Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Ask Polly: Should I Cut My Abusive Mother Out of My Life Forever?

dearestHi Polly,

I'm trying to figure out how to get the gist of this across without writing a novel, but here goes. I am a 30-year-old woman who is really hitting her stride. I bought a home with my boyfriend who recently became my fiancé, I have a great job and live a great life in Southern California. It's a dream, and I can't wait to start a family blah blah blah.

Obviously these are the types of joys in life that you want to share with family, but I only have one family member left, my mother, and right now I have such anger toward her that I feel like it would be therapeutic for me to tell her she can't be in my wedding, or have anything to do with me for that matter.

Choices she made throughout her life basically made my childhood chaos and my life a living hell. She divorced my father, and remarried an asshole with three sons who pretty much tortured me for four years straight. She used to forget me at school until dark, and then she would send one of her employees, often a grizzled contractor in a smelly truck, to pick me up. I grew out of my clothes, and she didn't notice when I wore the same (too short) pants to school every day for weeks. Sometimes I wouldn't see her for days at a time, because I would take the bus to school, and she would work through my bedtime. When I tried to tell her about my unhappiness, she said things like, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself." or "Who ever told you that people are supposed to be happy? No one is happy. That's the way life is.” It’s sad, in hindsight, because that must be how she really felt.

As an adult, I can see that she had her own problems with her husband, and their failing business put her in a tough spot financially, so I know she was working to make ends meet during those times that I didn't see her. And I can't be mad about being poor, you know? I just tried to make things easier and not make waves. I was a perfect student in high school, got straight As and over thirty thousand dollars in scholarships. My mother looks back on these as the "glory days," unaware even today how often I crouched in the bathtub crying with a razor blade to my wrist, wondering if I had the guts.

At my freshman orientation for college, I was drugged, raped, and left in a field outside the dormitory where we were staying. (I didn't tell anyone for many years; I thought that's how college was and I was a silly amateur.) After that, I completely lost control. I drank heavily and started using a LOT of cocaine. I was extremely promiscuous. I was disrespectful to my mother, getting wasted at family gatherings and smoking cigarettes outside of church. My mother reacted by being completely disgusted. By now, she had a new husband and had recovered financially, so now she was in a position to criticize, apparently. She constantly made unkind jokes about my drinking and partying to other people. She seemed embarrassed of me and openly told me she was many times. She acted like I was a criminal, although I still graduated from the (pretty prestigious) university I attended in four years with a 3.0. I sometimes reminded her of how my step-brothers would lock me in a closets all day and yell taunts at me through the door, or held me down and shove dirt-filled socks in my mouth or snap me with rubber bands until I cried, and she would say, "What? They did NOT. No, you guys just played." Okay.

Finally, after about six years of self-destruction, I picked myself up, saved some money, left the small town we were in and moved to a big city. Four years later, here I am, a shiny new penny. Because my improvements were made here, and not in front of my mother's face, she can't stop rubbing those days in my face every time that I see her. I've told her I don't like it, but it seems like it's some kind of reflex for her. I'm in therapy now (when your mother tells you no one is supposed to be happy, it's hard to feel deserving when happiness finds you), and on one visit I asked if she might consider going herself. She said something like "If I open that door, I'll never close it again."

I want to repair things with her, because I have no one else, but when I am around her I am filled with so much anger that sometimes I have to leave the room. She has cried and told me she wants our relationship to be better, and I am surprised at how ice cold I feel toward her. I feel like she contributed to my decline and then mocked me for it. I don't want to have holidays with her, and since my fiancé has a lovely, large family who will soon be my in-laws, I feel like I shouldn't have to, at least until I'm ready. My question is, do I HAVE to forgive her? Can I just tell her that I don't want to see her until I've made more progress with my therapy? Or is that… evil? Should I push myself harder to be civil and put up with it because she's old and all I have that's left of my blood, and that's what people do? Because I genuinely don't know if I even can. How do I fix this?


Mad at Mom

Dear MAM,

You don't have to forgive your mother, and it's certainly not evil to make your own choices about this. I don't think anyone else can understand how fundamental her betrayal of you feels, so taking other people's advice in the matter is tough. There are people who will ALWAYS say, "You must honor your mother and be good to her, simply because she's your mother." There are also people who will ALWAYS say, "Seriously, fuck her. Do whatever you want. I cut my family off and it feels great."

What's interesting is that the feelings generated by other people's opinions about your mom can tell you a lot about where you stand. When someone tells you, "Be good to you mother, you ingrate. She's the only mother you have and that's what people do!", that probably kicks up that old feeling of not being understood or cared for or heard or supported. It reminds you how, when you came out of the closet as someone who felt misunderstood and invisible, instead of being loved, you were insulted and treated as a worthless, embarrassing aberration. So you not only want to say to that person who doesn't get it about Really Bad Mothers, "You have no fucking idea how bad it felt!" but you also actually FEEL lost and misunderstood and neglected and insulted and abandoned in that moment.

