I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I (she/her) have a pretty damn good setup in life. I have an incredible and supportive long-term partner (he/him), we live together in a nice house, have stable incomes, and many wonderful friends and hobbies.
Unfortunately, I suffer from anxiety. It’s not crippling, but it’s got its claws in me pretty good. I visited a psychologist for a brief while many years ago, got diagnosed, learned some coping strategies and went on my way. During those sessions, he identified the source of my anxiety: my mother. Broadly, if I had to explain her, she has anxiety which manifests as explosive anger, she is obsessed with appearing “right”, loves to start fights and enjoys guilting and manipulating people through attention-seeking behaviour. She never physically abused me, but she affected me to the point where certain noises make my heart race because they’re strongly associated with her.
She and my father divorced, messily, when I was a young adult. I have a great relationship with my father, but we don’t talk about my mother most of the time because he can’t help but rant about her – I get it, but I don’t want that to be one of the hobbies we engage in regularly. After they divorced, I stayed with mum alone in that house for a while, but since I started sticking up for myself (which she hated), I realized I could move out and when I did, it was like a giant weight off my shoulders. I would still see her from time to time, but I limited it because she was “one of those people you can only handle for a little while at a time.”
We started to have more disagreements as I laid down additional boundaries in our relationship, and she would respond to my polite and calm requests with a mix of verbal snark and the silent treatment. The last time she ever rang me, it was to abuse me for one of these requests. I responded only with facts and she got extremely angry and hung up. I resolved to email her one last time, outlining how I felt with concrete examples of what she did that made me feel bad and what I needed from her in future if we were to keep having a relationship. Her response was a resounding “NO U. I’m here when you’re ready to apologize.”
So…we haven’t spoken for about a year. I haven’t seen her for even longer than that. I have her blocked on all channels – she can’t contact me unless she goes through someone else. My stress levels have greatly reduced since removing her from my life and I’m happy to say I’ve done so permanently. My partner fully supports this choice, but didn’t influence me one bit in my actual decision.
So finally, the issue with which I’d like to request some help:
If she were to call me, I’d hang up or not answer.
If she were to email or text me, I wouldn’t even look at it.
…but I don’t know how to deal with her if I see her in person.
We live in different cities, and while I used to be nervous about visiting her city at all, I no longer have this generalised fear. However, visiting shopping districts where she’s known to go, especially enclosed areas like supermarkets or other shops, fill me with cold dread and I’m on high alert and ready to flee the entire time I’m trapped in said stores. I keep expecting her to show up at any moment.
Thing is, I don’t ever think she’d attack me or even say hello (if she did it would be to look like the good, reasonable one). I think she’d ignore me, which is what I’d want. In spite of that, I’m terrified of having a breakdown if I see her, especially if I was alone. In those moments I can only see her angry face, bearing down on me like it did when I was a child.
I want to visit my friends in this city, so I can’t just never go there. I don’t want to fear major shopping districts just in case she shows up. However, I really don’t know what to do with the fear of bumping into her, or the possible situation of her showing up in person. I’ll definitely be bringing this up in my mental health check-up later this year, but I would greatly appreciate any advice you or the community may have.
Hello! We are going to call you Letter Writer #1247. Thank you for writing.
You’ve done so many good things to protect yourself from your mom and make a good life that doesn’t revolve around her, and I’m so sorry that the potential of visiting friends has this cloud of fear over it.
The truth about parental estrangement is that it rarely feels good, it just feels better than the horribleness that went before when the person had continued access to harm you and you were trapped in the cycle of trying to please someone who can’t be pleased. Having & enforcing boundaries doesn’t remove the tension or end the conflict or even resolve the feelings. What it hopefully does is gives you permission to stop trying to make a harmful situation different by grinding yourself up on a person that can’t be trusted to act in good faith.
Your question is a common one I see here, not just about family estrangement but about anxiety (both the clinical kind and the small a- everybody’s got some kind) and wanting to know: “How do I avoid a scary/upsetting feeling about something that might happen in the future?” The answer this type of question is, being excellent at planning doesn’t mean that you can avoid uncomfortable feelings and situations by sufficiently anticipating them, and there are no scripts or boundaries that ensure that the things you fear will never happen, sorry! You can practice scripts and you can run scenarios, like “If my mom calls I will hang up,” you can remind yourself that both you and other people have choices (“If the thing I fear happens, what will I do?“). And hopefully, with time and practice, you can stop leaning on yourself so hard to control the outcome of something that isn’t your fault and learn to be gentle with yourself about whatever happens. To that end, the best strategy or advice I can offer you is this:
If you were to run into your mom, whatever gets/got you through it in one piece is/was the right thing to do.
