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Question 156: Maintaining boundaries when you have to ask for help.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Background: I’m losing my home to gentrification. I’m disabled and receive rent assistance from the housing authority. After what I’d planned as a fun day out (I’ve been severely agoraphobic lately and trying to force myself to get out more) became an unpleasant evening waiting for buses in the cold, damp, dark, I came home to a notice on my door that my apartment complex will no longer be participating in the Housing Assistance Program”. My lease is up January 31st. I don’t have the emotional, practical, or financial resources to move. I recently had a bout of bronchitis that put me in the hospital for a few days, I’m having one of the worst depressive episodes I’ve ever had that wasn’t directly triggered by a crisis (and I’d been taking some very difficult steps to try and get help beyond the inadequate care I’m currently receiving but not making much progress), and now I have a major crisis.

Don’t worry, that’s not what I’m asking your advice on.

Some needed background: My relationship with my mom got very strained after I hit puberty. I moved out when I was 16, and only stayed with her briefly (as in, a few weeks) when I was 19 and ending a relationship with an extremely abusive boyfriend. She wouldn’t take any money for rent, even though I was working full-time then, and she’d turned my bedroom into a sewing room. I was allowed to sleep in the corner and hang some clothes on a rack at the foot of it, and I wasn’t given keys; I had to have all my comings and goings at her convenience. When a guy who was interested in me called, she made a derisive remark about how they were sniffing around already. She tried to put me in a group home. I moved in to the first cheap rented room I could find. About a year later I moved to Texas. I’ve only seen her once since, and that was less than two years after the move; eighteen years ago. She’s sort of a cross between Joyce Summers and Sylvia Noble, to use a little shorthand. Over the past few months we’ve been tentatively planning for her to visit in March, which was a Seriously Big Deal for me.

I was going to email her to let her know about the crisis and suggest holding off on plans until I’d somehow worked something out. But my mother doesn’t like email; she’s told me that computers are what she uses at work and she doesn’t like using them when she doesn’t have to. I’m fairly telephone-phobic at the best of times, but since I was hoping to catch her before she bought plane tickets I called her.


She told me she’d already bought tickets, and she’d help me with the move. I was pretty much a blithering wreck and I am sure she was trying to be reassuring but she really, really wasn’t. I cautiously asked if we could text some of the discussion, and she told me she didn’t text. I offered to send her my upgraded-right-before-the-bad-news Virgin Mobile phone for texting, but she told me no, she had a cell phone, but she DIDN’T text (she knows, and I reminded her, about how uncomfortable I am talking on the telephone). Also, I mentioned I should probably wait until the day after Upcoming Major Holiday to contact an apartment locator, she insisted I do so tomorrow.

So, help I’m not in a position to be able to refuse is coming with strings to make an already traumatic period even more stressful.

Any suggestions for coping techniques while biting my tongue and trying not to crack during frequent phone calls with a largely-estranged mother who has no regard for my comfort zone during a time when I’m in a situation where I can’t safely insist on maintaining the boundaries I need?

-Having a Cruel Yule

Dear Cruel Yule:

I’m so sorry you are dealing with all of this.

I have some good news and some bad news for you:

Good news! Your mom is inclined to help you.

Bad news! She’s going to do it 100% on her terms.

It’s great that as a grownup you’ve learned how to set boundaries about communication that work for you. Unfortunately, yours directly clash with your mom’s. Your boundary is “I have difficulty with the phone and prefer to email or text.” Your mom’s is “I hate to use the computer when I’m not at work.”  If you insist on your own boundaries, your mom might retreat from the conversation entirely. Worse, she might back out of the help that you’re depending on. You tried to respect her stated wishes by calling instead of emailing, and you’re a bit pissed off that she’s not giving you credit for that and respecting your needs in return.

This is one for the hierarchy of needs. Which do you need more?  For your mom to help you move, or for her to respect the way you need to communicate with her? I mean, you need both, but if you only get one in the short term, what do you choose? You’re in a situation where it really is that black and white.

That sounds harsh, I realize, but (tarnished, hard to see) silver lining is that it is a choice you can make. You can choose to say “I need my mom to come help me move, therefore I can put up with her idiosyncracies for a while.”  When she does something that bothers you, you can choose to say (inside your head, or venting to trusted friends) “That’s just how mom is, I wish things were different, but she’s trying to help.” You’re not the person you were at 16, and March is not that long away. Can you stand it for a couple of months? Will her help make things better or worse for you? Can you choose to forgo her help to shield yourself from the stressful communication?  If you frame it as a choice that you are making to have contact with her, it’s a little bit easier to navigate the day-to-day.

Personally, I would communicate with her going forward by email or by postal mail and lay out everything I wanted to say (which takes care of how you need to communicate), and then follow up with a call to make sure both ends are covered. If she reminds you that she hates email, just say “I know you do, but that’s the only way I can be sure that you have all the information about what’s going on, thanks for understanding.

And when she gave me advice that I didn’t want, I’d say (out loud) some variation of  “Thanks mom, I’ll think about what you said!” and then privately make a choice about whether I wanted to follow it or not.

