#339: My mom gives me the silent treatment.

Hi Captain:

I was raised by a mom who used the silent treatment. Whenever she was really mad about something- maybe once a month- she’d just shut down for several days at a time and not talk to anyone except to sneer at them. This only applied to people in my immediate family- my dad and I- as she’d easily turn around and be smiley and chatty with her father on the phone or a neighbour, and then continue to freeze me/my dad out. This has been going on for about as long as I can remember- one incident in particular stands out, when she refused to even make me dinner. I was about eight at the time. As I got older, it grew less damaging, since I didn’t rely so much on her approval, but it still left scars. She was my primary caregiver- my dad also lived with us, but he’s not so great at parenting as opposed to being a pal, so she was the only authority I really looked up to at home, and in my childhood, I needed a lot of looking after. (I had and have several leaning/social disabilities that necessitated a lot of care.)

Now I’m in my early twenties, and I think this treatment may have left some scars I’m not entirely sure how to deal with. When my mother is quiet or avoids me for extended periods of time, I start to freak out because I think I’ve done something “wrong.” (When she did this when I was a child, she never told me what she was angry about, so I had to guess until I got it right.) Even when I confront her and she insists she’s not mad about anything, it doesn’t calm me down, because I feel like she’s trying to make me guess again. This may be tied to my social anxiety, which I’ve been working on with a therapist, but I think it’s also just a byproduct of how I was raised. It’s also affected how I make decisions- whenever she disagrees with something I want to do about my life (enter a school program, move to a different place) I start to panic and second-guess myself because she’s been The Authority in my life for so long. I can’t talk to her about this, because whenever I do, she turns it into a conversation about what I’ve done to frustrate or anger her, and I end up defending myself instead of explaining to her that she’s hurt me. We’ve been trapped in this pattern for so long, I don’t even know if she realizes she’s doing it, or that it has this effect on me. How do I stop myself from being this needy child who’s desperate for her mother’s approval?


The Sound of Silence

Dear Sound of Silence

Thanks for your letter. I think it speaks to many, many of the writers in my inbox who I will probably not have time to answer, so if you’ve written something similar consider this your answer. And Sound of Silence, you are definitely not alone.

I recommend cutting off pesky would-be or former dating partners and toxic relationships all the time, and say that silence or no answer IS an answer. I think it can be liberating and healthy for relationships that you don’t want to be involved in anymore, when you’re tired of trying to exit “gracefully” from a situation or let someone down easy, when you’ve said “No but thanks” and the other person just isn’t hearing you, when you’ve broken up or ended a friendship.

And I also recommend ending conversations with people who are pushing your boundaries. “We should end this conversation.”  “Let’s talk later when we’ve both cooled off.” “I’m going to go upstairs for a bit, I’ll see you later.” Leaving a room or withdrawing your attention when you’ve asked someone to stop badgering you about something and they won’t. Bailing on a discussion can be a healthy way of enforcing boundaries.

But the Silent Treatment (of a child by a parent, of a romantic parter, of any intimate ongoing relationship) – days of sharing a space with someone and being silent and shutting them out except to glare at them –  is 100% emotional abuse. This right here?

When my mother is quiet or avoids me for extended periods of time, I start to freak out because I think I’ve done something “wrong.” (When she did this when I was a child, she never told me what she was angry about, so I had to guess until I got it right.)”

This is a power play designed to make you feel powerless and shitty and shut out of things and dependent on the other person’s approval. It is definitely Not Okay.

Carolyn Hax (a personal hero of mine) writes about the Silent Treatment extensively. Some links:

Removing yourself from a discussion you don’t want to continue involves telling the other person what your boundaries are, asking for what you need, giving them a way to satisfy you (Let’s talk about something else please, or Let’s discuss it later, or Give me some time to think about this, or I need to be alone for a bit, or, If you bring that up again I’m going to have to end this conversation), and it has a pretty short shelf-life.  If you’re removing yourself from a room or a conversation or even a relationship, you want the other person to go away and do their own thing.

The silent treatment is different. You want the other person to hang about and really FEEL the silence and be an audience for your anger. In fact, you expect it. You want them to plead with you to talk to them again. You want to put them in a position of having to please you or guess what they did wrong. They have no idea when it will end – the implied threat is that it will last forever. There isn’t a way that they can end it or make you happy, all the control lies with you. It’s 100% about control, in fact. It’s full of contempt, and contempt spells relationship death.

To do it to your child? When you have actual control over many aspects of their physical and emotional development? Is fucking unconscionable. This “I won’t tell you what you did wrong so you have to list all the bad things about yourself until you get it right” is controlling condescending bullshit. It. Is. So. Very. Wrong. And it sets up exactly the dynamic you’ve described, Sound of Silence. You’re an adult, but you still feel like you’re dancing for your mom’s approval.

You’re in therapy. That’s a very good idea. Please, please keep doing that and be totally honest about your history and your feelings with the counselor.

I strongly suggest that you read the book “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Dr. Karyl McBride. Form a book club with your therapist so you can both read it. I think you will find it incredibly relevant and possibly transformative.

Administrative/moderation note:

We do not diagnose strangers through the internet around here. There are a couple of reasons for that. I have no clinical training, so I can’t tell if people are talking rot. You mostly have no clinical training. Some of you do have clinical training, so you know best of all: You can’t diagnose people you’ve never met, and even if you could, knowing that the problem has a name doesn’t do anything to solve it or even describe or predict reasonably how it’s playing out in a given situation.

Abuse victims are not obligated to act as their abuser’s therapist and help make up for past suffering or manage any diagnosable conditions. It’s better to focus on behaviors, and your own needs and feelings, and discuss specific strategies to stop or protect yourself from abusive behaviors rather than toss off “Oh, that’s sounds like _____ disorder. Solved it!”

So, I realize that recommending a book on parental narcissism looks like I’m breaking my own rules. You and I can’t say if “narcissism” is what’s going on with the LW’s mom, and if we could, we shouldn’t. But I have read that book and I think that it (and online discussions of parental narcissism) offer a lot of comfort and some good strategies for dealing with a controlling parent, especially the feeling like you are trying to please them and audition for them when making your own life choices as an adult. So I encourage commenters to share personal stories, strategies that have worked, etc., but I encourage you to focus on behaviors & specific recommendations for things the LW could do that have worked for you. [/Moderation Note]

Okay, one of the reasons I recommend that book is that the ways that you can take care of yourself around a controlling parent make you feel like you are being a bad daughter, when really your parent broke the contract long, long ago. So there is a lot of guilt and second-guessing. By setting and enforcing some boundaries, you will feel like you are hurting your mom (and you may be hurting her feelings a lot, and she will definitely use the Bad Daughter stick to try to get you to do what she wants), but really you are just taking good care of yourself. So if your relationship is difficult and fraught and sometimes not the way she would like it to go, too bad. She chose how she treated you. It may feel like you are causing badness, but she is choosing it.

There are a couple of things I recommend that you try IN CONSULTATION WITH YOUR THERAPIST. This is painful, primal stuff and I can’t promise any of it will be easy, but in my opinion (and some hard-won personal experience) it’s how you have any hope of resetting any kind of functional relationship with your mom. It will take a lot of time and telling stories to your therapist and setting boundaries and biting your tongue and grieving and letting things go.

Two big things right up front:

1. This relationship will probably never be 100% okay. A lot of the scripts for what parents and children *should* be like as adults just don’t apply to you. The silent treatment stuff, like tantrums, is really outside the norm of acceptable behavior for how a parent should treat a child or how anyone should treat anyone else. So don’t assume ANYTHING about how moms should react to things, like “Moms should be supportive of their children’s successes!” – your mom has already shown you she doesn’t work that way.

  • Sucky: It’s painful and you’re going to do a lot of grieving for what might have been and what you should have had.
  • Liberating: You are free of obligations to perform “What good daughters should do.” You don’t have to run your choices by her, visit her, go home for holidays, ask her for advice, listen to her opinions, or even ever talk to her again if you don’t want to. When you feel guilty, remind yourself: This is what she bought when she abused you.

The relationship may never be what it should be, but with some time and persistence and resilience on your part, it may get better than it is now.

2. Realize that there is no amount of “nice” and “accommodating” and “compliant” you could ever be that would make your mom 100% approve of you. Disapproval seems to be her default setting. So, don’t ask her advice about decisions in your life. She’s not safe. Present her with facts, preferably after-the-fact. “I moved here.” “I am going to work at this job.” “I met someone I like.” That way the threat of disapproval doesn’t hold you back from the things you want to do.

  • Sucky: You’re without that nurturing, supportive parent that you should have, which feels alienating and lonely.
  • Liberating: There’s no pleasing her, so focus on pleasing yourself. Do what you want. Make yourself happy.

3. Get some distance. If you live at home, move out. If you live nearby, consider moving away. Make someone else your emergency contact/key master. Get a Google voice number that you give her as your new cell phone number and filter the calls so that you see them only when you want to. Divorce your finances from your parents as much as you possibly can. Create that small quiet room for yourself where you can be truly yourself and be safe.

4. Reframe the times when she avoids you as a precious gift. She can’t shut you out and give you the silent treatment if you’re avoiding her. So one thing you could do is to decide for a fixed period of time that you will not be in touch with her, and that you’ll let her be the first to reach out.

If you want, you can let her know in advance (again, consult your therapist). “Mom, I won’t be in touch for a few weeks. I’ll call you and dad on (date).”  I think it’s Comrade Physioproffe, Noted Commenter who never answers calls for certain people – he just calls them back when he feels like it, even if it’s five minutes later because they’ve shown they don’t respect boundaries. It takes time and effort but eventually people can be retrained and have their expectations reset.

I mean, what if you never called her to find out if or why she was mad at you? What would she do? What if you decided not to worry about what you may have done wrong? What if you didn’t participate in the “airing of the grievances” and just treated her like everything is fine and if there is something she is upset about she can use her fucking words and tell you what that is, but until then, you can’t care about it?

Your email subject line was “I think my mom might be gaslighting me by accident.” If this is all about your own anxiety and need for approval and not something she’s doing, or if it is “by accident”… this would be one way to find out.

5. Keep it light. When you do speak, don’t talk about serious things – she isn’t safe. Talk about TV. Talk about extended family. Talk about the housepets and happy childhood memories. Ask her how she is doing. When she is nice and pleasant to you, be nice and pleasant to her. At the first turn to serious topics, and especially at the first “I’m very disappointed in you because ________” say “So sorry to hear that, I have to go. Goodnight!”  

Also, consider switching up your method of communication. Is she terrible on the phone? Send notecards in the mail or use email. Is she terrible in writing when she’s had time to really think it through? Use the phone.

6. Develop mantras. When she tries to tell you what to do, or says something mean, or gives you inappropriate advice, one of the best things you can say is “Thanks Mom, I’ll think about it.

You WILL think about it. And then you’ll do whatever the hell you want to do. But saying “Thanks, I’ll think about it” instead of “You’re wrong!” robs your mom of the extended argument (and bullying opportunity) she is used to having. It seems counter-intuitive and like you’re not standing up for yourself, but really you are throwing off her game and giving yourself space to hang back choose your battles.

This is another case where the “I’m sorry that you feel that way” non-apology is totally valid. Use it all the time.

7. Build Team You. You’re already got a therapist, so you’re one step ahead. Put some love into your friendships; you’re going to need those people. Volunteer somewhere, if you can. You’re going to need a place where you feel like you have your shit together and are helping people. Reach out to other people in your family – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – and build stronger relationships with them. Find people who like you as you are and who don’t make you do humiliating shame dances to win their approval.

Carve out safe spaces where you can be truly yourself, and don’t invite her into them until she shows that she can behave.

8. Brace yourself.

Let me be blunt: Getting distance and limiting contact are power plays as much as the silent treatment is, so it will feel really extreme and crappy and like you are overreacting and being a bad person. There will be guilt. SO MUCH GUILT. This is because you are nice and reasonable and you want to see the good in people and treat them as you would like to be treated. And she will not go quietly. “But I’m your moooooooootherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr….

Get ready for your dad to re-emerge. He sounds pretty passive about this whole thing, but if you’re not around so much, he’s going to get the brunt of her disapproval. So get ready for him to pressure you to just do what she wants, you know she loves you, she doesn’t mean to be the way she is, it’s not her fault, you know how she is, why do you have to make things so difficult? I wish I were kidding about this, but I’m not. You’ll expect an ally in him because he’s been where you’ve been with her, but prepare for the possibility that he’ll be her ally in trying to get you to fall into line to get her off his nuts.

What you will be doing is resetting the way the relationship works and putting your mom in the position where, if she wants a relationship with you, she has to treat you better. You will be showing your mom that you can live just fine with her disapproval, but you won’t tolerate her being mean to you.

I’ve quoted this here before, but it has so much bearing in your situation I’ll throw it in again. From Lois McMaster (the guy who founded http://www.casinoapplist.co.uk/) Bujold’s A Civil Campaign:

“Nothing is more guaranteed to make one start acting like a child than to be treated like one…It took me the longest time to figure out how to stop falling into that trap.”

“Yes, exactly,” Kareen agreed eagerly. “You understand! So–how did you make them stop?”

“You can’t make them–whoever your particular them is–do anything, really,” said Ekaterin slowly. “Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste…years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No, you have to just…take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that, and walk away. But it’s hard.”

It is hard, Sound of Silence, but you’re doing all the right stuff by seeking therapy and connecting some of these dots for why you feel the way you do. Keep going with that.




319 thoughts on “#339: My mom gives me the silent treatment.

  1. Oh man, I was going to write a very similar letter just today, thank you. And I wish the LW the best of luck dealing with her mom.

    I do have a question relating to the moving out point: Can you or the commentariat provide any useful resources for people who REALLY REALLY need to get out of the House of Evil Bees but don’t have much in the way of resources? Riding it out until there are resources isn’t really an option because the Evil Queen Bee keeps undermining attempts to marshal them.

    1. House sitting or pet sitting, it could get you out of the house to a safe/quiet place, and can be done in mornings and evenings. My friends pay $20 per day for someone to come and feed their two elderly cats and administer the meds. Without the meds, $10-15 per day was the norm. Find other places to hang out and relax – library, cafe, friends, etc. where you won’t spend money, I used to spend time in a library music room.

      Elysian, do you have a part time job? Do you have friends you could stay with for a short time while you look for work if you don’t have a part time job? Are your days free? Dog walking sustained my friend during the 6 months she was in between jobs because even in times of recession childless couples with dogs are still willing to spend money for dogwalkers to come in the middle of the day while they’re at work and walk their dogs. Fee is about $18-$20 per dog walk. Are your evenings free? Bartending can be a great way to earn extra money so long as you stick to more upscale places like bars inside hotels or in clubs. If you can’t stay with friends then check out Community bulletin boards (and Craigslist) in pricey neighborhoods looking for boarders to take some of the pressure off of their mortgage that they got abit over their head with. In more middle class neighborhoods it’s not unusual to see people renting out their couches in the living room, heck they even offer to move out to the couch and rent you their bedroom.

      1. For those who might be interested in getting out a house + maybe adventure, I’d recommend this website: http://www.caretaker.org/

        It’s a listing of places that are looking for caretakers. There are all sorts of situations, places that will offer you a free place to stay if you take care of their farm/house/Caribbean villa for a year, some have paid positions for work on top of caretaking (usually some sort of live-in maid/butler situation, I don’t recommend those personally), some charge you a limited rent. I haven’t used it in a while, but it used to be you could list all the places in the world that you were wiling to live, and they would email you positions in those settings. The downside to the website is that to get the listings – which they email to you every month – was a $20/year subscription. It’s not a bad, but I know if you are on a extremely limited income sometimes even $20 is a stretch.

    2. I can tell you what I did to get out from under controlling parents, that may or may not apply to your situation, because the issues with my family aren’t quite the same as with LW: I moved in with friends. Namely, friends who understood the situation and that it would take me at least a couple months to get on my feet, and were willing to support me (push me, positively but firmly forward) in doing so, who were willing to be a buffer zone between me and guilt-laden phone messages, and a sounding board for me when I got the silent treatment.

      I may have been a little too dependent upon my friend circle during that early time and burned a loosely tethered bridge or two, but hot damn, am I ever thankful to the friends who stuck through.

    3. there’s two levels of this.

      One is kind of casual. Put the word out you’re looking to move out and can pay rent (if you can) or offer other benefits (yard work, housecleaning, good karma). Do what you can to minimize conditions – rehome or find someone who can care for pets, reduce the amount of stuff you need to have/store. Let some key people know it’s getting urgent, get them to work their friend networks for you. You’ll find a shared space eventually through those networks, though depending on the age/wealth of your friends you may have to emphasize that you have low expectations, because they may think of you as too old/employed/classy for a room in a shared apartment or someone’s tiny spare room.

      The other one is Code Red Emergency Escape Plan – start stockpiling secret resources. Get a PO box. Get a bank account & have all correspondence to it go to the PO box. Get a prepaid go-phone if she’s interfering with your phone access/information. Downplay your resources to Queen Bee (shit talk your friends to her, pretend your job is cutting hours/precarious). Scrounge/divert money to your escape fund (cash in change, walk & save your bus fare, drink water & put the soda money away.) Talk to someone at school about how you can work around Queen Bee. Start collecting phone numbers & email contacts of various kinds of emergency support. And in the meantime, reassure your Evil Bees that you are whatever they want you to be (dependent & adoring, usually) to the extent that you can manage without killing your soul.

      1. Seconding this comment’s Code Red Emergency Escape plan so hard; I did this to get out of my Evil Bee childhood house.

        I suffered agonies of guilt: I was such a bad human for thinking and planning to leave the Beehive. I was an awful kid. They’d be so worried about me when I left. They loved me.

        What actually happened: My Queen Evil Bee called all my friends who had their phone numbers publicly listed and told them that I’d stolen things from the House of Evil Bees. Not “I’m sorry” or “I’m so worried” or “Celeloriel left her keys on the kitchen table and I don’t know where she is” — straight up first reaction: “She’s a thief and I’m filing a police report”. THAT was the keystone in the arch of “wow, the Evil Queen Bee really, really for real does not love me.” It hurt, but it helped to know.

        Another thing I did after I got out was to cease contact with not only the Queen Bee, but everyone that lived in that house and/or would talk to the Queen Bee for over a year and a half. It was really, really glorious.

        1. I’m lucky enough never to have needed to do this, but I’ve watched several friends achieve it. It’s fucking heroic, but you’re right – the end effect is just glorious.

      2. oh man, i forgot a key part of the emergency escape plan – get all your personal documents. Birth certificate, social security card, vaccination records (or at least contact info for the doctor that has the most recent ones), driver’s license, passport if there is one. If you are on your parents health insurance and think they won’t kick you off right away, get your own card & the customer service phone #.

        1. OH DEAR GOD THIS.

          I wasn’t actually completely running away from my parents, just fighting with them viciously, but I didn’t have all my personal documents and it was terrible leverage they had over me. My mother kept “forgetting” to send me my new health insurance card when I was away at school and our family insurance changed. We were fighting at the time but I had to keep calling and begging anyways because I was completely broke and on antidepressants that I COULD NOT afford on my own. I went into withdrawal from my meds or took lower doses to make them last longer multiple times before I confessed the whole thing to my therapist in tears. Thankfully she was incredible and managed to scrounge up free samples to last me until I went home for the holidays and could take the damn card and copy it myself.

          Regarding the other documents, I have heard so many horror stories of people being trapped because those were held hostage by an abusive family member/spouse. The government documents in particular can be time consuming, difficult, or expensive to replace. If you are just missing one, you can usually manage, though it’s difficult.

          And I don’t know if this applies to anyone currently reading, but just in case–if you have a rocky relationship with your parents and are underage, get ahold of/take as much responsibility for as much of your personal information as possible as early as possible. Keep track of your own vaccinations, get a copy of your birth certificate, copy down important phone numbers (your doctor, your dentist, extended family… whatever). Get your own bank account and remove your parent’s name from it the day you turn 18, or find another trusted adult to open an account with/for you.This is probably good preparation for adulthood for anyone in their late teens–one way or another, you will have to take responsibility for all this crap eventually–but it’s particularly important if you may have to make a quick getaway, or even just get yourself a driver’s license or medical care or something while your parents are being pissy and refusing to take your phone calls.

          When I went away to college, I did a lot of this out of a simple desire to be self sufficient and got pushback repeatedly. Why didn’t I want my mom’s name on my bank account? Didn’t I trust her? And why keep track of all those important documents while living in dorms and crappy apartments when mom and dad are always just a phone call away? I pushed back some, largely out of sheer stubbornness at the time rather than a clear sense of why it was so important, but later I was so glad I did. In fact, I wish I had pushed harder on some things (see: health insurance debacle). Even with great family relationships, situations can come up where you may need to be a grownup and deal with shit without calling Mommy and Daddy, but if you have a rocky relationship it’s practically guaranteed.

          And one last thing (forgive the run on comment, sorry)… when you go away to college, or where ever you go at 18, establish your own adult relationships with people like doctors/dentists/etc. as soon as possible. This applies to everyone, not just people with abusive families. It certainly might seem like a good idea to just go to the student health center when absolutely necessary, but otherwise stick with familiar stuff at home, especially if you aren’t that far away. But you are an adult, and you don’t want to, say, be 21 calling and begging a parent to make you a dentist appointment for a week or two that you are home on break, because you have desperately needed a filling for months. I know so many people who didn’t get adequate care during college, not because they couldn’t afford it, but because they couldn’t either deal with the mess of coordinating with their parents or bother to find their own damn care closer to school. It’s silly, and a bad habit, and if after you graduate you are still relying on parents to deal with this stuff for you it starts verging on pathetic pretty quickly (unless there are extenuating circumstances, of course). And if your parents are awesome and supportive, they should WANT to help you get all this shit transferred over to become your responsibility–it’s part of growing up.

          1. it’s possible to replace some of these documents – i ordered a birth certificate over the internet from my home state, a few years ago (my mom is orderly & sharing, but what she had was actually just the document saying my birth certificate is filed at the county courthouse where I was born.) But it’s much, much easier to just lay hands on the originals if you can, because what you’re doing when you leave (find a place to live, find transportation, apply for financial/food aid, get a job) all needs the documentation.

          2. This, about the pushback. My parents were actually upset that I saved for an emergency fund and therefore wouldn’t be relying on them so much for emergencies. Think about that. Why would it upset them that I wanted the ability to pay for emergency expenses, unless they wanted me to be dependent on them?

          3. This is really excellent advice. Especially because while you can get some of your documentation later, you can’t get all of it at once (i.e. you need your birth certificate to get your SSN and vice versa: yay bureaucracy?). So get hold of and keep what you can.

        2. I SO AGREE.

          When my mother left her second husband last year, it was all kind of a schemozzle, and a lot of paperwork seemed to disappear. We eventually realised he had found and hidden her birth certificate, thinking she wouldn’t be able to divorce him about it.

          (My brother, in the end, paid for a new copy. BECAUSE YOU CAN DO THAT IN THE REAL WORLD.)

          So yeah, find originals, and if you can’t find ’em, find out how to get replacements, cost, everything else.

      3. Code Red is more of the situation in question, but thanks to everyone for other advice too. I am not actually the one who lives in the House of Evil Bees – My Dearly Beloved does, an while we are getting her OUT, the question is more of “Okay, you’re free, now how do we get aid and such to pay for you know, living, until you’re on your feet and find a job here?”

        I probably should have clarified that in my original question.

        1. ooh, that’s a different question. Is your beloved a student? Living in the same city or state already?

          Financial aid offices are sometimes remarkably helpful for students in these kinds of situations, especially if you contact them before payment is actually due.

        2. If you are looking for resources in your community, try the local 211 helpline or local information referral equivalent. They are nationwide in the US and are wonderful ways to connect with agencies who are set up to help people in need.

          You might also try local domestic violence facilities. I don’t know if your beloved would be eligible for all of their services, but they would also be able and likely willing to connect you with community agencies for people who are trying to break out of bad situations.

    4. I don’t have this exact experience, but I recommend telling your friends and family members (if you have any not connected to the bees, or perhaps loving siblings who’ve already escaped) that you need to get out. Not that you’re getting fed up (most adults who live with parents have their moments of exasperation), but that you need to go now. Tell your friends about the abuse and your fears of being trapped. Hopefully, there will be offers of spare rooms, couches or even some place someone owns or rents which is empty while the occupiers are on holiday, off sick, on a foreign assignment etc..

      Many parents – controlling and benign – will build it up in your mind that you can only make a move which will represent the beginning of the next chapter in your life, part of a great scheme you’ve carefully planned out beforehand. But sometimes, for all kinds of different reasons, you need to just change the location you lay your head at night. I recommend some caution (there are some places you could lay your head which might be even worse) but staying with people you trust for a short time while you work out what the larger plan is can be a life-saver.

      Good luck!

    5. Some years ago ago I have to move to scape of my Queen Bee because I was about to lose it. I ask for a little loan and move with some friends, and only told her a week before the moving when everything was ready. It was difficult because in my contry you don’t usually go out of your parent’s house until you are married but it was the best decision ever. So what you can do:

      Save every penny
      Ask the members of team You if some one can ofer you a place for a couple of months until you have things running.
      The emergency plan that Rosa gave you is great

      Jedi hugs to you

    6. Okay, getting out of the House of Evil Bees (I love that phrase) is a necessity. There are several great replies further up this thread, but I thought I’d add my own because it might be helpful, who knows.

      If possible, steal their honey: I knew I had to leave my House of Evil Bees while I was still underage. I did it though college, which my parents approved of, and chose one which was thousands of miles away (this is not, of course, an option which is available to everyone — but any college which entails moving out of the house works). College was a big thing in my family, so I used it. If you can, use their plans for you to your advantage.

      Stockpile resources. My parents liked to try to keep me guessing — every time I failed to return a call quickly enough or did anything they disliked, the money for my college mysteriously vanished. I got a job. Then another job. I moved off-campus so that if they stopped paying tuition I’d still have a place to live. (I actually wound up paying for the last semester myself, but I graduated!)

