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#1375: “Guilt trips with a side of trauma.” from Valerie L's blog

Dear Captain,

My mom (50F, She/Her) and I (22F, She/Her) have a bit of a strained relationship. For a little context, as a child, I only got to see her on the weekends and over the summer as my dad had custody of me. This made us weirdly co-dependent on each other as I would prefer living with her due to an abusive step-mom, and she would cling to me whenever she went through something emotionally traumatic. When I turned 14 my dad forcefully moved me away from her to a different state. I only got to see her during summers and this exacerbated the problem a bit. Thinking about her would cause me to burst into tears.

I tried my best with my high school schedule to call when I could, but with homework and trying to make new connections our conversations became less and less consistent. I also developed severe clinical depression at this time so I didn’t enjoy talking much. Whenever we would call it would either be a guilt trip, or bad news (she had a lot of health issues, unfortunately, and a pretty bad job). She didn’t have many reliable adult friends so I would be her source for support, advice, and a shoulder to virtually cry on.

Fast forward to college. I’m calling her less due to my busy schedule. I’m in a really hard major that takes up most of my time (engineering,) and when I do get free time I just want to watch Netflix and be alone. I try to call once a week and at most once every two weeks, but she makes me feel extremely guilty for this frequency. To try and make up for this we text daily or even send voice messages but this is still not enough for her. It doesn’t help either that she recently entered into a new relationship and will often spend a majority of our conversations either ranting about him or going into graphic detail about their sex life. I want to tell her that it makes me uncomfortable, but she only recently started opening up to me so I worry that if I tell her she’ll close up again.

All this to say (TL;DR): I can’t deal with the emotional toll of our conversations but I know she has no one else to go to. I also can’t take being guilty, but I don’t have the time or energy to be more consistent. I don’t know what to do and it’s beginning to affect my mental health.

Signed,

Call Fatigued.

Dear Call Fatigued,

I have written versions of this advice before (a good sign that it should go in The Book!), but we get new readers all the time, so thanks for this chance to review some tried-and-true boundary maintenance advice.

My first recommendation is for you to find a therapist or counselor if you have access and haven’t already done so. Given your history with both your parents, there is a lot to unpack here, and a lot of un-learning to be done. You’re not going to be able to change how your mom feels or how she tries to interact, but you are going to need to teach yourself how to live with her upset feelings sometimes, without taking responsibility for her emotional well-being, so that you can maintain healthy boundaries and your own mental health. This is incredibly hard, important, primal, life-long stuff, so if you have the means and access to obtain some support, this is a very good reason to do it. You might also want to read about attachment styles and  parentification, especially “emotional parentification,” where a parent relies on their child to fill their emotional and social needs. What is happening to you is not okay, it is not your fault, it is not your responsibility to live your life around your mom’s needs and feelings or make up for all the time you were separated.

My next advice is that you continue with weekly or every two week phone calls when that works for you. You’re a busy college student, you’re at a stage in life where more independence from parents is natural, and you are the child in this situation, not the parent. You are not doing this wrong, and you don’t have to do more work to manage this relationship!

In fact, you sound pretty diligent and responsive about staying in touch, and yet your mom keeps indicating that no amount of support and attention will actually be enough for her, there will always be more guilt and more feelings (her feelings) that she expects you to handle. That is stressing you out so much right now, but it’s also where your path to freedom lies: If someone gets upset with you no matter what you do, it was never in your power to fix what’s actually wrong, so you might as well do what works for you. So call when you have time and want to. Try to interrupt the guilt trip and apology spiral. “You don’t call enough!” “Probably not, but I’m here now, so hello! What’s new with you?” 

You can also level with her:

  • “Mom, I know you wish I would call more, but this is what I can do right now.”
  • “Mom, when I do call, and you start off by telling me it’s not enough, what are you hoping will happen? Because what actually happens is that it makes me feel bad and want to get off the phone as soon as possible. Can we skip that part from now on and try to enjoy the time we do spend together?” 
  • “Mom, you’re doing That Thing again. I’m not ignoring you or mad at you, I’m just busy with school. Give me a little space!” 
  • “I’m not comfortable being your relationship sounding board. Can we talk about something else?” 