If saying “oh hello” and making 30 seconds of polite chitchat is easier than trying to blank someone to their face, then that’s what gets you through it. It doesn’t change anything about the decisions you’ve made or the reasons you made them, it doesn’t invalidate other boundaries that you’ve drawn. If she uses the encounter to bother you afterward, you don’t have to answer or you can say, “Nothing has changed” and continue as you are.
If avoiding her gets you through it, then that’s what gets you through it.
If you have a big emotional reaction to seeing her in the mall, then that’s what happens, it’s okay to be emotional about returning to places where – I am reading between the lines as a person who used to fear-pee my pants as a small child when my mom was mean to store clerks – a parent emotionally abused you.
If you need to leave a in a hurry to feel safe, or if you know that certain haunts are where you are likely to run into her, then planning around that possibility is what you need. You can let your friends know, “I am estranged from my mom and I have this strange fear that we’ll run into her, if that happens, can you follow my lead if I need to be out of there quickly? Or can we meet at the [venue] on the other side of town instead?” I don’t think you have to leave or avoid those places, mind you, you haven’t done anything wrong, but sometimes the thing we can control in a situation like this is “be elsewhere” so keep those options open if they help you.
Your mom won’t be doing anything wrong by like shopping or seeing a movie where she lives, and honestly, I wouldn’t even blame her for seeing her daughter unexpectedly and saying ‘hello’ (even for ‘the alternative is publicly weirder, so, let’s just get through this’ reasons) or having some feelings about it and not knowing quite what to do. I agree that she’s unlikely to assault you or scream at you or do anything actually dangerous, so as long as you don’t assault her, anything you do is the right choice if it gets you through that moment in one piece. Duck under outstretched arms to avoid a hug. Return “Hello” with “Nope!” and keep walking. Your mom will find axes to grind no matter what you do. Sometimes that knowledge is freeing, since, you’re already not speaking to each other, somehow “failing” to handle this moment with perfect grace (whatever that even looks like) isn’t going to make it worse or make your mom right about everything.
However things go down, one thing you can do is be very nice to yourself after an awkward encounter. Reward and congratulate yourself for doing well with a difficult situation:“Good job me for just saying ‘hello’ and getting on with my day” or “Good job, me, for knowing that I needed to get out of that store in a hurry and doing what’s necessary to take care of myself.” Treat yourself, do things that you know are comforting and pleasant, make sure you get alone time if you need it or surround yourself with supportive people like your partner.
One thing that it’s hard to talk about with people who don’t understand toxic families or estrangement is the weird letdown of anticlimax, as in, what if you run into your mom and it’s actually fine?
(This is where I wave to the people who wrote me about dreading family holiday visits and then feeling incredibly weird and off-balance during the visits because everyone behaved themselves for once.)
Imagine you’re out shopping, you see your mom, she nods ‘hello,’ but does’t come closer, you nod back, you both go about your business. This is what you wanted, right? Resetting the relationship to the vantage point of “polite stranger” rather than nemesis? But why is your heart rate elevated, why are you breathing so fast and hard, why is your body shot through with anxiety anyway, why do you still feel like you want to flee? It would be so easy to start second-guessing yourself: Were you overreacting, are you being fair, is this all overblown, why did you spend so much time strategizing and worrying about it, was it all “for nothing?” or “making a big deal out of nothing”? etc. I want to raise the possibility that anticlimax – a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated – can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.
This is definitely something to talk over with your therapist when you have your check-in (and if you do happen run into your mom, I’d schedule one of those sooner rather than later), but it’s worth noting that hypervigilance can be a result of trauma and sometimes “anxiety” is better described as plain old “fear.” Maybe your body remembers how your mom has treated you, maybe it remembers how bad it can get when she’s around, and it would rather be safe than sorry, so it amps up your adrenaline and your cortisol in case you need to fight or flee.
