are just unacceptable so you are unwilling to be in your mother's company for more than X amount of time because the price is too high. Take care of yourself and limit your exposure to your mom if it costs too much to be around her for long.
posted by Bella Donna at 4:21 AM on August 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I have ADHD. My mom could sit and talk for hours and is just completely baffled that I *need* to do something while we're talking. That's mostly the ADHD and a tiny bit of it is the fact that Mom tends to bring up some really difficult stuff without realizing it, and having needlework or something in my hands helps me stay in the room.

One of my favorite ways to spend time with people is being in the same room working on our own stuff without really talking much. I can feel really close to someone, really safe and happy, in this way.

Does she make you feel seen/heard/acknowledged in other ways?
posted by bunderful at 5:13 AM on August 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

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posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 6:15 AM on August 2, 2020

I am not so much wanting to change her as I am looking for ways I can stop telling myself that it means I'm not of interest to her, that I'm not enough.

Two steps:

1. Catch yourself in the act of doing exactly that.

2. Tell yourself exactly these words: this is just how she is; it's not about me.

Rinse and repeat.

I'm firmly of the opinion that 99% of what we do, as human beings, is habitual; and that applies every bit as much to the things we do inside our heads as to anything else. I'm also firmly of the opinion that breaking habits is not a thing that people are capable of, but building new ones can be.

This is why it's important to use the same words every time for the replacement story. You're not having some kind of internal dispute with yourself over this, so you don't need to engage in logically sound and/or creative and rhetorically compelling argument to persuade yourself that the business about not being of interest and generally unworthy is incorrect. On some level you already know it's incorrect, but that doesn't stop your mother's attitude (and, I'm sure, various other things) triggering the same habitual internal reaction it always has.

Just treat your habitual reaction to this scenario as the internal mental habit that it is, as opposed to a thought whose content calls for dispute or analysis, and work on establishing a new habit that sidesteps the existing one's pathway to suffering.

Step 1 is probably going to be the part that needs the most practice before you can do it reliably. But it's perfectly OK for it not to be reliable; any deliberate exercise of a behaviour that you're attempting to turn habitual will contribute to making it so.
posted by flabdablet at 6:37 AM on August 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've recommended this book a lot on ask mefi: The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner. It really helped me have a better relationship with my own family.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:16 AM on August 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

You say that talking about this with her isn't an option and I'm kind of looking for a loophole here, by assuming you mean you can't have a conversation like "Mom when you do X I feel Y, can you do Z instead of X?" But - perhaps it's possible to acknowledge the behavior and see if she has anything to tell you about it? "Hey mom, I notice you really like to be moving when you're talking."

Another thing that's helped me is talking to other family members. An aunt or a cousin can often fill in puzzle pieces for me - my mom has always done x, my grandparents enforced y behaviors, uncle z and cousin a have traits similar to a parent's... that sort of thing.
posted by bunderful at 8:38 AM on August 2, 2020

If she has untreated ADHD, it is literally impossible for her to just sit and be present, and that has nothing to do with how she feels about you. Observing her inability to focus and interpreting it as meaning that you're unimportant to her is comparable to observing someone with Tourette's ticcing and thinking it means they think you're unimportant, or observing someone autistic stimming and thinking it means they think you're unimportant.

It's really more likely a sheer inability to sit still; she usually won't sit still for telephone conversations, movies, television, what-have-you, she's always got to be moving.

Your mother's neurology literally will not allow her to do the thing that you feel you need. She can't sit still for anything, so the fact that she can't sit still for you doesn't mean she's doing it to you or at you, it's just what she does. Wanting someone with untreated ADHD to sit down and focus in order to prove their love is like wanting someone colorblind to be able to distinguish between red and green to prove their love. They can't, regardless of how much they might want to.

Can you look at other things she does and see them as indicators that she cares?
posted by Lexica at 10:43 AM on August 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

Sometimes it helps break the cycle if you can get out of your own head for a moment and change your thought to compassion for the other person's struggles. If she stands up in the middle of your conversation and wanders into the other room and you're able to start thinking, "wow, mom really doesn't feel like she can sit still for even a minute", it helps to reinforce that Mom has flaws and doesn't always have a perfect (correct) reaction to everything. She's not having the reaction because of you, she's having the reaction because of her, and if it's hurting your ability to have a conversation with her then that's really sad. But it's sad about her not sad about you.

Or if her tendency to go multitask actually helps her focus on you (I find this is true for me with phone calls, having something to do with my hands helps keep my mind from wandering), you may find it a good moment to prove that to yourself by asking questions - "What do you think I should do?" "Did you ever know anyone who acted like that?" "How would you handle it if it were you?"
posted by Lady Li at 12:10 PM on August 2, 2020

The other, separate, thing I would recommend is that if you're feeling a need to be actively intensely listened to and your mom is bad at that, you might want to seek that out somewhere else. Therapy is good for this, other friends are good for this, generally spreading out the load is good. Sometimes we kind of fill up with thoughts and ideas that we want to express and it can be hard for someone else to really absorb them or know what to do with them. She may not be great at listening by itself without some task attached and you might need to get that somewhere else.
posted by Lady Li at 12:12 PM on August 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

"you're boring, you can't fully capture my attention, you're not worthy of it"

It sounds like you are absolutely correct that you can't fully capture her attention. It also sounds like no person or thing on the planet ever could.

