Help me distance myself from my family (and not feel guilty).
March 22, 2007 11:19 PM   Subscribe

Help me distance myself from my family (and not feel guilty).

I have struggled with depression for years. My mom alternates between "supportive" and putting in little digs about how helpless and unsuccesful I am. Long story short, I have begun to feel that my mother is invested in keeping me down.

My therapist has built up my ego to the point where I finally don't beat myself up about everything and I am able to stand up for myself a bit more. I am *finally* starting to feel...well...sorta good! However, this has made me even more incompatible with my family (esp. mom) than I ever was before. Just talking to her usually puts me in a bad mood. It reminds me just how invalidating she was my whole life.

I fantasize about cutting off all contact but I doubt I would ever be able to do so. Yet they (mom especially) are extremely toxic. Although well meaning, I feel they don't validate me, my feelings or my choices. Quite the opposite.

How can I put more distance between us? How can I put the brake on my mom's "helpful" (underminging) comments and behavior?

Addt'l info: My mom truly is impossible; with my siblings, I think the issue is more a disatisfaction about the relationship not being what I wish it would be. For example, we don't talk often, aren't really close, and I don't feel very understood by them. This makes me feel really sad and disappointed when I talk to them..
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Gee, did my alter ego post this? No, because I don't have a therapist. You cannot change your mother much, if at all, and not when you are weak. It's not worth it. Protect yourself. If you expose yourself to her, it's virtually self-injury.

Figure out some limits to set with your mom, like cut down the amount you talk to her. Talk with her only when you are ready and feeling strong. One of my favourite things is to tell her I'm busy but I can talk if it's something important. Her stuff. If she wants to pry about me, oh, well, I'm busy, I have nothing to say, I don't want to talk about it. "I'm a grownup, remember?" is a good one to throw in from time ti time. Just set limits. Create whatever limits suit you and come up with some stock phrases, the more innocuous the better, and just breeze on past her behaviour into whatever pattern you want to set for the relationship. She won't know what hit her, but just reassure her you do care (or however you want to put it). My mum gets afraid I'm shutting her out, but I tell her I won't do that...and then I go off and do what I want, making sure she knows I will respond if there is some important issue ... of hers. And she can stay out of my business.

Well, I hope that helps.
posted by Listener at 11:59 PM on March 22, 2007

i don't know if this will make you feel any better but I haven't talked to my mother in almost a year. I finally started to understand that a lot of my issues stem from my relationship with her. I've also realized that there is nothing that I will be able to do to change her.

Basically, I'm taking a break from our relationship. I know that it's hurtful to her but I have realized that I am the only one who will ever be able to make our relationship OK and right now I need time for that. Eventually, I will connect with her again (I hope).

I am lucky as I have very understanding siblings who are able to talk my mother down and also let her know that I am OK and that I still lover her.

All I can say, is don't feel bad for doing what you need to do be healthy and happy. Hopefully you're mother will understand but at the very least you will be OK with the choices you have made as an adult.

Best of luck to you though. You will be OK (and so will your mother)
posted by lannanh at 12:27 AM on March 23, 2007

What I did is turn my relationship with problematic members of my family into a business relationship. I treat them exactly as I would a debt collector. I'm polite, informative, cordial, and I lie through my teeth. I love them as souls and individuals but I can't really interact in a close manner. They don't want honesty and truth, they want fake chirpy phone calls - and that's what they get.

How this works: When I had surgery, they got the updates, for instance; they get the updates about new jobs and moves. But they don't get the updates about how I'm feeling, or the work I'm doing to help myself, or info about my relationship with my S.O. When I go visit the bunch of them next month, they will get the politician, pretty much - the smiler and gladhander asking about them and giving stock answers about myself.
posted by By The Grace of God at 1:58 AM on March 23, 2007 [6 favorites]

How can I put more distance between us?

Do you live with your mom? Trying to have distance between you both while you live in the same house can take a long time to work out. It took me about 7 years to get to the point where I was comfortable with how things were between us. During the "creation period", not talking to her other than to be polite was a major part of that.

How can I put the brake on my mom's "helpful" (underminging) comments and behavior?

You can't. All you can do is handle it as best you can. Move out if you haven't already, and gradually cut off the amount of contact. And don't feel guilty about doing it either. Sometimes, you just need to protect yourself from other people, and sometimes those people are your family.
posted by Solomon at 2:23 AM on March 23, 2007

I think you need to set boundaries with your mother. You need to tell her her behavior is unacceptable and that it won't be tolerated any longer. Define the behavior for her, tell her how much it hurts you, and tell her the consequences for it in the future are that the conversation ends when she starts it up. Then stuck to your guns. When she begins with a negative comment, interrupt her and politely say, "Mom, this is the behavior we talked about. I'll talk to you later." Every time. No exceptions.

