My Mother, Myself

At a birthday luncheon not long ago, a friend of mine remarked that she was glad her mother lived long enough for she and her mother to become friends. Suddenly, half the table of women at the luncheon began nodding their heads in sympathy and agreement, while sharing their own mother-daughter stories. I started thinking about mother-daughter issues, and wondering: if the first and most central person in your life, from birth to death, is your mother… why so much conflict?

It is complicated. Though there are all kinds of relationships between mothers and daughters, yours, in particular, is individual and unique to you. All the behavioral patterns you learned in childhood come from your core experiences with your mother and father. In addition, as a social animal, you learn about life through bonding, imitation, and modeling your mother… and herein lies the rub.

If you were well-bonded in early childhood, you are more likely to have a strong sense of self and good self-esteem. And, you are more likely to be inoculated against both parental control and peer pressure. On the other hand, if in those early childhood years, you lacked maternal bonding, intimacy and validation, you are more likely to feel insecure – which leads to low self-esteem and a poor self-image.

In midlife, all of these feelings find their way to the surface, bubbling up into rivers of depression, free floating anxiety, mental and physical health problems, and a general sense of malaise – that something is missing. It is at this stage that you are mature enough to look back at your childhood, recognizing and acknowledging those patterns from your family of origin that you now possess. It is important to be realistic, observing what is right and what is wrong about your relationship with your mother. Only through that knowledge can you integrate back into yourself those feelings of injury and hurt that you project out onto others. This is how we grow up, and this is called individuation.

By redeeming your childhood patterns, you are free to listen to your inner voice and choose how to live your life. My own mother used to tell me that choice was my greatest gift, and how I chose to react to problems in the past and present and would determine the quality and vitality of my future.

Years ago, mental health professionals advised women to cut off relations with a toxic mother, believing that it could protect them from further pain and suffering. Today, however, many believe that if you cut yourself off from your mother, you are doomed to repeat her destructive patterns of behavior, or compensate for them, in your adult life.

In my years as a researcher and educator, with a Ph.D. in psychology, I have witnessed and experienced many ways in which mothers and daughters have improved their relationships, and they include:

1. Compassion
As you mature you realize that your mother is a person too, with her own history and family of origin. No mother is an island, and nothing happens in a vacuum. So, as my mother used to say, “To know all, is to forgive all.”

2. Don’t stand on ceremony
Communication is always the key to resolving mother-daughter problems. However, if you and your mother remain polarized, each waiting for the other to act, then that polarization becomes paralysis, and tension builds up with a collection of hurts and injustices. Furthermore, if you take the first step and act first, all of that tension will dissipate in one moment, and you can move towards your mother from a position of choice, and thus, strength. This is what I like to call “being in your adult.”

3. Make adjustments quickly
By being in your adult you can make adjustments more rapidly than when you were a child. Repairing a conflict as soon as it rears its ugly head, keeps it from festering and causing irreparable damage.

4. The only way out is through
No problem is too large to confront. My empathic process can help you here. It gives a large structure to contain the feelings of both you and your mother without defense. Now, together, you can problem solve creatively.

5. Empathy
By using my empathic process, you are not only walking in your mother’s moccasins, you are actively listening to her story with empathy, and she in turn, will do the same for you. Not defending either of your positons, mother and daughter can open the door for feelings, compromise, and collaboration without the push and pull of competition.

6. Find the capacity within yourself to accept your mother as she is.
Accepting your mother for who she is, does not in any way erase the damage of your childhood, but rather, keeps your heart open for redemption. Your mother is part of you, and your identity is all wrapped up in her. That is why turning away your mother is, in essence, turning away from yourself. Moreover, by forgiving your mother, and no longer playing the blame-game, you are giving yourself the chance to individuate. When you stop speaking to your mother, it is because you have such a large investment of feelings in and around her. If you can let go of the offenses, laying on the surface of your feelings, then you can relate to her with both kindness and detachment. This is the real way to support and protect your emotions. By treating your mother as if she were someone else’s mother, you can relate to her with less emotional investment… and therefore, compassion.

7. Stay in the present
No one can change past injuries, and in reality no one can heal them either. The wounded child is wounded. The best you can do, in relationship with your mother, is for you both to try to do better in the future. To keep resurrecting old injuries and collecting them like stamps in a catalog, will only keep you in a loop of hurt and anger. Let go of the past – and the past will let go of you.

8. Equilibration

Every cell in your body, every thought in your mind is always reaching for balance and equilibration – that is especially true between mothers and daughters. From the time you were born you were growing toward freedom and individuality. The struggle for control between mother and daughter, therefore, is present at the very beginning of life. As a child you were establishing your own sense of self and identity, while your mother was controlling the boundaries of your individuality. Here is where the balance between intimacy and separation becomes animated, as you seek to individuate.

9. Humor
When all else fails, try a little humor. We don’t have to agree with the people we love… we just have to love them. When things get intense, humor is a great way to break the ice and bring both you and your mother back to more intimate feelings.

10. You are neither a reflection nor an extension of your mother, and she is neither a reflection nor an extension of you
It is hard enough to change yourself, never mind, someone else. So, it is important to consciously walk the path between intimacy with your mother and authenticity with yourself. Whether you are enmeshed with your mother, or separate from her, you are and will always be, in relationship with her, whether she’s alive or dead. So, agreeing to respect each other’s points of view, while staying connected and in relationship, will help you find a friendship with your mother, minus the need for control.

11. How to communicate with your mother

Again, my empathic process works very well here, using active listening and equal time for each of you to discuss your feelings, crafting suggestions for creative solutions. The key is to have no defense, to stay in the present, and to be descriptive with your language. Try to paint a picture explaining your feelings. For example: “When you criticize me, it makes me feel as if I’m in an elevator, and I’ve lost my stomach.” In this way, your mother can experience not only what you say, but how you feel… and vice versa.

12. Flexible boundaries
Though it is important to create boundaries that are respectful of both you and your mother, it is also important to be flexible. The struggle for power and control that exists between mother and daughter can be successfully navigated through the insertion of boundaries, as they set the limits that you are willing to maintain. Boundaries can become teachable moments for both mother and daughter, as they push both forward toward adulthood, by abrogating the idea of unconditional resilience to all behaviors, whether good or bad. By realizing that there is a limit to what is acceptable, you can learn to moderate healthy communication with your mother.

13. Never, never, never display splitting behavior by bringing in others to take your side against your mother, or vice versa
This can only lead to trouble with a capitol “T.” Your business is with your mother… and it is no one else’s business.

In the final analysis, if you can resolve your mother-daughter conflict in this lifetime, you will be able to live a life that is conscious and complete. If not, you will project out those feelings of unresolved hurt and injury onto to others, including your children, creating a generational inheritance of suffering.