You may also have luck scheduling a regular phone date, as in: “Mom, I’ve been pretty busy, but I want to make sure I set aside time for us to talk. [Day/Time] and [Day/Time]* are usually pretty good for me, does one of those work better for you for a regular chat? Great, let’s put it in the calendar and I’ll plan to call you then.” 

[*Note: Offering two choices that you already know will work for you is an old “managing up at a scattered-but-control-freak boss” trick, and a generally useful tactic for including other people in a decision while also moving things along.]

Scheduling a regular time to talk can have several benefits, over time:

  • It can become an anchor for your relationship with each other. When you were a child, circumstances prevented your mom from showing up for you regularly, and when you did spend time together, everything was more fragile and much more intense than it needed to be. But you’re both adults now and you get to decide what you want your relationship to be like and create new, healthy habits to push the old ones out. “Every Sunday at 4pm, we show up for each other.” There are worse starting points..
  • Pressure and intermittent reinforcement increase anxiety, structure tends to decrease it. If you both know the next time you’ll talk, and trust that you’ll talk again soon, there’s less pressure to cling, to run away, or make everything happen now now now.
  • If you know you have a designated “Mom & Mom Feelings” time in your week, you can practice redirecting her when it gets to be too much.“Got your message, love you, let’s talk about it on Sunday!” “Good question, I’ll think about it and let you know on Sunday.” “[emoji of choice]. Let’s catch up Sunday.”  “Ooof, sounds like a rough day. ❤ Talk Sunday?”  

I know you’ve tried versions of this already, and you are aware that your mom will not like this and will try to get around your boundaries. Expect lots of “emergencies” where she wants what she wants when she wants it, an “extinction burst” of escalating the bad behavior in the hopes of getting you to comply.  But I promise there is a method here. What she will interpret as avoiding her is actually you creating a structure and a possibility for healthier interactions.

Now comes the really hard part: Resetting things is going to take time, and in the process you’re going to have to let your mom feel whatever she feels without stepping in to try to fix it. Sometimes you’re going to have to text back stuff like “Wow, sounds like a lot going on! You’ll have to fill me in Sunday,” and then mute notifications on your phone, put her number on “do not disturb” when you are busy with school or need to decompress, or turn the thing off and put it in a drawer until you actively want to engage with her again. You’re going to have to leave your mom on “read” and let whatever escalation she tries pile up for a bit, including laments about how she has nobody else, including accusations about what a selfish daughter you are, without responding to it until you said you would, which for example purposes means “Sunday, 4 pm.”

When each scheduled call rolls around, you’ll have the opportunity to practice a little bit of what I like to call “generously selective memory” where you ignore any intervening escalations and histrionics, endeavor to be pleasant, and act as if everything is going according to plan (because it is!).  “Hello, Mom, how are you?” “Oh, NOW you’re calling me, when it’s convenient for YOU, but you have NO CONSIDERATION for your MOTHER.” “Yep, that’s right! My schedule is all over the place, but this is usually a good time for me to talk without distractions. What’s new?”

If one week’s call doesn’t go according to plan, reset and try again at the usual time. If applying intense pressure stops working to get your mom what she wants, and if respecting boundaries gets her more consistent quality time with you, she might learn and adapt. If she doesn’t, that’s not because you did it wrong, and it doesn’t mean you should stop engaging on your own terms. Consistency over time is more important than any one interaction.

When you do talk, you’ll also have the opportunity to set more appropriate boundaries about relationship and sex talk. You mention that you’re afraid that if you say anything about being uncomfortable with the level of detail, your mom will shut down and stop communicating as much. Okay? Given that the frequency, intensity, and subject matter when she “opens up” are highly inappropriate and are specifically what is bothering you, is this actually… a bad…outcome? If your mom starts detailing her SexyTimes and you say “Whoa, Mom, that is Officially Way Too Much Information About Wangs You’ve Visited!!” or “Mom, yikes, that’s enough Girl Talk for today, let’s change the subject please,” she may feel slighted or judged or like you “owe” her just because you’ve put up with it in the past. If the subject won’t stay changed, and you end up cutting the call short as a result, that might make her feel very upset. And?

