How come my mom can't explain her feelings, emotions, or thoughts?
October 9, 2020 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I find it incredibly frustrating that my 61-year-old mother can't seem to answer any question that requires her to explain a thought, feeling, or emotion.

No matter what the question is my mother cannot explain a feeling, thought, or emotion.

For example, if I ask her what her favourite singer is, she can answer that: "I really like X singer". But if I ask her why that's her favourite singer, or what she likes about that singer, all I can obtain are one-word answers or non-answers: "I just do", or "Because", or a shoulder shrug.

If I ask her if she likes a certain food, she can answer that: "Yes", "No", "Not Really", etc. But if I ask her what she liked or disliked about a food, again, one-word or non-answers: "I just do", "Because", or shoulder-shrug.

When I ask a more complicated question like how did X make you feel she's unable to articulate anything.

I really, really, really don't understand this at all. It makes doing anything for her or with her almost impossible. Even having a normal adult conversation is almost impossible.
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Human Relations (42 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's a generational/class thing in my experience.

My working class baby boomer parents are nearly incapable of a deep dive into explaining any emotions.

I asked my dad what his (deceased for two decades) sister was like. He said, 'What's anyone like?'

They both came from big families. Sensitivity and introspection would have been a luxury and just totally beyond them. Like having a bedroom to themselves.

My experience is it isn't a bridgeable gap.

Looking with interest to see what others' experiences are.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:14 PM on October 9 [57 favorites]

A Terrible Llama has it *exactly*.
This is simply not everybody’s idea of conversation fodder. I wouldn’t be surprised if your mom answered with “what’s it to you?”
Just as some families aren’t huggers or I-love-you’ers, some prefer not to delve into feeeeelings.
Feels like wallowing.
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:25 PM on October 9 [10 favorites]

I have a partial answer, possibly not relevant to your mom’s behavior. I don’t have any trouble with the more open-ended, ‘how did X make you feel’ sort of question, but I sometimes rebel against delving too analytically into details of what I liked about a thing I liked. That sort of conversation can tend to break the spell, to pull me out of the experience of enjoying the thing, and even lead me to feel defensive about it.
posted by jon1270 at 5:31 PM on October 9 [50 favorites]

I can think of a couple possible reasons. One that hasn’t been mentioned yet is anxiety. If she’s self-conscious about what she likes, maybe because it’s not cool or she hasn’t thought too deeply, she might think you’re questioning her choice and disengaging so that you can’t do so.

Also there’s a possibility that she just doesn’t care enough to have strong opinions. I’ve been cooking for my wife for nine years, and she’s still incapable of giving any feedback besides “it tastes good”. Microwaving a LeanCuisine gets the same response as spending all day in the kitchen making risotto from scratch. The part of her brain that thinks about food just isn’t there.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:43 PM on October 9 [9 favorites]

Do you ever argue with her about things she likes? She might lack the vocabulary to describe why she likes certain music or food, or she might not want to offer up the reasons in case you might use it to tell her she's wrong.

Also, speaking of precision: you've said here that you mom can't explain her feelings, but what you're describing are situations where she can't explain her tastes. That's quite a bit different.

I do wonder if your exasperation with her is coming through in your questions. Maybe this is a generational distinction and women her age were discouraged from expressing strong opinions when she was young.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:50 PM on October 9 [29 favorites]

Look up alexithymia. This is real, and it can be just as frustrating to the person who has it.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:55 PM on October 9 [16 favorites]

The source of this may very well predate your existence, if this has always been your experience of her. My parents are of a slightly older generation than yours, but they both had the experience growing up that their feelings and opinions were not of interest to the adults around them - parents, teachers, employers, social contacts. And while they worked at it when I was a child, mostly they encouraged me to express my feelings about that stuff and still struggled to do it themselves.