But then, when someone else says, "WELL, fuck her. Tell her she can't come to your wedding. Tell her to go fuck herself"? That doesn't feel like relief either, does it? Because if that were easy to do, you would've done it already. It's not just guilt that's keeping you here, it's the sense that other people can't really understand THIS side of things either; they can't understand why you feel a little responsible for someone who's pretty fucking heartless, and who never took real responsibility for you.

You're obviously conflicted over this. Maybe it's just that you're a person who doesn't do the easy thing. Maybe you don't believe in easy things. Or maybe you just feel, at some level, that you don't want to be a person who cut off her mother forever. It gets dicey to write that, because certainly there are people who suffered physical abuse out there who actually get a kind of PTSD when they see their parents' faces. But I still think, in your case, that it's a legitimate thing, to simply acknowledge, "Even though I can't TOLERATE my mother at all, I also have trouble understanding myself as a person who'd ban her mother from her wedding."

So there are a million things in play here. There's the physical feeling, the sense-memory, of being neglected and ignored by your mother, as well as the sensation of being treated like a leper in public, at the exact time when you needed her most. There's also the intellectual response, the reasoning part of your brain that says, "She was busy piecing her bad marriage together and struggling to stay afloat financially." The intellectual analysis, though, also includes a pretty damning picture of a woman who is willing to distance herself from you IN FRONT OF OTHER PEOPLE, BECAUSE YOU MADE HER LOOK BAD. That one is almost unforgivable. Because what kind of an animal says "You're embarrassing me!" instead of saying, "I'm worried about you"? I don't know that many people who are capable of that level of betrayal—public betrayal. Particularly when your good little straight-A girl is essentially admitting she's damaged, and looking to you for help. As a mother, it's your job to see vulnerability and need in someone who's pushing you away. I get that it's not easy, that it kicks up your own damage. But it's still your fucking job.

That said, your mother's damage and issues are also a factor to weigh here, like it or not. You mention her circumstances and take them into account, but you don't really mention how she was raised. My own mother was raised by a mother who was an alcoholic. My struggles with her always lead back to that. There's a pretty concrete reason she was never that great at embracing and caring for me when I felt vulnerable. That didn't change the sense-memory of feeling rejected at the exact moment when I needed her most. But it did mean that I tried to remind myself—intellectually anyway—that I was the one who was arguably more capable of rising above our fights and seeing clearly what was needed to fix our relationship.

But she was an amazing mother in many other ways. Your mother, not so much.

In addition to all of that, you've got to throw in issues of identity: How you see yourself, how you want to be seen by your new husband and his family, how they view family, how they might react to your mother. You feel like a shiny new penny now. Maybe you're afraid to introduce your future husband to the scared, vulnerable, angry person you were before, the one who waited in the dark for mom to pick her up, the one who woke up in a field, the one who heard, through a drunken haze, her mom's voice, making fun of her.

Your future husband is going to meet that person, though, whether you like it or not. He's going to meet her. It's your job to introduce him to her, in a way that makes it safe for both of you, in a way that makes it less likely that he'll reject her or get embarrassed by her or mock her the way your mother did. Because a few years into your marriage, when you're working together to raise a baby, blah blah blah, you might feel weak and try to overcome that weakness with anger. And if he treats your weakness with disdain, your view of him could cloud over with rage and blame that you can't really understand or control.

In fact, when you write, "It's a dream, and I can't wait to start a family blah blah blah." That’s maybe the most revealing part of your letter. That "blah blah blah" says, "I don't feel comfortable expressing that I'm just another fool for this mainstream heteronormative fairy tale," sure, but it also says, "I don't feel comfortable expressing any hope about my future, or even a desire to love and be loved, because I don't have a right to happiness like that and anyway fuck you, it's none of your fucking business anyway." It also says, "I sort of want to get married and have kids, but if it all falls apart I won't be surprised, really, because my whole life up to now has been a shitshow of epic proportions."

So your letter might be about your mother, but these issues stretch far beyond her. This isn't about whether or not to invite your mom to your wedding, this is about whether or not to invite your past self into your current relationship. It's also about identity, and control, and pragmatically pursuing a dream vs. optimistically, unguardedly throwing yourself into a dream without shame. It's about owning your weakest self. When you got drunk and slept around and did coke in college and after, you were trying to access your omnipotent, bulletproof self, sure. But you were also trying to access your weakest self. As a former lonely, straight-A student with no one even watching, no one supporting, no one approving, and a bunch of jackals at home locking you in the fucking closet (while your one trusted guardian lamely chalks it all up to juvenile high jinx), I'll bet you have trouble letting your weakest self out of the closet. I'll bet you have trouble crying and telling the truth about how bad you feel and opening your heart, blah blah blah.

