My mother is the absolute center of everything in the family and has been ever since I can remember. Self-centered doesn’t begin to cover it. If she has a nail appointment over her granddaughter’s soccer game, it’s not even a question—she’s getting her nails done. If her face doesn’t look perfect in the family photo, it’s not getting put on the wall. If her kids aren’t hanging out with her because they want to hang out with just their brother or sister, it makes her mad. She has to be involved with everything and she is incredibly judgmental and has caused a lot of pain, eating disorders, and pushing children away.
I am struggling because I want to have this loving, wonderful family, and every time I approach my mother with different issues I have, she freaks, claims I’m attacking her, starts screaming and shouting and it gets us nowhere.
What a painful situation for you and your entire family. I commend you for sticking with this and wanting to find a way to have a relationship with your mother. Even though she sounds like a relational mine field, I’m certain there are ways you can fit her into your life.
I encourage you to step back and work to depersonalize your mom’s outbursts. She clearly isn’t targeting one individual in the family. It seems like she’s had all of her emotional skin peeled off and anything that touches her makes her yelp in pain. Even though she’s highly reactive, recognize this isn’t personal.
If you make this personal, then you’ll spend all of your energy trying to fix, defend, and explain every interaction with her. Instead, step back and recognize how her reactivity is about her pain and fear instead of something you’re doing wrong. When dealing with highly reactive people, we can drive ourselves crazy trying to take responsibility for making them act this way. The fact of the matter is that they are acting this way because they’re reactive. You don’t have the power to make someone behave badly.
You’re not going to be able to approach this in a logical and cooperative way with her. I don’t suggest you sit down with her to work out any type of agreement. Instead, decide where she fits in best to your family life and stick to those limits. For example, if you feel like one contact per month matches the energy you want to dedicate to this relationship, you’ll need to politely and firmly excuse yourself from other interactions. If you take on more than you can emotionally handle out of guilt or obligation, you will become resentful.
Resentment is poison to our souls. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught the following about harboring hurts:
When we have been hurt, undoubtedly God takes into account what wrongs were done to us and what provocations there are for our resentments, but clearly the more provocation there is and the more excuse we can find for our hurt, all the more reason for us to forgive and be delivered from the destructive hell of such poisonous venom and anger.[i]
I also discourage you from trying to analyze and figure out why she does what she does. For some unknown reason she’s acting in a self-centered and selfish way. It’s been this way forever and you can spend a lot of your precious time spinning in circles with your siblings and spouse trying to figure out the “hows” and “whys” of her behavior. Instead, accept the reality that she will do what’s best for her, that she will become reactive, and that she will stir up contention. Then, you can stop being surprised every time it happens and simply move forward with the boundaries you’ve set up to protect yourself and your family.
You can still love and honor your mother even though she’s behaving in a way that causes tension. Find the place where she fits in best and know that you’re being as inclusive as you can. Go easy on her fragility as a human being. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” It’s not your job to fix her hurt, but I do believe we all can be a little more compassionate and sensitive to the struggles of others. Our Perfect Exemplar begged the Father to forgive those who had abused and crucified him, as he knew they had no idea what they were doing. We can extend that same mercy to those who hurt us as we surrender them and their behavior to the Father.[ii] We can’t always know why people are the way they are, but we can always treat them with compassion and respect.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Luke 23:34