It sounds like she won't like it, and that she'll probably be very difficult and maybe mean when you first broach the topic. Be brave. Wrtie down what you have to say so that you can get through it, and don't let her interrupt you.

One of two things will happen:

1. Her actual love for you and desire to talk to you will motivate her to change her behavior.
2. She'll stop wanting to talk to you.

If 2 happens, then your goal is achieved. If 1 happens, so much the better.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:54 AM on March 23, 2007


Underminging makes for an interesting slip...

Sorry. Speaking from some experience with both depression and family problems, can I advocate not burning your bridges?

I'm not saying you need to work on being best pals, just -- don't do anything irrevocable.

If you're not in the same city, limiting yourself to snail mail contact is an idea.
posted by kmennie at 5:05 AM on March 23, 2007

Learn to say "I am sorry you feel that way. I would rather not discuss it." When she starts to undermine you. And if she continues, get off the phone, or leave. It works surprisingly well to redirect and retrain people, in my experience.
posted by miss tea at 5:10 AM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Good for you for getting the help that you needed to make yourself better.

I had a situation similar to yours - toxic mother (who had serious mental health issues that went untreated), unsupportive siblings. Things sort of percolated along for years, going from great when she behaved herself (rare) to awful when she didn't. Through it all, I put up with it because of guilt, habit, and pressure from my siblings. Here's the thing: when you grow up with someone like that, you become so used to the behavior that it becomes a form of normal - you put up with things that, from someone else, you would never tolerate on a long term basis.

Then I had kids.

When she started to use the toxic behavior on my children, my response was immediate and visceral. There was no way that I was going to let my children be negatively affected by this behavior. I found the strength to set limits- "If you can't speak in a civil manner, then call/come back when you're feeling better" "That's not an acceptable way to act" Ultimately, she wouldn't follow the rules and I cut off contact for several years.

It was really bad in the beginning when I started to set limits because she didn't understand why the rules had suddenly changed. My siblings criticized me and ostracized me. That was hardest of all, and the memory still hurts.

However, I DID get through it by remembering that I was making myself healthy and protecting my children from harm. I decided to be gracious with my sisters and keep patiently pointing out the truth of her behavoir. Eventually, my mother and I made tentative steps toward one another and we reunited. She developed cancer soon after and passed away. Her death enabled my sisters to face the truth and our relationships have also healed, although they will never be the same.

I think that you MUST be true to yourself, and hold the truths close to you. Don't get lulled into the family lie that it's okay to get treated this way - it's not, and your instincts are telling you that loud and clear. Unfortunately, we don't choose our family of origin, and there comes a time when we have to face up to putting hurtful people away from us for our own good. If your mother was an aquaintance, would you want to continue this relationship? Of course not.

So, I would suggest starting small. Put verbal limits on her, and see how it goes. If it doesn't go well, tell her that you will be unable to continue a relationship if she persists. If she then continues, tell her clearly that you tried, but she wouldn't meet you halfway. Explain clearly to your siblings what you're doing and why, and be prepared for hard times.

Good luck. It's worth it. You're worth it.
posted by Flakypastry at 5:30 AM on March 23, 2007 [4 favorites]

My parents love to put people down in general. They don't do it to me much anymore but they still do to other family members.

What you have to remember is people who do this FEEL inferior and have to build themselves up by tearing others down. Perhaps if you can learn to pity her....I'm sure your therapist is working with you to not take these comments personally. That's the direction I go with-of course if they direct the negativity at hubby or kids I speak up.
posted by konolia at 6:40 AM on March 23, 2007

I've been in a sort-of-similar situation; I just cut them off (it helps that live 300 miles away). Stopped returning the abusive emails, stopped answering the phone. Had my wife delete the abusive phone messages without listening to them. It's not easy, and it still doesn't always sit right with me, but overall it's made my life much, much better.

For me, my wife's help has been the biggest thing. When I get overwhelmed with irrational guilt (and in a really toxic parental relationship, guilt is irrational. You do not owe them the opportunity to shit on you), she helps with reminding me of the bigger picture, and how awful I used to feel when I was in contact with them. I'd suggest talking with someone close to you in your life, and enlisting them as a similar sort of backup.
posted by COBRA! at 7:18 AM on March 23, 2007

I realized a lot of the same things the poster here did as I hit around 30 and stopped seeing my immediate and extended family as elders that must be obeyed and respected and instead start seeing them as adult peers.