And before we go any further, let me just say that I FEEL YOU. I love my brother and sister, but they sometimes locked me in the closet and when my parents got home (yep, olden times) they just laughed at the silly tomfoolery we all got up to while they were away. Years later when I was about 24, my mom found a note I wrote to her as a kid that said, essentially, "Please, PLEASE do something about these sadistic fucking jackals." She sent me the note because she thought I would think it was hilarious. And because I still had trouble crying and telling the truth about how bad I felt, I DID think it was hilarious. I laughed and laughed and showed it to my friend and she was like, HOLY SHIT THIS IS TRAGIC AND SAD. And I was all NO IT'S FUNNY BLAH BLAH BLAH SHUT UP IT'S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS HA HA FUCK OFF.

I'm not implying that you're that far gone. I'm just saying I feel you. Some people are taught, growing up, that they have people they can lean on. Other people are taught that when the shit comes down, they're on their own. And when people who always had people to lean on tell you, "Oh, lighten up. She's your mom."? That in and of itself is enough to make you feel sad, to remind you that you're on your own.

And maybe it makes you strong, too. Maybe it makes you say, "I will not let anyone drag me down. I will be a shiny new penny forever. No one will fuck with the good life I've built!" Surviving requires toughness. Why let people fuck with your good life?

But I want to encourage you not to be TOO tough and too perfect. I want you to be open-hearted and unafraid of feeling what you feel, whether it's sadness or anger. Having hope for the future, to me, depends on being open to the past in all of its ugliness. Letting in the ugliness will give you a richer appreciation of the present and the future. Building a rock solid marriage and a good relationship with your in-laws depends, in part, on not hiding or trying to be better than you are. I mean, you do have to try, around husbands and in-laws. But you also have to relax and own who you are, and allow yourself a little breathing room. It is truly a miracle, how shiny and new you can feel when you're with someone who cares about you and supports you and doesn't fucking disappear the second you get a little sniffly. But it's also unnerving how forlorn you can feel when something small goes wrong—you don't get enough sleep, you feel passive-aggressively insulted by your shiny new in-laws (hello, universal, shared rite of passage!), you don't like the way your shiny new husband changes the subject when you try to talk about your crazy mother for more than a few minutes. It's ok to admit that the past has a hold on you, that it bleeds into your future sometimes. By pointing this out, I'm not painting your future black. I'm telling you that the future will be richer if the past is included there.

There are people who can't include the past in their future, because if they do, they won't survive. I feel terrible for them. I don't mean to imply that THEY should get over whatever they suffered through. But we're talking about you. The way you describe your current circumstances—the fresh start, shiny penny stuff, the new family, the new husband, the new everything—makes me think that cutting off contact with your mother will make your life harder in the long run. Even if we cut HER feelings out of it—and I have no trouble doing that considering her actions—I still think that YOU are worse off if you walk away. I think you're going to grow more if you try to express yourself to her and connect with her, in spite of everything. By doing this, you'll be working on your relationship with yourself. By doing this, you'll be improving your chances of a solid marriage. You'll be tolerating the feelings of extreme anger and sadness that, like it or not, may be triggered by your spouse and your children some day.

Blame is a tangled thing. You have every right to blame your mother for what you went through growing up. You have every right to stand up to her now, to tell her to stop shaming you for your relatively minor personal mistakes, which are NOTHING compared to hers. You have a right to your anger and sadness, which are understandable. The part where she insults you, in front of other people, for being drunk and lost—that’s the part that just twists the knife for me. She really doesn't deserve to be called "Mom," does she? She doesn't fucking deserve your mercy, at some level. I guess some might say that every living being deserves mercy. But grinding your face into the mud when you needed her most? Fuck her. Really. When did she hear you? When did she take your word for it? When did she listen? Why should SHE be allowed to speak?

Maybe the answer is to call her by her first name, to never call her "Mom" because she didn't really earn that name. Maybe that's a way to pay homage to your anger for a while. Maybe that's a way to allow some room for the giant fucking injuries that she inflicted, the ones she refuses to acknowledge.

The question here is not about what SHE needs or wants, can you see that? It's about what you need and want and require to move forward. Maybe, ultimately, you will end up cutting her out of your life. But right now, you're still so young and everything is changing for you. Right now, there's a lot of beauty and promise in NOT cutting her off, in letting some of her ugliness and some of your hatred for her into your present. Instead of seeing her as something unfair and unsafe that needs to be shut out or kept away, I would try seeing her as an opportunity for expanding your ability to feel what you feel, and strengthening your resilience and flexibility. She presents you with a great opportunity, to accept what is. You might just become someone who can stand still, full of anger, full of sadness, and just feel it and accept it. Paradoxically, sometimes that's what living a good life is all about.