We sometimes don't think of the traumas our parents might have experienced before us or away from us, but unless she can do this with ease with other people (to whom she is close - it may be easier with low-stakes people) and it's only you she's freezing out, this may run quite deep.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:10 PM on October 9 [18 favorites]

Abstract "why" questions can just be hard to answer or articulate sometimes, even if you have a strongly-held opinion on the matter. Regardless of the reason, since you know doesn't respond the way you want to "why" questions and it's causing you a lot of frustration, maybe consider alternate ways to interact with her? There's a whole spectrum of wh- questions you can ask, if you mainly want to ask her questions. If she says she likes X singer, maybe ask if she remembers when she first heard them, or maybe who a particular song reminds her of; if she says she likes a food and you want to ask a question, maybe ask what she likes to eat it with or how she likes it prepared, etc.

And remember that a conversation is more than Q&A, too - sometimes questions can be exhausting, and maybe there are other ways she would prefer to interact. Off the top of my head, you could look at old family photos, or things that remind her of a time or place she enjoys; you could share memories, tell her about what you're thinking ... maybe she could show you how to do a hobby she likes? Trying different tacks like this might help you and her interact in a way that's more rewarding for both of you. Good luck.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:19 PM on October 9 [22 favorites]

I have a hard time expressing my feelings or expanding on my opinions on demand. If someone starts quizzing me it’s like my thoughts and opinions evaporate, and if they seemed impatient or exasperated, doubly so. I’m totally capable of expressing myself when I want to, but not always when someone else asks. Maybe try a different style of conversation with your mom and see if it’s more satisfying.
posted by Kriesa at 6:21 PM on October 9 [30 favorites]

My father is similarly hard to talk to, so I get your frustration. But I think the two examples you gave are things that a lot of people would have a hard time explaining. Why do I hate licorice? Because it tastes terrible to me, which is just another way of saying I hate it. With some foods, I can explain that I don't like the texture or a particular ingredient but with a lot of foods I might not be able to do much more than shrug. Why are my favorite singers my favorite singers? I don't know, because I like their voices? Why do I like their voices? I don't know, I just do.

It's interesting that you describe her as unable to explain her feelings. Is it possible that she's just uninterested in delving into hard-to-explain details of her feelings on subjects that are maybe more interesting to you than to her? Or that she sees you as her child, not her confidante, and doesn't want to tell you exactly how she really feels about a lot of things?
posted by Redstart at 6:23 PM on October 9 [28 favorites]

Struggling to express one’s own feelings can be a product of emotional neglect in childhood. Not that your grandparents were necessarily ‘abusers’, or even that they created a home life that would have been considered repressive for the time and place they lived in, but I bet you donuts to dollars she grew up somewhere that didn’t exactly encourage this kind of expression either, particularly by today’s standards for emotional literacy and child rearing. Past generations were much less concerned with giving children space to be their “authentic selves”, as we might put it now. There are benefits and drawbacks to this.

Look for how she does express herself. Does she decorate her home in a particular style? Curate family photos? Make family dinners with recipes she’s collected? Assemble groups of friends into a community? She could asserting preferences and telling stories in all these ways, and you might need to tune yourself to her particular frequency, if it’s not verbal. It’s frustrating when you want to connect with someone and they don’t speak your language. Try to figure out how to speak hers.
posted by unstrungharp at 6:26 PM on October 9 [30 favorites]

So I would bristle at almost any of these questions — they seem almost invasive. I grew up in a household where it felt to me like my feelings and reactions to things would be picked apart, and I really don’t like being asked about them. It sounds like you’re genuinely curious about her inner life, but maybe you can work on learning or guessing about it by observing her rather than by asking directly. That might be easier said than done, but it also might be worth a shot.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:36 PM on October 9 [55 favorites]

I only have anecdotal experience to draw from on this, but I haven’t noticed social class or generation to cause this problem in people I know of that age group and older.

Just wanted to ask if what you’re describing has always been the case, or if it’s a recent development. (If more recent, have you noticed it roughly coinciding with any other life events or medical concerns?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:38 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]

Analyzing the components of something as nebulous as a preference is a skill that can be taught (though not to everyone). It requires real motivation on the part of the learner, though. You need to break down your mental models of what a *thing* is, and rebuild then in an atomic fashion. (I mean atomic like recognizing that there are building blocks that can be put together and finding out which elements are present).

