Most of my clients struggle in their relationship with their mother by feeling unfulfilled, not understood, ignored… it is a difficult issue that is visited often in therapy. My clients wonder if the relationship will get better, but the first part is understanding mom, her past and how that has a role in the process. Below I demonstrate this process via a made-up conversation with a client. I talk a lot in this conversation to communicate the information but an actual session would usually look much different!
Client: My mom was physically abused by her father and she favored my older sister – my aunt. They never get along – her an my aunt. I shouldn’t have anything to complain about though, because I wasn’t beat. My dad worked a lot and mom made sure we had what we needed. So my mom thinks I should be more appreciative to her. I try to be, but at the same time I feel like she just doesn’t understand me or even really knows who I am.
Me: It’s great your mom was able to make some changes for you by not allowing physical abuse in the house and I can see she wanted you to have a better life. It’s one thing to enforce no physical abuse in the home, but another beast to handle emotions differently.
Client: What do you mean, Stacey?
Me: There is an art and comfort level in working through emotions. Growing up, it sounds like your mother must have felt unsafe most of the time. Being abused, especially in the home is so tragic not only because of the act of the abuse, but because your HOME is not a safe place and that is a huge loss.
Being in a perpetual state of feeling unsafe increases anxiety symptoms and it is difficult to experience calm. Hopefully your mother developed some positive coping skills to feel safe that may have been activities in school, going for walks, or out playing with friends, but maybe she was expected to come home after school to make dinner, watch and manage her siblings and continue to be in this unsafe environment. I wonder how your mom coped with such a difficult upbringing.
Client: Well she did leave the house at a young age and I think some of her boyfriends at the time weren’t really that good. So I’m sure she was trying to escape from that.
Me: Let’s do an exercise (does affect management worksheet)
Client: My mom would say things like:
“You shouldn’t feel that way” or “no I didn’t do that” – she denies everything. She doesn’t really remember what I have to say, and when I tell her how I feel she says I’m attacking her and never admits to blame because she is the mom…
Me: I can see why your mom didn’t want you to experience negative feelings as it’s hard to see loved ones suffering, however it sounds like you felt like your feelings are wrong which is negative judgement and essentially tell you how to feel and what feelings are “right” and what feelings are “wrong.”
I’m also wondering if mom feels you are attacking her because she was verbally abused as a child and her nervous system is just reacting because she hears she did something wrong. Taking responsibility for how she is contributing to your feelings is just too much for her to handle because she would have to feel and based on the exercise we did it sounds like she shuts her emotions down a lot or channels them into anger or anxiety.
Client: That makes sense, I just wish she would take the time to understand me.
This is a rough example of the trauma cycle. We often don’t look at how emotions were handled in the home growing up and why emotions were handled so poorly. My clients often report not being able to manage their emotion (being too sensitive) or feeling cut off and disconnected (shut down). It takes a lot of education, knowledge, awareness and practice to make some of these changes that are deeply ingrained in the psyche. It helps to understand not only a little bit about what mom experienced growing up but how it explains that she didn’t have the skills to be able to help you in the way that you needed to. It is an unfortunate circumstance but my clients report receiving a lot of insight and ability to make steps to move forward when there is a basis of understanding.
Without understanding, self-blame happens easily. It makes sense. Usually we are punished when we did something wrong “you don’t treat your sister that way, now go to your room” you know you are punished and miserable because you did something wrong. When you are miserable, feeling ignored, misunderstood and sad in your room and didn’t do anything you begin to find reasons to understand. “Well if I do this, maybe she will treat me differently; if I was only better at __ maybe she would love me…. If I only…” This is the message that gets hardwired neurons firing creating highways to self-blame and low self-esteem. By understanding the trauma cycle, we know our character is now flawed, we are not inherently bad or unlovable, we are figuring out how to make it in the world, how to be loved, how to be accepted and our behaviors just follow suit.