I avoid the toxic members of extended family completely. I might see them once every 2-3 years and I say hello and keep interactions limited to that. With my immediate family, I stopped talking to them regularly a few years back (I moved away from where they live 7 years ago so that made it easier) and only check in once every few months. This distance has made it possible for me to be honest in our exchanges. I can plainly say something like "He does what? And you accept that? That's crazy for the following three reasons... here's what you should do the next time it comes up..."

It might sound cold and calculated, but I didn't set out to distance myself from them all, I just realized that the more I interacted with new people, the more I realized my family wasn't supportive and as much as they all complained about not getting a fair shake, their own behavior and actions were responsible for most of it. I have no qualms about something like say, my daughter has never met an alcoholic uncle that was abusive to his sister (my mom) their whole lives and she probably never will have to meet the guy because I feel no obligation to him just because he's family.
posted by mathowie at 7:33 AM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is a great thread. It's obvious that many of us, myself included, can really relate to your situation. There are some great answers about tactics and how to respond to their inquiries.

The guilt of extracating yourself from the situation can be immense. We are conditioned, likely by our parents, to feel guilty, cruel, disrespectful for treating them in a way that is anything short of being poisoned by their behavior.

Take small steps as you walk away. Increase stride as necessary. At each corner, evaluate how you are feeling about this. If anger is driving your movement, stop where you are and deal with it, because that may lead to guilt later on, as "punishment" might be motivating you. It's ok.

It's a journey, not a destination. Only go as fast as you're comfortable with. The more distance and ground covered, the easier it will get and the stronger you will feel. But rushing there skips over all the accepting and healing in between.

It's really hard, and scary too. You are not a bad person for doing this. You are defending yourself and protecting yourself. And taking care of yourself. Be proud of that! You are making wise choices and doing it all on your own.

I find it helpful to write lists. I write down all the small and big examples of their toxic behaviors. How bad it makes me feel, blah, blah, blah. I find it's helpful because pain has no memory. When I am stonewalling my parents, and I feel cold and cruel, those lists remind me why I must do this. And must continue to do this, especially when I start to feel better, and the relationship with my parents *seems* to be one I can handle and want to rebuild.

Good luck to you, and go only as fast as you need to. Just becoming aware of *where* the opportunities are in conversation to start distancing yourself can be a good starting point that will show you that your defenses are working and spot on. Trust yourself, you know what's bad for you and what's good for you.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:10 AM on March 23, 2007

No one can make you feel guilty without your consent, either.
posted by availablelight at 10:02 AM on March 23, 2007

You deserve to be treated with respect. When anyone in your life is not respectful, you end the contact. If you're on the phone with Mom, and she gets in a dig, "I love that new jacket you were wearing. It really helps hide your extra pounds." just get off the phone. Let technology be your friend. Make sure you have caller ID, and don't always answer. Blame dropped calls on your cell carrier, if you must.

I was in a very similar situation quite a few years ago, and I moved 1,000 miles from my family, and didn't have a phone for a year. I was the 1st child to really identify alcoholism, manipulation and meanness, and to opt out. I got a lot of pressure. There were a number of years that I didn't attend holidays. I missed some nice times, but I also got the boundaries I needed.

For now, you want to end unpleasant contacts without too much struggle. As you get some distance, you can push back a bit, by stating that certain comments hurt your feelings. My Mom has learned that I won't tolerate meanness, and that's made it possible for us to have a relationship. We ended up having an okay relationship most of the time, but weren't really close.
posted by theora55 at 2:51 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, its up to you to find the proper amount of distance between you and your family. For me (abusive mother, enabling father, resentful brother) it meant cutting them off completely - we've spoken once in the last 3 1/2 years. For you, it may be different.

Do whatever is necessary. If this means not returning phonecalls, it means not returning phonecalls. If it means telling them blunt and truthful things to make them go away, that's what it takes. Whatever you do, don't feel bad about it. Ultimately, nobody's going to look out for you but yourself. Your family is supposed to look out for you, but sometimes family is insane and family is draining and family needs to go away.
posted by Jake Apathy at 5:53 PM on March 23, 2007

My wife's mother is very similar. (I showed her this thread and the first thing she asked was, "did you post this question on my behalf?") After discussing it with some professionals, we are pretty sure that her mom has Borderline Personality Disorder. Stop Walking On Eggshells has been highly recommended to us, and Mater Aletheias is at the bookstore right now buying it. You might want to check it out, too. Even your your mother doesn't exactly have BPD, I bet it would give you useful practical ideas.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:54 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

P.S. There's also a workbook.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:57 PM on March 23, 2007

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