Because the more you can untangle your blame, emotionally and intellectually, and allow for the fact that your mom is a very different person from you—a damaged, confused and lonely person—the more you'll be able to untangle your blame in friendships, in work relationships, in your marriage. It will take years and years of effort, to talk through this in therapy, to feel your way through these emotions. You may never feel warm feelings for your mother. But right now you blame her for what she did, sure, but you also blame her for who she is. She had money trouble, worked too much, married an asshole, and believed that people shouldn't complain and that no one should expect to be happy. That part sounds like seventy percent of the people out there. That part sounds like my mother. I'm not saying it's the same, because it's not even close to the same.

But I'm not convinced it would feel good or right to cut her off, and I don't think "delaying" your contact with her is necessarily the right move. You don't have to see her over the holidays. But you can stay in contact and try to work through things a little. You can also make your disappointment in her crystal clear. You can write down all of your grievances and send it to her. You can say that you need to do that, in order to consider maintaining a relationship with her. Maybe that will crush whatever relationship you have. That's ok. You are committed to stating what's true for you. If she wants to address it and let you know the pressures and troubles she faced and faces, she can do that in a controlled setting, or in a letter. You can clarify that you are not interested in hearing about what a drunk slut you were anymore. You can draw boundaries and ask for what you want.

My point is, you have options. You don't have to make a sweeping decision at this moment. You can experiment a little. Thanks in part to your mother, you seem to believe that people can't talk these things out. You think that you're supposed to either accept emotional abuse, or cut it out of your life completely. But there are other choices. Some of those choices might make you feel like you're cathartically expunging poisonous feelings. Some might make you feel angry. Feeling anger is not necessarily bad for you, if it's anger that you've bottled up and or tapped into by getting wasted. You need to try a few things before you leave your mother behind. Not for her sake, but for your sake, and for the sake of your female friendships (which may not be great with a mother like her). You need to try a few things for the sake of your future family.

I wouldn't necessarily advise most people to lay out their grievances to their parents. Certainly I would never tell anyone to expect apologies and new understanding from their parents when they do so. But this is where you are. I think you need to dive in and take some risks and see if being heard doesn't make you feel a little better. I think you need to recognize the beauty of this moment.

Because this moment is bigger than your mother. This is your moment to invite that lost, lonely girl from your past in, and take care of her, and show her love for the first time. This is a moment that separates you from seventy percent of the people out there. This is the moment that you choose feelings over the need to tell an easy story, blame the enemy, shut out the past, control the future. This is the moment you admit that you still have sadness and fear inside you, that you are NOT in mint condition, that you can't simply be placed behind glass, free from further injury.

The world is full of injuries. The world is full of love and soaring, unlimited gratitude and elation. There is darkness waiting for you, and there is deep love and joy waiting for you, too. You will be safer without your mother. You will be happier, and more vulnerable, and richer, and stronger and more full of hope WITH her. When you were younger, you wondered if you had the guts to kill yourself. But exits don't require guts. Facing an uncertain future, full of fear, full of rage—that requires guts.

It feels dangerous not to cut your mother out. It feels dangerous to care. And maybe you never will care. But these dangers are good for you, because they lead to the truth. You can't simply do things the right way, the opposite of the way your mother did them, and skirt disaster. It's not that simple. You have to forge a whole new path that combines toughness and vulnerability, anger and acceptance, blame and forgiveness, boundaries and flexibility.

You deserve happiness. You know that, intellectually. But I want you to FEEL that you deserve happiness. By moving through your feelings for your mother, and tolerating those feelings, and allowing them space, and letting your husband see them, and letting your friends see them, too, you will feel your way toward happinessreal, true, lasting happiness. You can only feel your way there. Stay open, stay vulnerable, and feel your way there.


Did you ask for Coca-Cola and get a Pepsi? Write to Polly and discuss!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.

24 Comments / Post A Comment

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

I have had many conversations with myself about whether to cut my mother out of my life. I decided, as Polly suggested, to instead go the "angry letter listing grievances" + creating some intentional distance and boundaries (only calling 2x month instead of every week) route. Things have slowly been getting better. My mother still responds by gaslighting me on key issues (ie "That never happened!" "You remember it wrong") or explaining herself with her victimization instead of just saying "yeah, I was shitty." BUUUUUT . . .she has stopped criticizing me too much because the threat of me leaving is there. She keeps to small-talk topics that we are both comfortable with, and I just don't bother letting her into any discussion of my feelings anymore. This all feels a lot better and more controlled than cutting her out completely. I would feel too guilty about that, and it would be too hard to avoid her since I still love my dad and brother. Don't call her "mom" or say "I love you" if you don't mean it. Keep making the boundaries and conditions on your relationship with her until you feel comfortable. Tell her what topics are off the table. You might come to the conclusion that boundaries and conditions are not enough and you need to say "goodbye." Or she may respond really badly to the criticism and come to the conclusion that your boundaries warrant cutting YOU off. (And in that case, then, really FUCK HER). But with my own crazy-suicidal-mother-with-narcissistic tendencies, all the strategies above and which Polly suggested have made me feel a lot better, and I sincerely hope they can help you too.