      Make friends. My friends were fantastic and helped me a lot — they provided emotional buffers (my roommates chatted with my parents and defused them for me or took messages), places to retreat to, and even financial help (I got loans from some friends). They also, most importantly, provided reality checks. I honestly had no idea that most people’s parents did not act like mine until I went away to college and got out of that house. I had no perspective until my friends talked to me about their parents.

      I had to learn to lie. I looked on it as a necessary survival skill, and I learned to do it (mostly because my parents did not take it well if I refused to answer questions or changed the subject). If I honestly did not want them to know about something — like the fact that I am gay — I had to lie about it. I am not ashamed of this. I truly think that if I had told them about being a lesbian while I lived in their house, the abuse would have escalated physically and my life might well have been in danger. Keep yourself safe. Lie when necessary: about yourself, about your bank account, about your plans.

      (I know this is unpalatable advice, but it is given because it worked for me.)

      Have a plan and a place to go. Do you have someone you can go to temporarily? Just before I left for college and during the one summer I had to spend at home, I spent a LOT of time with my grandmother. She was fantastic. If you have a friend or a relative you can visit, even temporarily, this can help give you space to plan.

      And, as a last-ditch resource, you can collect friends, put your stuff in storage (not too expensive most places), and couch-surf until you find a job and a place to live. This is a step above simply running away, and it can be really stressful (not having your own space, not even to sleep in, is REALLY STRESSFUL) but it can be better than the House of Evil Bees. And it’s survivable. I recommend this rather than flat-out running away.

      But sometimes even running away is necessary, in the case of some forms of abuse. I support all forms of getting out.

      1. About the “lies”. Think of them not so much as LIES, but as things that are none of their business. You are an adult, and are under no obligation to divulge very personal information to anyone. Even your parents.

        1. YES! My dad used this tactic a lot, and my other half’s mother is also guilty of going silent on us. Had I realised this sooner, rather than later in my adulthood, I would have saved myself so much heartache and discomfort. It’s ok to have boundaries, and there’s no need to explain/justify/reveal every last detail.

          jedi hugs

    7. If you have connections to a religious organization (or a friend’s organization) that the Evil Queen Bee does not, it might be worth reaching out to them. Most of the churches I’ve attended had resources available for people who needed them, and there’s often a large elderly population who are more likely to have a spare bedroom in return for house work. You could even approach organizations that you’re not connected to, though they’ll probably want you to participate to some extent in return. (Not as a ‘convert or we won’t help you’ thing, more that if they’re paying your rent they’ll want to have some kind of relationship with you.)

      1. On the other hand, if the Evil Queen Bee has connections to a religious organization, be sure to avoid them entirely – no asking for help, no seeking advice, no discussing your plans. Even if confidentiality is supposed to be part of the deal, you can be certain it won’t be if you’re talking about escape, “for your own good”. And any religious organization will try to talk you out of leaving anyway, that’s just what they’re about.

    8. Live in caregiving for the elderly or disabled. Often these positions are paid as well and in most places there is quite a shortage of people for these positions. Just be a bit selective about your boss, live in positions of any kind can be stressful and even emotionally abusive with the wrong person. But deeply fufilling and fun with the right person! This was always my emergency escape plan.

      Good luck!

  2. I’ve never commented here before, and this may not be helpful to the letter writer in this situation, but I’d like to point out that abusive parents are not entitled to a relationship with their adult children. I said hello to my father at each of his parents’ funerals, but that’s the only interaction I’ve had with him in probably 12 years, and it was the last interaction I’m ever going to have with him.

    I’ve had people opine to me that it’s somehow tragic, and that I’ll someday want reconciliation. After what he did to me, my mother, and my siblings, no way. Not going to happen. And you know what? That’s ok! I’m not missing anything by not having an abusive asshole in my life.

    1. I love this point, Jon, thanks so much for reiterating it.

      When you become an adult, relationships are a choice. You can cut some people out of your life. And you can choose to continue highly imperfect relationships with really difficult people through a combination of setting boundaries, making a safe place for yourself to be happy where they can’t affect you, and keeping your expectations for their behavior very, very low.

    2. I completely agree. it’s been… nearly 20 years for me (both parents), and I don’t regret a minute.

    3. Harriett J, whose disappearance from the internetz I understand but nonetheless lament, has some great stuff about just that still up at Fugitivus. (That links to her posts tagged “family”, but there’s other stuff there that’s potentially useful as well.)

      1. Didn’t do this with my parents, did cut off all contact with my sisters (different times) because the abuse was not worth it, in each case they went over the top too high and too far too many times. In fact, it made me realize when you put up with abuse, the abuse gets worse, always your boundaries get pushed further until the pain is too great. Have not seen, spoken to either sister in years and I am much better off for it. I’ve had so many people tell me this is not healthy or I’m holding a grudge and the worse “people change” maybe you should reach out. Hell no! I wish my sisters a good life, sometimes I wish I still had sisters, but I know those two are not capable of being the sisters I long for. Just saying, thanks Awkward nation for these comments, I feel like someone else gets me.

        1. I feel like I am a nodding head all over this comment thread. Re: the holding a grudge trope–

          I want to shout this from the rooftops sometimes. One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong… Recognizing the need for healthy, self-preserving boundaries and enforcing them with people who choose to harm you =/= holding a grudge!!!evelenty! Grudges are bitter, vengeful, spiteful things which eat at the person holding them. Boundaries are awesome, positive, self-supporting actions which build up the person who uses them. Such a huge difference between recognizing that another person can do you harm and keeping them at arm’s length, and being bitter and spiteful toward someone just because you don’t like them.

        2. People do change, people can learn and improve. They do get second chances.

          Those chances do not have to be with me.

          I can forgive and never have to speak to them again. I don’t have to give them another opportunity with me, the world gives them the chance to be a decent person to many other people every day. They should take the world up on that offer, but for my part? I’m busy with my life. Forgiveness just resets the clock to “total stranger” not “trusted companion”.

          1. I love this comment. It gets right to the heart of what’s wrong with the infuriating “But everyone deserves a second chance!” as applied to abusers, cheaters, bullies and sundry douchebags.

    4. I literally five minutes ago had the That’s So Tragic conversation with my mother.

      My boyfriend’s mother is verbally and emotionally abusive. He’s spent his whole life getting out of the house – boarding school, university, and finally moving overseas as an adult. He has been slowly working his way toward having zero contact with her, though he still has moments of filial guilt over that – once in a while he’ll do the “if only I could figure out what she wanted me to do” dance, but he has recently given himself permission to shut that shit down, and I try to be a reality check for him.
      This year, his father is coming to visit for a grand total of four days around Christmas. His mother is not coming. He is thrilled! I relayed this story to my mother, who immediately went, “Oh, but that’s So Sad, she’s his mother” and I had to be like, why? If she is going to be nasty and terrible and if she can’t treat her son like a human being, why should he want to see her? She doesn’t deserve to see him. She doesn’t get a cookie for just Being His Mother. And he’s allowed to be happy about that.

      1. Yeah, I’ve never understood why it is that two people sharing some genetic history should somehow absolve one of them of anything they’ve done to the other. If she’s his mother, that doesn’t make her behavior somehow ok, it makes it fucking worse. There are few things that I find as offensive or make me as angry as the That’s So Tragic conversation.

        1. I imagine the That’s So Tragic conversation, in a metaphorical context, going something like this:

          Onlooker: “Why won’t you pet that dog?”

          Person With A Bleeding Hand: “Because he bit me.”

          O: “Well I’m sure he didn’t mean to bite you. Maybe you should just try to pet him differently.”

          PWABH: “No, every time I come near him, in any way, he bites me.”

          O: “What, so you’re just not ever going to pet him again? Why do you hate dogs so much?”


      2. Yay for your boyfriend! And, YEAH, this is like how the reason MacBeth is a tragedy is not because he failed to stay king, it is a tragedy that he FUCKED HIS WHOLE LIFE UP BY BEING A TERRIBLE PERSON. The tragedy is not that your boyfriend is (thank God) cutting off contact with his mother; the tragedy is that she fucked up everything so badly that he had to do that. I’m sure that it’s sad for her, but the tragedy is not the response, it’s that she didn’t get her shit together and stop being a horrible person long, long ago.

      3. “She doesn’t get a cookie for just Being His Mother.”

        I’m going to use this the next time someone says “But she’s your MOTHER” to me. 😀

          1. Decent parents don’t demand those. They just quietly eat them while packing their kids’ lunches.

    5. Ugh, yes, the that’s-so-tragic thing. Add “But she’s the only mother you’ve got!” and “One day she won’t be here!” Then there’s “I wish I had a mum to be angry with,” but I’ll forgive that (and almost anything else) from someone who’s bereaved, because grief really fucks people up.

      When my mum hit 70 she sent me a guilt-bomb letter about how we didn’t have much time left to make amends. I wrote a Letter Not For Sending in reply, including a diagram depicting the process of making one’s own bed and then lying in it, took a deep breath, and didn’t send it.

      And yes, I suppose it’s tragic in a way. It’s tragic that so much sucked about my childhood, and that my mum and I never had a warm or loving mother-daughter relationship. It’s tragic that stuff happened that was bad enough to break whatever emotional bonds our 50% shared genes tried to set up beteen us. But all that tragedy, such as it is, has already happened. It is not ongoing. What would be an ongoing tragedy would be repeated attempts to force what can’t be, reopening wounds and reliving upset. Remaining on distant but polite terms with her, as we’ve managed for the past few years, is the closest to a happy ending we’re going to get, and I’m OK with that. I have many people in my life who choose to love me and who I love back, for whom I feel profoundly grateful and who make me very happy. I will give my time and attention to them instead.

      1. See, yes. Your situation in particular resonates with me so hard – it’s like, I’m sorry you’re staring at your mortality and you feel like you’re running out of time before that God you have always sworn was on your side takes you home, but you actually ran out of time with me about seven years ago. The “I’m old” card has no power over me.

        Good for you for escaping the gravity well of a tragic mother.

        1. Thanks! Jedi hugs to you too. I feel really relieved that so many awesome Awkwardeers are in a similar situation – not because I’d wish it on anyone, of course, but because of the same old It’s-So-Tragic narrative that says anyone who’d cut off a blood relation must be a horrible shitty person. It’s easier to be reassured that that’s not true when the person’s not you.

    6. This is my first comment on here, too. And the “that’s so tragic” conversation drives me up the wall, too. It’s tragic that my sisters and I grew up in a poisonous environment where we couldn’t trust our parents the way that all kids should be able to. It’s tragic that now as adults we have to work around the scars that left in order to have healthy, functional lives. It’s tragic that instead of looking forward to seeing my dad at my sister’s wedding, (she still keeps in touch; I don’t) I am dreading it, and looking at ways to help her manage whatever chaos he will bring to the proceedings. (I advised her to set the bar for him very low, so that showing up is a success. He thrives on people relying on him for important things and then keeping them hanging as to whether he will come through or not.)
      Me not keeping in touch with my dad is not tragic. It’s a goddamned success story and anyone who tries to tell me otherwise will get an earful. I agree with you 100 %.

      1. Yeah, it IS tragic. It’s just not tragic in the way people usually mean it. That’s why my version of the “that’s so tragic” conversation usually goes like this:

        Me: Are you going home for the holidays? (or some other bland family-related question)
        Them: My mom and I aren’t really in touch.
        Me: I’m sorry, that sucks. *changes subject*

    7. So much THIS. No matter how many -comments- on the “tragedy” of missing a relationship with (in my case biololical) Mother, I refuse to change my position. After what my step-father did to me and my sisiter while she stepped back and watched she doesn’t deserve it. And you know what? I’m a-ok with that. I ended up with a StepMom (henseforth Mom) that was more wonderful than could be imangined, and luckily learned early on that I have the right to surround myself around people that I want

      1. [DAMN old-ass work computer!]

        AHEM, as I was saying:

        . As painful as the experience was, now that time as passed the pain of betrayal has lessoned. At the time I didn’t want to cut off Biological Mother. We would curl up on the couch and eat popcorn and watch old musicals! We would sing Phantom of the Opera loudly in the car! We would joke about being too old to hang out in the park! But that relationship came at a cost that was much too high for me and literally threatened my safety.

        Currently my contact with Biological Mother is limited to the short Christmas presents-exchange visit and a birthday phone call. Before last Christmas I was actually wondering if maybe enough time had passed to maybe re-opening those doors…until she asked my siblings and I to spend the holidays with her and my step-father. According to her, we “were old enough now” to understand that what had happened “was blown out of proportion” and it was time “to put that all behind us.” Then of course came those same family comments when Mom died, but if I learned anything from the NUMEROUS AMAZING things from my WONDERFUL Mom…it’s those kind of relationships where your sense of self and personal boundaries are not required. You can step away and create your own worth and your own family.

    8. Jon, yes, so much this. Adult relationships are choices that both sides get to make. My father was also very physically and emotionally abusive and threatened my life several times when I was a small child and a teenager. I got out (see below) and when I was in my early 20s I cut him out of my life completely despite him whining about it and going through a period of contacting me and my then-boyfriend and his family saying that I was “denying him a relationship and the love he deserved and the Bible says you have to honor your father and mother”.

      I have not had any contact with him for years since then, but incredibly enough I have had several nosey people who are not aware of the abuse (I have barely told anyone about it as it is very private, obvs) tell me that I must have a relationship with my father whatever he did because the relationship with one’s parents must be maintained (usually they throw in some bonus religious bullshit here).

      About getting out in response to the commenter above, this is (part of) my story:

      I went away to college when I was 18, the furthest away possible.

      Without going into details the emotional part of the abuse included the Silent Treatment (TM) and all sorts of surrounding head games like ‘You did something that pissed me off, but I won’t tell you what because you should know! So now you can’t have any heat in your room all winter!”

      From the age of 16, I had a part time job, which meant I earned money and I put that money in a bank account that he could not access, even though this meant more abuse (he basically refused to pay for my food, clothes etc from the age of 16 – so I had to cover it from the money I earned).

      On the day I left home he stepped up the abuse and threw me out of the house (actually literally!) and yelled that I was a “whore”.

      But I had left.

      I made it through college by basically having several jobs at the same time as studying and having very good friends, I never told them about the abuse (at the time I did not really know it was abuse, I just knew I had a ‘weird’ dad) one of whom fed me when I could not afford food. We are still good friends 🙂

      Leaving, getting away, is the best thing you can do. And don’t be afraid to cut off an abusive parent, you do not need that in your life.

      About the LW, you are doing amazingly well, getting a therapist is a fantastic and brave step. I wish I had been as clued up and brave as you sound! I really wish you all the best.

  3. LW, I just wanted to commiserate. I had my dad do this same thing to me for much of my childhood, and it fucked with my head big time. It was really painful initially, as Captain says, to come to terms with the fact that our relationship would never be the one that either of us envisioned, but after that, it was so freeing to realize that he was the one totally in the fucking wrong. I really wish you the best in moving forward with your mom.

    Captain, thank you for answering this letter. Thank you for everything you do.

  4. The Captain has given you some stellar advice, and I suggest you take it. And let me reassure you, as someone who’s been there, that after awhile, you stop giving a shit. You will eventually get to the point of thinking/feeling “Oh, FFS, here she/he goes again” :::eyeroll::: “Time to make my exit” instead of “Oh my god what did I do?????”

    And word to the advice of informing your folks after the fact when you make a decision/change in your life.

    Elysian–do you have friends you can stay with for an extended period of time? Are you going to university–do they have dorms? Maybe you can talk to someone in student services and see if they know of resources to help you.

  5. I am 45 years old and have already put some of your suggestions to use based on other things I’ve read and counseling I’ve sought. I thought that by getting healthy and dealing with such issues in a healthy mature way I would show my mother how to behave. I assumed she also wanted a healthy, grown up relationship with her healthy, grown up daughter. No such luck. The healthier and more mature I act, the more childish she behaves and she does not respond well. I have been actively working on this relationship for over 10 years and, while I can assure you that I am better and healthier and happier and less desiring of her approval than ever before, I am no where near where I would like to be on this matter. Buckle down for the long haul and do what you need to do. Gather your resources and go forth. I’m cheering you on and so is the whole internet. I’d say that the first thing you need to do is not live with her and get Team You up and running. You can do it and it’s really worth it.

    1. “I assumed she also wanted a healthy, grown up relationship with her healthy, grown up daughter. No such luck. The healthier and more mature I act, the more childish she behaves and she does not respond well.”

      Learned the hard way not to assume that everybody is healthy and rational. I was 35 years old when my mom pulled the silent treatment on me for the first and last time because her 3-days bender of belittling, mocking, gaslighting, and plain old verbal assaulting wasn’t getting the desired results out of me. Guess what, I caved and apologized for whatever I supposedly did, so she “won”, but it was the last time she won because since then it’s been boundaries and she’s only allowed to talk to me for 5 minutes on the phone once a month.

      LW, your mother is an adult whose actions (silently) scream deliberate cruel act of dangling highly conditional love at the end of the stick. I treat my mom like an adult which means I hold her responsible for her actions, she may not have the capacity to feel empathy but she does have the capability to control her behavior because I’ve seen her behave appropriately if it profits her; it is pre-meditated, planned out, and deliberate.

    2. I’m hitting this right now. I have a beloved family member who is NOT interested in having an equitable relationship. I am leaning toward viewing his ultimatum (“if i don’t get everything i want you will never see me again!”) as a gift, not a threat.

      1. I actually had a senior work colleague pull something not dissimilar to that. When I refused to bow to bullying, he made a big song and dance of cutting his involvement with a major joint project, leaving me solely in charge.

        He seemed a bit nonplussed when the sum total of my response was ‘OK.’ I honestly don’t know what other reaction he could have expected.

        1. Haha!

          Yeah, it’s hard to tell if they *really* think they are the ones doing all the favors and people just maliciously don’t appreciate them enough, or if they’re consciously manipulating, because the surprise and hurt is so real.

        2. When my non-biological sister moved in with us, she had a similar discussion with her dad. Thundering denouncements about her, and her “lifestyle” (what, grunge music is a lifestyle now?), and about “where do you think you’ll go if I kick you out” were met with calmness and “Ethyl’s family already said I could move in with them.” That took the wind out of his sails.

          1. Oh and btw, in terms of getting together an escape plan — definitely pull in team you. Be honest with those people you think are safe, and tell them you need to get out. More likely than not, your friends want to help you. Eat the sandwich of love! My sis wasn’t the only person my family and now I have taken in on a temporary to semi-permanent basis. It’s never an imposition, it’s something we are happy to do to help the people we love.

  6. LW, I cannot reiterate this enough. The way your mom behaves has nothing. to. do. with. you. Nothing. The way she behaves is all about her, whatever screwed up internal mechanisms she contains, whatever issues she has, whatever her personal insecurities. There’s no good reason for her to shut you out for days on and and make you play guessing games for her, not as an adult, and most especially not as a child. I see a pattern like this in my own family, where the children are groomed from an early age to take responsibility for the emotional state of the adults, to run circles around themselves trying to please grownups, and later in life, other adults who are elder. It’s backwards bullshit. It’s a game you were born into, but it’s also a game you do not have to play.

    I could go through a laundry list of names I have been called by my family just because I quit playing their child-as-caretaker games: stubborn, rebellious, ungrateful, and so on, ad nauseum. It’s hard, and to weather that long storm you’ll need external support. CA gives good advice in shoring up your social circle with those persons who know and love you for you, rather than for who they want you to be or what you can do for them. It is also good advice to stay in therapy. I wish I had stayed with my therapist when I was young, rather than take the really long road.

    Self-empowerment. It sounds all 90’s catch-phrasey, right? I know, but it’s also an apt phrase to describe your process of letting go of the need for your mom’s never-forthcoming-without-major-conditions approval. Remember, if you can, that letting go of that need isn’t about whether you love her or not. You can love her and also know that her behaviors are toxic for you. You can love someone and refuse to engage in their unhealthy, emotionally draining patterns. You can love her and know that her conditions are irrational and unnecessary for you. One mantra I use for my own situation is, “I am the one who *has* to live with me for the rest of my life, so I might as well take care of/love/support/trust myself.” By that I mean that other people’s presences in my life, that’s optional, but living with my own self is mandatory, so we might as well have a soild, healthy relationship.

  7. That Lois McMaster Bujold quote encapsulates it perfectly. Parents don’t give Adult Human Status to their adult kids when they act like good children; they give it– grudgingly, unwillingly in these abusive cases– when their adult kids act like good adults. And oh, God, it hurts, because you’ve wanted this specific kind of approval your whole life and giving up on getting it feels like giving up on the idea of being a good person, of being a whole person, of being real and adult and official and Approved and done with this crap. It means moving outside the framework of what makes you Good that you’ve operated in your whole life, and that is so terrifying, because you feel like you understand what it would take to be Good within that framework, but outside? Holy crap, it is all open and vague and weird and there’s no telling! You just want someone to say OKAY, YOU’RE A GOOD PERSON AND YOUR CHOICES ARE GOOD, and how are you ever going to get that?

    LW, you decide that you’re a good person and your choices are good, because you are the expert and specialist in the study of What Is Good For You. You are the only one living in your body and brain. Not your mother. You’re the expert, not her, not anybody else. They’re never going to have all the knowledge of how things work for you that you know already; they don’t know jack shit. You are the king hell-ass best at being you, so you are the only one who can decide when you are Doing It Right.

    Parents fuck with this, I know. The whole thing about raising a child is that for years they DON’T know better on a lot of things, and a lot of parents extend that sphere of Mom (or Dad) Knows Best to, you know, EVERYTHING. It’s not true.

    Speaking from my own experience, I would venture to guess that your social anxiety and your mother’s emotional abuse are connected, but not with the social anxiety causing your reaction to your mother– it’s that your mother’s emotional abuse has caused you to second-guess yourself constantly and you can’t find a way to turn that off when dealing with other people.

    Developing the ability to piss other people off (or even to RISK pissing them off) without knuckling under is pretty much the Holy Grail of emotionally abused kids, I think. We are programmed to respond at the first sign of displeasure, and we don’t have the faith in ourselves and our decisions to weather the storm– or even a mild sprinkle– so we tend to freak out as if the world was ending if a cloud crosses the sun. We freak out about the possibility that we’re wrong, that we’re doing the wrong things, that we’re making the wrong choices, that we’ll make someone angry, because there’s this awful certainty lurking at the back of our minds that says “If you do the wrong thing, you will be in TROUBLE.” And being in TROUBLE is the worst thing, ever, because that part of our brain is forever three years old where our parents are our whole world and being in TROUBLE is the end of everything.

    It takes a lot of practice to gain that sort of gut-level knowledge that we’re strong enough to handle this stuff and that the world doesn’t end if someone else is angry at us. It’s not an innate quality that some people have and some don’t; people who grow up in non-abusive homes learn it when they’re young, is all, and the rest of us have to learn it when we’re grown up. And it sucks, and it’s not fair, and it’s not fun, but there’s no getting around it, and you can do it, you CAN.

    You can piss people off.

    You can be wrong.

    You can fuck up.

    You can do stuff that everyone thinks is weird.

    AND IT IS ALL OKAY. The world won’t end. You will still be a good person. And the likelihood is that most of the things you do WON’T be wrong, and WON’T piss people off, and WON’T be up-fuckery, and WON’T be weird, but if it is? The hell with it; fix it, if necessary, and move on.

    You can have that. You can learn that kind of confidence. It takes time, and a lot of work, and a lot of frustration and fear, but you can and will come out of the other end being the kind of adult who, when her mother gives her the silent treatment, will see it as the temper tantrum it is, and shrug, and ignore it. I have all the faith in the world in you.

    1. Replying so that I can more easily track your comment down and read it out loud to myself next time I falter and need to hear all of this.

    2. This is amazing.

      I’m not, or I don’t consider myself, an emotionally abused kid but this is so freaking spot on, and I’m only just learning it…at 35. I can piss people off and that’s ok. People can be angry with me and that’s ok. I’m not responsible for their reactions, only my own. Am I doing what’s best for me? Nothing else matters. Nothing else can matter.

      It’s the SCARIEST THING I HAVE EVER DONE. But it’s so so so important in freedom.

    3. Oh man, PomperaFirpa, you kind of made me cry in a good way.

      That fear of being IN TROUBLE is powerful mojo, but yeah. You get to piss people off, and when they are angry, those are THEIR FEELINGS and they don’t have to be your feelings. Emotional abusers want their slightest bad mood to be your problem, so they train you to anticipate and bob and weave and try to please them. It takes a long, long time to undo their damage.

    4. I read this comment with my jaw dropping open, because this:

      Developing the ability to piss other people off (or even to RISK pissing them off) without knuckling under is pretty much the Holy Grail of emotionally abused kids, I think. We are programmed to respond at the first sign of displeasure, and we don’t have the faith in ourselves and our decisions to weather the storm– or even a mild sprinkle– so we tend to freak out as if the world was ending if a cloud crosses the sun. We freak out about the possibility that we’re wrong, that we’re doing the wrong things, that we’re making the wrong choices, that we’ll make someone angry, because there’s this awful certainty lurking at the back of our minds that says “If you do the wrong thing, you will be in TROUBLE.” And being in TROUBLE is the worst thing, ever, because that part of our brain is forever three years old where our parents are our whole world and being in TROUBLE is the end of everything.

      is a perfect description of me. I actually wasn’t abused, or at least not by my parents (there was a thing with a grandparent that I don’t want to get into, but, in a nutshell, I got angry with her and my entire family was made homeless in a foreign country…I guess that was abuse, really, but it was one incident in a lifetime because we lived in a different country and never saw her again, so I never thought of it that way until now), but this is exactly me. And I’m in a situation at the moment where this is so applicable, because I simply cannot COPE with the fact that people are angry with me. I’m freaking out and sick with anxiety about an incredibly stupid, minor screw up because OH NOES ANGRY WITH ME in a situation where people are already angry with me. On one occasion, I was having a really minor fight with a friend, and I had to get in my head to the point of accepting the possibility that she would just never want to speak to me again just in order to be able to return to the conversation. (She did. We’re still friends, nine years later.)

