Terrible Relationship with Toxic Parent

Reader’s Question

I am a 50-year-old, recovering alcoholic (21 years of sobriety), and am having an absolutely terrible time eliminating self-doubt and guilt about my relationship with my mother. She fits your descriptions of an abusive personality. She has rageful outbursts whenever I exercise independence (e.g., buying a car, a house, being sad or in a bad mood). She has even become psychotic when I moved out. This has been since childhood. I believe she has Narcissistic Personality Disorder along with alcoholism and lord knows what else.

I know I can’t help her. I just so much want to end my mental torment and be at peace. I keep asking myself “why am I torturing myself? Why am I doing to myself what she does to me?” And the answer keeps coming back from the inner child, that if I want her to love me and take care of me, I had best accept the blame for the failings in our relationship.

Do you have any suggestions for ending this tormenting cycle of guilt and self-doubt, and overcoming such a distorted childhood belief? I have sought therapy for this (19 years!), but have not yet been helped by it. I feel I should be past this issue at this point given all of the hard work that I do and deep insights that I have. It has been and is very difficult to find someone who understands what she is like. Instead, I get told that if I wasn’t so sensitive, she wouldn’t bother me.

Any thoughts are welcome.

Psychologist’s Reply

We often forget that people with significant personality disorders become parents. When they do, they actually become “toxic” parents who are abusive, controlling, hostile, and damaging to their children. The article on Identifying Losers in Relationships is based on four personality disorders — Narcissistic (you guessed it), Antisocial, Histrionic, and Borderline Personalities.

From your description, your mother is more Borderline Personality than narcissistic. All personality disorders have core personalities of selfishness, insensitivity to others, narcissism, a refusal to accept personal responsibility for their behavior, and a sense of entitlement that allows them to abuse others when their selfish demands are not immediately met.

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In truth:

  1. Your mother will never love you like a normal parent. She doesn’t have it to give.
  2. Being the best daughter or son in the universe will not change your mother at all. The reason? Your behavior has nothing to do with her behavior. She’s Borderline whether you are involved in her life or not.
  3. Loving your mother will not protect you from who she is and how she behaves. We can give all our love to our pet tiger and it will still bite our leg off the first chance it gets.
  4. You will need to protect yourself from your mother. If we have that pet tiger, we must always keep it in a cage to protect ourself and our family. We never let it out of the cage.
  5. Sadly, your mother is totally concerned about herself. She has no concern for what her behavior does to you or those around her. She has no hesitation at destroying your finances, mood, sobriety, or mental health.
  6. 19 years of therapy has probably been detrimental to you. You think too much!

Recognizing that your mother has a severe personality disorder and alcoholism, you can develop a strategy to deal with her and manage her behavior. So far, you have been trying to manipulate your inner thoughts when the problem is this external toxic parent. You can use the same approach that employees use in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and recovery programs. The client (your mother) has a significant problem. To deal with the individual, you maintain a safe emotional/social distance based on your knowledge of their psychopathology. When they act out…as they always will…you don’t take it personally. You react and manage each situation that surfaces with well-researched procedures and strategies that don’t assign blame and in truth, don’t require excessive mental philosophy. Keep all interactions as businesslike as possible.

Keep in mind that your mother has always used your sensitivity and guilt against you. That’s classic Borderline Personality behavior. Set your mother up on an anti-borderline schedule. Visit and call her on schedules — being unavailable at other times. If she begins the guilt-recital, leave. Recommend that she seek mental health and recovery services each time she discusses her distress. Don’t try to fix that by yourself…that’s another game she plays. Maintain her at a safe emotional distance. Ignore her attempts at making you feel guilty. After any contact with your mother — stand up straight and physically “brush off” the experience with a series of hand motions as through you were brushing off dust from being in a sawmill. We do that to remind us that the visit is over and we’re “off the clock”.

If you need the support of a counselor, focus on cognitive-behavioral approaches. Your relationship with your mother has damaged your “inner child” to the point that it’s no longer reliable. Remember…that “inner child” has lived with a toxic mother for as long as you have… That’s my two cents.

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