What to Do When You Have a Complicated Relationship with Your Mom

“Motherhood has the greatest potential influence in human life.”-Unknown

I used to be trapped in a people-pleasers nightmare. I was surrounded by people who were never satisfied and always found something wrong with every situation. I saw the people around me screaming whenever they didn’t feel gratified or didn’t get their way.

They were always looking for me to satisfy their discomfort and blaming me for their misfortunes. This week I came to the startling realization that no matter how much I’ve evolved, deep in my heart, I still want to see other people happy. Part of me still feels somewhat responsible for that; I’m uncomfortable with the thought of people being upset with me. But I’ve had ample opportunity to change that about myself, especially since I have a mother who gets upset about mostly everything. “You didn’t say hi the right way.” “You passed the salt to your aunt before you passed it to me.” “Why weren’t you the first to call me on my birthday?” “It’s your fault I’m angry.”

I grew up with a guilt that consumed my soul, and I spent my life seeking ways to prove that I was a good person, a good daughter. My driving hope was that one day, my mother would look at me with love, and I would simply be enough.

I used to think, “Maybe this time we’ll go to lunch, and I won’t do something to upset her.” But it never worked; I always did something. It still hurts not to be fully excepted by my own mother, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided to make peace with those feelings. I’ve come to realize that my mother’s dissatisfaction with me isn’t my fault, and if someone is on a mission to be disappointed, they will be—no matter what I do. I had to decide to know myself and claim my worth and value apart from what my mother—or anyone else, for that matter—has to say.

Sometimes I honestly wonder if the path I took to start living my own life was worth it; other days, I dance in the glory of the freedom I’ve claimed to make my own life, even if others aren’t happy with me.

Many of my clients have complicated relationships with their mothers. Some of their mothers are distant, others are smothering, and some are too critical. The truth is, we’re all affected by our mothers, whether we like it or not. We all want a good relationship with our mothers, and that’s a beautiful thing to cherish. But sometimes we just have to settle for the one we have. I learned that to have a relationship with my mother; I had first to let go of the fantasy. She was never going to be the person I wanted her to be. She was always going to pick out the needle in the haystack of despair. I will always do wrong in her eyes.

The hardest thing for me to realize was that I’d never be my mother’s fantasy daughter. She and I are very different, and I’m simply not the kind of person she prefers.

When you forgive yourself for being imperfect and accept who you are right now, you will feel a sense of peace.

In spite of it all, I can see that my mother has some amazing qualities. She doesn’t take shit from anyone, she tells you like it is, and though she is perpetually dissatisfied, she loves her children more than anything. She has a heart of gold, but a thirst for control that consumes her.

Even though our relationship is complicated at times, I’m grateful for the mom I do have because if it weren’t so painful trying to please her, I never would have changed. It was so hard to be a people-pleaser in my most important relationship, that it pushed me to be a better version of myself. Sometimes our teachers aren’t the people we expect them to be. My mother has been one of my most excellent teachers, as well as my most challenging relationship.

What to Do When You Have a Complicated Relationship with Your Mom

The biggest lesson I learned is that I’m not responsible for another person’s happiness, and it’s okay to upset people if you’re doing what’s right for you. I know this made me a stronger person because if I can live with dissatisfying my mother, I can live with upsetting just about anyone. If you’re struggling as I have, here are some things you can do about it.

Say goodbye to your fantasy mom. If you have a complicated relationship with your mother or wish things could be different between you, I understand how frustrating and confusing that can be. However, if you want to maintain a relationship with her, it’s vital that you throw away your fantasy of who she should be, and accept her as she is. If you’re lucky, you can utilize your relationship with her to change things about yourself that will help you in other areas of your life.

Understand your mom in her context. I learned that my mother still struggles with not having a relationship with her own mother. She was abused and cut out of her mother’s life, and it weighs heavily on her. If issues like that don’t get resolved in a family, those patterns will continue into the next generation. As a mother myself, I refuse to carry on that legacy. No matter how difficult it is, I will work on my relationship with my mother, learning to accept the one I’ve got, and keeping in check my need to please her.

Remain connected, even when you’re upset. Trust me; I know how hard it is to remain connected with someone when you’re upset. But we have to remember that a family is an emotional unit. What one person in a family does affect everyone else. I decided to never cut my mother out of my life, no matter how hard it gets at times. I take each time she gets upset with me as an opportunity to express myself and learn how to deal with confrontation. Even though I’m not my former people-pleasing self, I don’t have a conflict with too many people. Through the relationship with my mother, I can continue learning how to deal and manage when there’s conflict.

Give yourself time to respond and not react. When we’re emotionally charged, our initial reaction is to either retreat or yell back. But it’s helpful to practice responding instead. I don’t like distance from people I care about, and I also don’t like yelling and screaming. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be firm and speak your mind. When you’re triggered by your mother or anyone else, give yourself a little time to cool off, but always make it a point to discuss what is and isn’t okay with you. Use your response as an opportunity to show who you are and make clear how you handle difficult situations.

Yes, I get upset. Yes, I sometimes wish it was easier. But most of the time in life, we don’t get the relationships we want; we get the ones we need—the ones that will challenge us to our core. We can run from them, but nothing gets solved that way. I’ve come to realize that if my mother wants to get angry at the small stuff, that’s not my problem. I have to learn to be okay with her being upset with me, especially when I haven’t done anything wrong. I have to learn that I can’t please everyone, and it’s okay to keep doing what’s right for me.

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