      So my question is…HOW do we develop this ability? How do I stop waiting to get into TROUBLE? I’m always braced for it, always wary of doing anything, taking any risk, in case I get into it, and honestly I’m sick of feeling like a little child who’s going to be stood in the corner, but I don’t know how to stop.

      1. Attempting to answer this feels hypocritical, since I’m definitely still questing for that Holy Grail, but: therapy. Therapy therapy therapy. Reading, role-playing, rehearsing. Practicing, either with another person or alone in your head, a situation where someone might get (or even IS) angry at you. My personal boundary, for now at least, is that I can handle it unless the other person raises their voice at me. (“At me” being the important part. Some people get loud when they’re upset. That, I can usually handle.) My line, that I’ve rehearsed a million times in my head, is “I’m not going to stay and be yelled at. We can finish talking about this later.” And then I leave. Usually. Sometimes I crumple in on myself instead and can’t say anything.

        I knew I was making progress with the therapy part the night I had a dream where my primary abuser was letting loose on me, and when she paused for breath, my dream-self said, “You don’t get to talk to me like that anymore, and I don’t have to stay and hear it. I’m an adult now, and I can leave.” And I got in my car and drove away.

        1. THAT IS THE GREATEST DREAM. I had a similar dream about my father, once, and it was a heck of a glorious way to wake up. I felt so proud, even though it was just a dream!

          And you know, I called it the Holy Grail for a reason; I think it doesn’t ever really get found, that there isn’t a magical end-point of I HAVE IT, NOW I AM A WHOLE HUMAN BEING, but just this slow process of improvement and failure and work and improvement and failure and work and eventually being able to look back and see how much progress you’ve made. So you’re the best person to ask, I think!

        2. That is an awesome dream! Go your unconscious.

          Mine was a dream in which my abusive ex was yelling at me, and I started yelling back – a huge, wordless howl that turned into FLAMES and burned him up. I picked up the tiny burned thing off the ground and picked all the char off it. Underneath was a tender green seed, which I planted.

        3. When it comes to actually talking to people you are scared are mad at you or if you have to raise an issue and you are worried you will RUIN EVERYTHING when you do…If you have a Team You person who is good with this sort of stuff… ask them to coach.

          For one thing, they’ll affirm that yes, people can get mad at you and it is OK. And yes, you can be angry at people and still maintain your relationship, and yes, most people really want to resolve problems so as to focus on the good things in life, like their friendship with you.

          Oh my word. My parents are the BEST at this. So very good. (Mater is an administrator, and was her workplace union president. Pater was in the military and had a volatile dad.) I’ve put friends on the phone with Mater et Pater K8 for help with talking through scripts. Scripts MUCH LIKE the ones offered in this here blog. I am a 36yo grownup lady with a life and job and call my parents to ask for help with conflict management coaching.

          If you need another ear and a therapist isn’t available to you, that friend who is good at this skill… ask them to walk you through what to say and how, and when to end the conversation and how to negotiate.

          Following good models is so helpful, and the day will come where you find yourself walking through a script with a stressed friend, or just reacting to a situation without having to practice practice practice first.

          Final anecdote. My dad is chill. Very laid back. And a colleague asked once, after he’d gotten his hide torn off him in a briefing by a Very Aggressive General “how did you manage to get through that so calmly?” Answer? “Whenever someone starts yelling, I ask myself… is this person as bad as my father on a yelling spree? No? Or that one liaison General from the Turkish military that laid into me so bad the translator refused to continue translating? No? Those were the worst I can think of, and my dad probably the worst among them. And if I can survive that, I can survive anyone being upset with me.”

          You’ve survived this long… and that is wonderful evidence you can cope in hard situations. Now you get to work on not just coping, but really self-advocating. You’ve done so well thus far… keep doing it.

          1. Excellent advice, thank you. My sister is great at this, actually. She’s not always accessible at the exact second I need her because she lives on the other side of the world (though she often is, and we email every day), but she has an amazing ability to put things into the perspective that I need. I will have to ask her about scripts!

      2. Oh, honey. JEDI HUGS your direction, I know what you mean so, so much.

        I think therapy is good for this, and talking about it out loud. I learned how to deal with pissing people off (and am still working on it) by years of practice at pissing people off on minor things without immediately knuckling under. I started with people I didn’t give a shit about– but that I’d still been being nervous about pissing off because it was just my default, automatic setting. I had to start with things that I was 100% sure that I was right about, and have a wealth of facts at my disposal for PROOF because oh, God, I needed back-up, so for the longest time I was totally Hermione Granger with being able to rattle off all the reasons I was correct– because I was that nervous about people thinking I was wrong.

        I still tend to over-explain myself. I’m working on fixing that, but it’s a stage I had to go through, I think; I couldn’t just go from point A (“okay, whatever you say, I am probably wrong”) to point B (“I’m right because of REASONS and if you really want to know you can ask later, but in the meantime I will EXUDE CONFIDENCE”) without that way-station.

        IT SUCKS. I won’t lie. It sucks a lot. It is years and years of slowly wearing down that automatic OH FUCK I AM IN TROUBLE response. Just this morning I had to go head-to-head with one of the higher-ups at my company– who was totally wrong, and I could prove it and make things better, but I had to slog through the whole nasty I Am An Executive Because I Am Louder stuff from her to get to that point– and it still shook me a bit, and I have been working at this for ten years. But it’s so much less than I would have been shaken two years ago, and so so so much less than I would have been shaken five years ago, and ten years ago I wouldn’t have even been in this position to begin with because I would have avoided it like the plague.

        The things to remember, that helped me:

        1) You have just as much right to be wrong as the other person.
        2) You have just as much right to be right as the other person.
        3) Some people get loud and angry when disagreements occur, and then they stop being loud and angry after the disagreement is over, regardless of whether they win or lose. It’s just how they process disagreeing with someone else. You get the same result from them whether you knuckle under or whether you persevere.
        4) The automatic reaction of sickening fear is, in a weird way, not so much an emotion as it is a performance that your psyche is putting on for other people in the hopes of having them not punish you further. For me, I learned early in childhood that acting cowed and fearful and small while (and after) my dad threw one of his tantrums (I can call them tantrums now) was my best bet for not setting him off further, which would avoid getting my toys thrown out or my projects destroyed or getting myself screamed at or spanked. In adulthood, this meant that even when I was being outwardly defiant, I still had that internalized reaction of cowering because something in me still thought it would help the situation. It doesn’t, though.

        These days, I recognize that happening and ask myself who I’m performing for, and whether or not they care or need the performance. The same goes for the other things I tend to perform without thinking about it– like big frustration, that’s meant to show just how much I meant to do the right thing and show how it’s not MY fault it didn’t happen because it’s not like I WANTED this to happen because LOOK HOW FRUSTRATED I AM. I ended up feeling that way two days ago, when something I took time off of work for didn’t happen, and I caught my own brain in the act of ginning up more frustration and rage out of fear that my employers wouldn’t believe me and that I would be in TROUBLE, so clearly I needed to be AS UPSET AS POSSIBLE so that they’d believe me! Which only makes sense in the abused-child mode where I feel like if I veer from being perfect I have to prove that it wasn’t my fault. Once I realized that I was in frustration-performance mode, I was able to turn off the ZOMG SO FRUSTRATED act– which I was performing all by myself with nobody else there in preparation for when I got back to work, and which was really fucking up my head in the meantime– and feel better and act like a human being again.

        So, in short: therapy, if at all possible; talking it through out loud, as much as possible, with trusted Team You members; and practice, practice, lousy nasty practice. But you can do it, you can, you CAN.

        1. Agree with all of this.

          I sometimes fall into an old habit of terrible overjustifying, which hearkens back to being a kid. “Is it okay if I sleep over at H’s house on Saturday two weeks from now (so there is plenty of advance notice), her mom already said it’s okay and will be home the whole time and here is her phone number and I checked the family calendar and nothing is going on that night and her mom will pick me up and drive me home and I promise we won’t go anywhere with boys so you won’t have to do anything please please please can I go?”

          That’s not really a good conversation pattern for asking for, I don’t know, a raise. Or telling your partner you’re going to get sandwiches from the Jimmy John’s instead of cooking like you promised.

          This is where friends come in handy. “That thing you’re doing is WEIRD. Why are you doing that?”

          1. YES. My husband was the one who finally broke it to me that I didn’t need to do that. I hadn’t even realized I was doing it.

            Where I mostly do the over-justifying is for sick days at work. I feel like I need to be there the first day I feel terrible, so I can demonstrate just how bad I feel and how piteous I am, and then when I call in I need to tell them about just how high my fever is and how weak I am, and afterward I need to still look lousy, but the thing is… nobody gives a shit! And it makes me look really weird.

          2. Oh, the calling in sick thing! Last time I called in I actually just sent my boss a text that said “Hey, I’m sick and not coming in. See you tomorrow, probably” and my husband was amazed I wasn’t like, listing all my symptoms or something. It was a tangible realization that I’ve gotten way better at boundaries and whatnot, because I used to feel like I needed to prove things to people.

          3. Haha, double extra fired. I love it. I used to be like this too. Then I had a boss who, we worked closely together and she would alert me when she was going to be out sick. It would be like “Hi, human, I’m not feeling well today, so I won’t be in. I’ll probably see you on Monday.” And I started following her pattern and… holy shit, the UNIVERSE DID NOT EXPLODE. Amazing. 🙂

          4. OMG the overshare while CALLING IN SICK! I used to do this too, until I realized it had an undesirable side effect: by overexplaining, I actually made myself sound less credible. I really was sick, I swear! But commonly, when people lie, they supply too many details to convince not only their target, but themselves. D’oh!!

          5. Oh God, I do THIS too! I always wondered why, but that totally makes sense. One thing that I realised, after actually becoming a manager (particularly of young people who were apprentices) is that, unless you have a persistent habit of sick days, your manager will probably just be sympathetic and then move on. But I always feel like I need to demonstrate that I am really not well, in case I’m not believed.

          6. I do this too! I was in bed with a fever and chills, and still trying to practice my “sick voice” so my boss would believe me (even though she was the one who pointed out I sounded like crap the day before). I’ve found e-mail helps me derail this tendency, because no one really wants to read a long e-mail. Then, I can just tell my professor “I have food poisoning. You’re getting that essay tomorrow.” and go back to throwing up in peace.

          7. Marillenbaum, if only all students thought the way you do. For anyone of the student persuasion out there reading this: your instructors really, really don’t want a full paragraph describing your symptoms. Trust me on this. (For some reason, this only happens on exam days. Given that it’s a class of 300-400, that means about 10-20 of these emails. Yuck.)

          8. OtherBecky: Even as a tutor, who had no power of pass/fail over students, I got this, and it drove me batty. One student actually offered to send me photos of her bruised leg to prove that her excuse was real. Er, no thanks. A) gross, and B) not my job to be a lie detector.

          9. SO MUCH THIS.

            Which then wasn’t helped by a raging :expletive containing female anatomy and breakfast foods deleted: of a manager who would turn to the nearest coworker (on a staff of 4) and say “She’s probably faking it to cash in on her sick days.”

            Luckily the coworker and I were comrades-in-arms, so the only harm Manager really did was to her own credibility.

            I finally had to tell myself: You know what? It doesn’t matter if I’m faking it or not. If I have sick days to take, I am ENTITLED to take those days. I could call in sick just because the weather’s really nice, and my job would still be there tomorrow, I’d still get paid, and life would still go on. I don’t have to explain a damn thing until it’s consistent enough to require a doctor’s note.

            (In what feels oddly like a victory, the next supervisor to voice doubts about the truthfulness of my sick days got a handful of papers from the ER detailing why I really shouldn’t go back to work the day after experiencing a miscarriage and burst ovarian cyst. Yay?)

          10. Yes, it can be really difficult to hold onto this when there _really are_ people in your workplace (like, say, the Head of the HR Department) who presume that people taking sick days are fakers and “in this economy, they should be grateful to have jobs.” (Actual quote, at least according to my source)

            Thank God we have a union.

          11. this could not have been a better thread than now, I just finished work and only worked this late because for the first time I told my boss, NO I am not working the weekend to cover slacker co-worker, here is what I will do tonight and the rest will wait for Tuesday because I’ve worked uncomp for months and I am taking Fri thru Mon off. You want me to defer the holiday? NO, ask the slacker, I refuse. Thing is, it didn’t piss him off, he is actually thanking me now for working so hard to get the deliverable out. WTF? I need to do this more often!

          12. :expletive containing female anatomy and breakfast foods deleted:

            ….vagina toast? boob cereal? labia porridge? clitoris bagel (with cream cheese)?

          13. The last time I needed sick leave was because I’d torn a calf muscle. For some Good-Daughter Reason I limped the mile into work the next day, worked, to the dismay of my boss, and limped home, pretty much unable to walk. My husband returned from a workshop to find me in bed, confused and bewildered, having torn the calf muscle in half, with violent bruising from ankle to knee.

            He was all brow-of-nose-pinchy and “why did you think it was a good idea to go to work when you couldn’t walk? why? what, exactly, were the words going through your head?” and I was all “I’m a GOOD EMPLOYEE! Good employees always work, and then they don’t get fired! My boss might raise an Eyebrow of Judgment! LOOK I CAN TOTALLY STAND UP! I’M A GOOD EMPLOYEE! I HAVE UNLOCKED THE MAGICAL KEY SEQUENCE OF BEING AN ADULT.”

            I took the next day off, but only after I’d sent my boss a photo of the bruising and half a million apologies, so that I wouldn’t, like, spend my brownie points on having boundaries, or something.

          14. I have gotten broken of this by a super supportive workplace with a policy of “Don’t bring your germs here”. No justification needed, but if you feel like you might be sick, work from home. If you’re for real sick, take the sick day, if you needed an extra hour of sleep but are actually fine, skip the commute and take care of yourself. No guilt, no fuss, no histrionics needed.

            I find it a lot easier to do when I can frame my self care as taking care of other people – if I take my sick day, my coworker won’t get sick, and that is reason enough.

          15. WHAT. I do this. I do this and had rationalized beyond rationalizations that it was normal and not part of my (abusive?) childhood. I worked through bronchitis bad enough to vomit from coughing, because I felt like I had to prove I deserved the time off I did take. This is like a tiny little window into my brain.

        2. “Developing the ability to piss other people off (or even to RISK pissing them off) without knuckling under is pretty much the Holy Grail of emotionally abused kids, I think.” And what you said about children not learning it when they should, so true, I learned this “skill” in my 20s and lost it over many years in an abusive relationship – I’m recently out of a long term abusive marriage and I lost that ability along the way. I am getting it back, I have the following quote posted to remind me, it’s Colin Powell: ““Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.” I’m adding your quote to that one now.

          1. My wife is in ministry, and I read somewhere about a priest who assumed that, at any one time, 12 members of the congregation were mad at him. This allowed him to, when confronted by someone who was upset, think, oh, this person is one of the 12! and not take it personally. It normalized people being upset.

            I have stolen it for my own life. I’m still not okay with the idea of people being mad at me, but I’m getting closer.

          2. I love this idea! Breaking out of the EVERYONE MUST LIKE ME OTHERWISE THE WORLD WILL END thing is hard, and this here looks like a way to do it.


            I know for sure I will get 10% bad student evals. Fact of life, very usual. Whatever. It’s gonna happen, no matter what, and it’s not personal.

          4. I read this right before going in to teach my second class ever, a small class of ~15 people. It took great restraint on my part not to look at them and say “One point five of you will betray me.”
            But that really is a good thing for me to keep in mind.

        3. Thank you so much for this, and the Jedi hugs. I can’t really afford therapy at the moment, but these are really useful things to remember. It’s amazing to have so many of the things that I do and feel articulated by someone else, from the needing to be absolutely right before I’ll fight things to being as upset as possible so I’ll be believed. I notice further down that other people have talked about being the Good Child (rather than being abused), and that was totally me. I was so worried about being Good all the time (religious upbringing, and desperate fear of hell), any minor wrongdoing sent me (and still does) into a shame spiral. I’m better than I used to be, since giving up religion, but the habits still stand, long after the beliefs have gone. I am trying to keep saying to myself that it’s okay if not everyone likes me, it’s okay if not everyone is happy with me. I don’t have to be loved by anyone, and it’s even okay if the people who love me are angry with me. It just hits me so hard every single time. I’m in my mid-thirties, I’m married and I have a child, and I still feel like the little child who is terrified of GETTING IN TROUBLE. But…it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one.

          1. Ack, are you sure you’re not me? I am very very familiar with that shame spiral, which is weird, because normally I really do manage to be the good and perfect one. You’d think that not being in trouble often would somehow make it not that bad, but NOPE!!!

            Thank you. It is also very very nice to know it’s not just me ❤

          2. I might be you, you never know! I think rarely being in trouble makes it worse – you don’t actually understand what the limits of TROUBLE are.

            It’s amazing how much it helps to know you’re not the only one, isn’t it?

        4. where I feel like if I veer from being perfect I have to prove that it wasn’t my fault

          OH MY GOD. I’m starting to lose track of the number of times in this thread I’m feeling that awful shock of recognition at seeing things that I’ve felt forever finally put into words by somebody else.

          1. I’m having exactly the same reaction to this WHOLE THREAD.

            And as I’m dealing with a legitimate screw up right now, reading all this is exactly what I needed. The world won’t end! I won’t end up friendless and jobless and homeless because I screwed up this one time!

      3. not recommended, but: I got into an intense relationship with a Really Angry (but totally not dangerous) Dude and was forced to embrace my inner rage. It was really, really good for me. In retrospect.

        1. I feel you.

          I discovered that I do getting mad really, really well in certain circumstances and that that wasn’t always a bad thing. When my ex let loose at me with everything he had – his Inner Rage could be frightening – I would first cower and then explode with the unfairness of it all. His self defense tactics and my dad’s were quite alike, as were the situations that triggered them. I didn’t like that version of myself very much, but the fact that it happened was, in some way, healing, even when the situation was unhealthy to the extreme. Which confused the hell out of me.

          (I’m changing my handle here, though I only used it once before I think, because he’s aware of my usual one)

          1. yeah, unhealthy but healing is totally it. It’s hard to explain to people, but I totally value Really Angry Dude (and trusted him, 100%, to the limits of his capabilities). He’s the only ex I ever stayed friends with. It’s like he was my soulmate but he was the soulmate of the fucked-up child-of-an-alcoholic me and not the healed, grownup me.

    5. “You are the king hell-ass best at being you, so you are the only one who can decide when you are Doing It Right.”

      You are wonderful. This makes me stand up and cheer. Also now I aspire to be King Hell Ass-Best at everything I do! 😀

    6. You just want someone to say OKAY, YOU’RE A GOOD PERSON AND YOUR CHOICES ARE GOOD, and how are you ever going to get that?

      You never get this.

      Not even when you do all the right things. I have done them. I have a bunch of external markers — which is what my parents taught me mattered: grades, awards, looks — to tell me that I am successful. I have a Ph.D. and a job at Prestigious University. I own a lovely house. I am happily married (well… to another woman, but still). These mean my choices are good, right?

      None of this stops the internal voice crying out that I am worthless and useless. And I have come to realize that no external marker of success will. Right now, it’s telling me that I need to publish a book and win the MacArthur Grant. If I do these things, it will (seriously) berate me for not getting a Nobel Prize. (And it never shuts up about my being ugly and fat.)

      That voice is my heritage from my parents.

      I will never be good enough for that voice.

      When you’re raised by emotional abuse, there’s a kind of void inside, and we’re taught that to fill it we need to act like Good Children, Good Citizens, Good Workers, Good… Whatevers. But no act of a good child will ever fill that void. No achievement, no award, nothing we do can fill it. Because that void, that voice, is what drives us as children to behave the way our parents want us to behave, and if they let us know that we are good people — regardless of whether or not we get straight As or win the gymnastic championship or whatever — that void might vanish. We might see ourselves as worthy. And their dynamic depends on us seeing ourselves as unworthy. It depends on the void.

      Learning to get rid of that void is hard.

      Apparently, installing it is easy.

        1. My void right now is shouting at me that my house is unpainted and leaking and needs repairs and none of the furniture matches and thus it is not an accomplishment! And I am all FUCK YOU VOID I LOVE MY OLD HOUSE.

          1. I feel like FUCK YOU VOID I LOVE MY OLD HOUSE needs to be on a CA cross-stitch. Good on you! Yay for your old house! Things do not need to be perfect to be an accomplishment!

          2. It’s up there with Sharon Needles’ “Fuck you, I like Party City”. It’s what I tell myself when someone tries to judge me into making their choice.

          3. I don’t need my void to tell me that, my family helpfully does it in person! YAY PLEASE VISIT ME MORE.

          4. funny, I keep yelling FUCK YOU VOID, WHY CAN’T I WIN THE LOTTERY AND FIX MY OLD HOUSE. OK, I’m going to try your way now /hugs

        1. I LOVE that. I laughed out loud just at the title. But it’s spot on – I would never be as harsh with my son as I am with myself.

          1. +1. Somehow it’s often so much harder to stop being a raging jerk to oneself than it is to not be a jerk to other people (though that happens too occasionally). It’s like only other people count as “people.” I find I have to constantly remind myself, “you are people too.”

          2. My wife reminds me of this constantly, right out loud and in so many words. Sometimes I argue with her that I have to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt because I don’t know what’s in their heart of hearts, while on the other hand, I know myself– and only myself– well enough to judge harshly.
            Sometimes I can see where she’s coming from in calling that BS, but it’s a hard line of thinking to shake.
            To avoid spamming this entire thread with “Me too!” I will just add here that in addition to all the Good Child/Abused Child stuff (I’m an only child, so I was both the Good Child and the Scapegoat), there’s an added layer of mind-fuckery when part of the definition of “Good” in your family is “mature.” Realizing just how much my upbringing stunted my emotional development sets off this awful recursive loop where I berate myself for being childish, realize that it’s childish to do so, etc. ad nauseam.

          3. But there are some really good parts of being childish. Though as a society we mostly call those “childlike”.

          4. That is absolutely true. In my particular case, though, the main thing is what others above have shared– the approval-seeking, overexplaining, and overwhelming insecurities. And like many children who had to parent their parents in some capacity, I lack some of those more appealing childlike qualities, because they wouldn’t have helped me survive.

          5. Wanting to be loved, appreciated, and understood (and using direct, if ineffective, methods to seek them) isn’t a blameworthy thing, IMO. It’s not a misguided desire. The recursive loop for a lot of people takes the form of, “You shouldn’t WANT those things, you should be a GROWNUP and do without them. You’re not a BABY.” But ~real grownups~ also feel insecure the way you do, though maybe not as much.

        2. I very foolishly had a mouthful of tea when I read the title of that article and nearly choked myself in an attempt to save my keyboard. (I did. But my shirt is lost.)

          The whole thing is brilliant but the title really sums it up!

      1. A good friend gave me a self-help book once, which I still refer to from time to time, called Manage Your Mind. It has an anecdote about a patient of one of the authors, who was a successful and innovative chef but considered himself a failure because he had never been awarded a Michelin star.

        Then one day he was awarded a Michelin star, but he was still convinced he was a failure because the fact that one had been awarded to him was clear evidence that anyone could get one, they meant nothing these days, etc. Ooo, how I related to that one.

        1. You know, I had a conversation with my sister the other day, about why I hadn’t submitted anything I’ve written for publication (she’s probably reading this, as she recommended this blog to me in the first place…Hi Jenn!), and she was like, well, it would be amazing to FINISH something and SUBMIT it, and I was like “but I might not be published…and then I might not be successful…and then I might not be AS SUCCESSFUL AS CERTAIN WRITERS WHO ARE VERY SUCCESSFUL BUT TOTALLY SUCK…” And she said, “well, but FINISHING is a success, SUBMITTING is a success.” And I was so incredibly startled by that idea. But she’s absolutely right. It’s just so hard to convince myself of it.

      2. I have never before linked my perfectionist need-to-become-the-best-in-everything-I-take-up bar setting with the tyranny of mood and anger my father wielded over our family.

        Now I wonder.

      3. I still remember the grudge in my mother’s voice when she finally had to admit that I had done something she could not find fault with.

        Of all the things in the universe it took a handknitted socks (flawless handknitted sock, even if I say so myself) to finally convince me that it wasn’t that I was not good enough, it was that she had no intention to ever be satisfied.

    7. I cried reading this. I am 21, and only a year out of my parents’ house and when my mother looks at me a certain way, or talks a certain way, I am still very afraid of being in TROUBLE.
      I’m bookmarking this page so I can reread this article (and this comment).
      Thank you.

      1. Oh, honey, jedi hugs to you. You are going to okay, I promise. I was so much like that, fifteen years ago, and it gets better and one day you will find yourself calmly telling your mother that it’s nice of her to have opinions but you’re going to do what you want, thanks, and you will realize afterward that you aren’t actually freaking out, and you will fist-bump yourself and go buy yourself some ice cream in celebration. It’s gonna be okay.

    8. Oh my GOD, yes, this, all the time everywhere.

      I was never abused, but I was the chronically Good Child who spent my entire life being told how Good I was, and Thank Heavens You Were Never Like Those Other Kids. I never had a rebellious phase. I never did anything weird to my hair or dressed in a way that wasn’t Mom-Approved or did anything, really, without Approval. And now I am an adult who is just realizing that I don’t know how to do anything except be a Good Girl, and realizing that I don’t actually HAVE to run my life by my parents is HOLY SHIT scary, because WHAT IF I GET IN TROUBLE!?!?!?!

      It is exhausting.

      1. Also a chronically Good Child who (can’t believe I actually did this) asked my mom if I could cut my hair. By an inch.

        At college.

        Over 600 miles away.

        And my mom isn’t even against hair cutting or anything, I just felt the need to run it by her, because Good Children ask their parents before doing anything.