@garlicmustardweed I love your comments damn near as much as I love Polly. And that's a whole lotta love.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

I had some similar problems with parents and some other near relatives. I cut them off for a time. Later, I decided to behave in a correct, civil way, rather than in either a particularly affectionate or hostile manner, as long as the other parties did not get too out of hand. That is, I would be polite and considerate as long as I was not confronted with open insults, violence, or other forms of intolerable behavior, and I would always be ready to let (most) bygones be bygones if the other parties seemed to want a fresh start. This is what I would advise for the marriage and other significant ceremonial occasions and important events. One does not have to treat a parent as a buddy or even a friend if they do not act the part, but one can still treat them with respect.

In my case things went along reasonably well for a while, and then sadly deteriorated, but I am glad that I gave a better possibility a chance while I could.

bootsd. (#283,933)

I, too, have a narcissistic mother. Mine decided post-menopause that drinking a handle of vodka a week was her RIGHT because she had been so abandoned by her husband (who left her because she refused to seek treatment for her alcoholism) and her children (my older sister got married and moved because her husband's job required, my younger sister travels for a living, I lived 45 minutes away and saw her weekly.) After much therapy and much Al Anon, I was left with the concept that this woman, who WAS a wonderful mother to me when I was a child and she was sober, was not the woman I was faced with. The woman I was faced with was selfish, self-serving and an addict who refused to admit she needed help. (She readily admitted she was a drunk, she just felt it was her right.)

One therapy session, while weeping openly about how frustrating and all-consuming my mother, her drinking and her entitlement were in my life, my therapist said "You sound exhausted." I agreed. "Well, of course you're not going to have energy for yourself if you're exhausted." It was so simple. I set clear limits with my mother: either you are sober and I am happy to help you find treatment that works for you, or you do not get access to me. You don't get to control me with your chaos, you don't get to drag me into your pit of self-pity. And when she opted to go on a bender one Christmas rather then spend the day with me, as we had planned, I stuck to my bottom line. I sent her an email saying I needed time and space to be allowed to be angry at her, and that there wasn't room in that space for her until I was ready. She kept pushing. She kept calling. I ignored her calls, I ignored her emails. She couldn't manipulate me anymore.

My life today isn't as dramatically better then it was, as compared to Mad at Mom, but it IS my own. I can't blame my depression on her, I am forced to take ownership of it.

She moved in with my older sister and now has a low-income apartment near her grandchildren. She drives my older sister insane. But for the first time, my breaths are my own, and I don't live in fear when the phone rings. Ultimately, I would like to gain closure and give forgiveness to my mother, but the last year and a half have been SO theraputic for me.

So to Mad at Mom: set clear boundaries. Call her on her hurtful behavior. Give her one chance to recognize the behavior, one chance to apologize, one chance to test you. Then: you take a break. You tell her you're taking a break and that you will let her know when you're done with your break. I'm still on mine a year and a half later, but I'm beginning to open to the idea of finding a new way to BE with my mother. It's not never-talking-to-her-again, but rather it's refusing her access to create chaos in your life for as long as YOU need to feel comfortable.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

I've also being through a pretty rocky relationship with my mother who just doesn't get it. Sadly after many years of trying all sorts of ways to keep her in my life even marginally I've had to completely cut her off and I have not regtetted that decision (it's been 6 years). As a rule, I find it hard to be around people who failed to acknowledge their mistake and hurtful behavior towards me so…I fibd your mom's behavior appalling. She was neglectful and allowed for your abuse and now blames you for the resulting out if control behavior. She also seems unable to see your new beautiful successful self. Kudos for you for being able to chose a healthy (I hope) fiance and get on with your life. Don't force yourself to have a relationship, do what feels best for YOU at the moment and if it no longer feels right, change it. Stay in therapy. Your mom should be very proud of who you have become despite the instability she provided.

Aimee (#283,948)

I've had a similar but slightly less caustic relationship with my mom. I've tried to cut her out for my own sanity, but I always feel too guilty when birthdays and holidays roll around. I've learned that I need to emotionally shield myself any time I'm with her, but I simply have too much guilt to keep her out of my life forever. That being said, when I haven't seen or talked to her in at least 3 months, I'm happiest. Fortunately, she's with her latest husband, and she's distracted easily by whatever new guy is around.

