How to Deal With a Difficult Mother and Understand Her Crazy-Making Behaviors
Recognize the Crazy Making and Get Peace of Mind
For over five decades, I fought to have a good relationship with my mother, naively thinking it would improve if I just tried harder. It wasn't until recently that I finally surrendered, knowing my efforts were in vain and accepting the limitations of our bond. Because of her painful childhood with an alcoholic parent, my mom was emotionally damaged and unable to form deep connections. Her crazy-making behaviors, whether done consciously or unconsciously, were deeply ingrained in her psyche long before I was born. They frustrated me, made me sad and, yes, even drove me nuts. Now I stand back and clearly see her actions prevented us from getting close and there was nothing I could do about it. If you're wanting to connect with your mother (or someone else), it helps to know how these 6 behaviors may make that an impossible feat, thus leading to acceptance and, eventually, peace of mind.
1. Playing the Martyr for All Its Worth
If your mother plays the martyr, give up any hope of having a close, meaningful relationship with her. Your bond will never be healthy and balanced because she needs to feel morally superior—saintly, self-sacrificing, and long-suffering. Her identity is tied up in being the victim who gives and gives without getting anything in return. When you offer even the slightest criticism of her, she'll become incensed because you're threatening her self-image. When you see her flaws, she'll feel resentful. When you joke with her about her foibles, she'll not be amused.
If I ever dared to find fault with my mother, she'd reach back into history and hurl at me everything I'd ever done that hurt her. Therefore, I learned to keep my mouth shut, and we never dealt with our issues. Our problems never got resolved and stockpiled while the relationship deteriorated.
The unexamined life is not worth living.— Socrates
2. Rewriting History to Appear More Perfect
If your mom plays the martyr, she may feel a need to rewrite history so she appears more saintly and heroic. If she did something in the past that threatens her self-concept, she may deny it ever happened or alter the facts so she comes out looking like a rose. Your shared memories will be in dispute because you remember them accurately and she does not.
I no longer bring up my childhood with my mother because she gets defensive when my recollections aren't all blue skies and palomino ponies. If I mention my dad's verbal abuse, she'll claim it never happened, feeling guilty about not protecting us kids. If I talk about my sister getting married at 18 to leave our dysfunctional home, she'll argue that my sister was in love and that was the only reason she got hitched so young. I now leave the past in the past, but that's a huge chunk of our lives that's left unexamined.
Just Because She's Your Mother Doesn't Mean She Won't Get Jealous of You
3. Craving Validation for All Her Life Choices
Moms who engage in crazy-making behaviors are often insecure, craving validation for their life choices. This was certainly true of mine who struggled with low self-esteem. Her ego was so fragile that she looked for ways to bolster it through her adult children, especially her two daughters. When we followed her example as a mother, she felt great but, when we chose a different path, she felt irrationally threatened.
This deep-seated need for us to follow her lead became especially intense when my sister and I had children of our own. She wanted us to do everything as she had done, even though thirty years had passed and times were different. She hadn't breastfed us, for example, and was upset when we both decided to do so. She disparaged what we were doing, making snide comments such as: “I didn't have the time to sit around and nurse. I had to clean the house. It must be nice to have so much leisure time.” Instead of us becoming closer to her when we had kids, we moved farther apart as we saw her act petty and needy.
4. Pulling Away from Intimacy
Most of us have a goal of developing intimacy in our relationships with partners, parents, kids, and friends. But we must keep in mind that this is not the goal of everyone, even our own mothers. For some of them—especially those who were traumatized during childhood—growing close is scary so they pull away. Protecting themselves from hurt is more important than anything else.
This was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn with my mom. When I wanted to delve into her childhood pain (and mine as well), she would only go so far and then resist. She had little insight into the people and events that shaped her life and zero interest in examining them. Even though her mother was an alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver, she had never read a book about alcoholism and never attended an Al-Anon meeting. Her lack of curiosity prevented my siblings from making the much-needed connections between problems in the past that led to problems in the present such as eating disorders, addictions, depression, and anxiety.
The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.— Mother Theresa
5. Sabotaging Us to Gain Control
Most mothers play the role of cheerleaders in their daughters' lives, motivating them from the sidelines to do their very best. They celebrate their daughters' achievements and revel in their happiness. Their primary goal as parents is to rear confident kids who are ready to tackle life when reaching adulthood. Sadly, however, a small portion of us had moms who were conflicted—wanting us to shine but also feeling competitive and jealous when we did. Their crazy-making pattern of both supporting us and sabotaging us defined our childhoods, causing confusion and despair.
One of the ways my mother sabotaged me was with food. Always overweight and struggling with eating issues, she handed those same problems to me on a silver platter. When I was a kid, she made it abundantly clear that I should be thin, but her actions contradicted her words. She plied me with sweets and fattening foods, took me to fast food restaurants, filled our pantry with junk, and turned me into her eating buddy. Going to restaurants was her favorite form of entertainment so it became mine as well. As a result, I've been plagued with eating problems my entire life and developed many obsessive-compulsive behaviors around food.
This Book Changed My Life
6. Using Our Weaknesses Against Us
When we choose to let someone in our lives to love, we're taking a huge leap of faith. We're trusting what they learn about us—our weaknesses, quirks, and fears—will be treated with love and respect, not used as weapons against us. Since our mothers know us from birth, they're privy to all our imperfections but, because they love us unconditionally, we don't worry about it. But a small percentage of us have mothers who don't safeguard our flaws but use them to control and manipulate us.
My insecure mother used my imperfections to feel better about herself. I'm an introvert who's uncomfortable in large gatherings and struggles to make small talk. Yet, whenever I see her at family events, she greets me with words that undercut my confidence and make me want to hide. Some of her favorite lines are: “You look so tired” and “You've gained weight.” She'll point out a minuscule stain on my blouse, fuss with my hair to let me know it doesn't look right, and scan me up and down critically and then not say a word.
© 2017 McKenna Meyers