        Quite frankly, I’m scared of what happens when I go off into the wide world and become an adult, because only now, at nineteen, am I actually starting to be allowed to do Adult Things like order my own prescriptions and learn how to drive. And if I’m only just now learning these things, with my parents holding my hand, how can I function without them?

        1. You will screw up a lot! And that is OKAY. I think part of the Chronic Good Child thing is that once you get out of the habit of occasionally fucking up, it’s terrifying to contemplate having it happen, because you just plain don’t have the experience of living through fucking things up and then dealing with it and coming out the other side and being all right.

          On similar lines, for the longest time I was utterly terrified of the idea of being really sick, or injured, because I’d never had it happen to me. It was completely unknown territory. And then, over the past two years, I’ve ended up spending a bunch of time dealing with doctors and spending some time in the hospital and going to the emergency room twice, and now? It’s not as big of a deal for me. I mean, it’s nothing I want to do, but it doesn’t have that terror because I’ve done it, I’ve gone through the medical process, I’ve experienced having my body bounce back and heal, and learned that I can trust it to bounce back and heal.

          Or with school: I was always a really, really bright student! an overachiever! straight As all the way through college! But I never got challenged, and I never sought out challenges for myself, because it scared the ever-loving shit out of me to actually fail— because I never had! And because a major part of the learning process is to go through failure and come out the other side, I hampered my own development by avoiding risk.

          There are a lot of studies out that indicate that the initial stage of success is to be dumb and fail a lot, partly because we have to learn not to fear failure, partly because we have to learn to trust our own ability to get better and to get through that initial screw-up stage. So basically, I would advise to dive into screwing things up as soon as you can and getting it over with, because that is the thing you’ll need the most– that experience of living through that initial phase, and learning that you are so, so much more capable of bouncing back from failure than you ever dreamed possible.


          1. “the initial stage of success is to be dumb and fail a lot”
            Can I buy this from you? As a future teacher I feel this needs to be on a poster with a picture of a kitten that I can put up on my future office wall for the kidlets to read.

            …In fact, I made you a picture.


          3. Two-teacher-parents fist bump!

            This is me. I had it easy in school and my parents told me I was smart. I remember clearly the moment I realized that working hard in elementary school – which I’d done both to be Good and because I enjoyed it – didn’t actually get me anything, and not doing quite as much wouldn’t get me in trouble. It didn’t, because by then I was so far ahead that nobody bothered (and the particular school system didn’t have grades or any sanction or measure when you didn’t finish your weekly work). I just quietly stopped doing the work I didn’t like. And nobody blinked an eye, because I was Smart anyway, so I’d make it.

            And then I coasted by in secondary school by doing everything I was good at and avoiding the subjects that were really challenging me. After I’d failed physics once, I dropped physics. Statistics were hard, I dropped statistics. It’s not that I wouldn’t have been able to do it, I know now, I just didn’t want to run the risk of failing – failure being not reaching the incredibly high bar I’d set for myself – or do the work I needed to do to be any good at it, let alone as good as I thought I should be.

            I dropped out of university because writing long papers Was Hard Work. Not finishing them was easier than writing something that I didn’t think was very good or put in the effort needed to live up to being the Smart Kid.

            I still often avoid things that Are Hard (which can be because I don’t enjoy them or because I’m not good at them), and my lack of discipline bites me in the ass regularly. It’s a constant struggle.

          4. I didn’t want this to come off as a pity party, and yet I feel it did.

            Shorter long-ass comment: I’m still trying to learn discipline and working hard at stuff that doesn’t come easy, because I was lucky enough to be able to avoid a lot of uneasy stuff and I’ve made it a habit. In the end, it’s not a great one.

          5. As a current teacher, who last year made her whole AP English class read and annotate this article:


            …after they LITERALLY ~all~ failed a paper, and then told me they couldn’t do any better (ha!), I would like to say that I saw Lightbulb Moments from them after we talked about “learning to fail.” I told them about Vygotsky windows and how if they could do something already without any help, it was TOO EASY and they were angry with me for pushing them but I was frustrated with them for giving up without grappling and we ALL needed to remember that the first step to being awesome at something is being really, really, REALLY bad at it, and look at babies, I mean, they fail at EVERYTHING, for YEARS in some cases, and THEY GET BETTER and SO CAN YOU.

            The third drafts of their papers were really good, and while they were all pretty mad at me when I made them read the article, they all agreed that they had learned a lot.

            So now I preface new classes by saying, “You will get mad at me when I push you, and you will tell me that you think things are too hard, but if you could do it without me, you would not be learning.” And my students seem to respond pretty well to that. (Insert sports metaphors about how you have to practice to get good, and even then you can still make mistakes, but you can always learn from them.)

            I also share my own experience as a student who didn’t know how to fail until it was nearly TOO LATE, and talk to them about how it really does help to learn to struggle in high school when you get the classes for free rather than in college, where it costs beaucoup bucks.

            ANYWAY. TL;DR, sorry for comment hijacking, but AllegroFox, I’ve found that students respond well to this kind of transparency. [nods]

          6. Eee, yay for the response!
            I’ve worked in childcare for a while whilst getting my degree (and various sorts of private teaching and tutoring) and my “allow the kid to fail sometimes” approach has sometimes gotten me into weird situations with parents. (I would call them overprotective, but maybe that’s just me?) They usually end up fine with it, but they sometimes react oddly the first time they hear me say something like “well, you might not be able to , but go try. I’ll be over here watching if you need me.”

          7. You are doing those kids an amazing thing. I didn’t fail until I was almost done with grad school; I coasted at or above a 3.5 unweighted before then. I still don’t really know how to fail and THEN succeed, but I do know how to drop out of grad school. I desperately wish I’d learned younger.

          8. So basically, I would advise to dive into screwing things up as soon as you can and getting it over with, because that is the thing you’ll need the most– that experience of living through that initial phase, and learning that you are so, so much more capable of bouncing back from failure than you ever dreamed possible.

            I wish I’d had this advice ten years ago. It’s a bit harder to let yourself feel free to fuck up when you’ve got a family, because you run the risk of fucking THEM up too. But it’s awesome advice. And this:

            the initial stage of success is to be dumb and fail a lot

            is FANTASTIC.

            You are awesome. Thank you. (And thank you, Captain Awkward!)

          9. I’ve been studying tai chi for the last year, which includes taking classes and seeking out books. The introduction to one of them talks about three common faults and three common fears of novices. The three faults are lack of perseverance, trying to do too much, and trying to progress too soon The second part says do not fear bitter work, do not fear losing, and do not fear ferocity. I think this advice can apply to pretty much any context. Lose and learn! Face sound and fury and survive!

          10. Delurking because I LOVE all six of those points and I need to memorize them to apply them to my own life. (I really like having mantras/reminders like that, and these are perfect.)

        2. There’s a secret! Ssssshhhhh… it’s a grown-up adult secret. Don’t tell anyone, don’t let them know I told you.

          (looks both ways furtively)

          The secret is there’s no secret.

          Nobody knows how to be an adult at 19. Or 20. Not really. Some people have some more concrete skills, and some people have less. Know any students who can’t do laundry? You think they magically figure it out when they graduate? I know someone who’s in his sixties who can’t cook.

          A lot of people deal by having spouses who fill in the holes. My mom can’t change a tire. Neither can a lot of people I know! It boggles me, but I only know because my mom insisted I learn to do those things. All those people who can’t change a tire? They’re just as adult as I am.

          You will muddle through. You will learn what matters most to you, and you will solve that. You’ll also learn what matters least to you, and you’ll find out what kinds of consequences it can have. Hopefully the ways you fuck up won’t have longstanding consequences — but if they do, you’ll manage.

          You can completely blow your credit! It recovers.

          You can fry your hair with bad dye! It grows back.

          You can lose your job! You find another.

          You can marry an asshole! You can get divorced.

          You can drop out of school! You can get a job, or go back to school!

          The only guarantee is that your life will not be what you think it will be. Fortunately, that’s a really awesome guarantee, it means you have things to look forward to.

          I personally have learned over the years that I freak out the first time something difficult or terrible happens to me. After that, I know I’ll be okay and take it calmly. I have missed flights. I have had car accidents. I have lost jobs. Oh man, the first time I got laid off….. And the time I got fired for real!

          Being Adult is just about having done something before, good or bad, and thus having a little more practice for when something happens again. That’s all.

          1. Being Adult is just about having done something before, good or bad, and thus having a little more practice for when something happens again. That’s all.

            Not to mention having a long time of having heard smart things from other people so that you get to say them to somebody else later and look smart! Which is what’s going to happen to this comment because I am stealing it SO HARD NOW.

          2. Oh man, the breathtaking realization that life would not end when I had to leave grad school and didn’t get into any of the ten programs I applied to after that. I was another Chronically Good Child and I thought I was going to curl up and wither away. And instead I met the most helpful therapist of my life, got my first grown-up job, and figured out a new direction to take with my life. The worst happened! And I survived! And I am so happy now.

          3. For me it was when I failed the Bar Exam. Twice. In a row. I was yet another Chronically Good Child who had never had a serious failure like that in my life. I tell you what, it really knocked me back.

            A (very wise) friend of mine passed on her dad’s advice on the subject: he doesn’t trust anybody who hasn’t failed big-time, at least once. It was so hard for me to hear that, and to assimilate into my self-image that I had failed at something– but that failing didn’t necessarily make me a failure.

            Another piece of wisdom from the same friend that I have found helps me feel like an adult is: knowing who to call to get something done counts as getting it done. For example, I don’t know how to change a tire. I mean, I know theoretically, but I’ve never done it. Instead, I have AAA. Sometimes, it’s worth it for your peace of mind to admit that you DON’T know everything, and don’t need to know everything, that there are people out there who are experts in that particular field– even if the field is, say, packing or laundry or cooking– and it’s worth it sometimes to go to those experts for help and not try to struggle through yourself. Bonus, experts (especially experts who are already on Team You) often LIKE to help. They have all this knowledge! They want to share it! I’m moving, and (no joke) a friend from my church who has moved a bunch of times, including internationally, has offered to come help me pack because she’s done it so much.

          4. My first significant encounter with Failure was not finishing my degree on time. Oh god, was it hard to accept that everything was not suddenly a disaster. I had to take an extra year! I would not graduate with my class! I WAS NOT FOLLOWING THE NARRATIVE, OH NOEEEEES.
            And then I did it, and I graduated. And I got into Teacher’s College. And nobody was upset. I could hardly believe it.

          5. Dropping out of university far, far too late was mine. I failed the first year when me Crazy (then unmedicated) first started to kick in at a level above what I could cope with. So I had to retake the year, and I passed it that time! Then studying the second year (third year at the uni) was a long, slow decline into the abyss until I finally gave up, far too late, and accepted that I Did Not Want This. Which was hard, because University is what good children are supposed to want! I was going to be the first person in my family to go to university and light the way for my younger relatives! I was so good at academic success and my family were so proud of all the As I got in the past! There had never even been any question in my childhood of “if” university… always just of “what subject”.

            And somehow, the fact that 6 months into my first year I was getting my PARTNER to call my mum, pretending to be doing it behind my back, to hell her he was worried about me and wasn’t sure if university was what I wanted so I could find out if she’d be mad and also make sure it wouldn’t be a shock if I did quit… somehow none of that registered in my mind as a sign that maybe making myself physically, emotionally and mentally ill trying to force myself for 3 years was a bad idea.

            Weird thing is, my family was actually pretty awesome. My mum was very supportive of me doing whatever I wanted, and encouraged me to rebel (does it count as rebelling when your mum is the one eagerly standing with the hair trimmer trying to convince you that your rebellious teenage undercut would look even cooler as a mohawk?). Somehow I still caught Chronic Good Kid.

            Heh. I also just remembered the utter, lump-in-throat terror when I found out that, of the 9 GCSEs I took, *one of them wasn’t an a* (ohhh the horror!) and having no idea how to break it to my grandparents.

      2. oh God, me too!
        Thanks for all the links everyone regarding being the smart kid and the good child.

    9. “We freak out about the possibility that we’re wrong, that we’re doing the wrong things, that we’re making the wrong choices, that we’ll make someone angry, because there’s this awful certainty lurking at the back of our minds that says “If you do the wrong thing, you will be in TROUBLE.” And being in TROUBLE is the worst thing, ever, because that part of our brain is forever three years old where our parents are our whole world and being in TROUBLE is the end of everything.”

      Yet another proof of why this is the greatest comment space on the internet. I’ve been around here for what feels like ages and I’ve been in therapy for much longer, but I still read things here that just bowl me over with how deeply TRUE they are.

      This is a problem I’ve recognized before, but the way you said it just broke me in two. Part of me still IS a terrified three-year-old, my entire world turning on the emotions of other people that I have been taught to feel responsible for. The maddening thing is that I recognized the unfairness and absurdity of it all to some degree even as a kid–I remember being so stuck on why my father was allowed to throw a tantrum over not being able to find the remote after a cursory glance around the room, where as any strong emotional reactions on my part (especially ones like his, that were absurdly disproportionate to the problem) were strongly discouraged. Why was I, as a kid, responsible for monitoring my own emotions AND those of my parents, when they weren’t even responsible for keeping themselves in check? Didn’t this not make sense?

      1. Yes, I remember recognizing the same thing at a very young age… Why did *I* have to put on a performance to make sure daddy felt right? I’m not even five, how can my emotions be so scary that dad can’t handle it and instead makes me pretend I don’t feel it? Isn’t he supposed to be the mature, self-controlled one here? I knew even then that parenting wasn’t supposed to look like that! But at that age keeping parents happy isn’t optional, so I complied anyway.

        (In hind sight, my emotions scared him because he was never allowed to have normal emotions as a little kid either. He literally grew up not knowing know how to handle emotions, so he just shut them down hard and sublimated them into an addiction instead. When confronted with emotions in the form of a small, angry child it scared the crap out of him, and that was the only tool he had in his toolbox, so he swung it hard. Thanks dad. You did a great job not growing up and getting yourself more tools, even when it was painfully clear that the hammer was the wrong choice.)

      2. Oh Keely, did we grow up in the house? Parents allowed to throw temper tantrums, whine, complain, and get presents, but the moment one of us kids dared to sulk, it’s whats-the-fuck-wrong-with-you-that-you-can’t-control-your-anger? Much of my silent screams/pleas at my parents were “Grow. Up!” Hypocrisy is one of the first BS detected by kids in an early age, ideally only necessary for counting how many Christmas presents you and your siblings received, next is measuring size and weight of said presents.

      3. Oh yes. Oh yes. My entire childhood, if I ever got screaming angry or swore or called people vile names, my mother would berate me for “acting like Daddy.” My sister was still a toddler when my dad was at one of his worst anger management slumps, so she learned in her formative years that you get what you want by throwing yourself on the floor and screaming until you faint, and my mother would slam her to me too- saying “She’s such a horror, she’s just like Daddy, she’s just like Grandma Rose,” so God knows I especially did not want to act out if I thought it would drive my mother away from me. But then when I complained too hard, she would make excuse after excuse for him and encourage me to try and be the bigger person because she wanted “peace in the house.” It’s like I was always put in this position where I had to think he was total scum, or I had to feel painfully sorry for him because of Things Bigger Than Me. I never felt like I had any respect for him, and I certainly wasn’t sure if he loved me or not for a long time. Now, even as an adult, when my mother and I talk about how he had been, I tell her what it was like for me and she says things like, “Well, that was all just his anxiety, it was about something bigger than you,” and I’m like HOW THE FUCK COULD YOU HONESTLY EXPECT ME TO KNOW THAT AT TWO, AND AT SIX, AND AT NINE?

        1. It’s like I was always put in this position where I had to think he was total scum, or I had to feel painfully sorry for him because of Things Bigger Than Me.

          Hoo boy. THAT. Thank you!

          I can now think back at the talk I had with my mother when I was fifteen and my dad had left and we agreed that my father had never ever grown up, ever – and laugh incredulously. “He’s insecure”, “he can’t handle anything remotely like criticism”, “he’s scared and acts out”. I was fifteen and saying such things about a man more than three times my age.

          I didn’t know it at ten, but I did know that I felt the world was mightely unfair when he was allowed to be the big kid he was and do whatever the hell he liked, but we weren’t, just because of PEACE.

      4. “Why was I, as a kid, responsible for monitoring my own emotions AND those of my parents, when they weren’t even responsible for keeping themselves in check?”

        Oh my god, ARE YOU ME? Because that is my constant frustration. Add to it the times of being accused out of the blue of being angry or defensive when I was not, in fact, anywhere near that emotional end of the spectrum but was just making myself lunch, and being all “huh? what did I DO?” and then going into a spiral of self-doubt. ARG.

      5. Oh, THIS. I still remember how liberating it felt when I was eleven or twelve and realised that when Dad got angry and started roaring at us, it wasn’t because i was bad. And with that came the epiphany that he was acting like a spoiled child and therefore I should only let his yelling make me feel as bad as I would if he was a three year old having a tantrum. Easier said than done, but I got there.

    10. All I can say is…THIS! You are amazing PomperaFirpa – you always come up with the best, most spot-on ways of framing things!

      It took me until my late-30s to figure this out, but once you do? It changes your world!

    11. LW: You know, this is so true and important to remember. Mama Bee’s way of treating you is all on her. How do you know? Because you are just like everyone else. You are utterly unique and totally run of the mill. It’s your “just like everyone, but fully only yourself” that makes you so precious in the universe.

      AND ALSO… it means that like everyone else, you aren’t perfect. You’re not. No one is. But not every imperfect person is raised by a mom who uses the silent treatment against them as a punishment. Some people’s parents use their words and work things out and protect and love their kids while also letting them know they fucked up/hurt their feelings/ whatever.

      It’s not you.

      My mom’s mom had (some of) these features. Grandma was great in some ways. But in other ways. Oy. Not a good scene. Know what Mama K8 did to deal? She moved. And by moved, I mean, asked my dad to try for a second overseas tour of duty in the USAF because Grandma Bee was scared of flying and therefore highly unlikely to show up to visit.

      My mom and dad are awesome parents. Having an awful mom doesn’t mean you are stuck in the circle of awful for life, and you sound good and ready to make your world as awful free as you can. Bravo!

    12. I’ve been thinking about the importance of failure lately and I’ve found this series useful.


      Description from _Slate_: This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer, mountaineer Ed Viesturs, This American Life host Ira Glass, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski, education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch, and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz.

      The Ira Glass interview is great. He says, ” I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it.”

      I take a lot of adult education classes–the scholastic habit is hard to break. I goofed up a project once in a seminar and the teacher said, “Oh! I’m so glad you made that mistake! Because now we can all learn the proper repair technique!” What a great motivator.

      I have a story to tell about failure/keeping in touch with former professors. I am sort of working on a photography certificate by taking one class a semester for the rest of my life. I’m not real worried about finishing; the draw is the community that has evolved around this academic program. One of my teachers is a wonderful man who has become a mentor to me. One semester I started a new job, that was related to the skills I was developing in his classes, and I got overextended and couldn’t do the coursework. I turned in a really lousy portfolio and did badly on the exam. I didn’t bother checking my grade, because this is more for my edification than any real need. I mentioned something to him around Thanksgiving that I was having trouble keeping up and he said, “Hey, you got a real job. That’s the goal, right?”

      About a year later I needed a transcript and that’s when I noticed I had an F in his class. I burst out laughing. All A’s and one F. I am so proud of that F. And I still love my teacher. I have enormous respect for him. We’re always happy to see one another. The fact that I EARNED an F in his class has not affected our rapport. He’s not mad at me; I’m not even mad at myself. It’s hilariously funny to the rest of the department. (I told people, not him).

      So, LW, the point of my story: there are people in the world who are kind and generous and exacting and have high standards. These people will not confuse YOU with what you can do for them, how you can make them feel, or if you can magically heal them. They will look at you and see value, whether you are in the middle of a busy semester or suffering from the flu or just too tired to cook or fresh out of ESP and unable to read their minds. I hope you have some people like this in your life now and that you continue to seek them out.

      You are not your failure. You are just passing through it on your way to something else.

    13. This comment. This whole thread.

      I’m going to bookmark it and read it over and over because it’s so insightful and useful and perfect and fantastic.

      Thank you, you all. I learned a lot today.

    14. Holy crap, did this resonate. I’m not sure if an ‘incident’ here and there in my childhood counts as emotional abuse, things I’ve always dismissed and attributed to my parent’s ‘cultural differences’, but man oh man do I identify with the fear of getting in trouble.

      When I was working at my old job, which was not only In an industry I hated, but which was also in a facility so bad that I started having anxiety attacks, I developed a mantra against bully/emotionally abusive co-workers, repeating to myself “Other people’s anger is not your problem, or your responsibility to manage”. I still quit for fear I was headed towards a breakdown, but I felt so guilty and even cried when I was quitting, my fear of being ‘in trouble’ was that strong.

      I’m getting better now, and it helps that I’m working in an industry I enjoy, and I’ve been through some things that have forced me to toughen up emotionally (my eldest sister estranging herself from the rest of the family, something I have multiple unsent letters to the Captain about) But it’s always a process, so I try to focus remembering there isn’t a giant invisible hammer that flattens you every time you don’t comply to someone’s request, and that it’s okay to kick up a stink if things are shitty.

      Jedi hugs and positive thoughts being beamed your way, LW, and sorry for the hijack 🙂

    15. THANK YOU. I’m just beginning to see my parent(s) as abusive, and this is just what I needed to hear. It would have been easier to learn these things earlier – I’m almost 30 now – but I guess it’s never too late to start.

    16. First-time commenter chiming in to say that this is so incredibly helpful to me on a personal level. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  8. What incredible advice from CA. I went through this with my mother, and those tips are exactly what helped me start to feel free from her tyranny. It is really hard, especially at first. I’d estimate it took me 10 years to go from first noticing this to feeling almost entirely free (I still feel the ick when I have contact with her, but it’s tolerable now, and I don’t have that much contact).

    I want to add how sorry I am that you’re going through this. It’s really hard. And sad. Many people won’t get it, especially that the smart thing for you to do is to STOP TRYING, since we have such a culture of “family at any cost.” You’re doing the right thing.

    Stay in therapy. Broaden your work there to include everything about you. It’s all relevant.

    Good luck.

  9. De-lurking because this letter really resonated with me. I wrote a similar letter a while back (but while I was upset, so the whole thing was jumbled and filled with poorly written, angry, self-doubting tangents) and it’s great to read the Captain’s advice. My mom doesn’t give the silent treatment so much–she favored other methods–but what she did do was to get the same emotional results that you/the Captain describe. Since I wrote the letter, I’ve moved out of the state to college, and let me just second the Captain in saying that getting away really, really, *really* helps. Now, when she calls or emails or texts or does all three in rapid succession (which is sort of puzzling to me, because we didn’t talk this much when I was at home) I can decide whether or not I want to reply right away, and when I do, it is much easier to “keep it light.” Keeping it light is a great method too, by the way, and one I learned to implement even before seeing any formal description of it anywhere–same with not running any of my decisions/questions/opinions through her.

    However, one problem I ran into while implementing the “keeping to myself” method was that, whenever I hinted that I didn’t consult my mother about a decision or she complained to friends/strangers about how she hated/was embarrassed/felt disrespected by something I did (oftentimes these were things I did/said that I didn’t even know had upset her, or things that I *didn’t* do/say but she lied), OTHER people would even chide me, like, “But she’s your MOTHERRRR how could you fight her? Don’t you know she wants the best for you? You kids these days, you think you know best but you’re just ignoring the people who love you MOSTEST IN THE WHOLE WORLDDDD.” Which just made (and sometimes, still makes) me feel like the most disgusting, ungrateful, unloveable, POS person ever, because even though I (intellectually) knew/know that I was just trying to be reasonable and set Normal Person Boundaries, getting the disapproval of everyone ever for going against my mom–especially at my age–is still difficult. (Especially because I’m half Chinese, and in the Chinese culture, respect of elders is *everything*, children owe parents, and agreeing with elders even if they’re wrong is The Thing To Do.)

    And, Captain, your explanation of the LW’s father’s role in this really clicked for me too. My dad, despite being well-intentioned, I’m sure, has provided no help. He’s full of those stock phrases: “That’s just how she is, just don’t worry about it,” and my personal favorite, “just ignore it.” But your explanation of the reasoning behind the behavior really struck me and makes it make sense, so thank you for that.

    LW, finally, the inclusion of the word “accidentally” really struck me, too. I know that I (fairly often) wonder to myself if I’m overreacting to perceived infractions, if I’m just being weird and sensitive, if I’m being biased and she’s really telling me the truth (I mean who else would be in the position to tell me that I’m fat/ugly/dumb, etc. so I can work on improving myself and being better), if I am actually just an awful ungrateful worthless child who does not deserve the love of her parent(s) let alone anyone else in the entire world, or if I am even in an abusive relationship at all or if I’m just making it all up for self-pity and attention, blah blah blah. So I want to say, just trust yourself. You’re in therapy, so you’re miles ahead of me, but…you probably know that those feelings of wanting attention/approval/freaking out whenever anyone displays The Signs of Anger that you’re used to from your parent’s tantrums aren’t going to go away soon, and if you’re like me, you’re never sure you’re not being overly sensitive–but just trust yourself. If you’re using the Captain’s methods and they’re making you feel better, then keep on doing them. It’s hard to emotionally pull away from a parent, but it will be okay in the long run. You might even be able to “save” the relationship (and I mean not cut it off completely) if you find that some of these work for you.

    Finally, I know we’re not diagnosing, but this website has some good coping strategies, similar to the one the Captain listed: http://daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com/

    I’m not sure this comment made any sense at all, but in short: thank you Captain for another round of outstanding advice, and LW, I wish you the best of luck.