Something that can help:
Prepare a themed group of things.
These 5 menu items are all X (where X might be crunchy or umami or bland or spicy).
These 10 songs are all X (emotional, upbeat, complex)
These 7 paintings all feature (bold colours, fine brush strokes, pointillism)

It takes time and if she isn't in to it then she won't engage.
If you can make spotting the theme or highlighting differences into a fun shared activity, you might gain a new hobby that you can share!

(But honestly most people I know like this are just not willing to "waste time" in this way.)

I'm becoming much more aware of this type of limitation in my own emotional vocabulary as we're raising our son. I hope I can learn along with him as he grows!
posted by Acari at 6:50 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]

It makes doing anything for her or with her almost impossible. Even having a normal adult conversation is almost impossible.

If your goal is to do things with her, the answer is to moderate your expectations. She isn't the person you want her to be, she is the person she is.

"Like" and "dislike" are enough information to know whether or not she wants to do any given activity with you. You can do things together, but deep conversations isn't one of them.
posted by aniola at 6:51 PM on October 9 [24 favorites]

I'm a lot younger than your mom and reasonably articulate about my feelings qua feelings, but as another bit of anecdata, I would have a lot of trouble answering your "why" questions. They feel like trying to justify individual preferences, which is really hard to do. I like kiwifruit tastes good, I dunno.

If you asked me how I felt about, say, the election, I'd struggle. If you asked me what I thought about the election, I'd happily share all kinds of opinions, most of which are feelings anyway. But framing it as "what do you think about X" rather than "how does X make you feel" seems like less of an interrogation/therapy session.
posted by basalganglia at 7:01 PM on October 9 [16 favorites]

For example, if I ask her what her favourite singer is, she can answer that: "I really like X singer". But if I ask her why that's her favourite singer, or what she likes about that singer, all I can obtain are one-word answers or non-answers: "I just do", or "Because", or a shoulder shrug.

Are you expecting her to go into an examination of the singer’s phrasing and tonal palette? I think you’re asking a very confrontational question to something that really doesn’t need to have an answer beyond “It sounds nice.” You might as well be asking “Why is blue your favorite color?”
posted by Thorzdad at 7:17 PM on October 9 [57 favorites]

I have something like this—I don’t understand being able to give a reason why you love someone, for example, because even if they have positive traits—like they’re attractive or funny—those traits are common and you love the specific person. In my case it’s some kind of weird neurological thing—see my previous question if you want.

This article is also relevant.
posted by Violet Hour at 7:20 PM on October 9 [3 favorites]

Those questions are difficult to answer. They are quite personal. About food - what would be your desired response? I could say “yes, the risotto is delicious” but why? I’m not a food expert, I don’t know how it all works. If I mention I can taste loads of butter am I going to insult the chef? That’s a pro to me, maybe rude to them.

I also think it’s to do with how women are socialised to make pleasant conversation. Someone shows me the dress they made for themselves I’ll be saying ‘wow, you’re so talented, what a great colour on you, you’ll look fantastic”. If you make me be specific about why I like it, oh god that could just be so painful. My first reply covers ever possible outfit and I can’t cause offence. If I have to give a detailed critique of the thousands of sequins painstakingly sewn on a shiny hot pink and lime green dress we’re getting into dangerous territory.

Plus, we have secrets we are allowed to keep. Her favourite singer - is X? Cool, I can play that music around my mom and know she enjoys it. Why she likes them? She might not want to say that it reminds Mom of being young and carefree and the dreams she had back then and how it played while she made love in the backseat of her boyfriend’s car and she likes to remember because how on earth did that beautiful young girl end up married with kids and aged 61.
posted by kitten magic at 7:51 PM on October 9 [18 favorites]

yeah unfortunately these questions can easily be experienced as confrontational (like you're asking her to justify her likes/dislikes) or invasive (probing for feelings.) She lacks either the vocabulary or the interest for the kind of things you're asking about. Imagine if someone kept asking you to describe your poops, or something else boundary-crossing.