Another reason I have the confidence to face her now is that like MAM, my husband has a wonderful family and extended family. I've adopted one of his aunts as a mother figure, and I finally feel like I have that maternal relationship I've always wanted. Having that to bank on has helped me be kinder to my own mother.

yesthis (#283,956)

I grew up in a very abusive home with a mother who allowed bad things to happen. She too reverts to denial/selective memory when I call her out on past events. I've spent my life being angry at her (and others) and it's exhausting. Recent events have dragged a lot of these issues into the forefront, and I'm debating on what to do. Polly – your advice and words of kindness are much needed – to me, the letter writer, and many other readers. Thank you so much.

not a professional (#244,325)

Does it ever occur to anyone that they don't need their parents to understand or accept their anger and criticism? If your parent is critical toward you as some sort of defense mechanism, how about this? How about you don't put them on the defensive. When you become a parent, if you aren't already, you will make mistakes, you might fuck up a little or you might fuck up big time… consider how you would react if someone expected you to acknowledge and apologize for fucking up. You can let go of your anger at another person by accepting that not one of us is perfect, not one. I think part of the problem is that we live in such a vengeful, vigilant, punishing society. If we feel pain, somone has to pay. Stop making your parents pay, just stop. Yes, you can be distant because talking to them drives you crazy and gives you PTSD, that's fine. Confrontation about old issues is pointless and will likely wake up the defensive critic that lay dormant in them. The problem most of us with crappy parents have, really, is that they have a vested interest in thinking lowly of us to aleviate their own guilt. Simply do not listen to that shit or buy into it, recognize it for what it is… a salve. Waking up that guilt does not help your parents to behave in a more endearing way toward you.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@not a professional You have a good point about lowering one's expectations about a parents reaction. It is not realistic to expect that an emotionally abusive person is not going to wake up and saying "Oh shit! Whoops! I take full responsibility." However, the confrontations, angry letters, etc, are more for the benefit of the abused. It helps clarify their own feelings, instead of dismissing them, as they've been forced to do by their abuser. I'm a little confused about why you consider this vengeful or punishing behavior? Expressing ones anger is not in itself an act of punishment. Telling emotionally abused people that they shouldn't bother expressing themselves only prolongs the doubt and frustration they already feel. Everyone has a right to say "Your behavior has made me very angry. I want you to change it, or else its not healthy for me to have a relationship with you anymore." No one is talking about taking revenge by slashing their parents tires, or hitting them, or stealing from them.

Mar (#2,357)

Oh shit, not a "grizzled contractor in a smelly truck"!

Cobalt (#7,571)

I grew up with an alcoholic father and enabling mother. My childhood, which grew much much worse when I became a teen, was a combination of neglect and emotional abuse. Emotional/verbal abuse in front of relatives, neighbors, the family friends, my friends. I was scapegoated and made to feel bad about myself for any possible reason. When I discovered at 13 that I was "gifted" and realizing that my parents clearly were not that smart, made me call them out for their bad behavior, time and again. It only made my situation exponentially worse. To not get the support you need as a child/teenager from you parents, because they are too caught up in their own drama, is difficult to understand at the time. To have relatives enabling a mother's bad behavior and join in on the scapegoating and blaming of the child for unrelated problems, is inexcusable all around. I couldn't wait to leave home, even though my mother tried everything she could to deter me and keep me around for prolonged abuse. Then she didn't want me to come home again but she didn't want to leave me alone.

As an adult, after my father's death, she became needy. I had my own life, my own freedom. She wanted to know what was going on with me, but not to actually get to know me as a person. Sadly, after she passed on, I regreted not trying harder to stay in touch, to get beyond the years upon years of abuse and neglect and to try and develop an adult relationship with her, and now there's nothing I can do about it.

My advice to MAM, is that you have no reason to excuse her behavior and what happened in your childhood. You don't have try to look beyond it if you don't want to. However, if you can let her into your life just enough and not get caught up in old emotional drama, if you keep her at a reasonable distance, you might be able to develop an adult relationship with her. You might not. (I have a friend who seems unable to do so with her mother and I see how getting caught up in neverending drama poisons every single relationship and every single choice she continues to make in her life.) Don't be that person, you are worth more than that. Invite her to your wedding but realize that you now have other commitments both to yourself, to your new family and new extended family, and to your future. Try not to engage her. Surround yourself with a buffer of good people and a good situation. Try not to be revenge-abusive to her. It would be more difficult to live with the regret of not having invited her to your wedding if your relationship ever levels out. And it may not, but it's a situation where you only get that one chance. I will never get that chance.

novak (#259,779)

I think this week's topic hit home for a lot of people. My relationship with my mother is troubled but not to this level. My father was and is the emotionally abusive one, and a lot of what Polly said has made a lot of sense to me. As other commenters have said, you need to establish your boundaries, whatever those are, and take ownership of the extent of the relationship. Polly's suggestion to incorporate your past self into your present, to meet her again and show her the love she needed. I'm still going through that with my teenaged self and it's really really rough. You'll get there, LW!

Ame Wx@facebook (#284,035)

Reading about narcissistic parents has really given me perspective and made the problem seem manageable and common and not overwhelming and lonely.
I really appreciate this weeks column. Thanks Polly.