I mean it would be one thing if she was sitting still with other people, but I get the impression she's like this with everyone. In the way you've been thinking about it, absolutely nobody is worthy of her full attention. (Personally I don't think she's judging worthiness)

In any case... given the difficulty why is capturing her full attention your standard here? Can you be comfortable capturing as much of her attention as anyone can?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:25 PM on August 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

PS: Anon, if you feel comfortable doing so, please memail me.
posted by Kitchen Witch at 9:24 PM on August 2, 2020

As a woman with late-diagnosed inattentive-type ADHD, I've been in tears while reading this thread.

I literally cannot focus on an extended or complex verbal interaction without doing something physical to keep me in reality instead of off in miscellaneous brain wanderings. If she's anything like me, your mother is making a sandwich, washing the dishes, doodling, pacing, humming, whatever, explicitly because she wants to pay attention to you. If I'm sitting quietly and looking "attentively" at a speaker it's because i dgaf what they're saying and am acting out the performative behaviours that I've had drilled into me so that I won't draw criticism or judgment.

We learn coping mechanisms by trial and error without necessarily understanding them because it's the only way to function in a world that's not made for us. I'm still learning how not to be ashamed of doing what I need to do to get by.

If you disregard her physical actions, are you getting what you want out of these interactions? Is she hearing you? Responding to you? Acknowledging you? Think about what you're truly after. You're calibrated to read neurotypical behaviours, and your mother is (possibly) speaking a whole different language. Don't expect it to make sense if you're not willing to do the interpretive work.
posted by bethnull at 1:09 AM on August 3, 2020 [14 favorites]

Anon, feel free to PM me as well if you like. I appreciate how hard you are working to change your own deeply entrenched beliefs about yourself. I am so sorry you are in this situation.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:21 AM on August 3, 2020

I'm not diagnosed but I relate with bethnull's comment. I can focus if needed, but it's not my natural state.

My mind sort of has a constant machinery looking for something to engage. If I can occupy the low-level machinery with something mindless, then it gets easier to put my higher level focus on one thing, sustainably. I'm fully able to focus for a long conversation, but it works better in a busy cafe (since my mind has other noise to occupy it) or with an intentional plan to connect 1:1.

I think about learning to drive. When I drove a car with an automatic transmission in slow traffic, I nearly rear ended other cars several times because I'd zone out. When I started driving with a stick shift, that stopped because I had a low-level, low-demand task that took up that "busy" mental/physical energy enough to keep my focus on the road.

Maybe your mom is doing her version of this in your conversations.
posted by rockyraccoon at 11:25 AM on August 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

[I also have a near duplicate comment here, because I also got distracted in the Edit window, and added a couple of links and then the edit timed out, because I forgot I was just fixing typos....]

I have ADHD.

There was a comment from Jessamyn years ago with:

"The example that I've read that typifies ADD is "let's say someone held a gun to your head and said they would shoot you if you moved. Most of us would be able to sit still as long as we had to. Someone with ADD would do that for a while and then basically forget the gun was there and start to fidget/move/whatever no matter how serious the consequences." It's sort of overblown, but you get the idea."

This is one of the examples that suddenly brings it home to me that it's not that "I'm just not trying hard enough", but that... this is actually a *thing*. A *serious* thing.

Because I would die.
I would 100%, absolutely die. That's not overblown.
If the gun was out of my field of vision, then probably in less than an hour, but I wouldn't be able to last a few hours.

Every so often it just hits me that other people say things like "Most of us would be able to sit still as long as we had to."
You... you could?
You really COULD?

And I realise our thinking is so different I'm trying to explain an alien process.

So, anything that takes up less than 100% of my attention, even if it's life or death?
I can't downregulate my attention, and I can't, I don't know how to explain it, I can't pay only *some* attention to an idea.
If it can expand to fill up all of my attention, it will, and I won't notice I should be paying attention to something else. Because it's not that I can't pay attention, it's that I can't voluntarily pay less than *100%* attention, even if that's not what it looks like from the outside.
If something is taking up 70% of my attention, then there's still 30% of my brain noodling away, there is NOTHING I can do to stop that 30% latching onto anything in my environment or just contemplating ideas, and if that 30% starts thinking about, I dunno, squirrels, what a unicorn goat would look like, then daydreaming is the most dangerous activity, because there is NOTHING TO STOP that track from expanding to fill 100% of my attention, and then I'm sitting there, zoned out, not actually hearing or paying attention to the 70% thing.

The ONLY coping tactic, is to find an activity which takes up that 30% with something that cannot take up my whole brain. Usually something motor related. So, twitching, tapping, knitting, walking, all take up that 30% so I can FOCUS without something internal-daydreamy taking up all my brain.

I need something to fill the gap, it is the crutch that lets me focus.

So, that's necessary. But you can change the filler activity!
Figure out what quality attention looks like to you. Is it her paying attention to what you're saying? Then she needs ANY kind of fidget or motor activity.
Is it her looking at you?
In which case, you need to find a fidget or something she can do that does't involve her looking at something else! Maybe that's you are walking side by side, so she can look at you, but she's moving. Maybe with some music in the background, so that's taking up 5% but not overwhelming.
Maybe it's knitting or doing something with her hands she doesn't need to look at?

I'm trying to think what I could do in terms of coping tactics if someone important to me felt distressed about the way I pay attention to them.
The thing I cannot do, is just sit still, with nothing else - I will not be able to concentrate on what they are saying.
If there was a gun to my head, I still could not do it, and I would put myself in front of a gun for many of my loved ones.
posted by Elysum at 9:46 PM on September 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

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