I know it seems counter-intuitive to just agree with her or thank her when you’re feeling so raw and like you need to FIGHT! for this hard-won autonomy you’ve found. But if you decide right now that you can’t change her and you probably can’t make her see your point of view and respect your needs around communication?  If you decide right now that hey, this relationship is never going to work like it is “supposed to” work, so you’re going to make a choice to deal with the imperfect and sometimes frustrating way that it does work? If you can decide that in the short term you’re going to work with what you’ve got (and grieve for what you don’t have later), you will save so much energy that you need to take care of yourself.

It sucks that you are in a vulnerable situation and that she can exploit that vulnerability with a “If you’re not going to take my advice, why should I help you?” at any time. No, seriously, it sucks, and I understand why you feel helpless and teenaged again. Take care of yourself by choosing NOT to have the fight. Take care of yourself by surviving to rebuild your life another day in another way.

A few concrete things you can do if you decide to stay in touch and accept her help:

  • Take care of yourself by taking the initiative to call her periodically and set a timer so you keep the conversations focused and short. That way you’re not dreading her call and you’re controlling as much as you can control. People can put up with a lot for 10-15 minutes.
  • Set yourself up to feel better. Take care of yourself by making sure you don’t call her when you’re feeling hungry, shaky, weak, overtired, sick. Make yourself some tea, eat a little snack, sit in a quiet space in your house, calm yourself down, make some notes about what you want to talk about, and promise yourself a reward for calling her. THEN make the call.
  • Could you take five minutes and call the apartment locator service today? Either they will be closed or you can set up an appointment with them for when you actually want to come in. You can tell your mom that you called them, and you haven’t lost anything by it, but you will lose something by arguing with her about why you can’t or shouldn’t do it or letting the anxiety build up about it. OR choose to not call them until Monday, and once you make that choice, write it in your calendar, decide that it’s handled and don’t think about it or discuss it anymore.
  • When she does say something that goes over the line, take a deep breath and say this in your head, “My mom loves me and this is the best she can do right now. Hopefully we will figure out a way that we can get along better in the future. I don’t have to worry about that right now, I just need to take care of myself.”

That doesn’t mean you put up with EVERYTHING she says and does. You can still defend yourself. Use short sentences that don’t leave a lot of room for argument or further discussion, and get the hell out of the conversation. Don’t get sucked into the details. “That hurts my feelings, mom.”  “That’s over the line, mom.” “That’s not up for debate, mom.” “I should get off the phone now, I’ll call you in a couple days when I know more.”

I’m sorry, I wish I could help more. As economic conditions worsen, I think a lot of people are in your shoes of needing help from people who make them nuts, and receiving help that comes with a lot of strings attached. The more you frame your relationship with your mom as a choice (even if the choice is “I choose to humor her right now“, or “I choose to cut ties again for a while“) the better you can take care of yourself.

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About JenniferP

Chicago filmmaker, teacher, and blogger.

5 comments on “Question 156: Maintaining boundaries when you have to ask for help.

  1. I realized I’d have to contact the housing authority before I could contact an apartment locator, and I did the appease-my-mom-since-I-need-her-help thing and made the call first thing in the morning. My housing authority caseworker said she’d call the apartment complex to try and get an extension til the end of February for me, but I haven’t heard back and they’re closed until Tuesday :(

    On the plus side, when I pointed out to my mom that my phone plan had unlimited texted but not unlimited phone minutes, she agreed to check her email more often and admitted that she didn’t know how to text. She agreed to letting me teach her when she’s visiting in March, so if I can make it through January and February things might be looking up a little.

    And thank you so much for using my letter.

  2. Maybe it’s my own sensitivity to this kind of “help”, having a narcissistic abusive mother of my own. But I am hearing something more nefarious than just differing communication styles and preferences between the letter writer and her mom. Specifically, letting her live there but not giving her a key–and thereby forcing her to have to negotiate every single departure and arrival–and mocking her for having potential boyfriends calling set off screaming “narcissistic control-freak abuser” alarm bells for me. It would require more information to know for sure, but that kind of intrusive controlling behavior is very typical of narcissistic abusive mothers, for whom “help” is not at all about actually helping, but about controlling, denigrating, placing the “helper” at the center of attention (note: which potential suitors interfere with), and creating a situation where the helpee “owes” the helper obeisance and where the helper can engage in an ongoing continuous inquiry as to whether the helpee “deserves” to receive help.

    • I have no question that the mother sucks, a lot, and that the history is abusive.

      That’s why it is a choice as to whether engage her at all, and if the LW chooses to engage, she should do so with eyes wide open and the knowledge that she’s not going to be able to change the dynamic very much.

  3. Here’s another practical suggestion: Is your mother allowed to receive and send personal emails at her work? If she doesn’t want to look at a computer at home, maybe it’d work for you to have those communications sent to her work instead.

    And I can’t emphasize enough how very useful the magic phrase “Thanks, that’s very interesting, I’ll really need to consider that” is to make people stop trying to persuade you. There’s nothing in it that promises your thoughts will be kind ones…

  4. [...] about basic maturity and narcissism. Like the moms in the Case of What To Name The Baby or the Case of I Guess You Can Sleep On The Floor of the Sewing Room, But You Can’t Have Keys or Get …, your mom has decided to make something that is not about her (How you and your boyfriend will [...]

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