That mismatch between the body’s fight-or-flight reaction to remembered actual danger vs. a formerly very abusive parent’s mellowing with age [temporarily opting for polite behavior in public][convenient forgetting of the inconvenient past] can be incredibly jarring for adult children. It fucks with memory, perception, instincts – all things that abusers train their victims not to trust when it conflicts with the abuser’s reality and vision of themselves as a benevolent person who just loves their kid so much they had to do whatever they did. The coping methods to disarm anxiety often involve a lot of trying to match your fears with what is actually likely to happen (“don’t borrow trouble,” etc.) in an attempt to cut emotional reactions down to size in proportion to the actual threat so the outlier possibilities of your worst fears aren’t completely paralyzing. But the “you’re probably just imagining it, take some deep breaths” approach can fall incredibly short when (for example) there are Incredibly Good Reasons To Be Worried, Actually, and it doesn’t necessarily account for trauma. I would argue that anticlimax, where the thing you worried about so much didn’t happen, doesn’t mean that the worry came out of nowhere.
People who weren’t there and who don’t know what it was like are very quick to throw around the term “overreacting” or probe a traumatic situation to make sure that everyone was reacting the exact correct amount – usually the amount that they assume they would react, as if it’s possible to perfectly anticipate and modulate one’s own reactions (it’s not) – or as if “overreacting” is the worst thing someone can possibly do (it isn’t).
Through this lens, behaviors like “rudely” walking away from a toxic family member in a public space even if the person doesn’t do anything overtly abusive in that moment are easy to classify as “overreactions.” When a perceived overreaction takes place, people observing the situation start walking around the place like emotional management consultants and trial lawyers with advanced degrees in second-guessing shit that is none of their business and that affects them the least of anyone in the situation and asking what they see as “tough,” “realistic” questions. “But wait, are you sure that your mom intended to abuse you? Right then? How could you know? But you said yourself she probably wouldn’t assault you, so, why did you run away? Isn’t that a little dramatic?*“
This line of questioning fails to account for all the incredibly fucking real times we were trapped and couldn’t leave the room or shut a door or hang up the phone or say what was on our minds or call for help or yell back at someone who was yelling at us, all the times we just had to take whatever came, all the years we had to live with whatever they said and did to us and pretend it was love. When someone abuses you, you are the actual expert on what they are capable of, and someone who has never seen that side of the person doesn’t know what you’ve survived to be here or what there could possibly be to fear. They don’t know. They don’t know better than you about what to feel or what to do.
I mean, your anxious jerkbrain might be overstating the case to your limbic system and vice-versa, sure, and the goal over time with your therapist might be to fade how much your mom’s potential behavior occupies your fears, but having anxiety doesn’t mean you aren’t still the expert on your life. If you run into your mom and things get really weird and your inner critic starts beating you up for “overreacting,” see what happens if you rename it as a delayed reaction and make some soothing, gentle, comforting noises in the direction of yourself. “Hey body, I know you’re just trying to help me out, buddy. I appreciate you, let’s get the hell out of here to somewhere we can breathe.” Your body got you this far, I think it will keep getting you where you need to go, and I trust that if you run into your mom, whatever you do in that moment to be safe and kind to yourself will be the right thing to do. ❤
I can’t make the international press stop asking Meghan Markle’s shitbag abusive loser dad to comment on her life choices that are none of his business, but maybe I can tell you that your inner critic is not the boss of you, there’s a reason you feel so anxious about seeing your mom specifically in those places, and you don’t have to beat yourself up about either the fear or whatever reaction keeps you safe. Please also know you are not alone, there are a lot of us out there who are trying to reconcile our memories of the people who loomed so large over our childhood with how much smaller they look when we’re not the child in their house anymore and have grown – in spite of them – to be the adults in our own.
I hope that you can reclaim your hometown and see your friends, and I hope that each month and year you disengage from fighting with her or trying to get her to be the mom you need, her shadow shrinks and shrinks and shrinks to where it barely looms at all.
*Note: I especially love when the accusation of being dramatic for having a boundary is followed immediately by an attempt to sell you on deathbed reconciliation, like, “Don’t be so DRAMATIC! But wait, what if the person DIES and you NEVER talk to them AGAIN?” Like, quietly avoiding someone you don’t want to argue with in a food court is the dramatic thing to do and chasing down someone to interrogate their reactions and demand they conduct their relationship with an abusive parent in a way that conforms to their fantasies of what that’s supposed to be like is the chill, reasonable path. Howabout no.
Comments are open. Be kind, do not try to diagnose anything or anyone, and don’t be one of those “It can’t be that bad, right?” assholes. The Letter Writer is the expert on her situation, empty reassurances or attempts to defend the mom’s POV from people who don’t know are pointless at best and cruel at worst.