Conflict with mother
I am a nineteen-year-old college student. As far back as I can remember there has been tension between my mother and I, and after going to college for a year I want to be able to resolve it more than anything. Whenever we talk, there is a lot of strain and awkwardness in the relationship. My mom has a personality that goes way up one minute and way down the next, but is never in the middle. This conflicts with my personality, which mostly just stays in the middle. When she is in one of her good moods, she tries to have a really close relationship with me, asking questions about my personal life and giving me lots of hugs and stuff. These hugs seem to be something that she uses to stay sure that everything between us is okay. But, for me, they are annoying because she will have just gotten done telling me that I am the biggest disappointment of her life, and then suddenly get in a good mood again, and wants a hug. I feel like these hugs are more of a punishment than a good thing, and so I am not enthusiastic, and that puts her in a bad mood again.
When my mom is upset, there is no way of calming her down. She uses what I told her in her good moods against me in when she is in a bad mood. For instance, if I tell her that I am in a fight with a friend, she seems to really care but next time she is upset she says "No wonder you have no friends". I have learned to not tell her anything too personal because I don't want to be too vulnerable. However, when she is in a good mood she wants to know everything about how I am and if I don't tell her that puts her in a bad mood again. I feel like it is a never-ending cycle and like I am in charge of whatever mood she is in. When she is in a bad mood, I feel it is my responsibility to bring her back up to a good mood. When she is in a good mood, I struggle to keep her there. I think I feel like this is sometimes because so many of her emotions are taken out on me, and so I feel like those emotions are all a result of who I am, something I have said, or something I have done.
Can I do anything to make the relationship work better while I am home this summer? How can I develop a better attitude about this?
Nicole, you have taken a big step towards making your relationship with your mom more conscious and mature. Unfortunately, the conscious one is YOU and not your mother. She is obviously operating from an unconscious state of mind, acting out her moods without any ability to self-regulate. This is most likely a very deeply rooted personality trait that she has had her whole life, and which you are just now starting to see more clearly. That may be painful for you to accept, but for the sake of your own liberation, you must see your mother's limitations. From your description of her, it is hard to tell the exact cause of her mood swings. On one end of the spectrum she could be suffering from some form of bipolar disorder - a biochemical disorder that causes fluctuations in mood from depression to "mania" or unusual highs. The severity and duration of these swings can vary greatly among different people. The other possibility (and more likely), is that she has a "personality disorder," but getting into labels is not necessarily what would be helpful for you here. The fact is this: She is emotionally "enmeshed" with you. She can't really see you as a separate person. She doesn't have a healthy identity of her own. That's why you're left feeling responsible for her moods. On one level, she has given you that task, and you have taken it on - probably since you were a baby. Even as infants we absorb our parents energy, feel responsible for their happiness and their pain and their anger.
Some parents, like your mother, who have a poor sense of self identity, invest more than an appropriate share of energy in their children, and in a way (unconsciously) try to make them into the parents they wish they had. She's trying to get something from you that she can never get from another person. She's feeling empty and is unable to feel content and whole by herself, so first she sees her beautiful daughter whom she loves and is proud of and wants to hear all about how great she is. She views you as an extension of herself. This sustains her for a while, but not long. Soon she's left feeling miserable again -- alone with herself. So then she gets bitter and angry, maybe even feels jealous of you for "having it all together," for being young and independent, etc. And she takes it out on you. What's worse, she violates your trust by using your words and your emotions against you. This is a terrible thing to do to your child. Of course I doubt she realizes what she's doing. But that is no excuse for her behavior. She will continue to do this as long as you continue to accept it and to feel guilty and responsible for her.
Often it is when we first leave home, at just around your age, that we begin to see our parents for who they really are, with all their faults and frailties. Some people don't take the time to learn from this, but I see that you have some good insight. It will take you far, but it's a hard road to walk. You will need to get angry at your mother. After 19 years of being your mother's support (a role that no child can fulfill) and the object of her emotional and verbal abuse -- you would have to have a great deal of buried rage. You may not know that yet, because you've learned to be so good at swallowing other people's crazy emotions at the expense of your own. But if you just allow the possibility of being angry, it will emerge. Inside that anger and rage, is a lost part of yourself that is essential to your wholeness and happiness. Don't turn that anger against yourself in the form of guilt and shame. Let it liberate you. You do not deserve to be verbally abused, put down, manipulated and emotionally used by your mother or anyone else. Make no mistake about it - what she does to you is abuse. Talking to a good counselor about this will be incredibly valuable in helping you to get more clear about all of this, and to start to set healthy boundaries with your mother and to empower yourself. Finding healthy ways to access and express your anger would be a very worthwhile goal in therapy.
As much as you want your mother to grow with you, there is a good possibility that she will not tolerate your changing. She may not be capable of changing. She will see your liberation and independence as an abandonment of her. But that's the choice you have to make. You can love her without playing her games. Be well.
Ben Schwarcz, MA, MFT
This question was answered by Ben Schwarcz, MA, MFT, he is a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Main County. Ben is also a meditation teacher and a certified online counselor at www.myTHERAPYnet.com. He received his master's degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from JFK University. Transpersonal psychotherapy honors all dimensions of life, with the spiritual Self as the foundation. His specialties are relationships, stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, conscious parenting, adolescents and spiritual issues. His work blends cognitive-behavioral techniques with depth therapy for transformation of mind, body, and spirit. For more information visit Ben's site (www.BenSchwarcz.com) or his compact information page on QueenDom.Com.For more information visit: http://www.AlternativeDepressionTherapy.com