If you are asking in genuinely good faith to want to be closer to her, then take her lead, and ask about events instead of feelings/thoughts. (Did you have a nice day? Did you get to talk to anyone? How did the thing turn out?)

But also, know that not everyone thinks questions are a polite way to converse, at all. Some people like having questions asked because it makes them feel like the questioner is interested; but others just feel interrogated. If she's in the latter category, stop poking. Make conversation by telling her about your day.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:55 PM on October 9 [15 favorites]

You might try changing questions you ask.

Regarding that favourite singer, instead of asking why try asking, "Have you ever heard them sing in person? When did you first hear them? Aren't the guitar chords gorgeous? Which of their songs do you like best? Are there any of their songs that just don't work for you? Was this music you shared with your friends when you were young? How did your parents like your music? Do you like this singer enough to see them in concert if you ever had a chance?"

Regarding the favourite food try asking: "Do you prefer the rice stickier? When did you first get to eat this? Did you always like it? Do you think it would be good with (different ingredient) instead? What goes well with this? Do you make this at home? Ever serve it to guests? Did you parents make this? Was their version different?"

If you want her to talk you need to find subjects that work for her and find ways to phrase questions and details about subjects that interest her. For example if she has very little sense of taste left after chemo, food may not have much taste any more and she may not want to talk about it because it is no longer interesting and anything she might say might sound like complaining. If your mother cooks to live and doesn't do it with excitement and interest, then it is unlikely she will be interested in her own eating habits.

What is she enthusiastic about? What does she talk about when she gets to choose the topic? You'll probably find her a much better conversationalist if you start with the things she does talk about and try to figure out if any of those things interest her, or if they are just polite scripts as when we say "This is good, thank you," about a meal.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:07 PM on October 9 [15 favorites]

Yeah, I gotta say that I think questions like “why do you like this food” would just be impossible for me to answer, and I’ve been a social worker for 30
Years with a lot of feeling words at my disposable.
posted by purenitrous at 8:49 PM on October 9 [14 favorites]

She'd get on great in my family! This is perfectly normal for the whole bunch of us.

I am sure that some of my colleagues suspect there is something up with me, but all 4 generations of us are the same way around this kind of interaction.
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 9:00 PM on October 9 [3 favorites]

I can't remember the last time I had a "normal adult conversation" where I had to explain in detail why I liked something. Why is the way she responds not enough for you?
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:20 PM on October 9 [42 favorites]

Maybe your mom is someone who finds more connection and value in action than in feelings? I say this with basically no context and making some leaps in what this question is all about. But in my mind I can imagine what your perspective is because I like to talk about feelings and inner thoughts a lot but found with some people they just don't seem to process the world in the same way - certainly a generational gap in some cases as others have mentioned. I don't know what your mom is like other than what you've described but maybe she's someone who would connect more around shared activities than deep discussions.
posted by knownfossils at 9:38 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]

You’re getting a lot of answers saying that your expectations are unreasonable. And if you are upset simply because your mom won’t go deep on why she loves Mariah Carey, then maybe your expectations are unreasonable. But given your frustration here I wonder if you feel like this is part of a larger pattern of emotional disconnect.

“Why can’t you talk about your feelings?” might feel like an easier problem to solve than “Why don’t you acknowledge my feelings?” but it really isn’t. Whether your mother lacks the vocabulary or skills, or chooses not to engage, you can’t change it. We can’t make our parents be different people, or parent us better.