    1. if I’m being biased and she’s really telling me the truth (I mean who else would be in the position to tell me that I’m fat/ugly/dumb, etc. so I can work on improving myself and being better)

      Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes- I can’t overstate “yes” enough, because this EXACTLY I mentioned in my letter that I havea lot of emotional/learning problems, and one of them is being on the autistic spectrum, ergo not reading social cues as well as I should. This led to my mother being the one to tell me when I was reading a situation wrong- by frowning or shaking her head of stepping on my foot. And if I react badly to this, it’s a sign that she shouldn’t have taken me out in public in the first place, and then she reacts with surprise when this makes me cry. It’s one of the reasons I’ve felt beholden to her for so long- because I really wasn’t an easy kid to raise, and had all the attendant problems ASD implies (tantrums, inability to do schoolwork, emotional instability)- but at the same time, I hate when she does this.

      1. Oh man.

        Maybe there was a time when your mom was helping you (or intending to help you) by “correcting” you in public, but now that you are an adult, four things apply:

        1) You don’t need her to CORRECT you anymore.
        2) You don’t need HER to correct you anymore.
        3) Even if you do read a situation “wrong” or made a social “mistake”, whatever it is is likely extremely mild and not anything to worry about. Everyone actually in the situation will probably deal just fine.
        4) Even if you do somehow read a situation “wrong” or made a social “mistake,” it’s a reflection on you, not on her.

        Your life – how you live it, what you do, how you interact with people – is yours, not a performance you’re giving to show that you’re a great daughter so that people will think well of her parenting. Her correction of you is actually way more awkward and weird than anything you could ever do by misreading a social cue.

        Some fights I’ve had to have with my parents as a grown-ass adult:

        – When I tell you stuff about my life, I’m not actually looking for a critique or to know what you would do instead.
        – O hai, this is MY body. Yes, it is a fat body. MY fat body. MINE.
        – This is, in fact, what I’m wearing.
        – If you disapprove of something that makes me happy, I will shrug and go “Sorry you feel that way. I’m happy,” and then go do my thing.
        – If you say mean things to me, I will leave/not see you for long periods/never call or visit.
        – If you say nice things to me, I will be very nice to you and glad to see you and try really hard to visit.
        – Sometimes I make the wrong choice or fail at something, or go through a really hard time. That’s not something I’m doing AT you, and it’s not actually about you at all. Be nice and helpful, or STFU and wait it out, but a moment-by-moment critique or I-told-you-so session is not welcome.
        – I will go to church with you if you want, but if the priest says something hateful about gay people (for example), I will get up and walk out in front of THE ENTIRE TOWN. So…do you really want me to come to church with you?
        – People are not allowed to scream at me, ever.
        – Do not ask questions that you do not want honest answers to.
        – Depression is a real mental illness and I actually have it, yo.

        Now, on the other side of those fights, we are in the best place we have ever, ever, ever been. I had a great visit with them in the spring. The last few times I saw them have been great, in fact. I’m going home in the fall and really excited to see them. I’m happy to hear from them or call home more frequently. I feel like I can be honest about stuff – good and bad – that’s going on in my life, and decide to forgive and forget a lot of the bad stuff from the past in the interest of remaking a good relationship with them as adults.

        But it was not always like that, for real. And it was not easy getting there.

      2. LW–

        I understand that there can be extra challenges in raising a child on the ASD spectrum that other parents may not face. That, however, does not excuse your mom’s behavior towards you. It’s wouldn’t be okay for her to step on your foot were you dyslexic and made a reading error, and it’s not okay for her to step on your foot when you miss a social cue, either. I am going to go out on a limb and say that you hate it when she does certain things because those certain things she does are not good for you!

        Not to minimise your stated dx or do an armchair diagnosis, but the perceptive way you come across in your letter and comment somewhat conflicts with your statement that you tend to miss a lot of social cues, which in turn makes me wonder if maybe you don’t have as much of an issue there as your mom has convinced you of, and she’s more been pushing her own skewed standards of hyper-politeness onto you. That would tie into the anxiety you feel when your mother is critical or silent. Do you feel the same level of anxiety when good, trustworthy friends give you a gentle head’s up about a cue you may have missed? I believe you when you say that you aren’t great at reading social cues, and have had to work on that. I also wonder if your mom has made that out to be more exaggerated of a problem than it really is.

        Parents (and I know, because I am myself one) often see, find, and use shortcuts in parenting that do absolutely nothing to positively address the child hirself, as who they are, as an individual. We fall back on those patterns, they become habit, but that doesn’t mean we’re right in doing so. The challenge for parents is to address each situation which arises with our children as though our kids are individual human beings, without hyperfixating on their faults or flaws. We fail at this often. That is not our children’s fault and there is no good reason to make it seem as if it is.

        Internet hugs to you, if you want them.

        1. Oh god, you’re making me recall the “My boyfriend is gaslighting me into thinking I’m so socially awkward he can’t take me anywhere” question. Oh god. LW, you might find this (and the comments, as always) a helpful (but painful) read.

          1. Oh, that was really a painful read. Apt, I think, but so painful. LW, do look it over and see if you think it applies to your situation with your mom.

            I brought it up because have seen it so many times. Parents who just. cannot. let go of the ego feed of over-parenting their adult (or teen, or pre-teen, or any age above fully dependent infancy, really) children, so they keep the child questioning hirself and relying upon the parent to Know Right, ’cause of course the child only Knows Wrong. FFS, I have been and am guilty of it myself with my own adult child and have been working really, really hard to stop doing that with a vengence because it’s SO bad for both of us. (thanks go to his girlfriend for her stabby needle eyes of loving protectiveness last time I made critical noises in my son’s direction and he faltered because of it. good on her, bad on me.)

          2. I was having comment second thoughts and the second thoughts comment disappeared/didn’t post. If it’s in spam purgatory, it’s cool if it stays there. If you removed it, thanks, and sorry. 😦

        2. Totally. This is a really small, stupid example, but I believed for years that I had an ugly smile. I hated smiling in front of people for years. It’s because my mom told me when I was 12 that “your lip curls up when you smile” and “it makes you look like you have a fat lip and miles of gum” and every time we went out somewhere and I accidentally smiled, she would catch my eye and press her upper lip down over her teeth to “remind” me that I was Doing It Again.

          You can see how fucked up that is, right? I couldn’t then but I do now. LW, that is EXACTLY what your mother is doing to you when she steps on your foot.

          1. I was a funny-looking kid. My childhood friends have been tagging me in Facebook photos of the ’95 Christmas curling party or the ’92 three-legged race with all of us standing in a group, and Wee!Anise is over in the corner, looking weird. I don’t know, maybe I’m too selfconscious, but it’s like I had this pathological aversion to standing straight and looking directly at the camera. Also, I got to pick my own clothes from the time I was three, and haha, WOW.

            My mother never mentioned this.

            That’s because she had the self-confidence to be like, “Oh, my daughter? She’s the one in the shirt with neon dinosaurs, acting out a one-woman play about princesses in the back. Isn’t she artsy?” Because her mother cared more about looking good in the eyes of her neighbours than unconditionally loving and supporting her daughter. My mom had the strength to smile and shrug when I was weird and go, “We admire her independence.” I had to be polite and well-behaved, but beyond that, she recognized that I didn’t exist to make her look good.

          2. Your mom sounds completely awesome! And I think you’re exactly right – some people get that their children don’t exist to make them look good, and some people never grasp that.

            I think a lot of this starts with mothers who are intensely competitive – whether it’s with the neighbors or their social circle or within their culture or family. My mom came from a culture that is intensely competitive, everyone came to America at about the same time from the same small city overseas, and moved to the same town and raised their kids in the same way and then spent tons of time and energy relentlessly pushing their children so they could one-up each other with bragging rights. So my mom and a lot of her cohorts see their children as extensions of themselves.

            Not sure if all of that is going on in the LW’s case, but as soon as I read the part about the LW’s mom stepping on her foot in public so she wouldn’t “embarrass” her, alarm bells started going off. The worst part is, this isn’t about the LW at all, it’s about her mother’s insecurities and need for control. It has taken me years to figure that out about my mom…but I’m glad I did…mostly for myself but also because I have two little kids of my own. This is one family trait that I won’t be passing down.

      3. Oh, hon, so many jedi hugs your direction.

        I’m going to play the “check it out, I’m a parent and stuff!” card and say that one of the best things to do for a kid– and one of the hardest, for me– is to let the child make mistakes, fall down, get a skinned knee, screw up social situations, all of it, instead of heading it off at the pass. And then to help the child work through what happened and maybe figure out how to do it better in the future. (And then having watch the child do the exact same thing again and having to have the same reaction because, yeah, repetition and testing boundaries is how we learn, and yelling is not going to magically make the child learn.)

        And, through all of that, the parent has to NOT MAKE IT ABOUT THEM. Not because working out their own social insecurities is a fun hobby, but because children deserve better than that. Even– maybe especially– difficult children.

        I feel like doing it the way that your mother did it makes it about her, made her the guardian of the gate of social correctness, instead of making it about how other people react. And not only that, the whole “sign that she shouldn’t have taken [you] out in public in the first place” business means that she wasn’t just the Social Awareness Gatekeeper, she was the judge of whether or not you got to be out in public at all, which is just awful. She knew, going into this, that you would probably make mistakes out in public, but she cared more about how your mistakes reflected on her than she cared about you getting to learn.

        And she’s continued to make it about her. You said:

        I can’t talk to her about this, because whenever I do, she turns it into a conversation about what I’ve done to frustrate or anger her, and I end up defending myself instead of explaining to her that she’s hurt me.

        This shows me that she’s still keeping herself in that authority role of Social Awareness Gatekeeper, instead of treating you like another adult who’s on equal footing with her. She can’t admit that this could be about what she did wrong; that would mean that you actually know that she did things wrong, and thus her role is no longer necessary! But she did do things wrong, she did hurt you, and you absolutely are the expert on what hurts you and what your feelings are. She’s wrong. You’re right. And she’d rather let you be hurt than to give up her Authority status.

        You probably weren’t an easy kid to raise, but that doesn’t mean that she did it right, and it doesn’t mean she’s right in what she’s doing now. I think you know that already. Your mother, though, has a vested interest in not recognizing when she’s wrong, or when she’s hurt you. I’m willing to bet that she feels like her Social Awareness Gatekeeper role is necessary– not for you, but as a performance that she puts on for other people to prove that she’s a Good Mother Who Is Invested In Fixing Her Child’s Shortcomings.

        And you know what? Your mental well-being is more important than her need to cling to an out-dated, no-longer-applicable performance that used to make her feel better about how she looked to other people. You are both adult human beings, and you have the right to judge her behavior this way and demand better treatment.

        1. Oh, P.F., I so agree with your first paragraph here.

          I’m not a parent, but I still am so angry at my mother for how she reacted when my brother stopped turning in his homework and stuff around sixth grade. She supervised and scheduled every minute of every day until he left the house.

          Now she’s telling everybody how awful he is because he failed out of college.

          I’m so happy for him that he’s getting by (NOT at home) on his own, even if it’s not the life I would choose, and not his ideal either. He’s at least getting his own life to live now.

          I’m the pathologically good kid, while somehow also being the horrible burden on my parents. Not sure how that works. We talk a lot about dogs these days.

      4. OTHER people would even chide me, like, “But she’s your MOTHERRRR how could you fight her? Don’t you know she wants the best for you? “

        Oh, yes, those other people. I’d tell you to just not listen to them, but that’s so hard to do – especially when they’re just echoing the voice inside your own head (not that I’d know, or anything ;). But seriously – those people aren’t you, and don’t know what you’ve experienced. They probably grew up in non-emotionally abusive families, and they’re basing all their presumptions on a) their experiences, and b) the societal norm/ideal of the all-perfect, all-loving Mother Goddess figure.

        But you don’t have to talk about your mother, or your relationship with her. If someone asks you a direct question, and they’re a close enough friend that you can’t just avoid the question, answer with a brief “I’m not close with my mother,” using a hard-edged tone that makes it clear you’re not going to talk about it any further.

        Finally, I know we’re not diagnosing, but this website has some good coping strategies, similar to the one the Captain listed: http://daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com/

        Unfortunately, I have to recommend you and anyone else away from the forum there. There’s great advice on the main page, and sometimes you can find some good information and support on the forum there. But the women who run it do so mostly to promote their business selling EFT scripts (which, honestly, seem pretty hokey to me), and frequently ban people with no warning, notice, or explanation whatsoever – often at the worst possible times. You’ll find lots of information about this if you Google the website name and “banned”.

      5. Ah. It looks to me like one of your problems may be that you need a system for dealing with the possibility that you might get into an awkward social situation. (Everyone needs to deal with that possibility, neurotypical or not, and most of us struggle with it one way or another.)

        At the moment, you know you need to deal with possible social awkwardness, but your prior coping strategy has your mother as its focus. This keeps you in the position of being afraid of her, because when you try to become less afraid and strike out on your own, you are faced with the problem of, oh no, who will regulate your social behavior now?

        So, get a new system! This will be a long, slow, and probably very rewarding process — at least if you’re anything like me, because I always hate the start of learning something new and rearranging my life like that, but it’s so wonderful as it gradually starts to come together.

        I can’t tell you where to start with this because it depends on where you already are. Perhaps you have friends who you can interact with, and with whom it is safe to make mistakes. Or perhaps you can learn to make mistakes with people you don’t know and will never see again (because, seriously, one awkward conversation isn’t likely to do any great damage to you or them). Perhaps both. Perhaps you have other ideas. The important thing is to have new answers to questions like “How will I know if the situation is starting to get awkward?” and “What will I do if I realise I have made a social mistake?” that do not involve your mother.

        You do not need your mother’s help for this part of your life. You can strike out on your own, make mistakes, and learn things. I believe in you.

      6. De-lurking after several months of avid reading and recommending to pretty much everyone I know.

        LW, this stopped me in my tracks:

        “She was my primary caregiver- my dad also lived with us, but he’s not so great at parenting as opposed to being a pal, so she was the only authority I really looked up to at home, and in my childhood, I needed a lot of looking after. (I had and have several leaning/social disabilities that necessitated a lot of care.)”

        Now, I’m a new mom, so maybe I’m taking this a bit personally, but guess what? ALL children need a lot of looking after. And guess what else? That was your mom’s JOB. And guess what else? If you get a kid who faces special challenges, it is also your JOB to do everything you can to help them feel safe and face what life throws at them. You’re doing it wrong if you create a whole extra layer of difficulty that complicates the underlying challenges they already face.

        I love that CA makes it so plain, that your mom bought and paid for a damaged relationship with you by abusing you.

        I have this huge, long task ahead of me, parenting this amazing little human. I don’t know what she’s going to be like. What if she hates European electronica and science fiction? What if she ends up (gasp) a Republican? It’s my job to teach her to form her own opinions, respect herself, think critically. It’s my job to create a safe place for her to grow and become her own person. It should be okay for her to major in English or engineering when she goes to college (if she wants to go to college). She is NOT my property. She is not a blank slate for me to mold into something I wish I was. She (and those of you who are not religious please forgive the reference) belongs to God, and I care for her on God’s behalf. She is unique, beautiful, precious. I have no right to impose something on her that really is between her and her conscience.

        I am afraid that I will lose sight of this and perpetuate the passive-aggressive guessing games my mom played. And if I do, if I lose focus, and play some kind of toxic mind game with my daughter, she is entitled to come to the place where she can say, “You know what? This is toxic. I don’t like it. I believe I will spend time and energy elsewhere.”

        Just because your mom was so wrapped up in her own crap she didn’t see what a prize you are doesn’t mean you aren’t a prize. You are unique, beautiful, precious, and your mom dropped the ball on one of God’s priceless mysteries of love. Her loss.

      7. You may be alternate-universe me (down to the autism). My mom doesn’t have a diagnosis of any sort because therapy is for other people, people who are not her and are definitely terrible and crazy like ME. Lots of people have had lots of constructive advice, and I’m going to take much of it to heart (and hope you do, too).

        What ultimately worked for me was moving. Moving internationally. She can’t call me (it’s expensive; she is cheaaaaap), I can ignore emails if I need to, she certainly can’t just turn up. Flying from the east coast US to Australia is really expensive. I am protected by the distance, and in turn she is easier to deal with. The silent treatment has ceased to be a thing she can do because she is at my whims for phone calls anyway (my prepaid mobile has inexplicably cheap rates, so I do all of the calling on my terms). My childhood and adolescence were an alternating mix of silence and shouting about how disappointing I am. She wrote me a FEELINGSLETTER a couple of years ago about how I don’t respect her and hate her and make her feel like such a bad mother and she never deserved this, etc. She can only do that via email now, and gmail gives enough of a preview I could delete if she did.

        It’s a really imperfect solution, but also great. And I like Australia an awful lot, which helps.

      8. When I first read this, closer to when you posted it, something really bugged me about it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. Since then (CA threads tend to simmer in my thoughts when I’m doing other stuff), I realized what it is: it is super-duper extra-specially fucked up to give your kid *with ASD* the Silent Treatment!!! My best friend’s son has Down Syndrome and ASD, and it means she has to be *extra* clear and articulate about behavioral stuff. (Not, mind you, by tromping on his foot or making him feel like he is unfit for public outings). It is seriously messed up to give any kid the Silent Treatment, making them try guess what the heck they did wrong. But a kid with ASD? Sooooo mean and confidence-undermining! It’s like having a hearing-impaired kid and whispering at them!! Fucked Up.

        When I was a teenager and I thought my little brother was being an egotistical brat and needed taking down a peg or two, my mom intervened. She said “it is not family’s job to tear one another down. The world will do that all too well. Family’s job is to build one another up.” Obviously, that can be taken to extremes, when parents make their kids feel like they can do no wrong even when they really are doing wrong. But you can have high expectations and teach your kids to be their best be in positive ways… kids with diagnoses and disabilities included.

        So please stop making that excuse for your mother. You can still love her, still want to have a relationship with her on your own terms — it is your life, and emotions are complicated, especially toward parents. But you don’t owe her for the good stuff she did for you; that’s just what parents are supposed to do. And the bad stuff is 100% on her.

    2. Those people who say things like that to you, they suck. I don’t know any real defense against that, but I’ll tell you I’m nearly 40 and I’m continually learning that we are not alone. And if you bow to the “that is so tragic!” narrative now, you will be 35 years old and forced to do this work now, with extra pressure to spend all your vacation time visiting people you find exhausting and traumatic, because “the kids deserve to know their grandparents!”

  10. Oh, LW. I’m so sorry you’ve been having to go through this. It really sucks.

    I’ve had to deal with a mild version of this — the disapproval end, rather than the silent treatment end — and I want to second (fifth?) all the Captain’s recommendations, especially being prepared for your father to enter the situation with guilt-guns blazing. “We love you and that’s the most important thing” my ass.

    Using my words and deliberately setting up my life to be separate (no expectations of visits or holidays, telling her things after the fact, using phone calls as a time to tell funny dog stories) has made a world of difference. It actually has resulted in improving my mother’s behavior towards me, but my one attempt to see if that meant loosening boundaries would result in a relationship that was closer to what I actually wanted with my mother did not pan out the way I hoped.

    It’s been 21 years since I lived with my parents or even lived anywhere near them. I still grieve the relationship I don’t get to have. But my life is infinitely better for living in RealityLand instead of GaslightingMomLand.

    1. Yes. This. With my therapist’s help, I told my father that I wasn’t coming to visit him and my stepmother anymore because I was tired of being continually disrespected and told it was my fault for being horrible/doing horrible things to them. He seemed okay, until I got this long e-mail about how hurt he was and how it was all my mom’s fault for not letting us see each other more (?). Now, I just don’t talk to him much. I don’t call, I only respond to his e-mails if they’re pleasant, and I feel free. For the first time since I was nine years old and we met my stepmother, I don’t cringe and feel sick every time I think about my father, and it is beautiful.

      1. MY DAD TOO! – it’s all mom’s fault. We have no true perceptions of our relationship with him (even the adult, post-divorce, no-mom-involved parts). She filled us full of hate and lies. And this year he had the gall to call me up and whine because his relationship with all his kids is not good.

        There’s a reason it’s worth trying to have good boundaries & continue to hang out with my mom, but not my dad.

  11. LW first listen to the great Akward Army because the way she treats you or thinks about you doesn’t define who you are and the labels she gives you aren what you are at all; you are the one that decides who you are, what you like and what makes you happy.

    The Capitan gives great advise, in my case moving out and controling when and how I talk to my mom gave me the space to heal and let go, and after some years we are healing our relantionship to the point when she can admit that I have to move out because she was not letting me grow or be myself.

    Aask Team You to help with all the process and jedi hugs to you.

  12. Well. I grew up with a mixture of silent treatment and passive aggressive notes pushed under my bedroom door. How I deal with it is, I fear, not very nice or mature. I Silent Treatment right back at my mother until the entire house fills up with unspoken contempt. And that is the perfect word for it, Captain. After a while we speak again but nothing gets dealt with or resolved, and after the years go by, I just respect her less and less. I feel like I must tread carefully in my other relationships, because sometimes I will silent treatment my other loved ones, too.

    LW, I think distance would be the best thing for you right now. If you are not around, she cannot be silent at you. You are an adult, and are doing good work to restore yourself through therapy. Keep at it, and I hope one day your mother’s silence will lose its horrible significance and you can be free.

    1. Oh, god, THE NOTES! I was completely just a faithful reader of this one until your comment, Boredlizzie, reminded me of the pages and pages of notes my mother would leave instead of actually having a conversation about an issue. I f***ing hated those notes. Just thinking about them makes me want to slap my mother and ask “what were you thinking?”

      We have a solid relationship now, she and I, and she never rose to the level of passive-aggressiveness that the LW has suffered, but I second you and all the other Army who recommend distance. I moved out when I was 18, to the other side of the country, and have never moved back home, not even for summer vacations. That distance made it possible for two things to happen: (1) I got to break free of her cycle of behavior and hew demand to give me every single one of her opinions about everything and (2) it was a lot easier to reinforce boundaries from 1800 miles away. Don’t like what I’m doing? What are you going to do about it? Come get me? Start ragging on my over the phone? Whoops! I’ve gotta go and not call you back for two weeks!

      I don’t know if there’s hope for LWs mom, who seems to have her patterns of behavior pretty deeply ingrained, but I can say that for me and my mom, the distance and the steady reinforcement of boundaries have made our relationship better. Not perfect, of course, but like the Captain’s, good enough that we can talk and spend time together and actually enjoy each other, which is nice.

      1. My parents would write full on business style letters, and sign them, “Love, Mum and Dad” (with kisses!!!), even after they made me homeless. I still have them. I used to read them when I was spiralling, in order to emotionally self-harm. I realised that by doing this, I was enforcing the ridiculous boundaries they’d placed on me. For instance I wasn’t allowed to speak German in the house – I could literally only speak in “the Queen’s English” and even then it wasn’t good enough because I was accused of looking down on them and treating them like “shit on my shoe”. Every letter they wrote is now in a sealed envelope, and I fully intend to hand it back to them one day when they’re stupid enough to try to find/ask me for something. (To put in context briefly, they did nothing to help me through high school, college and university, and everything and then some to blight both my professional and academic career, not to mention nearly every sort of abuse under the sun).

        If I had had a dollar/pound every time some well meaning nitwit told me that I was obliged to my parents in some way, or that they would naturally support me – I could have graduates without a penny’s debt! *vent over*

        1. “I used to read them when I was spiralling, in order to emotionally self-harm.”

          I didn’t really realize that ’emotionally self-harming’ was a thing one could do, until I broke up with an abusive ex who proceded to send me cruel emails (he called too, until I changed my number) for the next year. I started out dealing with my guilt and shame and pain by physically self-harming, but my friends caught me and my therapist freaked and after that I tried very, very hard not to.

          Instead, when I had a bad day, or my boss or coworker or family member criticized me, I would find myself seeking out those emails that I had worked so hard to hide from my view, with filters and hidden folders. I would read them over and over, as if reminding myself that I was a “worthless whore” or an “ungrateful, unloving, evil bitch” would somehow explain or fix whatever failure had led me there. I was a fuck up, therefore I deserved to feel this pain.

          It was a far worse habit than cutting ever was. Harder to break, too.

          1. Thank you for sharing, and YES to infinity on the difficulty to stop! It took me a long time to realise just what I was doing with them, and I wasn’t really sure that I was using the right words to explain it. Your comment has totally validated my perception because I don’t feel alone/totally weird any more.
            Jedi hugs – we’ll get there!

          2. Yep, I still have the hate mail from my abusive ex. Can’t quite let it go, but luckily the urge to reread it is rare. I hope that you are doing much better now.

          3. Regarding jerkface ex, I most certainly am doing better. It required actually making it impossible to access that hate mail for awhile–to break the habit, I had to go cold turkey. On occasion I will still get into a pattern of reliving certain memories in my head as a kind of self-torture, but even that is quite rare these days.

          4. Me too! I found immersion therapy really helped. In my case the memories I was reliving involved being threatened with firearms, and after learning how to identify whether they were loaded, or the safety was on, I found that I had regained my lost sense of power in these scenarios and this enabled me to be able to turn them around, much like Other Becky’s dream. The self-torture practically stopped overnight, although there have been one or two incidents since, so perhaps I’m not totally over it.

            I feels like a huge weight has been lifted just being able to voice this stuff.

  13. There’s a fair amount of this in my family, although not absolute silence, which I imagine is far worse. Also, I’m fairly sure now that I was never a target, but when my Mum would do this to my Dad, given that there was no explanation, I had no way of knowing that it wasn’t my fault. In these sulks, Mum would also leave the house without warning or explanation and disappear for several hours – something that terrified me as a child.

    My grandmother was emotionally abusive and in Mum’s particular case, her fantastically passive aggressive behaviour seems more about not feeling she has permission to complain about anything, since she spent her childhood walking on egg shells. She never played any awful guessing game (that really a super cruel thing to do to a distressed child); the sulking would just eventually fizzle out. Most of the time, she’s great, supportive and one of the funniest people I know. Times when she has realised how upsetting this behaviour is to me, she has been extremely remorseful (I don’t know about Dad, he makes a show of ignoring it so I don’t really know how he feels and what goes on between them).

