Resisting the Demands of a Self-Centered Mother

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Reader’s Question

I am a single, middle-aged female with a successful career. I have always done what my mother has asked, even as an adult. We lived in different states from the time I graduated high school until 2 years ago, when she moved about 30 minutes away from where I live now. She was easier to deal with when we were in different states because I didn’t have to see her or talk to her that much, as she had my two siblings and their children to communicate with. Two years ago, the relationship between my mother and my two siblings completely fell apart, which is why she moved closer to me. It was her doing, although she is in complete denial about it, and is making them out to be the bad guys.

I never liked being around her, as she is very negative, demands attention, and barks out orders. She acts helpless when in fact she is quite bright and very able-bodied. I don’t open up to her anymore as I often get criticized and demeaned. I feel as though she is indeed proud of me, but I feel it is more that she wants people to see my success as her accomplishment. It’s always all about her! It’s difficult for me to be around her for even five minutes, and I feel like I am going to have a panic attack. I do not feel she is good for me, and would like to limit my contact with her. I feel as though she has been manipulating me all my life — a realization I just came to recently.

She is now in the process of moving out of state again. I feel as though she is expecting to stay with me when she does come to my state for a visit. I do not want her to; not even for one night. Is there any gentle way to tell her she can’t stay with me? I do want to keep a relationship with her, but only on a limited basis. I know this will hurt her a great deal, but I am emotionally exhausted dealing with her. It’s time for me to stand in my truth and set some stronger boundaries. How do I handle this?

Psychologist’s Reply

I suspect that at least some aspects of your description of your relationship with your mother strike a chord in many readers. It was for precisely this reason that a psychiatrist colleague and I wrote a book about transcending the effects of having had a parent (or parents) with a personality disorder. The term “personality disorder” sounds clinical and perhaps exaggerated, but it simply means that the individual’s personality is extreme enough in particular ways that it causes significant difficulties in that person’s life. But, because my personality is, well, me, I may be the last one to recognize that my personality, or “how I am,” causes problems. In many cases, the problems caused by personality disorders lie in relationships.

When problematic personality interferes in parent-child relationships, it’s often because the parent is self-centered. We humans in general are somewhat self-centered in that we do indeed care about ourselves. Successful parents, however, must be able to put their children’s needs first; not all the time, but with enough regularity that the child feels loved and supported. As children, we rely on our parents and have little basis for comparison, so we may not recognize that the root of the problems in our relationship with our parent lies in the parent’s personality. As in your case, it’s often only in adulthood that we can more objectively evaluate our parent, and see that it’s not just us who has difficulty dealing with mom or dad.

In extreme cases, adult children have to sever ties to a parent for that child’s own mental and emotional health. In most cases though, restructuring the relationship and setting new boundaries is a more reasonable alternative. That doesn’t mean that revising the nature of the parent-child relationship will be easy. Despite complaints to the contrary, the parent with a personality disorder is satisfied with the status quo, or at least is liable to resist changes in the parent-child relationship. So, anticipate resistance and “hurt feelings” regardless of how tactfully you establish your boundaries. Your mother’s response is likely to be exaggerated, simply as a tactic to pressure you back into the ways things have always been.

As for details, consider starting with an explanation that you value your relationship, and want it to remain on good terms. Still, you and your mother are different people, and there is likely to be much less friction if she stays in a hotel or other neutral surroundings so that the two of you can spend time together on each person’s terms, and to the extent that both of you want. And, if things get heated, each of you has her own separate space for respite. Of course, explaining these reasons behind why staying at a hotel is a good idea for both of you may fall on deaf ears, and you may instead have to hear about how family stay together during visits, and that you clearly don’t care about your own mother if you won’t let her sleep under your roof.

In the end, the important thing is to not be drawn back into old relationship dynamics, which may have always started with stirring particular emotions in you that then allowed your mother to know how to manipulate your behavior. Sometimes the first attempt at establishing new boundaries in a relationship is best served by writing to the other person. That way, we have time to think through what we want to convey and the best choice of words for doing so. In the heat of an emotionally charged conversation, we may become less articulate. Then, attempts to draw us back into old relationship dynamics should be met with repetition of the new conditions we’re setting forth for the relationship, perhaps even with a mantra-like consistency. As it becomes clearer that we’re remaining intent on a change in the relationship, the other person will eventually have to concede that things will not be the way they were before. Then, the other person’s behavior toward us will indicate whether a continued relationship is possible under the new rules. I wish you both luck and fortitude in tackling this sticky relationship issue. Regardless of how it turns out, I’m confident that you will learn some valuable things.

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