Sometimes trying to meet them where they are helps, and there’s some good advice here about how to do that. At the same time we have to realize that some needs will never be met by our parents and find ways to meet those needs for ourselves. If having these kinds of conversations is important, you need another outlet for it. It’s like trying to buy bread at Home Depot - not matter how long you wander around or how many associates you ask, there’s no bread there, and there’s never going to be bread there. Gotta get bread somewhere else.
posted by jeoc at 9:52 PM on October 9 [11 favorites]

I'm 68 years old. Though I'm not entirely sure what age has to do with not wanting to answer to interrogation. It has been my experience that if the interrogator receives an honest response, they will then find fault with the answer.
posted by crw at 10:55 PM on October 9 [28 favorites]

Just chiming in to agree that repeated “why” questions can feel aggressive, confrontational, and invasive. You put people on the defensive and make them feel they need to justify their preference. If you want to have a conversation about singers, go about it more gently, share your favorites and maybe ask if she’s gone to concerts or something. Listen to some songs together. Change your tactics since your current approach is probably frustrating both of you, when it sounds like what you want is some intimacy and connection.
posted by JenMarie at 11:00 PM on October 9 [9 favorites]

Is it possible that she feels intruded upon by the questions? Is she a generally reserved person? Maybe her shrugging responses are her way of discouraging further questions.
posted by marimeko at 3:07 AM on October 10 [3 favorites]

I hope this isn’t turning into a pile on, but just wanted to agree that a) I’d find those questions unanswerable too, and I have plenty of conversations about music and authors I like, and b) I have no idea why this would have any impact on the ability to have “normal adult conversations” with her.

I think talking about “why” you like a song is unanswerable unless you are literally going to drill down into “their use of a square wave oscillator here gives a really punchy quality to the drumbeat”, which very few people are going to be able to do.

Why do I like “Fake Plastic Trees”? For the same reason everyone else does, it’s an emotional song with a very cathartic chorus. I could say that, but it doesn’t add much to the conversation. Why do I think “Angels” by Robbie Williams is a smug saccharine piece of shit, despite also being an emotional song with a cathartic chorus? I couldn’t tell you, beyond Robbie Williams making my skin crawl. “I like it” “oh yes I do too, do you also like their other song?” “Yes. Did you know Interesting Fact about them?” “No, how interesting” is how most of my conversations go.

Other things I talk about with my family: how my work is going, how their work is going, how other members of the family are, plans for vacations and hobbies, interesting news events, and politics. We do go to things like opera, ballet and theatre together, but beyond “hey that was great wasn’t it?” we don’t really analyse it afterwards. It’s just assumed that you enjoyed it for much the same reasons as everyone else did, since you were all sitting there watching the same performance. Now I think about it, my husband did once try to critique a performance afterwards, and it came off really badly - my family assumed he had hated it and was picking holes, rather than that he enjoyed it and was analysing it.
posted by tinkletown at 3:29 AM on October 10 [5 favorites]

I wonder what might happen if instead of why questions (which i agree can seem rather intrusive) ask her instead when or where she first heard the song or ate the food, focussing on biography rather then feeling.

Also I wonder if instead of quizzing her, you could instead, apropos of nothing, volunteer how feel about a song, a dish or tv show.
So lets say eat together and instead of asking her why she likes apple pie, comment onyour own feelings: when i eat this pie it makes me feel nostalgic, remember how you used to make it for us every saturday when i was a kid.
She may not reciprocate with how she feels but perhaps she might.

In general i think different people require different Conversation starters.
If what you are trying to do is iniate a Conversation about feelings where you want her to share hers and hope she might respond by inquiring about yours in turn, perhaps turning it around by sharing first might help.
posted by 15L06 at 7:19 AM on October 10 [2 favorites]

This was suggested earlier but to put it another it possible your Mom never learned, never was taught to own her feelings, or possibly that her feelings a child were denied? Simple statements like, "It's just a little scrape, no big deal. Stop crying", or, "Put on a jacket it's cold outside. But Dad, I'm hot", or, "So and So at school hates me! That's silly.No they don't", seem really innocuous and innocent to a harried adult who just can't deal with the momentary pathos of a child, or the adult that wants to protect a child from pain, hurt, sadness, disappointment, etc. In reality, these seemingly harmless phrases just teach a child that their thoughts and feelings are not real, are not valued by anyone, especially those that are suppose to love them unconditionally. If you've spent your whole life believing no one is interested in your opinion, you may not know how to articulate your thoughts when finally asked.
posted by socrateaser at 8:07 AM on October 10 [18 favorites]