When you keep bringing up a topic, or behaving in certain way, and other people repeatedly tell you they don’t like it and visibly act like they don’t like it, that is information you can use to adapt your behavior accordingly. Negative feedback, painful feedback, awkward feedback that makes your mom feel bad can all be useful feedback, and it’s not “mean” or “selfish” for you to have your own needs within these conversations.Your mom has choices about how she treats you. “My daughter said ‘please stop,’ so I guess I’ll double down and keep going” is a choice. “When I do x, my daughter gets uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be around me as much, and that makes me feel bad, so I should probably stop doing x” is another available choice.You are allowed to react honestly to her choices.

Speaking of choices, your mom is an adult who has had a lifetime to make friends, find her own therapist, and otherwise build a support network that is not her half-estranged child. She doesn’t have anyone else? Not one trusted, safe, or even nice person in 50 years? That’s sad, but it does not obligate you to fill in all the gaps in her social and emotional life. She managed to meet a partner somehow, some way, so please trust: She could find a volunteer gig or religious congregation or message board or career counselor or class or some way of connecting with people who aren’t you. She may not want to or know where to start, but that still doesn’t mean you have to agree to be her sole emotional support for the rest of her life. “But I should be able to talk to my child!”  “Okay, but I am telling you  I’m not comfortable, and that this seems like a you + your therapist sort of topic.” “But I don’t want to talk to some stranger!” “That’s as may be, but I have an exam tomorrow and need to say good night. Good luck sorting it!”  When she shares problems and you do want to be supportive, try asking questions that emphasize her agency: “Wow, that’s tough. What do you think you’ll do about it?” “How upsetting. How do you want to handle it?”  Breaking the habit of “Mom has problem, daughter is the solution” requires many tactics.

The hard part is the only part that actually works. You cannot un-feel your own feelings (I WISH), and you cannot change your mom’s feelings or her behavior. Boundaries live in the part you can control: Your actions. The best way to defeat a guilt trip is to let everyone involved, including yourself, feel all the feelings, and then take the action you know is best for you anyway, even if you feel guilty and your mom feels bad when you stop discussing her sex life or having intense conversations on her schedule. When you decide that you can live with your mom feeling lonely or sad sometimes, but you won’t make yourself available at the expense of your own mental health, that’s when it changes.

Therapist and TikTok-er KC Davis has one of the best breakdowns of this, ever, in my opinion. Video:

@domesticblisters

Boundaries are behaviors, feelings, and beliefs… but always my own. #strugglecare #boundaries #mentalhealth

♬ original sound – Kc Davis

“Please don’t speak to me that way” (a request) vs. “I don’t stay in situations where people speak to me that way” (a boundary). Doesn’t that clarify, like, so much?

Letter Writer, you may never get what feels like a “normal” or “comfortable” relationship with your mom, where all of the damage of the past is undone, where both of you are getting everything you want, and where you’re both on the same page about what a good relationship even looks like. The goal isn’t to make everything perfect or find that One Conversation To Rule Them All that will persuade your mom, it’s to do what’s within your power to make things better than they are right now, with less friction and stress for you, and let time do the rest.

Complying with your mom’s pressure tactics, subsuming your own needs (including the need to decompress and watch TV sometimes, and the need to be the child and not the parent in your relationship)  will not make things better. It is okay if you don’t want to talk to your mom every single day or be her sounding board about heavy or overly-intimate topics. It is okay to take some actions that she finds hurtful in order to reset things between you and carve out your right to space and autonomy. The time to do it is now, when you’re both relatively young, so that you have the time and opportunity to see what else you can be to each other. <3.


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