Tell Me About It: ‘I have to keep an emotional distance for my own mental health, but it doesn’t prevent me from feeling guilty’
I have an elderly mum who’s currently living by herself. We’ve always had a difficult relationship due to her controlling and manipulative personality.
Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good person, but at home she made my childhood and teenage years as painful as she could. I left home for good as soon as I finished college and got a job. One by one – my dad, my brother and my sister left her and now she’s completely alone. She cries a lot and often complains about her loneliness, but she’s unable to see this is happening as a consequence of her own behaviour.
In the past few years, she realised she doesn’t have a relationship with me and she has been trying to force a level of intimacy we never had. I do have trouble forgiving her because, despite all that has happened in her life, she blames others for her own problems: eg, she says she’s sad because I don’t live close to her, that I don’t want to be her friend and it is all my fault – never hers.
She’s very difficult to live with and I have to keep an emotional distance for my own mental health. But it doesn’t prevent me from feeling guilty.
She is in therapy, but frequently says the therapist doesn’t understand her. Not sure what to do to help or how to alleviate this guilt feeling, which I know, is part of her manipulation tactic.
There may be family behavioural patterns that you have inherited, and if you managed to address them, you might get some freedom: the dominant one is the idea that someone else is responsible for a person’s negative feelings.
In your mother’s case, she blames you and everyone else for her unhappiness, but you have picked up from her the idea that someone is responsible for your guilt and uneasy feelings, ie her. In your mother’s case, you already know that her problems can only be fixed or addressed by her and that her first point of action is self-awareness, but even with consistent therapy she has managed to resist this.
In your own situation, it is worth recognising that you can only be manipulated if you buy in to the narrative that you are falling short in your duties in some way. It seems that, in fact, you are the only one who has managed to continue to support her and putting in a personal boundary has allowed you to stay the pace. However, you are suffering too much and your tendency towards self-doubt and self-criticism is resulting in excessive guilt. Letting these thoughts go is no small challenge but it can be done with the help of such things as cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness exercises or meditation. All of these are easily available, eg the Aware Life Skills online course, podcasts, local groups and various courses. It might be tempting to feel resentful that dealing with your mother is costing you even more time and effort, but you will be banishing the family tradition of blaming and subsequent abandonment.
Attitude is something that you are fully in control of, but only if you are aware of it, so ask yourself what your attitude is every time you have an encounter with your mother. Is it one that allows for openness and possibilities or is it one that is stressed, defensive or even contemptuous? At the very least, your attitude has a huge effect on you and on your experiences, and it seems that even when you are not with your mother it continues to have an impact. This means that it is worth exploring the area further.
Try deliberately choosing an open attitude when you next meet your mother and examine the effect this has on you. You are not responsible for your mother’s happiness, and neither is she responsible for yours. At this stage you are both adults and while you have some duty of care to each other, this needs be to discharged with compassion by both of you. If your mind is less full of frustration, you may be able to see some opportunities that could assist you both. For example, your mother could use a listening service, such as provided by the Samaritans. As the person on the call would not become agitated or angry with her, she may feel fully heard and then she may be able to turn her attention to demonstrating interest in your life, or at the very least she may be able to calm her need for attention which she manifests by being demanding.
Her way of expressing her loneliness is to lash out at those around her and this has resulted in everyone leaving. As her fear grows, so does her response of blaming and trying to control. This may be a stretch for you, but if you could tell her (truthfully) that you are not going to abandon her, it might allow for some chink of light in her self-awareness and a subsequent change in behaviour.
You will need support if you are willing to try this approach and so reach out to the appropriate services – the HSE has lists of those that support both the lonely person and their carers.