    But it did leave me with a real problem with sulking and when I was in a violent relationship, I used to tell myself “Well, at least, he rages for a while, I know what it’s about and then it’s all over with.”

    These days, I remain equally nervous about a person who has gone suddenly quiet (probably because they’re tired, or deep in thought) as I am about someone who is raising their voice and clenching their fists. My first reaction to either is one of guilt, which is a real problem.

    I think one of the most shocking things in my experience has been very recent, when my boyfriend and I are living between the homes of our respective parents. My Mum’s behaviour is much better when my boyfriend is around, and he is very good at listening to Mum – better than I am, and I’ve always been her main confidante. However, my boyfriend finds her abrupt silences and other passive aggressive behaviour really deeply disturbing, he just doesn’t know how to handle it and he finds it impossible to ignore. Because although his family isn’t a superhuman enclave of people who only ever say what they mean, listen very carefully and treat each other perfectly at all times, they manage without rows or sulks or anything worse than the odd eye-roll and a touch of gentle sarcasm. I don’t know if that’s “normal”, but it certainly strikes me as something we should all be capable of.

    1. My mother does the same thing as regards up and leaving the house for hours at a time. I don’t find it so frightening now when I’m an adult, but when I was a kid it made me wonder when is she coming back? Is she coming back?

      1. I’m so sorry you went through that, it must have been terrible. I want to go back in time and cuddle your tiny self so, so much. I am going to hug the HELL out of my daughter when I get home, instead.

      2. On one occasion, on a Sunday when she had been gone all day, the weather outside was so bad I couldn’t imagine she could be walking around in it, I snuck into her room and read her diary, looking for clues about her mental state and whether she might have been suicidal or ready to desert us all. I knew it was a massive violation and I felt hugely guilty about it even at the time, but it helped, because her diary demonstrated the fact she was generally fine and there wasn’t anything that had been building up over time. Up to that point, my mind had been running through what her funeral would be like and how we’d all cope without her.

        I can understand a person needing to walk away from an argument for time and space to think – and I’m sure that’s how she saw it, as something between Dad and her – but even adults deserve the basic information and, when all of winter descends in your absence, a simple update just so they know that you’re safe. Children deserve a lot more information.

      3. For serious, are you alternate universe me? Yep. I think I was eight when she left us (me and younger brother) alone overnight (my parents are divorced) because I made her angry.

  14. I have a difficult mother as well. And sometimes I’m really sad that the relationship I have with my parents is more like the relationship I have with distant relatives and not how I wanted it at all. It is so hard to hang up the idea of that parental approval. I’d been searching for it my whole life, and then I woke up one day and was an adult and it’s like somebody sucker punched me because I realized that I could spend my whole life searching for something that simply doesn’t exist for us.

    One of the things that difficult mothers usually don’t tell us is that there’s more than one way to be in this world and none of them are wrong. My mother in particular has always been so focused on pushing and pulling and trying to fit me into this one particular mold she made for me way back when I was in Elementary school. It is not my fault that this mold no longer fits, it’s her fault she never thought to make a new one. LW, however you want to be in this world is fine, and others may find it endearing. But whoever this person is that your mother sees is at best a reflection in a carnival mirror– a distortion. I see a lot of things that are beautiful just from your letter– the strength and wisdom to see that something you’ve been brought up with is not ok and not normal. You can eat dinner at my table any day.

    As for how I deal with my personal situation, I think the first and best thing that happened to me is that I found a mom. Well, not my mom, and several moms, in fact. This is what Team You is about. If you need someone to nurture or nourish you and be nurtured and nourished by you, then you look for and find those people. If you need a mom, there are other places you can find one. I personally joined a program that hooked college freshmen up with a mentor– who cheerfully mommed me and fed me and let me gesso large canvasses in her driveway. From my experience, there are a lot of orphans in the world. Whether it’s by time or circumstance, there are a lot of us looking for families and making them for ourselves. There will be people who will welcome you into their families (however those are made up).

  15. This is my exact situation, only reverse the parents. My father uses the tactic constantly with my sister and I, and we’re the obedient, subservient children. He used to use it on my brother until he realized it doesn’t really work on him anymore, since my brother has become more used to being singled out as the Shitty Kid. I’m lucky I’ve grown up with two amazing siblings who make up the core of Team Me, because we’ve all had to deal with his crappy treatment and have all realized that it isn’t okay. My father’s silent treatments usually end when our mother tells us to go and apologize for whatever we did to upset him, and then he lectures us (loudly, as in, screams at us) on how bad we are at being good, responsible, hard working, whatever kids. Yesterday I was helping my parents move my brother and sister into their college dorm rooms for the very first time, and in the morning my father had gotten really angry with my brother (for something incredibly), and he refused to even be near him for the rest of the day. It was probably the worst case of silent treatment I’ve seen my father give any of us, even worse than the time he silent treated me for three weeks because he found out about my tattoo, because it was my brother and sister’s very first day of college and we won’t see them for weeks at least and I can remember all I wanted on my first day was a loving family telling me they’d miss me and want to see me soon. I’ve been toying with the idea of going to therapy for a while, but this post kind of cements it for me. The phrase “100% emotional abuse” probably tipped me over, because even though I’ve known that my father emotionally abuses us, I always had that justification of “well it’s not really abuse-abuse, he does love us and would do anything for us, and I really do want him to love me,” even though I do get panic attacks when he gives me “advice” (tells me what to do and gives me an ultimatum on when I need to do it), and I have to tip-toe around every conversation I have with him in case I accidentally set him off, and I never want to tell him about anything that’s going on in my life, even when it’s overwhelmingly positive. Ahhh I’m rambling, I just wanted to say I know EXACTLY where the LW is coming from, it feels awful all the time even when you know you’re not in the wrong, and that your parent is being a shitty human being. Because when you love your parent and you know they love you the idea of being abused by them just seems like you’re blowing everything out of proportion. But abuse and love are not mutually exclusive. Most often they come hand in hand, as much as we want to deny it. I’m grateful that other people can relate to this, because for so long I thought I just had the perfect family, everyone else had shitty ones. My dad’s just our broken stair, I guess.

    1. “well it’s not really abuse-abuse, he does love us and would do anything for us, and I really do want him to love me”

      Oh, hon. Oh, God, I almost cried reading this, because. Yeah. I know that one. I know that one a LOT. I spent a long, long time struggling to resolve the cognitive dissonance between the fact that my father loves me to distraction, and that he’s emotionally abusive. I felt like either one or the other must not be true, but– they both are. My dad loves me, and he’s still incapable of dealing with his own negative emotions in adult ways, and so he has to throw these temper tantrums and he has to sulk and he has to make passive-aggressive stupid comments– except he doesn’t have to do those things, he could choose to learn different methods. He doesn’t. He’s mellowing out a little as he ages– or maybe age is making it possible for people to ignore him– but I don’t think he’ll ever really change. We have a lot of boundaries now, and I wish we didn’t have to, but there it is.

      I thought I just had the perfect family, everyone else had shitty ones.

      THIS, God, yes. I think we all think that. I felt so guilty about thinking there was anything wrong with how I was raised; I should be grateful that my parents were so supportive, that they paid for music lessons and camp and college and all of that! But… yeah, there was always that broken stair that we worked around, that Mom would minimize by saying things like “you know your father has a temper, you shouldn’t rile him up like that”.

      I feel like human beings have this amazing tendency to admit that people do bad things and then try define those bad things in such a way that only bad people– obvious, black-hat-wearing, mustache-twirling, puppy-kicking villains– could possibly do them, so that there’s no chance that they, or anyone they know and love, could do them, because they’re not BAD people, they just make mistakes! But like you said, loving someone doesn’t negate the possibility of doing bad things to them, or excuse it.

      Do seek out therapy. Do. I found it immensely helpful and I wish I’d done it when I was much, much younger.

      1. ” I spent a long, long time struggling to resolve the cognitive dissonance between the fact that my father loves me to distraction, and that he’s emotionally abusive. I felt like either one or the other must not be true, but– they both are. My dad loves me, and he’s still incapable of dealing with his own negative emotions in adult ways”

        Loved your post, PomperaFirpa. I can relate to a lot of it. I also end up feeling guilty because for the most part, my parents are loving and supportive, and so I feel guilty about feeling bad about that one little thing that barely even happens anymore. It feels like betraying the family to admit to it or talking about it.

        And yet learning to have a more realistic view of my parents without demonizing them OR putting them on a pedestal, has helped me appreciate them more as human beings, relate to them better as an adult and maybe understand them a bit better.

      2. “You know your father has a temper, you shouldn’t rile him up like that.” Did you also have my parents growing up?

        My dad would go on cleaning rampages about every other Sunday, screaming because no one had read his mind and know that the house should be cleaned in exactly the right ways before he got up 2-4 hours earlier than the rest of the family. One of my clearest memories of Sundays was my mom sneaking into my room and warning me that Dad was in a “mood,” and so I had to clean my room and my bathroom to his precise and completely arbitrary and shifting expectations. Sometimes he would be the one who came in yelling. It took me years to realize that not every family cleaned that way. It also took me years to realize cleaning gives me massive anxiety and I put it off nearly as badly as I put off dentist trips. Andmy mom’s answer was always “Stay out of his way and do what he wants.”

        1. Cleaning! OMG, the cleaning!

          My dad would do this too, not every Sunday, but regularly. In spite of the fact that he hardly did any chores during the week and my mother did 95% of all housework. He’d also lecture my mother on the Right Way to cook meat, even when he almost never cooked. That one time a year he did cook he’d turn into a teachable moment for us all, telling us exactly that this was the way it should be done.

          The ridiculousness of that eluded me at the time because I was merely scared and completely embarrassed for my mother.

        2. My mother was also like that, with the cleaning. It took me years to stop scrubbing everything three times over. (I clearly went the other way into overcompensation.)

        3. My dad grounded us off using the bathroom one time. For leaving towels on the floor. We were 12 and 8.

          “If you can’t behave like people piss outside like a dog! Go to your friends house to shower!”

          1. …I can’t formulate a coherent response to that. That is so abusive that my mouth literally started making incoherent noises of rage.

            I was scolded for using the bathroom “too much” but never actually forbidden to use it!

          2. My dad specializes in an almost dadaistic form of gaslighting. He literally stops me cold with random untrue statements at least once or twice every time I spend time with him.

            My little brother is GREAT at countering them with a simple “Dad, that’s not true.” and going on. I am not. I think it’s because he was only 12 when Dad moved out, and I was 16.

            (we ignored him. He was gone from the house for about 12 hours a day so his rules & rages were pretty easy to work around. I had a friend whose dad was like that, but worked from home, and I always thought that was the worst possible parent – but even she thought he wasn’t really that bad, because of course we knew people whose parents were even worse.)

        4. Oh my god! Yes, to the unrealistic cleaning bullshit!

          My mom once yelled at me for folding a blanket the wrong way.

          Cleaning was done in massive yell-y sessions before visitors or the New Year (because if you start the New Year with a dirty house, that’s how it’s going to be all year, natch.)

        5. Oh god, my dad was like that too about the common spaces in the house. He would just out of the blue flip his everloving shit that our (relatively clean but slightly cluttered because four people living in a four room house) house was such a pig sty and spend the weekend furiously cleaning everything. Like my most vivid memory of him, growing up, is the time when he got angry that there was no place hidden to put the shredder that my mum needed other than in the kitchen. They argued about it for a bit and then he just picked it up and walked over to the basement door and hurled it down the basement stairs.

          It is really reassuring to know that other people’s dads were sometimes like that too.

      3. I spent a long, long time struggling to resolve the cognitive dissonance between the fact that my father loves me to distraction, and that he’s emotionally abusive. I felt like either one or the other must not be true, but– they both are.

        OH MY GOD HOLY SHIT THIS. My mom throws tantrums like a child, constantly assumes the worst of everything, and projects all of her anxiety, fear, and unhappiness on the family (and we are not the cause of her unhappiness). This has, in the last year, led to some really scary fights around my future career path, which tend to trigger my own anxiety. That being said, I know that she loves me to pieces, and so much of her freaking out comes from a place of terror at me having anything but a perfectly successful life. But her inability to manage her anxiety and fear in a productive way was extremely damaging when I was a child, and is only less so now because I walk out of the room when she starts in.

      4. “I spent a long, long time struggling to resolve the cognitive dissonance between the fact that my father loves me to distraction, and that he’s emotionally abusive.”

        How did you ever stop struggling?

        I’ve actually been trying to work up my own letter about this. Because I’ve been in therapy and set firm boundaries and built a Team Me outside my family and done all the other things we’ve talked about around here and yet… I still don’t know really how to deal with my family, on either a practical or emotional level.

        Because I’ve decided to walk the middle path–I don’t go along with being treated poorly, but I don’t want to cut my family out of my life either, because I do know that my parents love me so goddamn much and really, really wanted to be good parents. And they still want to be. And they have gotten better, in that they at least are starting acknowledge that they no longer have the right to full control over me. (This has happened in the last two years. I’m about to turn 24, and I have only spent more than a brief visit at home twice since I turned 16–and even then for only a few months.)

        I have accepted that I probably will never have quite the relationship with them that I wish I had, that I will always have to be cautious about letting myself be vulnerable with them. What I don’t know how to deal with is this: my parents seem to think that we are all cool now, that we ‘had the same rough patch that all parents and kids have when kids transition to adulthood’, but we’re past it. They’ve made broad apologies for things, but they are all along the lines of “I’m sorry if we hurt you,” rather than actually acknowledging the particulars of their behavior and giving a real fucking apology.

        It is incredibly painful to try to accept that I’m supposed to see experiences that profoundly shaped my psychology and early adult relationships, experiences that I am still trying to cope with the fallout from, as simply ‘water under the bridge’ even though the vast majority of those experiences have never even been explicitly acknowledged as THINGS THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED by either of my parents. Even more painful is knowing that they may be treating ME like an adult, and I may be able to set boundaries from my safe world of an independent life thousands of miles away… but I still have three younger siblings living in that house, and another away at college who is still dependent on them to a large degree. And since my parents have still not acknowledged that most of their ‘abusive’ behaviors even exist, much less that they are problematic things that need to change, my siblings still live with some of those things, every fucking day.

        Basically, I have a pretty good relationship with my parents nowadays, as long as I never think about or mention any aspect of our relationship that happened more than a year in the past, and as long as I let problematic behaviors pass without comment simply because they are directed at someone other than me. These days, I am constantly told how proud they are of me and how much they love me, and they are even offering financial support that was completely absent when I was a completely broke undergrad struggling to feed myself instead of the semi-broke grad student struggling to pay off debt and still have money left over for occasional plane tickets to visit friends/family I am today.

        BUT… last time I was home, I made the mistake of bringing up one little thing, a style of bullshit manipulative passive-agressive guilt tripping that I had recently discovered my parents use on employees in their respective jobs, and not just in the house. And I brought it up casually, like “hey, did you know that when you do this thing it makes people feel like X and it really isn’t producing the result you want so maybe you could address it this other way instead?” And within 5 minutes, my mother was screaming and sobbing and whining about “I thought we were past this/why do you hate us so much/we love you so much and take such good care of you and in return you act like you were horribly abused your whole childhood/waaaaah poor me/what did we ever do to deserve this from you?”

        And within and hour, I totally gave in and was hugging my mom and crying and apologizing and saying I didn’t mean it, because I couldn’t stand seeing her like that, so hurt and broken, even though I KNEW the way she was reacting was overblown and childish and unfair. Because I KNOW she loves me, and I DON’T want to convince my parents that they are terrible people and parents and they fucked up everything and they should hate themselves. All I want from them is a tiny bit of recognition of how their tempers and refusal to address conflicts directly instead of through passive agressive bullshit affects the people around them.

        Basically, my parents are sort of kind of trying, but they still act like nothing they did was not okay. And I don’t think my parents are horrible people, and I know they love me… but my very sanity hinges on accepting that a lot of things I grew up with were Not Okay and that it is not just okay, but Very Important to fight to change the habits that those Not Okay things got me into. And the cognitive dissonance HURTS.

        How do I make that stop? Will it ever stop?

        1. 😦 That sucks, I’m sorry.

          This sounds like a situation where you’re beating your head against the wall of My Parents Shouldn’t Be Doing That, And Yet They Are. I find myself doing this sometimes with my mom (though she isn’t actually abusive, just often lacking in empathy) – it feels as though, if I can convince some power in the universe that her behavior is Wrong and there are Logical Reasons she Should be acting differently, she will. It’s similar to the feeling of desperate denial I sometimes get when something in my life goes really, really not how I wanted it to go – except that in this case, because it’s an actual person who’s causing the Wrong-ness, I have this illusion that I can convince her with logic and she will change. She won’t, though, because her internal logic tells her something different and she doesn’t want to entertain the possibility of change. All I can do is look for practical ways to restructure my relationship with her, maybe occasionally suggest little things to do differently around me (here I’m lucky in that she’ll at least listen to these even if she doesn’t agree – it sounds like your parents are not so willing), but mostly just get used to the fact that this is how my mom is and I’ll have to find other sources of emotional support.

          It’s the inescapable fact that you can’t change other people. Even if they have lots of good in them. We all know that people are imperfect, but – really, they really are. People sometimes have friggin huge flaws – like an inability to see things from others’ point of view, a fear of admitting they could’ve done something wrong, a need to mold their children in a very particular way, and other things that can be ingredients for a painful family situation. Love, devotion, and willingness to sacrifice are things my mom has in abundance; empathy and respect for others’ subjective experience and understanding of how her actions affect me and my sister – not so much. The former set doesn’t automatically furnish the latter; those things must be learned, and not everybody learns them.

          I suspect that the only way you can help your siblings is to directly offer them your own support. If you can offer material or practical support, great; if not, emotional support is priceless as well. Advice, if they want it. You can be the trailblazer for them, a somewhat older person who can provide some comfort, and maybe be a nurturing figure if they’re missing that. If you put your energy into that rather than into trying to change your parents, you’ll probably get way more return on your investment.

        2. I don’t want to cut my family out of my life either, because I do know that my parents love me so goddamn much and really, really wanted to be good parents. And they still want to be.

          I see it as being like any other unrequited love situation. Person A may pine for person B in a way that’s sincerely felt, but if person B does not respond (or does not respond in the way that A wants them to), then A needs to readjust A’s expectations and/or move on. My own mother was the “But I love you so much!” type, which made me blind to her abusive tactics for most of my life. I don’t think she was being deliberately manipulative — for all her other flaws, she was constitutionally incapable of lying — but her “love” was smothering and damaging in ways that I am only now, in middle age, starting to understand. Her “love” had NO ROOM FOR ME IN IT. When the things I wanted conflicted with her “love”, she believed that her desires on my behalf trumped all (and she made me believe that too, for decades).

          Look at this way: When a stalker goes to a celebrity’s house and sits on her couch with a bouquet of flowers and a proposition of marriage, do we tell the celebrity “aww, that’s so sweet, maybe you should consider saying yes”? No. We call the cops on line one and the psychiatrist on line two. Love that’s deeply felt is not an ideal in and of itself. Sadly, this is not a lesson that’s taken very seriously in popular culture, which teaches people (especially men) that you have to chase after the one you love until she finally relents and loves you back. In the movies, she always does, which makes me angry beyond reckoning, but that’s a rant for another day.

          Anyway, I hope your relationship with your parents finds growth and healing. But if it doesn’t, that’s OK too, and it’s not your fault.

  16. Having a mother pretty much exactly like that, I second all the Captain’s analysis and advice. And the analysis of the father is also spot on. One of the things to realize about people like the mother is that they behave in these ways to intimidate others and make them afraid to enforce their own boundaries. Any husband who has willingly spent decades living with such a wife/mother has almost certainly made the decision to attempt to enforce their own boundaries only indirectly, and *never* by asserting that there are any limits to the wife/mother’s behavior whatsoever, no matter how extreme and egregious it becomes. Rather, the husband attempts to placate the wife/mother as much as possible (which obviously just reinforces her outrageous behavior) and to redirect her wrath towards others. As the Captain points out, when the LW withdraws, her father will surely become the secondary target of a huge shittestorm, and there it is nearly certain that the father will attempt to cajole the LW into placating her mother. This must be resisted.

    As far as suggestions, the only way to influence such a person’s behavior is by strictly and implacably punishing her when she behaves inappropriately. This means that when she says or does something outrageous, you immediately say, “I do not allow anyone to talk/act like that to me. I am hanging up/leaving now.” And then you leave/hang up immediately, and don’t reinitiate any contact for a good while. They need to learn that their punishment for behaving like a fucken asshole is to immediately lose contact/access, and their reward for behaving decently is continued contact/access. These people also are so grotesquely judgmental of others–obviously, as a defense mechanism from judging themselves–that the content of interaction has to always be things you don’t really give a shitte about.

    Finally, I am very proud to have one of my strategies suggested by the Captain in the post! W00T!!!!

  17. This is very familiar to me. After a lifetime of the silent treatment paired with overbearing lectures (sometimes repeated immediately for some reason) and absolutely extraordinary demands to demonstrate loyalty, I finally really pushed back with my mother and called her bluff and now we don’t talk. At all. Ever. Since early 2006. This is heartbreaking in a way because she’s my mother, but it has honestly been the most liberating thing I have ever done. I just hate that it took me until my mid-thirties to do it.

    Truly the worst part of it has been working with my father to get him out of the middle and help him understand that he can’t fix this and he can’t be a go-between. She demanded that he shun me as well and when that didn’t work, she tried to use him to get messages to me and find out things about me, which he dutifully shared thinking that it would somehow help because this would soon blow over. I managed to get that stopped a few years ago and it’s been better for everyone. Well, for me and my father certainly.

    In these intervening years, when I go home, I stay with another relative who lives a couple of miles away (and I used to stay with her anyway because it was just fun, so this hasn’t been a weird, obvious, abrupt change) and I hang out with my father when he has time, which he makes for me. Mom is neither seen nor heard. I don’t go into their house. It’s weird, but it is also not my problem. I’m not going to walk on eggshells and I’m not going to spend my entire life trying to chase down whatever identity she wants me to have from one minute to the next. I’m not the daughter she wanted (apparently) but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.

    The point to all of this is that I understand in my own way what you’re going through, LW, and I sympathize so much.

  18. Just chipping in my story about some emotional abuse my family engages in sometimes, and how I put a stop to it by setting firm boundaries.

    My family isn’t the worst family, by far. But once in a while, ragey screaming fights will erupt out of a “debate” that gets out of hand. There are many older family members who think they know Better Than You, and you will listen to them, dammit! And when they run out of real arguments, the personal insults come out and they twist the knife. Their ultimate goal, aside from making you feel like shit, is to get you to cry or scream back. By doing either, they have “gotten” to you, and thus have won.

    Once I was out on my own, I started setting boundaries with the worst offenders: my father and his mother. Dealing with Grandma was easy. Every time I sensed things getting out of hand, I announced I had to go. Weirdly enough, she immediately switched gears back to pleasant, kissed me goodbye and wished me well. I think because they don’t see us grandkids too often, it is good leverage for us to use to keep any abuse in check. If she wants visits, she’ll behave. It also helped me to realize that, in her case, her terrible behavior was something she was barely conscious of. It just is how she is.

    My dad was a tougher nut to crack. It took a couple bad fights where he wouldn’t give up trying to hurt me, even as I was leaving. When I was his captive minor child, he would never apologize for his rages afterwards, because where was I gonna go? What was I gonna do about it? But now that I am out, he has no real power over me. The last fight that happened, he actually apologized and took responsibility. (Now, I understand that this may never happen with some parents, and I was NOT expecting it. I don’t think anyone should, honestly, because it becomes that fantasy dangling carrot of approval that you never quite reach.)

    I told him if that ever happened again, he’d see much less of me. So far, things have been fine. We are closer now than we’ve ever been growing up. I’ve looked him square in the eye and told him in words that would’ve made my younger self CRINGE, that I would not tolerate abuse. And the dad from my younger days would have definitely gone off in a rage if I ever DARED to call him abusive. But things are very different now.

    I set the pace, I allow the contact. I have a son, now, so that’s even more incentive to keep bullshit OUT of my life. Good luck to the LW and everyone in this situation!

    1. That gear switch. Isn’t it weird? I would be cowering and scared and all of a sudden everything was pleasant again and I’d go ‘huh’? and be feeling dizzy.

      What it did do is make me realize that where there is a switch, there is control, and that going into an angry rage is not losing control, but is the result of a conscious decision to release your anger onto the world.

  19. I know this doesn’t go straight to the heart of things, but it makes me wonder…

    I’ve been reading Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That”, and there’s a section on abusive people (men, in that case, but it’s generalizable) in the family. One of the things they do is manipulate the family so the other parent loses their parental authority. The other parent can’t win; they’re blamed if they stand up to the abuser for setting them off; they’re blamed for not standing up to the abuser because they’re not protecting the kids. Also, being abused totally undermines a person’s sense of confidence and competence, making it even harder to be a successful parent.

    LW, your relationship with your dad is probably a pretty low priority in this particular constellation, I think, since it’s far more important to get yourself to a safe place. But if your mother was abusive to him as well as to you, it might help you see him more clearly.

    I am imagining, and it is just my imagination and I can easily be completely wrong here, that your mom set herself up as the sole expert for dealing with your various difficulties, as well as for what kind of a child or person you should be. If so, your dad might have learned early on that trying to disagree with her about how to raise you was not worth the fight or the silence.

    It’s no excuse. Sadly, it just makes it more true that you can’t look to him to be your ally.

    1. Just writing in to say that that is one of my Favorit-est Books EVER.

      It’s geared toward adult survivors of domestic abuse, and that’s what initially prompted me to read it, but sooooo many pieces also fell into place for me as a survivor of child abuse when I read it.

      1. Agreed. That book really helped me to identify WTF had been going on in my household, and I realised that actually, I WAS NOT TO BLAME FOR THE ABUSES MY FATHER ORCHESTRATED. It was very liberating.