I second this emotion. After a bewildering childhood left me broken and not close to my parents, I moved far away and spent lots of energy distancing myself from them. But as my relationship with *myself* improved (largely by getting sober and cutting out lots of other self-destructive behaviors), I began to see that caring for my relationship with my parents helped *me*.

Tamlin Eve@facebook (#284,122)

The first time I cut a parent out of my life I was 12. And then I had to do again (with the same parent) when I was 20. I'm 35 now and two years ago I walked away from my mother. Some parents aren't worth the trouble. I was raised by a terrible narcissist who brought a variety of inappropriate men around and forced her children to be adults because she is happy to sacrifice her children to make a man happy. Trying to talk to her about being sexually abused ended with her making it all about her (I was 10). I was never picked up on time for anything ever. I was mocked for years over mispronouncing words that I have never heard aloud, only read. Any choice I made in my life that she didn't like she just….ignored. I have two teenagers. Ask her if she's a grandmother. She will probably look surprised,
And I kept going back over and over and over again. Because she's my mom right? All the different father (I've been legally adopted by her husbands twice) were to take part in some fantasy she has of how life works. And I bought into it for years. I was lucky enough to get a huge kick in the pants when I met her new boyfriend two years ago and discovered she's dating the guy that molested as a very young child. Do you know how much pain I would have saved myself if I had walked away earlier?
It doesn't matter how shitty a parents life was before they had kids. Damaging your children is not excusable. Refusing to listen to your child's pain is not excusable. I've spent most of my life convinced that I was totally broken because my mothers narrative for me is that I'm "the crazy one," why? Because I tried to kill myself when I was five, because I was being sexually abused.
Being a mother doesn't make you a person worthy of time and respect. My boyfriend (the first relationship I've been able to have in 8 years) understands why I don't talk to my mother and doesn't think badly of me for it. If your relationship can't handle acknowledging the years of pain then maybe it's not a relationship worth pursuing.
It's not easy to do. It's so fucking hard, and it hurts so fucking much, but for people with seriously destructive parents it's self care. You (hopefully) wouldn't keep a friend around that treated you like shit, why keep a parent?

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Tamlin Eve@facebook Thanks you for sharing– what a painful story. Sounds like you made a really good decision. Your mother wasn't going to protect you, so you had the courage to protect yourself.

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

@Tamlin Eve@facebook I so agree with you. Good you've been able to make a decision to take care of YOURSELF. We have a societal narrative that dictates keeping parents around no matter what. I don't even understand the talk about revenge. The need for distance temporary or permanent is all about self-preservation. If you haven't experience truly destructive parents you really have no clue…

Tamlin Eve@facebook (#284,122)

@garlicmustardweed hey thank. And to the other person that replied too. I feel like there needed to be a voice for the side of "run away!" Among the "forgiveness is divine" crowd.

Myrtle (#9,838)

@Tamlin Eve@facebook second everything you said, it's nearly my story, except I don't have the new relationship. I'd offer to amend your quote to read "reproducing doesn't make you a person worthy of time and respect." I offer that being a Mother, a real Mother, would. After years of my sociopathic mother telling me I ruined her life by my existence, being mocked for my hair color and told I wasn't part of the real family, having to quit high school at 15 and go to work when I found my bedroom furniture piled outside the house, I heaved a huge breath of relief when that useless, drunken, sex-addict bitch killed herself. Some people just reproduce.

Jryhzkidz (#627)

MAd at mom!
Ah honey. The issues for women with narcissistic mothers are hard, and people who haven't been there simply don't understand. My narcissistic mom (and dad and craaaaazy family yippee!) are very challenging and its been special kind of pain that's left me feeling like a spiritual orphan. I have advice for you. I apologize in advance if out sounds like I'm projecting my issue onto you or Im rambling,this is very imperfect…take what you want leave the rest…

Part of what you were talking about is the feeling of wanting to tell your truth and be heard by your mother- but ironically of course she might not be the person who can hear it. However your wanting to confront your mother is still wanting her to be the mother she might never be able to be, still wanting her to give you the validation and love you wanted when you were little, but you might never get. It might be going to the hardware store for oranges, if you know what I mean.

And cutting her off is , in a way, punishing her ( and yourself) for failing. I cut my ( divorced) parents off at various times and it hurt me a LOT. I felt so guilty and upset about it, it preyed on me, it put them more in my mind than if I had not cut them off. It was an open wound. So I found it better for me to develop a not very intimate but cordial relationship recognizing that they are very limited people. In that way I didn't have to have this huge boulder of failure hanging over me because things were less than perfect. It gave me ease, which I deserve.

As far as confronting your mom, she might not the the safe person you can go to for this. However a group ( Al Anon) or good friends or your therapist might be someone safe for you for you to express these feelings without having to do the same old ' I tried to connect with mom and she shut me down' dance. You are a grownup, you have tools, you are not required to make snap decisions or think in a black and white way or be unsafe.