My baby boomer parents were the opposite -- every aspect of their internal life needed to be shared. It did not make conversations easier so much as it made them long, and it didn't make doing things for them easier as I found it challenging to sift through all the words to figure out what they truly wanted. Just a perspective from the other side, I guess.
posted by sm1tten at 9:24 AM on October 10 [5 favorites]

One thing I was taught in pastoral care classes is that "why" can seem confrontational without meaning to. Instead of "why do you feel that way?" we were taught, "What about this situation brought about this feeling?" or similar things. So, instead of "Why do you like this singer?" I would probably say, "I really love her smoky voice. What do you think of the deep bass in (song name)." Give her tangible things to react to and ask her her opinions about them.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:04 AM on October 10 [6 favorites]

There's a technique in hostile arguments, where "Why do you think X" is used as an opening for "well, that's wrong, and you should think Y instead." A few of those encounters at crucial points in one's life can leave a person shying away from answering "why" questions of any sort. They just basically stop thinking about the reasons for their preferences or the foundations of their beliefs.

This, of course, is weaponized by both political organizations and marketing specialists, which are happier when people don't understand why they think or believe things so they can be manipulated more easily.

I recommend asking about details that don't start with "why." Do you like the singer's voice or the tunes? Would you like this food for a holiday or birthday meal? (Answer might be "oh yes, this food's always felt special to me" or "No, this is more a comfortable everyday meal.") Did one of the actors in the movie remind you of someone you know?

It may take practice to find an approach that doesn't set off the defense mechanism of "I just like it; I don't know why."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:24 AM on October 10 [6 favorites]

I agree with many of the comments here. I'm younger than your mom and I would have trouble answering some of those questions. In fact, my usual response to something like that would be along the lines of "I dunno, why do you ask?"

Matters of taste are notoriously difficult to parse and articulate. Formal courses in art criticism etc. train people to break down their emotional, gut-level responses to things.

If you do want to have this kind of conversation with your mom, it might help to give her some explanation for why you're asking, e.g. "I know you like singer X, but you seem to have all of their albums. I'm wondering what elements of their music you like, so that I can get you something new that pushes those buttons."
posted by rpfields at 10:40 AM on October 10 [1 favorite]

I'll agree with many of the above posters.

I grew up in a family where feelings and opinions weren't really talked about. A lot of things I said regarding certain things were responded to with "That's dumb" or "Who cares?".

I heard a lecture from a prospective professor in college about alexithymia and it really rang a bell for me. I feel a lot of stuff inside, but I really don't have the words to describe them. This makes therapy really fun sometimes. I end up stammering and sort of waving my hands around. Even if you give me a list of emotion words, I find it hard to use one to label a feeling.
posted by kathrynm at 11:03 AM on October 10 [4 favorites]

So I am guessing that since this is so frustrating to you, there is more to this that her inability to discuss her musical taste (which, yeah. I can talk for hours about either feelings OR food, but I can't explain my feelings about food!)

I am guessing that her "I dunno" extends to more serious questions like "how come it upsets you when I do this?" ("Because it's upsetting, duh!")
And "Why don't you want to meet up with our friends?" ("Obviously because I don't enjoy it!")

Is this what we're talking about? Where you feel stonewalled when you try to have a more honest, intimate relationship with your mom?

I don't really have an answer for that. I think you might have to make your peace with the idea that maybe there isn't any there there. Whatever reasons she has are inaccessible to her, perhaps because she got trained out of thinking that way, perhaps because some people are like that. You seem confident that it's not intentional on her part.

Maybe this is what you get with her, and you won't get more of her by digging deeper.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:01 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

I am the same age as your mom and would find it hard to delve into the whys of my likes and dislikes. I don't even like picking favorites. Maybe some people lead with their feelings. Others use facts or reasoning or habit. How one feels about something is sometimes irrelevant if facts or reasoning hold the higher value.