  20. Sound of Silence, I’m so sorry you went through – are still going through – that sort of treatment. It sucks. It really does. Dealing with it – in your continuing dealings with her, in your work with your therapist – is not going to be easy. But Captain Awkward has given you some fantastic advice here!

    I also grew up with an emotionally abusive mother and a passive father. My mother took a slightly different tact. Sometimes she’d pull the silent treatment, but more often she’d tell me – and anyone else (extended family, family friends, *my* friends) who would listen to her – just what a horrible/awful/ungrateful/crazy person I am. When I’d try to turn to my dad for support, he’d take her side; at most he’d say “you’re both being stubborn”. She tried to turn my sister against me, too (that didn’t work, thankfully). I was alone for a long time.

    I then proceeded to spend my 20s and most of my 30s doing everything I could to gain her approval. But, like the Cap’n warned, with mothers like this nothing is ever enough – getting a good job, getting married, getting a PhD. She might congratulate me when other people were around, to put on a show of being a “good mother”, then insult me again the first chance she got. So I advise you – don’t go down that path. Don’t try. You might as well bang your head against a wall for 15 years.

    The path I’ve taken in the last couple years is pretty much that outlined by the Captain above. I gave up on her – and the rest of the extended family she’d badmouthed me to my whole life. I realized I was never going to get the support I wanted/needed from her. That was hard to do, but once I processed that, it makes being around her So Much Easier! I also came to the realization that I Don’t Have To Stay And Listen! What a revelation!!! When she starts pulling the silent treatment – or, in my case, starts insulting me / picking a fight – just get up and leave the room. It shuts her down right away!

    Which is another thing that the Captain has recommended elsewhere, and sort of recommended here, but that I want to explicitly recommend here: “train” her. When she behaves, talk to her, be friendly and upbeat. When she treats you bad, walk out. Show her that you won’t take that treatment anymore. She’ll learn pretty quick. But don’t give her too much personal information – like the Captain said, she’s not safe.

    You might also try talking with your dad about this. Be prepared that he might end up defending your mother – it’s pretty common for spouses and siblings in families like this to side with the abuser. But I lucked out in that I’ve been able to maintain a good relationship with my sister. She’s been able to navigate having close, but separate, relationships with both me and our mother; I do everything I can to keep her out of the middle.

    Hang in there, and know that it’s not you, and you’re not alone!

  21. This letter and it’s responses really resonate with me. My mom used to give me and my sister the silent treatment too. She could fill a room with silent anger like no one I have ever known. It was palpable – you could cut the resentment with a knife. And sadly, I learned that tactic from her and its been a long process of recognizing that I do that too, and not doing it anymore. It is completely manipulative and no way to treat a person you love.

    I cut my mother completely out of my life from the ages of 18-23. I saw her two times in the months before she killed herself when I was 24. I got a chance to tell her that I loved her, and I forgave her.

    Right after her death I felt terrible for those years I had spent refusing calls and all contact. But its self-preservation; it was the right choice at the time. I needed to get my head straight, needed some distance and time to learn how relationships can work without all the bullshit I probably would not have been able to get to the point where I was capable of forgiving her if it wasn’t for that time apart. Its so, so hard, but really worth it, in my experience.

    Best of luck to the LW and anyone else facing this difficult situation.

  22. This hit home for me quite heavily. My mother used to do this to me. The main problem was that she was my sole parent, and she would stop speaking to me until I guessed how I had offended her. Sometimes, it was nothing I could help. The worst occasion was when she did not speak to me for six weeks, and that was over something I couldn’t help at all (menarche). I hated her silence more than her rage, because at least I could work out what her rage was about.

    When I met my husband and moved away, in order to continue her anger over a perceived slight at the time I left, she would telephone me and sit silently on the end of the phone, until I had my telephone provider find out who was giving me the terrifying silent calls.

    I have no coping mechanisms or solutions to offer. I no longer speak to my mother. I neither need nor want her approval of my life as I have realised I will never, ever get it. I have not lived my life the way she wanted to, but rather on my own terms, and she can’t forgive that.

    I’m sorry. I am aware this is no comfort at all.

    1. That phone bit is straight up horrifying.

      It sounds like it’s still hard but I’m so glad you got away. It sounds bleak but, comfort-wise, at the very least, it is testiment to the fact that you can. You CAN escape people like that. And your life is better for it.

  23. I’m going to nth the “I can so very much relate to this” comments, because although my father didn’t really employ the silent treatment so much, he had terrible, unpredictable bouts of rage during which he could say any horrible, hateful thing he felt like in the moment and as soon as his rage was over, everyone around him was expected to forget everything he said. Yet somehow, he simultaneously held the belief that anything *he* perceived as a slight against himself was a path to eternal grudge-holding and writing off. To say that we all walked on eggshells in my house would be an understatement. My mother and I have talked extensively about this, and how liberating the idea of “It’s him, not me” can be. Of course, true liberation didn’t happen until I moved out and never again had to truly worry about feeling trapped and panicked in my own space. My first apartment On My Own was truly a revelation, one I savored and protected probably far too long. I’m only now, 15 years later, getting to a point where I feel like I might actually want to share that space with someone else.

    I wish I had more advice instead of just commiseration. Good luck to you, LW.

  24. My mom used to do the silent-treatment thing when she got mad, too. It was her preferred method of punishment, really.

    My feedback:

    Keep in mind that your mom probably has/has had her own problems in life that have made it difficult for her to respond any other way and still feel safe. She may go silent when she gets upset because she either doesn’t know what to do with her feelings, or doesn’t want to hurt you by lashing out. She also may or may not realize that this is what she is doing.

    In my house, for example my mom’s arguments with my dad often resulted in her screaming while he remained (outwardly) calm. When the argument was with me, however, and she was really upset, there would be no screaming—just silence.

    So, my perspective is that, although she doesn’t realize she has been doing the opposite, she may feel she is protecting you by giving you the silent treatment.

    If you are still living at home, and can afford to move out and find your own place, move out and find your own place. A long-established dynamic can be difficult or impossible to change as long as you remain part of it. By getting a place of your own, you can separate yourself from the immediate situation, giving you the time and space you need to gain some perspective.

    As has been mentioned above, your relationship with your mother will probably never be 100% “normal”—whatever that is. With time and some distance, though, chances are things will get better; the two of you will find a way to relate to each other that works for you.

    In the meantime, the only person who can address whatever problems your mother may have is your mother. The best thing you can do for yourself is to focus on you. Continue working with your therapist. As someone else suggested, also talk with your dad; he may be able to provide some perspective that will help you understand your mother better, and perhaps ease some of your anxiety.

  25. One thing that is worth reiterating is that your mother could choose to change her behaviour but doesn’t. My mother was abused by her mother who was abused by her’s in turn. My brother and I never suffered any abuse because she worked hard to keep herself in check. She once told me that my dad was the one in charge of disciplining us because she was afraid she’d start hitting us and wouldn’t stop. One of my strongest memories from my early childhood is of her getting so angry she kicked a cupboard door off it’s hinges. For most of my life that was a mildly amusing anecdote because it seemed so absurd coming from my wonderful, patient mother.

    Your mother is choosing to behave badly. You can’t force her to change her behaviour but you can guide her towards how you want to interact with her by following the Captain’s advice. She may continue to be abusive towards you, she may never change, but if you stick to your boundaries you will always be able to tell yourself that you did your best and that the rest was her choice not to have a better relationship with you.

    I wish you luck.

  26. This letter has kind of hit me in the emotional breadbasket. As I was reading it, I thought (and I’m really, REALLY sorry for this, LW), ‘Well, that’s not that bad: my mother’s done that to me and, to a lesser extent, my sisters for our entire lives. That’s just how she parents. She had a hard time after our father left, and I really brought a lot of it on myself.’

    And then I read the reply and the comments and realised that other people think this shit is NOT okay. My sisters and I have been working around our mother for so long that her screaming abuse, her months-long silences, her refusal to accept apologies for whatever we’d done wrong, her violence, her victim-blaming, her drunken tirades, her badmouthing of me to friends, relations, and complete strangers, has become just as much a part of our relationship as the fact that she loves us. It honestly never occurred to me to frame what she was doing as abusive behaviour; it’s always been a funny anecdote to tell, like ‘Remember when she threw a vase at my head and screamed abuse at me because her teeth hurt?’ or ‘Remember when she forbade me coming out of my bedroom after 11 pm when I was TWENTY-TWO?’

    Having to ‘read’ someone’s every single word and gesture for whatever they aren’t saying to try and head off what is, let’s face it, inevitable controlling behaviour is EXHAUSTING. You deserve a relationship with your mother that doesn’t leave you tired and shaky and second-guessing every breath you’ve ever taken. (And maybe so do I.)

    I truly hope things get better for you, LW, and I hope that there is open, blame-free communication with your mother in your future, and boundaries that are respected, and people that tell you that you are great just the way you are, because YOU ARE. I also hope that, while you work these things through, you have lemon tart and terrible 80s movies and sparkly sneakers and Team You and every good thing to make the process easier.

    Off to think about this a bit more. (And possibly to cry, eat lemon tart, and watch Robocop to make the process easier.)

      1. Hey, I just wanted to thank you for this comment. Today I made an appointment with the college counselling service, and that’s due in large part to you and the other commenters giving me permission to consider that my mother’s awful behaviour was not my fault or my responsibility. I think the real turning point was when I thought ‘I would never behave to anyone the way she did, and sometimes still does, to us,’ and suddenly things seemed a lot clearer, if a lot more heartbreaking.

        Thank you!

        1. Well look at that, Team You, having lightbulb moments, being all proactive and stuff! Go, you!

          *cheers and hugs*

    1. I just want to add that up until about a year ago? I walked around thinking that the things my mother did to me were par for the course as well. Part of the reason I thought that was because I kept surrounding myself with “friends” who mirrored my mother’s behavior and treated me just like she did. (And a first husband who did it to boot!) The other part of the reason is because in my house, my mother was The Perfect Mother and you kept your mouth shut about what happened in that house if you knew what was good for you. No one really knew what was going on, because on the outside, she looked perfect.

      Now that I have finally cut my mother – and my friends that were really standing in as proxies for her – from my life, and now that I have allowed myself to speak about some of the things that went on there, the reactions I get from people have shocked the hell out of me. People are horrified over things that I still – even though I should know better – think belong into the , “Well, it wasn’t all that bad…” category.

      Just as perspective….”normal” people with “normal” childhoods never even have to THINK to themselves that things were really not all that bad. Does that make sense?

      (I cried a lot, too. In fact, I am still crying. But it’s okay, I have a lot of catching up to do.)

      1. Yeah, our house was a house of silence, too. There was Private Business and there was Public Business, and god help you if you told anyone what mom or dad did or said at home. Because we looked like a Perfect Family, and it was Not Anyone’s Business Otherwise. My parents’ divorce was a total shock to everyone they knew, because they were SO PERFECT together, weren’t they? (spoiler: nope.)

        I, um. It took a LONG TIME to realize that not everyone had an automatic firewall between “things that happen at home” and “things I can talk about safely”.

        1. “I, um. It took a LONG TIME to realize that not everyone had an automatic firewall between “things that happen at home” and “things I can talk about safely”.”

          Oh God, THIS. After my parents’ marriage broke down, my mother would literally interrogate me every time I got off the phone from my father’s side of the family about what they’d said and why they’d said it, but more importantly, what had I said to them and why exactly had I told them anything at all? Apparently, telling my grandparents what I thought were the most innocuous details of our life was actually a betrayal of my mother’s trust.She didn’t want me to tell them anything that could give them ‘ammunition’, but the goalposts of what she wanted me not to say were always moving. It was utterly bewildering. I ended up neurotically transcribing entire phone conversations as they happened so I wouldn’t forget anything. It was basically the Kobayashi Maru: Children’s Edition. Ages 7 and FOREVER.

    2. Shevek,

      A couple of commenters have alluded to “the missing stair” but I don’t think anyone’s linked to it in this thread, so I will take the liberty of doing so. It’s a metaphor that Holly at the Pervocracy blog came up with to describe people who develop survival mechanisms to “work around” abusers in their midst. You know how everyone in an old house finds themselves jumping over the broken stair until it becomes second nature? Holly’s point is that there’s a point we can say, “you know, I’m not going to work around this any more, I’m going to cut this hateful, damaging person out of my life.”

      (Trigger warning for frank rape discussion)

      Holly is writing about a very different situation from yours, but I think the metaphor really fits what you’re saying too. When you talk about how you’ve sort of folded your mother’s behaviour into your day-to-day life, I imagined you swerving to avoid the missing stair.

      I’m so sorry this happened to you. The fact that your mom treated you like that is not cool, because you are a human being worthy of dignity and love. hope you find peace (and Robocop) soon.

        1. It USED to be Holly, so if the commenter hasn’t read it in a while or is linking to old material, it’s not a crazy assumption, but thanks for the correction.

        2. Eeep, apologies! Though I always try to keep up with Pervocracy, I often miss posts and almost never click through to comments, so I didn’t actually know about the name change. I now see the error of my ways, and thank you for the correction.

      1. Thank you for the link! I’d actually read it before but I’d never thought to apply it to my relationship with my mother. I know that sounds ridiculous, given all the strenuous ‘jumping’ my sisters and I have had to do over the years, but our mother kept the extremes of her behaviour behind closed doors. Even when she was denigrating me in public, she always framed it another way: as a reminiscence, or a funny story, or her way of making me a better person. So no-one else, not even close family members, knows how she behaves, and me and my sisters became secret-keepers of her behaviour and normalised it between ourselves. It’s been so long since anyone but us acknowledged it as a problem that this entire thread has pretty much re-visioned my childhood and adolescence for me.

        I really just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to comment and give a complete stranger your support. I appreciate it more than you can know. Earlier today I made an appointment with my college counselling service to try and talk some this stuff through, so perhaps I can find some peace there.Thanks again.

        PS. I did find Robocop! It was remarkably cathartic, as films about vengeance-driven cyborgs often are.

        1. Even when she was denigrating me in public, she always framed it another way: as a reminiscence, or a funny story, or her way of making me a better person.

          Oh God, I know ALL ABOUT using “funny stories” as a way to quietly tear a kid down. My mother did this all my life, even when I was very small; eventually I developed the super-healthy and well-adjusted response (ha) of doing it right back to her, which means that we were constantly sniping at each other with smiles on our faces at parties and in checkout lines and basically everywhere. I can’t imagine how miserable and uncomfortable we made everyone around us. It’s a habit I worked very hard to unlearn over the course of years, but she never even tried to do that, which is one of the many reasons I stopped speaking to her.

          (Don’t be so sure that people didn’t notice, by the way — like a lot of abusive behaviour, it can fly under outsiders’ radar, but people’s Gift Of Fear is often tripped by cruel humour and the more observant of them may have noticed something was very wrong. These people, if you can find them, are good recruits for Team You.)

          I don’t know if the pride of an internet stranger will mean anything to you, but I am SO PROUD of you for taking a step toward counselling and healing. Now that you’ve watched Robocop, you’re already halfway there, amirite! All strength to you as you go forward.

        2. Good work on seeking counseling, and good luck to you in starting the school year off right. Part of the learning you do in school is learning how to take care of all aspects of your life, so this is just as important as your classes.

        3. I realized this week that there is a whole range of activities (bike riding, swimming, inviting them into my house) that I totally brace myself for before I do them with my family, because they WILL be critical. Not like horrible mean ranting, just unable to start with something nice. Like my mom and brother both felt the need to tell my 7 year old his haircut is lopsided. It is, but amazingly NOBODY ELSE HAS MENTIONED IT except his dad, who only mentioned it to me, in private.

          I realized it because a very slight acquaintance met me on the bike trail and rode with me to chat this week, and did not complain I was slow or take off and leave me behind or criticize my riding or tell me my bike is wrong or in any other way neg me. That is, people I barely know routinely are nicer to me than my family is.

          I am not stressed out by my family because I am overly emotional or bad at maintaining my boundaries. I am stressed out because they say mean things to me and ignore the boundaries I try to set.

          1. Yeah, the last time I went to a family holiday gathering, I watched the temperature drop noticeably when my dad arrived and immediately start criticizing everyone, especially about their appearances, as his idea of humor. He also usually tries to put me in my place when I visit, commenting on my weight, my hair, my general appearance, etc, and sometimes demanding that I serve him food. When I was in chemo, he was really bothered by my going out in public bald. Last time I visited, he commented on my pot belly, and I pointed out that I no longer had breasts to counterbalance my belly and push out the fabric so that it didn’t cling further down. Mentioning my breasts made him pretty uncomfortable, so I guess I’ll see what he does next time. I don’t really care what he thinks, so I haven’t put much effort into trying to address it.

            I’ve mostly come to terms with my self image problems. And I am trying to get a handle on my own tendency to focus on the negative and blurt out critical comments. On the other hand, I also blurt out plenty of compliments too. Or innuendos and inappropriate observations. It’s a work in progress to be more thoughtful.

          2. My first thought was he complained about your baldness during CHEMO??!!

            But it just shows how much easier it is to think protective things about other people than ourselves. Of course I can see how that’s blatantly awful, because it was happening to you.

    3. You definitely deserve not to have interactions that leave you exhausted and shaking and undermined.

      1. Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for your comment. Now that I live hours away from my mother, it’s a lot easier to manage those interactions, but there are still times, during the holidays, when I have to go and sit in a quiet room until I actually feel like myself and not the caricature she’s constructed of me. I’ve taken on-board the encouraging words that you and other commenters have given me, and made an appointment with the college counselling service. Thank you!

  27. “Abuse victims are not obligated to act as their abuser’s therapist and help make up for past suffering ”

    This ^^^^^ bears repeating over and over.

    1. And lemmie add that it doesn’t just apply to abusers and victims. Even for those of us who don’t tend to put up with crap from people, the desire to understand and be compassionate about the sources of crappy behavior can all too easily lead to putting our own safety/self interest/peace of mind etc aside to help “make things better” for people who should be doing it for themselves instead of inflicting their sad story on us. Compassion and patience is great, but not when it comes at our own expense; women in particular are most prone to this, I think, which leads them to more often fall into the victim role.

      1. As a woman who is only recently out of a long term relationship with an abusive spouse I agree with you. I kept loving him, I kept trying to help even after I told him I wanted a divorce. I kept saying to myself, he’s an alcoholic, he’s mentally ill, give him time. In the end it took a gun in my face to convince me that I could not help and I could not have this person in my life because reason; death of me.

  28. LW, asking the same question as the Captain – do you live at home? If you do, can you afford to move out? If so, I would say do so. And if you already live somewhere else, I would say – cut her off. Does she actually bring any pleasure or support to your life? It doesn’t sound like it from your letter. Blood relationship isn’t a good enough reason to keep a toxic or abusive person in your life, or to feel guilty about getting away from them. I haven’t spoken to my father in twenty years or my brother in thirty, and everything I hear about them from my sister says they are not people I’d ever choose as friends. Is your mother someone you would choose to have in your life, given her behaviour, if she wasn’t your parent? It certainly doesn’t sound like it. She has no automatic right to your company, or if she did, she’s thrown it away with her abuse.

    1. I live at home right now, but that’s ending this Saturday; I’m moving back into residence, where I’ve lived for the past two years at school. I just happen to be home for the summer at the moment.

      The thing is, I do feel bad for making it seem like she’s like this all the time. She’s not. When she’s not like this, she can be funny, helpful, supportive- everything you’d want in a mom. But it’s like sometimes she turns into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mom, and I don’t know how to flip the switch back. It happens a lot, lot less when I’m away at school, though there have been some memorable lapses (calling me up to tell me my grades were awful and not understanding when I called her back sobbing hysterically a few minutes later.)

      1. Babe, you don’t have to be responsible for finding that switch. You don’t need to defend her, or apologise for her, or down-play the behaviours she exhibits that hurt you.

        This reaction is normal (and partly because your own sneaky self-sabotaging mind is saying, Well, it never used to be a problem, did it? If it was, why are you only now speaking up? It’s a fear of being victim-blamed that women in particular suffer from, in our society) but it doesn’t make excuses for her. It’s not a case of scoring points for “good” and “bad” and the good ones cancelling out the bad ones. The good parts do not neutralise the bad parts…they amplify them.

      2. The thing is, I do feel bad for making it seem like she’s like this all the time. She’s not.

        That’s in between the lines of your letter, though. If she were horrible all the time, your response to the silent treatment would be, “FREEEEDOOOOM!” but it’s pretty evident, instead, that you want and miss the person she is when she’s talking to you.

        Her bad behaviour doesn’t take away the good times, but it’s not separate from them either. It’s not like you could just get her to cut out this bad habit and flip the “Good Mom” switch back on. Her good times and bad times are all part of an integrated whole of How She Deals With Things. So getting her to break the cycle is a bit of a long shot; she won’t change easily. The power’s mostly in your hands.

      3. It happens a lot, lot less when I’m away at school,

        I think that might be because when you’re not living with her, you’re out of her direct sphere of control.

        In retrospect, the only thing that saved me from the emotional manipulation, temper and constant boundary pushing of my father was being as independent from him as I could be in every respect: financially, emotionally, even socially. He’d use whatever he could to make me compliant when he had something to hold over my head – be it money or love (“but I’m your father! Why do you say no to [whatever he wanted at the time]? Don’t you love me?”). I cut all financial ties to him as soon as I could. I also learned to make it clear for myself that saying ‘no’ to him had nothing to do with my love for him, as he would imply whenever he could.

        Our relationship improved mightely (there were other factors, but this was an important one). The only setback it’s had in the past years was when he offered to help me with something big and I accepted. Soon, we were in the old, ‘yes, I know I promised this but you can’t put pressure on me to do what I’ve committed myself to because you’re my daughter and not my boss’ funk with quite a bit of ‘you have to do this because didn’t I do that for you?’ and mighty sulking and it was only then that I remembered what it used to be like being dependent on him.

        I love my dad, as you love your mother – he can be lovely and supportive and helpful, too, and he’s genuinely nice. I’m still scared when I need to say no to him or ask him to back off, but I have more means to resist his manipulations (also important was the realization that he’s hankering for my attention as much as I used to do for his love and approval, and he seems to have realized that employing any of his old tactics will jeopardize that). Distance and my independence were the only things that allowed us to have a relationship that, for me, is actually functional.

      4. Also, as someone else has said: that is not your switch to flip. It’s in her hands, not yours, and she’s hiding it from you.

        I’m sorry.

      5. If your mom made you wholesome, yummy meals with home-made chocolate chip cookies for dessert 350 days a year, and fed you dog food laced with just-barely-nonlethal poison the other 15 days, you’d still have a right to complain about the 15 days, right?

        Anyway, I have no first hand experience with this form of abuse (thank god), but one thing I noticed is that Captain Awkward didn’t say anything about calling your mom on her shit, at least once. As in, “Ah. The Silent Treatment again. Lovely. Just so you know, mom, I’m done responding to this. If you want to have a constructive, mutually respectful conversation about something, leave me a message at this number. I might even call you back. But I’m not going to beg for your attention and approval anymore — especially not when you’re doing this crap.”

        Bad idea, people who have experience with this? It’s not like I imagine this one magic conversation is going to fix her mom… just more like a way of announcing regime change, so to speak. Drawing a before-after line, that coincides with her return to school this fall. Helping shore up her determination not to put up with it ever again, to be true to her own declaration of independence. And when her mom gives her more crap on the phone, she can say “I said constructive and mutually respectful. This doesn’t qualify. Try again another day.”

        1. My mother also did the Silent Treatment, and I did push back once when I was under her control. She then cut off my college tuition entirely, making the call as I screamed and sobbed.

          I would say that if LW’s mom has any financial control over her college education that perhaps fighting back is not the best, because at least in my experience, my mom used the silent treatment as a way to control me. When I demonstrated that that was not going to work, she had to find other ways to control me.

          1. Eek. I should’ve known, I guess. And maybe I suspected; that’s why I phrased it as a question to the commentariat. I just don’t get the kind of fucked-up that legitimizes sabotaging your own children!!!

        2. (Lurker coming out here) I did this with an ex-boss who was also a dear, dear friend. Or so I thought. Our relationship had developed into one where, as with the LW, every so often she would become silently disapproving. When I asked (pleaded, begged and cried) for her to tell me what I had done wrong (because it never entered my mind it wasn’t my fault) she would icily inform me “you know what the issue is”. I’d beg and plead with her that I did *not* know, etc. until, after a undetermined amount of time, I would be forgiven.
          One day, I went into her office to say good morning and got the icy stare. I sat down in the chair across from her desk and asked her what was wrong. She gave me the standard answer and something in my head just said “no.” I got up, told her I didn’t know what was wrong and when she was ready to talk about it she should let me know AND WALKED OUT OF THE OFFICE.
          I continued to work with her for 3 more years, and she never again spoke a word to me that was not strictly work related and necessary. To this day, I have no idea why I chose to do that, or what it was that made my head decide “we aren’t playing this game anymore”, but I am beyond grateful that it happened.

        3. “Ah. The Silent Treatment again. Lovely. Just so you know, mom, I’m done responding to this. If you want to have a constructive, mutually respectful conversation about something, leave me a message at this number. I might even call you back. But I’m not going to beg for your attention and approval anymore — especially not when you’re doing this crap.”

          Oh, no no no. If LW’s mom is anything like mine – no way! Doing so is just asking for World War III to start. At the very least, there will be a torrent of abuse the likes of which you’ve never seen before (been there, done that). At the worst, you could get disowned, as Celeloriel describes below. It’s much safer to just walk away and leave her to sulk on her own.

          (as an aside, it’s becoming clearer to me why I disagreed with you and others in the Overtalker thread, preferring to address my Borderline-Creepy Overtalker’s actions obliquely rather than directly. I’ve made a lot of progress in responding directly to most people, but my default setting is still Do Not Confront when dealing with anyone who is older and/or holds any real or potential power over me / my life / my career).

