For many this word brings with it childhood memories of feeling safe while being tenderly tucked into bed, of band-aids and hugs when you scraped your knee, or of wise advice given when you fell in love for the first time. You watched your mom and learned from her; she was committed to family, friends, work, church, or community…but mostly to you, her child. Her love was unconditional and no matter what life might throw at you as you grew into adulthood, she always provided a safe place to land.

For others, however, “Mom” is as far away from those memories as you could get.

Instead, your childhood life was fraught with ridicule from your mother. Disdain. Screaming. Accusations. Or eerily quiet hostility. Maybe you could not get out of the line of fire — or you seemed completely invisible to her. Everything was your fault according to your mother…and indeed might still be in your relationship with her now.

Perhaps your mother suffers with what is diagnostically termed Borderline Personality Disorder; these women have a way of relating to self and others that is intense and unpredictable, often filled with severe mood swings…and actions that match.  Yet to others not involved with her on an intimate level, she can look quite normal and highly productive. Christine Ann Lawson in her book “Understanding The Borderline Mother,” highlights ten common thoughts of children who live with mothers on the border between rationality and irrationality. (Men can have borderline personality disorder as well, but it occurs less often.)

Children of those with BPD can feel confusing, conflicting emotions.

“I never know what to expect. I don’t trust her.”

“She says it didn’t happen, that my memory is wrong and that she knows she’d never do that.”

“I me feel so guilty and I can’t confront her, can’t be honest with her. She thinks we’re so close.”

“Everyone else thinks she’s great. It’s all or nothing.”

“She’s so negative. She flips out.”

“Sometimes I can’t stand her. She drives me crazy.”

This abuse is often accompanied by a confusing sense of being loved. When it’s good, it’s very good. Your bond with your mom is complex and highly complicated.

Many have seen the movie “Mommie Dearest,” which portrayed just such a relationship between actress Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter, Christina. There was incredible volatility, constant criticism — beatings with a wire hanger because one was found in Christina’s closet. Yet the outer world saw only a mother-daughter combo that oozed love and mutual adoration.

Not all abuse is filled with such dramatics, and not all of it is physical. Some of it is much more subtle and takes form such as manipulation, neediness, or guilt trips.

Not all abusive moms have BPD. Susan Heitler, Ph.D. notes that borderline personality and narcissism can be intertwined, narcissism being the tendency to make everything about yourself with almost a total lack of empathy. Sally Field’s mother in the TV mini-series “Sybil,” identified as having paranoid schizophrenia and was highly abusive.

If this describes your childhood and current situation, your relationship with your mother is likely to be highly complicated and often extremely difficult for you.

However, she is your mother perhaps you still desire a relationship with her. You may want her to know your own children, but not to influence them negatively. You have to figure out how to be in the relationship as an adult, not as a child with no power over how the relationship is shaped.

So how do you figure out how to be in her presence and continue to have a relationship with her without being sucked into the vortex of her emotions?

1) Read books that provide strategies.

For borderline personality, “Understanding The Borderline Mother,” is a wonderful resource, as is, “Stop Walking On Eggshells” For understanding narcissism “Lost In The Mirror.” “Disarming The Narcissist” and “Trapped In The Mirror,” are great books.

These books go into far more depth than I’m able to in this post; you’ll probably find some comfort in understanding the behavioral patterns your mom displays are a product of her disordered thinking and lack of emotional regulation. Also, reading stories of others who’ve experienced similar relationships with their mothers can help you feel less alone; it’s helpful to recognize that it’s not just you.

Additionally, these books offer concrete suggestions for functioning in that relationship; this practical advice can go a long way.

2) Respond, don’t react, and set appropriate boundaries. 

Spend some time considering just how you want to have a relationship with her, what you can rationally expect from her, and how to set boundaries with her.  The most fundamental way you can achieve this is by deciding what discussions you’ll participate in, and ones you will not. That will help you have a much greater sense of power and control in your dynamics with her.

If you have a hard time sticking to your decisions and find that you continue to emotionally react with your mother and are unable to stay in control, working with a therapist can be very helpful. They can assist you in identifying what your automatic reactions are to what she says and does, and hale you change them into less reactive ones.

3) Recognize that she may not have the capacity to change. Grieve what you need to grieve. 

She may be living a miserable life, but not know or have the insight to change her belief system. She’s even less likely to understand the impact of her behavior on you and others.

Thus, you have to grieve. You’re acknowledging you’re never going to have the mother-child relationship you desire with her. If your expectations change as you realize she doesn’t have the capacity to make the changes you would love, your own life may be made more calm and less chaotic. In turn this can allow you see what you can enjoy about the relationship as it exists.

4) Have compassion for yourself and look for other supportive, nurturing relationships. 

Your mom has significant mental problems and yet, you may still be trying to give her the chance to love you well. It’s not what should have happened and it’s certainly not an easy place to be. You can’t “make up” for having a sick mother, but you can find other relationships that can be healing. Perhaps the mother of a good friend, an older neighbor, or your mother-in-law.

Realize that your mother may feel betrayed and have great difficulty knowing that you’re growing closer to someone else; she may even try to sabotage that relationship.

If she does not have capacity to honor potential new boundaries that you establish, you can work to not be governed by her reaction to you being loved well by someone else. You’ve done nothing wrong, and a healthier mom would be happy for you, not jealous or insecure.

5) Look at what you learned from her, both the positive and the negative.

We can all be heavily influenced by what our parents tell us. How they act. She may have taught you some good things, which you can truly appreciate.

However, you may have picked up some of her distorted and overly emotional reactions. Maybe she taught you to be unforgiving to friends if they’ve hurt you, even unintentionally. Or perhaps she conditioned you to be suspicious of your partner and to always look for evidence of betrayal, whether you’re on your first date or been married for decades.

There are many ways your thinking today could be the product of her illness; detecting this is hard to do and requires you taking an objective look at yourself. Freeing yourself from unhealthy thought habits will be liberating for you and allow you to have deeper connections with others.

6) Realize you may have significant anger and choose to work through it. 

You can’t go through something like this without anger. And those feelings are likely getting worked out in your other relationships, especially in your primary partnership. Perhaps in a healthy way. Perhaps not.

There are many ways to express anger in a way that moves you through it, and allows you to let it go. You need to find those ways, rather than justifying continued resentment or a sense of victimization. Those reactions will only make your own life unhappy and emotionally stuck.

7) Know that her significant other probably has problems as well.

Whether it’s your biological father, stepfather or someone she has been living with, he may be caught up in the chaos as well. You can stay angry that he’s not “doing anything,” or you can more clearly see his dysfunction as well. You can figure out what emotions belong to which person. Your mother. Your father.

Or yourself.

You can hear more about depression and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!


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