For example, my food choices tend to be based on nutritional value rather than whether I really really like the taste. And habit or convenience may trump everything. I eat oatmeal for breakfast nearly every morning, not because it is my favorite breakfast but because it cuts down on the decision making. I tend to become paralyzed if there are too many choices.
posted by Gino on the Meta at 12:42 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

A therapist's job is often to overcome this reluctance or inability to communicate inner feelings, so I expect you would find answers either from a therapist or by studying from the same resources used for training therapists.
posted by flimflam at 3:12 PM on October 10

I wonder if what's underneath this question is "Why do I find it so hard to connect intimately with my mom?" or "Why do I find it so hard to engage in conversations with my mom?" I feel for you, because I have a similar experience with my mom.

I think folks are getting stuck on the specific examples you gave, but the underlying desire you're expressing is a desire for your mom to share her inner world with you, and frustration that she doesn't seem to do so. It seems like you want to know more about what she thinks and feels because you want to feel more connected to her.

Or perhaps you just want her to return the "conversational volley" better than she is. If you say, "Do you like the chicken, mom?" and she just says, "Yes."...well, it's hard to engage with that! You want her to say, "It's delicious. I love this crunchy fried skin. How do you think they get it like that? We should try to make fried chicken at home!" or whatever.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you "why" she is a certain way. Some people don't do much self-reflection and don't know much about their OWN inner worlds! Some people do, but are shy about sharing it, or not practiced in sharing it (lots of good thoughts above on the childhood roots of these patterns). My mom, if you ask her how she feels about a particular situation, will just start spouting off facts about the situation. Her perspective is usually evident in her tone of voice, and whether she is relaying those facts as positive or negative. But she would never, ever speak to her own feelings or thoughts directly. (Not coincidentally, I was raised to value facts over feelings.)

Likewise, some people are just simply bad at making engaging conversation.

What I have learned from my own experience is that you can't change her. She is how she is. And it's ok not to be super close to your mom, and not to feel like you really enjoy hanging out with or talking to your mom. You can still love her and be good to her.
posted by amaire at 11:17 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]

1. It sounds to me like you have a strong desire to engage with your mother at an emotional level. Can you articulate where that desire is coming from? It might help explain why you're trying to achieve this emotional engagement in such a strange, quite hostile, and ultimately counterproductive way. Are you asking these questions because you wish your mother would ask similar questions of you? Is there perhaps a feeling that your mother doesn't see you, isn't curious about you, doesn't try to understand you from the inside? Sometimes we go about trying to get what we want by giving others what we wish they would give us. This is a lovely and truly healthy behavioral pattern, but since it's turning out to be so frustrating for you, perhaps seeing a therapist to explore the history of your relationship with your mother, digging into how you feel unknown and unseen by the most important attachment figure of your life, would help you.

2. Are you asking these questions because you feel your mother is distant and shuts you out of her life? Are you curious about her and would like to get to know "the real her" from the inside? If so, you might want to try letting her lead the conversation rather than you directing it into areas that clearly don't interest her very much. What does she like talking about when left to herself? What subjects make her naturally garrulous? You may find many of those subjects boring or annoying or triggering, but I bet there's at least one or two topics which she likes talking about which you could become interested in, if you listened. One surefire hit among every single person I've ever met is to ask them to tell you stories from their childhood or young adulthood. Again, let THEM lead the conversation... like, sometimes when my dad is talking, I'm more interested in a different aspect of the story than he wants to spend time on. But if my goal is to get to know my dad, then I have to let him direct the story to his areas of interest. I gotta stop asking questions about how poor his family was when all he wants to do is tell me about his first motorbike. KWIM? Rule of thumb: limit your questions/prodding to simply saying, "Tell me more about that!" whenever you see her eyes light up about a topic. No interrogation. Just "tell me more!"
posted by MiraK at 2:38 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]

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