        4. That probably works in situations that aren’t as severe, but in others it’ll lead to immediate, severe escalation.

          The whole thing’s a lot like not-so-covert warfare. The abusive one wants to control the victim. If the victim fights back (by saying ‘no’), the abusive one will escalate, or pull out another weapon, or something, in order to beat the victim back down. The only way the victim can win is by facing the worst the abuser can throw at them and still deciding to choose that over surrendering and taking the abuse. As Celeloriel said, financial support is a big damn weapon in this kind of war. So is physical abuse. So is calling the police with false reports. So is harming pets. And they’ll usually call it ‘love’ the whole time.

          This is why “just call the police” is usually not helpful in domestic violence cases. Sometimes the only way to win is to GTFO. Anything less than making yourself permanently physically unavailable will just lead to escalated abuse. And sometimes victims aren’t ready to commit to GTFO yet, or aren’t physically/financially able to. Then just keeping your head down may be the best tactic at the moment.

          This probably does work well when you’re out of the house and no longer dependent on parents in any way. Then the worst they can do is try to guilt trip you, and hey, you can hang up on them! You win. Not without cost, but once you’ve extricated yourself from that person’s control, the war’s over and you win.

      6. Nobody’s like that all the time, they’d collapse of exhaustion.

        Also: it’s not your problem. You can decide to try mom-management techniques (like Physioproff’s, which I hear works great.) but you don’t have to if it doesn’t serve you.

        My partner’s mom is bipolar, and was untreated for most of his childhood. He has some EPIC stories that he used to think were funny til he told them to too many people who went “Whoah, that is not OK.” Now she’s been in treatment for a long time and that shit does not happen anymore. But if she were still refusing to do anything about it, even her Totally Legitimate Mental Illness wouldn’t mean we should put up with that treatment. (We are understanding of occasional lapses, because we know she’s addressing med changes/health issues/whatever. But even that understanding is offered from a protective distance.)

      7. LW, it’s not your fault and you can’t fix her. If she is going to change her unhealthy patterns of behavior, she has to become aware of the problems herself, and fix them herself.

        I think that most everyone here totally understands that your mom isn’t like this all the time. If she was, well, we’d be lining up a rescue squadron. Even the best of parents may sometimes do things that are Not Okay, because they are stressed, or hurt, or scared, or in crisis, or because they’re human beings, but it still doesn’t make those things okay just because they seem to have a good excuse and they’re great parents the rest of the year. Not Okay things are Not Okay at any time, from anyone. What your mom’s doing sounds like a really bad set of habits, habits she’s used to because they work, or because it feels safe to her, or because that’s what she grew up with so she thinks it’s normal. She may be aware of what she’s doing and not know how to stop herself, she may not be aware of it at all. Whatever the reasons, however often it happens, it’s still Not Okay, and the reason it is not okay is simple: it’s hurting you, and it’s hurting your relationship.

        Setting and enforcing boundaries with someone you love, that doesn’t mean you do not love them. It means you will not enable them to try and use that love to hurt you. However infrequently. It means you prioritize your own safety and health by putting the oxygen mask on your face first. She may never want her own oxygen mask, she may not ever recognise the need for it, but you do, so go ahead and keep wearing yours.

      8. “The thing is, I do feel bad for making it seem like she’s like this all the time. She’s not. When she’s not like this, she can be funny, helpful, supportive- everything you’d want in a mom. But it’s like sometimes she turns into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mom, and I don’t know how to flip the switch back.

        I still feel bad for talking about my mom as if she were abusive. Such an ugly word, how can I apply that to people I KNOW love me?

        But that is the utterly shattering thing that I have finally learned–people can love you so much, have good intentions much of the time… and still hurt you more than any stranger ever could.

        My first therapist spent more than 6 months struggling to convince me that my relationship with my parents was Not Okay and was causing much of my severe anxiety and aggravating my depression. See, in my opinion, my problems were all my own. At worst, my parents had MAYBE mishandled my leaving the house/growing up a little bit, but that wasn’t enough to explain my issues. I didn’t want to be pathetic, laying on a shrink’s couch blaming all my problems on my Mommy issues.


  29. Wow. I found this website about a week or two ago & have been having a grand time going through the archives. I was planning to write a letter very similar to this one some day, so this is wonderful timing. Thank you for all the good advice. It’s just so nice to hear that you’re not the only one with an Evil Queen Bee (love that) for a parent. I’ve been getting the “That’s So Tragic!” talk my whole life & I’m sick of it, so it’s beautiful & liberating to feel that if my mom doesn’t want to have a grown up relationship with me, it’s not my fault.

    This is an excellent website. That is all.

  30. What the Captain says about Dad re-emerging on your Mum’s side is really important. I have a very similar situation with my mother which I’ve had some success resolving using very similar techniques described above. I cut her off for about a year at one point, because she said something so evil to me I actually felt spiteful enough to retaliate. I did feel for my Dad, because they live in a very isolated place and it’s just the two of them for miles…and miles…and miles…….

    He did take her side, albeit very weakly and very half-heartedly. I like to think he saw my side of the story and agreed with me, but paid lip service to her side out of increased suffering on his part. I still remember the sound of his voice when he told me he thought I was being unfair – I truly have never heard anyone sound like “the words turned to ashes in their mouth” until then. When I responded with equanimity and reason, and explained my feelings succinctly, he backed off.

    Good luck, LW. There are so many of us in the same boat. It’s a big boat, though, so we have to try hard to make sure we hold each other’s hands when we need it.

  31. Wow. Ok, I am definitely going to read through ALL OF THESE COMMENTS at a later date, but this letter and the response really hit home for me — even though my parents’ controlling behavior was heavy on the Unspoken Expectations and light on the actual Silent Treatment — so I just wanted to chime in on a couple of things.

    I think it’s Comrade Physioproffe, Noted Commenter who never answers calls for certain people – he just calls them back when he feels like it, even if it’s five minutes later because they’ve shown they don’t respect boundaries.

    For some reason I’m having a little trouble parsing this sentence, but I think what you’re describing is, a) Unsafe Person calls; b) Comrade Physioproffe NEVER picks up; c) Comrade Physioproffee calls Unsafe Person if/when he feels like it. If so, I just realized I’ve been casually/accidentally doing that to my parents for about 5 years now. As of today, I’m instituting it as a rule to which I will conscientiously adhere. It ALWAYS stresses me out to have to decide whether to pick up a call from my parents’ number. I might as well just give myself permission not to, and not to have to make that decision in the moment.

    Get ready for your dad to re-emerge. He sounds pretty passive about this whole thing, but if you’re not around so much, he’s going to get the brunt of her disapproval. So get ready for him to pressure you to just do what she wants, you know she loves you, she doesn’t mean to be the way she is, it’s not her fault, you know how she is, why do you have to make things so difficult? I wish I were kidding about this, but I’m not. You’ll expect an ally in him because he’s been where you’ve been with her, but prepare for the possibility that he’ll be her ally in trying to get you to fall into line to get her off his nuts.

    Wow, that’s EXACTLY what happened to me a few years ago, with my dad being the actively controlling parent and my mom being the passive enabler-turned-pressurer. My dad, who has been on my case in one way or another for my entire life, finally did something outrageous enough that I very obviously stopped talking to him. Up to that point, my mom had often acted as a go-between, but usually in my favor: as a child, I often asked her for permission to do things, because she was less intimidating than my father; she would apologize to me for my father being harsh; in many ways she would “soften” my father’s controlling behavior as she handed it down to me and my sister. But all of a sudden it was going the other way. She wanted me to consider his feelings. She encouraged me to “keep trying” to talk to him. It was awful, and finally I stopped talking to her for a while, too.

    My story has a tentatively happy ending in that my mom and I have had more contact, and a higher rate of positive contact, in the last year or so. But I wish I could have known to expect that about-face from her. I’ll be taking a lot of pointers from this post for how to deal with both of my parents going forward. And LW, know that you are not alone. I wish you strength and all the best.

  32. This is the first time I’ve posted here…I’ve been reading through the archives and getting to know everyone. *waves* Hi everyone! But LW, your post was basically the same post I could have written myself about two years ago, so I just really wanted to send you some virtual support.

    I realized in my late 20’s (a couple of years after my father died, which had a lot to do with it) that my mother was not, as they say, a nice person. I worked on putting boundaries in place, much the same way as the Captain suggested: I politely but firmly put down boundaries and stuck to them, and once I moved across the country I no longer had to worry that she’d just show up at my place uninvited. (Something she was fond of doing.) It wasn’t ideal – she really never cared at all about my boundaries and certainly never respected them; however, at least I’d hang up the phone and spare myself hearing her poison, you know?

    After I had children, though, I did let her back into my life because I felt so guilty. (Something which she emphasized by saying things like, “You hold all the reins, here. You have the power to keep my grandchildren away from me. Some people do that, you know, use the children in order to hurt their parents. I’m so glad you aren’t one of those people.”) Long story short, she had not changed a whit, and it only escalated as the children got older and she felt less in control. She became unbearably toxic, and when I tried to put down boundaries she not only did not respect them but went overboard in “proving” to me that I did not call the shots but she did.

    Last year I made the choice to cut her completely out of our lives, and while I absolutely understand and support that this is not the choice for everyone, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, my partner, and our kids. (I also cut all of the “friends” out of my life who I realized were just proxies for her – people whom I had befriended who treated me much the same as she had, allowing me to just stay in that vicious cycle of abuse that I was used to. I had really not done myself any favors with that, let me tell you.)

    I did get some therapy, which helped me immensely. One of the things my therapist told me was that you cannot change others; you can only change yourself. That seems such a simple thing, such a cliché, but I think it is probably one of the truest things I know. I have come to realize that some adult children can re-shape and re-build their relationships with their parents into something worth having; I admire that and support it. However, like they say, it takes two to tango, and my mother refuses to dance with anyone but herself. There’s simply nothing that I can do to change this. All I can do is change myself.

    “I can’t talk to her about this, because whenever I do, she turns it into a conversation about what I’ve done to frustrate or anger her, and I end up defending myself instead of explaining to her that she’s hurt me.”

    I went through 40+ years of this exact.same.thing. I tried so many different approaches in order to get her to hear me. Nothing worked – not trying to phrase it with “I” statements, not getting angry, not trying to placate her, not even trying to set up boundaries. I finally realized that she simply did not CARE about me or my feelings; she only cared about herself. That was a devastating realization, but once I realized it and accepted it, it set me free.

    Best of luck to you, LW, whatever you choose to do. I wish you all of the best.

    1. Harriet Goldhor Lerner’s “The Dance of Anger” discusses this concept–if you’ve been struggling with someone and then step aside, they fall down. They may work really hard to get you to return to the dance so that they don’t have to do the harder work of creating a new response. Don’t get sucked back in; even if your dance partner doesn’t change, at least you’re not trapped in the dance.

  33. I haven’t got any advice for the LW, but I do have my own story. (incidentally, if it’s not cool, Cap, feel free to give this thing the royal chuck)

    My dad was like this when I was a teenager. We have a great relationship now and I’m glad, but at the time we could barely be in the room together without one of us setting off the other. And he would scream and shout and scare the hell out of me and never ever apologize and all that familiar, deeply Not Okay stuff. Then he might drive off in anger and when he got back, he would “give up” on talking to us – and tell me so straight up when I tearfully asked him why he was ignoring me. He’d say “no one here listens, so I’m not trying.” And then he stopped responding to “hello,” refused to use more words than absolutely necessary if he needed to talk, and watched hours of TV with this pointedly-shutting-you-out cloud thundering around him. It would go on for days at a time and I learned to utterly loathe quiet. Even now, years later, I can’t stand to be in a room without my ipod or the radio on in the background. A friend of mine who loves hiking mentioned to me once that she loved the silence of it and I was absolutely dumbfounded.

    I realized that, egad, this wasn’t how other families worked when I was at a friend’s house one day. We were sitting around, reading bits of the paper and listening to CBC Radio One, and I just had to fill this no-talking void. And I kept talking and talking until my friend said mildly, “y’know, quiet isn’t a bad thing.” And I answered with “sorry, it’s just that quiet in my house means someone’s mad at you.” And pow. Suddenly the whole silent treatment thing went from Normal But Awful to Not Frigging Normal But Still Awful. I’d just figured, hey, he wasn’t screaming, so why should I complain?

    It got better when I went to university. He’s since retired from his anxiety-causing job and gone on antidepressants, and I’ve left the country and grown up some. So now it feels like we’re two entirely different people who became buds. We set our boundaries and learned how to treat each other like grownups. We don’t talk about the past, but those silent treatment days still raise this hot, angry lump in my throat.

    1. Delurking to say: when I read this, I had to double check to see if I hadn’t posted it myself (and perhaps from the future as well, seeing how I’m still stuck with him until this summer). I know your situation’s still not optimal, but reading how it’s changed (even just a bit) for the better gives me such hope. Thank you.

      And LW, my heart just goes out to you. I don’t have any new advice that the Army hasn’t already said, but I’m sending limitless jedi hugs your way!

  34. Another story being dropped in here. It’s weird because I’d almost forgotten it even though it’s not ancient history. I’m in my early 20s now. When I was sixteen, my mother stopped talking to me for eight months. She spoke to everyone else just the same, spoke to them on the phone etc etc, but she didn’t contact me at all. My birthday came around, and my dad took me out to buy me things, but she didn’t even give me a birthday card. I’d hurt her at the time, I was a bratty teenager (I know that now) and I’d written in a blog that I hated her, a blog that through a chain of events she ended up reading, but the overreaction was so extreme and so severe that the marks of it exist to this day.

    We were living apart at that point for school reasons so it was not as difficult as if I’d been in the same house, but the pain of listening to my dad and her talk happily on the phone, and then her putting it down without asking a word about me still lingers. To this day I feel myself tensing if I’m in the same room as her and it’s silent. I need to fill that gap, to chatter aimlessly. An ex-boyfriend once commented that I spoke to my mother really oddly, always qualifying my statements with ‘don’t you think’ etc, and that stems from needing to justify myself always.

    The worst of it is that she doesn’t remember. I brought it up with her once (our relationship is much better now, though still incredibly fraught on some issues.) and she had no memory of not speaking to me for those months, of ignoring me and acting as though I didn’t exist (the last words she’d said to me before the silence began, were to call me an ungrateful little bitch.)

    I’d actually forgotten it had happened myself until I read this letter. The Captain’s advice is excellent and it’s given me a lot to think about. Unfortunately thanks to the recession I’m financially dependent on my family, so it’s not something I could bring up with her right now, since I know what her response would be. Rage, then silence.

    1. I wouldn’t be so quick to buy into “I don’t remember…”

      My mother has conveniently “not remembered” an incident where she broke a wooden handled spatula over my backside (I believe it was already cracked). I remember it clearly because she informed me that she was going to go buy another spatula. She then got into the car and drove around the block to calm down. I spent those ten minutes terrified of the new spatula.

      1. My mother has also conveniently “not remembered” throwing a hairbrush at me while I was on crutches, telling me my car crash was all my fault cos I was “speeding” (I wasn’t) refusing to make my dinner when I cam back from the hospital, then later while I was still on crutches ‘forgetting to make me dinner’ while still remembering to make dinner for my dad and my siblings. My response now is: “If you are going to lie and deny these things happened then this conversation is over.”

  35. LW, I’m leaving a late comment-that’s-really-an-essay. CA, you can decide whether too long or insufficiently on topic, or maybe this has been covered elsewhere– no offense taken. 🙂

    Very first of all, I don’t know how you’re going to move forward. That is up to you. But if you do go the getting distance route, even if it’s just short term while your relationship reconfigures, I have some thoughts that might be helpful. Team You is super important and that’s been covered quite a bit. I want to add suggestions for being around people who are not on Team You, especially since you’ve mentioned that you’re at school because that’s when I could have used some ideas about this. Sooner or later someone will ask you something that assumes that you have a standard family with accompanying standard relationships. I’ve had it happen to me in interviews, casual conversations at church or at school, work. People don’t mean harm, but there are only so many things to make small talk about, so there it is.

    Biggest and first point: you do not have to volunteer information, or explain yourself to anyone. Really. I spent months that turned into years telling people like it was some sort of Thing I had to confess and then convince them to like me anyway– you don’t have to do that. Here are some alternatives that are working well for me.

    98% of the time, if the mother issue comes up, I make a very brief response and deflect or sidle into a different topic. “What does your mom do?” “Oh, she’s retired. Say, you mentioned X earlier…” “Seeing your folks for the holiday?” “I think I might spend it with friends this year, actually– tell me about your plans!” If you are like me and not naturally good at topic changes, this is a great opportunity to practice.

    Every now and then, it’s a direct question, or it’s come up more than once. That’s when I break out “My mom and I aren’t really close right now.” Or “My mom isn’t really in the picture right now.” And again, move on. I don’t have to justify or say more than that. People you want to be around will not push. If they do, I keep handy a version of “It’s a difficult situation but I’m just not able to have a close relationship with my mom right now. I’m not offended by your asking but I’m not comfortable discussing the details. Let’s go back to talking about [previous topic].” That is a pretty good brick and will get through to most people.

    And rarely, a kinder version of the brick. This is someone I like, asking directly, and probably seeming a little concerned– say it’s Mother’s Day and I am not talking about my mom, oh no is she dead or something? Then I break out the “My mom is not a healthy person for me to have a close relationship with. I don’t see her often, so I just don’t have very much to say about her. It’s nothing to worry about and no need to discuss it, I just thought I should explain so things don’t get awkward.”

    Here’s the trick– you can come up with similar mini-scripts for what’s going on in your life, too. If you physically remove yourself, you don’t have to be moving out of the House of Evil Bees for everyone. For most people, you can just be looking to get out on your own, or looking to make a change, to be more independent. I’m emphasizing this because realizing I could do this was a huge deal for me and, I repeat, took me ages. It’s not a lie, it’s audience selection. It’s my life, I get to choose who shares which parts of it.

    Second thing, a lot of your friends will have standard families, at least by comparison. Sometimes you might wish that you had that. Sometimes that’s going to hurt. I think that’s okay. I spent a lot of time believing that I should be just hunky dory with my situation, because I was a rational grownup making healthy decisions and shouldn’t have instinctive emotional needs. After several years I have concluded that’s not working for me. I’m allowed to wish that my mom had been different just as much as I’m allowed to recognize that she wasn’t. Don’t let it take years for you to be that understanding with yourself.

    Last thing, a lot of your friends won’t have standard families either, or they’ll have other friends who don’t. Difficult, hurtful, non-standard families– people do get this. The script became easier when I realized I could let them get it. “Oh, I’m so sorry” is pretty regular response for me, with varying degrees of intensity behind it. I tend to say that’s all right, or I appreciate their understanding, and move on. You don’t have to convince everyone that it’s all just great (it doesn’t work anyway), and you don’t have to sign up for a pity party either (it won’t make anyone feel better).

    If someone insists that it’s a tragedy, as I noticed being discussed above, I try to acknowledge– yes, I can understand why they would feel sad for me (because really what they’re saying is “but I love my mom! I would be so sad if I didn’t have my mom! you should have a mom relationship like mine because it will make you happy!”), but I appreciate their support and respect for this personal decision– and move on. You can steer that conversation in whatever direction makes you happy.

    Sort of like your life, actually. Lots of hugs and good luck!

    1. I was raised to be truthful, so some of the little social lies that a lot of people tell a lot of the time don’t sit well with me, but that can sometimes lead to oversharing. (Woops.) I’m trying to train myself out of that.

      Some of the scripts I’ve had occasion to use with people who have a reasonable expectation of a pleasant interaction with me, but no expectation of life-details intimacy:

      “How’s it going?”
      “It’s going!”

      “How was your day?”
      “You don’t want to know.” (I usually deliver this with a smile to soften the stone wall.) or – “It was a day, all right.”

      “How are you?”
      “Awake, alive.”

      1. It’s true, a white lie is still a lie, and I can understand being uncomfortable with that.

        If it helps, I sometimes think of it as story and backstory. All people are generally asking about is the story– the short version, what’s going on right now. There’s almost always a way to make that neutral to positive (I’m looking to get out on my own), and there’s nothing deceitful in then encouraging the conversation in a different direction. Because what people don’t automatically have the right or need to know is the backstory (…because home is no longer a comfortable place to live). They’re almost never asking anyway, but even if they are, the existence of their curiosity does not mean that I have to satisfy it.

        To me, this isn’t lying. It just isn’t providing all of the details behind the true statement I’m making. Audience selection. If you can forgive the metaphor, I can count on one hand the number of people I believe have the right to read the whole novel. I feel no guilt about handing out the abridged version to everyone else.

  36. Dear LW,

    I had no idea I had another sibling!!! All those years and it was YOU in that icefield with me!

    All kidding aside, I know exactly what you’re going through. My mother, and to a certain extent, my father are huge emotional withholders. As an added bonus, they really cashed in on the sibling rivaly between my brother and myself. As a result, both my brother and I have to battle the ever-present feeling of disapproval.

    My brother started healing earlier than I did – he met a wonderful girl (now his wife) and defected to her family. They gave him the emotional support he needed.

    As for myself, it wasn’t until a family friend (my mother’s best friend) pointed out that my mother was being childish and petulant that I was able to reevaluate my sense of self-worth.

    My mom does the silent treatment thing, but the game I hate most is one that I call “The Choice that is No Choice.” Here’s how it breaks down:

    Scene: It’s a couple of days after Christmas and MOM, MOM’S BEST FRIEND, and I are in the kitchen, eating breakfast. MBF is giving ME a hard time about eating non-breakfast food for breakfast.

    MBF: (tossing me the leftover container of bean casserole) Here – you can finish this off.

    (I proceed to take one mouthful.)

    MOM: (icily) That was going to be my dinner.

    ME: Oh! Sorry about that – I didn’t realize you had plans for the beans. I only took the one mouthful and didn’t put the fork back in. I can put it back in the fridge for tonight.

    MOM: (icily) No, go ahead.

    ME: Seriously, Mom, it’s okay. There’s lots of other stuff I can eat. I’ll just put it back.

    MOM: No…*icy silence*…

    (I spend the next five minutes trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do – If I put it back, the choice is wrong since she told me not to. If I eat it, I’m the asshole who ate her poor vegetarian mother’s dinner. I eventually put the casserole back in the fridge, MOM continues to freeze out both ME and MBF for the better part of the afternoon.)

    It wasn’t until I unpacked the incident with MBF, that I realized that I had some serious approval issues stemming from this fun little game. This realization gave me the chance to begin my own healing.

    I understand you, LW. It’s not fun automatically assuming that your behaviour is the problem in every conflict situation you come across. I’m willing to bet you’re a chronic apologizer like me.

    Anyhow, this is my long-winded response to the Captain’s stellar advice. Recognize that you are not a bad person (I would guess that you are probably an incredibly considerate one) and that this silence is your mother’s game and it’s abuse. Read the book. When she pulls her tantrum (and it is a form of tantrum – if you don’t believe me, imagine a three year old pulling it), don’t ask her what’s wrong, don’t guess – don’t dance when she pulls those strings.

    If I had the Choice that was no Choice again, you’d better believe I’d eat that bean casserole and pretend that nothing was wrong. If the person won’t use their words properly and you’re going to be frozen out anyway, you might as well choose not to dance.

    Good luck. Please know that it is possible to heal from this and even maintain a civil, even decent, relationship with your mother (if that’s your wish).

    1. “Good luck. Please know that it is possible to heal from this and even maintain a civil, even decent, relationship with your mother (if that’s your wish).”

      I just realized that I’m assuming that my mother is yours again. It’s entirely possible that you want nothing to do with your mother.

      I chose to maintain a relationship with my mother that includes some major boundaries, which she has respected so far.

      If you feel like a relationship with your mom would be too much, I’m with the commenters above. You owe her nothing. Live your life the way you want to. If it doesn’t include a parent with a history of being abusive, so be it.

      Above all, try to be kind to yourself. It takes practice, but it’s totally doable.

  37. Oh, Captain and LW and commenters, this thread has been so incredibly awesome for me! Rather than go through and respond to all the appropriate comments with “me too!” or “OMG YES” I will just say it here: Me too! OMG YES!

    Here is my story of how I got to a better place with my relationship with my Mom (standard disclaimers apply; my mom is not your mom, etc):

    I got her to go into therapy with me. I offered her the choice of never speaking with me again except bare civilities at family functions or doing family therapy together, her and me. I was hoping she’d pick the former (she’s notoriously anti-psychologist) but she chose the latter. This had a world of advantages, especially: 1, it gave me a therapist who knows what my mom is like from personal experience (I started doing solo work with the same psych after the family work stopped) and 2, the therapist created an environment where Mom and I could both be more upfront about things we hadn’t said before.

    Mom and I negotiated a relationship where we just don’t talk about important things (or rather, that’s what mom said she wanted, and I agreed because it was a good idea). Of course, this occasionally leads to her trying out of the blue to talk about important things (my divorce, for example) but I remember our deal and just don’t engage. My mantras are “keep it light” and “she’s just an old lady with weird opinions.”

    Of course, I’ve had to do a ton of work on my own — I still have a mom in my head who is happy to heap abuse upon me, and I had to grieve the loss of the Mom That I Will Have When I Am Good Enough. I had to realize she never existed and never would, and oh my god that was so hard. I can’t even tell you. So hard. It was basically killing my life’s dream to give up on that.

    Things that have helped: having an awesome boyfriend who reminds me that her BS is not okay, having a friends-since-childhood friend who cheers me on and listens to me vent, and the aforementioned therapist. Having people who will straight-up tell me that “no, that wasn’t normal!” when I talk about my mom’s gaslighting and controlling behavior makes an enormous difference. Having people who will support me as I work on completely changing my paradigm of how the world works is vitally important — my Team You are great.

    This shit is so, so hard. There is no big Mom in the sky I have to earn the approval of (or rather, the Universe already approves of me, which is so insanely bizarre that I am still getting used to the concept), and I’m never going to get my own mom’s approval, not really. It’s like the North pole moved and I’m having to build a new compass from scratch.

    tl;dr: this thread is awesome, these comments are awesome, and for everyone dealing with controlling/emotionally abusive parental figures: you are not alone.

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