The thing I really see is that you are very young and you have done SO WELL. I think you are amazing and fantastic. You have worked your ass off and done great things. One theory is daughters of narcissistic women grow up into being either overachievers or underachievers. It sounds like you have worked your ass off to get to a great place, and now you want to work your ass off to fix this mom issue. But now can you slow down and be gentle with yourself? You are having crazy feelings come up and that's normal, but you don't have to fix everything or act on everything immediately. The worst is over, and you got through it, and you have done a wonderful job. You don't have to decide this or fix this or handle it all at once.

To me, it seems like you want this messy stuff to be over and done so you can put it in a box and not have to deal with the pain and mourning. Like if you open to the strong stormy feelings you they'll take over and break what you have built, the same way you almost broke when you were little. But it's not like that. You're gonna work on you and work on your boundaries with your mom as long as you live. Your relationship with your mom and family is a living entity, like a marriage, there is no overachieving 'I can do this, one and done ' answer to this. However you don't have to do it alone anymore. I really recommend Al Anon as something super helpful for these issues. Walking into a room where other people reality get it is profoundly healing.

Also- really- you don't need you mother to mother you anymore. You would LIKE it but you don't need it the way you did in the past. So learn how to mother yourself. Take that seriously. Work with your therapist and take it slow. Sink into your feelings and stop trying to fix everything. Let yourself feel that pain, mourn it. Grieve it – and it will lessen its hold. My mother is a wonderful woman who has an illness, so she is very limited. When I deal with her that way the relationship works. When I try anything else, it doesn't .

Am I angry? Resentful? In pain? Of course. I have profoundly self defeating behaviors that are the legacy of my childhood abuse and I struggle with them every day. I had to completely let go of my mother as a mother and remother myself using yoga, meditation, 12 step, and all this crazy stuff. It hurt like crazy and I was in a haze of anger and pain over it for a long while. I thought I was going crazy. Its real Jungian death and rebirth stuff, not easy and not pretty. But it worked. As I see it, you are doing great and you will heal from this. But you're gonna have to feel your pain first. Just relax, allow yourself to feel everything – allow yourself to love yourself. Mourn your losses, it wil allow you to better celebrate your huge successes.

I highly recommend attending Al Anon, and reading the books " Will I ever be Good Enough? Healing the daughters if Narcissistic mothers", "The Narcissistic family", "Adult Children". " Women who Run with the Wolves", Eastern Body Western mind". Don't worry about falling into a mushy self help vortex. Just allow yourself to get help. You can be remothered by a safe group, a shrink, yourself- until you grow strong enough to feel whole and this pain lessens its hold. And know- you can do this- and you have done it. Keep on trucking. You are not alone.You touched all of use here on this thread and we are rooting for you.(-:

Myrtle (#9,838)

I'm intrigued that the LW was able to find love and acceptance in a new family. I spent much of my life trying to heal old wounds with new people of the same type. Wow, that wears one down. Reading the letter, I felt concern at the description of the new family in superlatives. My thought was I'd feel more comfortable about this new family if they were described with "having some faults, but were far more receptive to working out problems, love to talk things through and hug at the end," phrases that indicate they're real-world people to LW, not just salvation. Also, I wish LW much love and success, you can name your daughter after me…

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Myrtle Dude. Yes. I just finally cut out my last-in-a-series of narcissistic, angry, with-holding friends. I always had one (sometimes romantic, sometimes platonic) that I was OBSESSED about pleasing and impressing. I'm working really hard with my therapist at not making any more of these friends. Then she asked me about my husband. I was like "Well, at first, I questioned whether I was actually in love with him because I wasn't obsessed with him, thinking about him constantly, and worried all the time about how he felt about me. I just felt good, and safe, and secure." Not that my marriage or husband are perfect, but I would classify my husbands faults as "minor annoyances" (ie, do the f'n dishes for once!) instead of dysfunctional behavior. I never worry, like with my mother or my other dysfunctional friendships, that he is going to blow up at me over nothing, insult me, or abandon me.

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Goatee (#288,069)

I love the thorough, supportive answer and the comments here. Many important points have been raised. From my own experience with this problem, I would like to add that it's also possible to cut her out for a time and revisit the issue later. That's what I did. I knew from experience that my valid issues would never be appropriately addressed; rather, anything and everything is used as fodder for further destructive efforts. I began by gradually lessening contact to avoid this and ramped up to no contact. I recently decided to re-establish a minimal amount, but on my terms only. A parent like this is usually willing when you are because they have so often driven everyone else out of their lives and need to project some semblance of a normal family life to others. If they refuse when you are ready, so much the better for you. Whatever is best for you now is not a final solution, necessarily; revisit it later if you choose. Best to you.

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