In episode 309, I responded to a question about how to simultaneously be understanding of your parent’s struggles while taking appropriate care of your own wellbeing. In this post, I explore this in more depth and take a look at setting appropriate boundaries to safeguard your own mental health.
Dear Dr. Duff,
I really love your show and content and have found so much value in it, not even for myself but it has helped me to understand others and be more empathetic. I hope that my messages reach you and could help others as well. I should probably start by giving some background on myself and my situation. I am 23 years old; AFAB but questioning non-binary; I have been diagnosed and am being treated for ADHD, Bipolar II, Anxiety, and Social Anxiety. I grew up with a single mother but lived in a multi-generational household. I believe that many of my family members have undiagnosed issues but refuse to face them and seek help, especially my mother.
Here’s the issue I am currently facing. My mother has always been very particular about minute things, can be very reactive, and is not always empathetic toward others. This has caused trauma over the year and has harbored a disorganized attachment with her. Recently all of the conversations we have leads to fighting, and I have so anxiety about the thought of even trying to have a conversation with her anymore (I’ve gotten rashes on my chest trying to message her). I really think I’ve gotten to the point that going no contact with her is what will help me to heal and start to thrive. I am okay with that decision however, I hold so much empathy for her because I know deep down she is hurting from the traumatic events in her life, currently and in the past, but refuses to seek any help. I guess my question is how can I be empathetic for her, but do what is best for me, which at the moment I believe is going no contact. There are so many more layers to this, but I don’t want to make this too long. Any advice or kind words when it comes to complicated relationships with parents would be appreciated.
Thank you so much for everything you do, it’s helped me to transform my life and finally take control back.
Thank you for the question. It’s a very good one and probably one that others will relate to. First off, I want to explain some terminology. You used the term AFAB. That’s an acronym used to describe people that are assigned female at birth, typically due to their bodies. It’s a better way of describing things than saying someone was born Female or Male. For instance, in the case of a transman that was AFAB, they were not born female. Their gender has been male, but because of how their body looks, people assigned them the gender of female. You also used the term non-binary, which is a gender identity that indicates that neither male nor female gender capture your experience. There are a variety of identities under that umbrella, but that is the broad stroke of it.
So, to the actual content of your question, you indicated that there are undiagnosed and un-talked about mental health issues within the family. That’s tough. There are so many reasons that could be the case from generational issues, to religion or culture, to just the tradition within your family, as in that’s the way things always have been. But when you are someone who is actively pursuing help, trying to better yourself, and acknowledging issues that exist in the context of a family that avoids or pretends like issues are not real, that can make you feel like an outsider or even shunned in some cases. One thing that I think is helpful to think about to give you the courage and the resolve to keep going is to consider what you might be doing for your family tree. It could be the case that above you in the family tree exists a lot of denial and undiagnosed issues and unresolved pain. At some point, someone needs to break that cycle. Not only for themselves, but potentially for future generations. That’s not an easy thing to do. I like to think of it like Atlas holding the heavens on his shoulders. In this case, you are holding the unresolved pain of your family on your shoulders. You shouldn’t have to, but if they aren’t willing to change or see what you see, that’s what tends to happen. It’s painful, but it’s also a noble pain in some ways.
You mentioned disorganized attachment. This is one of the insecure attachment styles. I won’t get into all of the details. This is something that you can easily google and learn more about. But basically, it’s a type of attachment style that often is born out of trauma or abuse. In particular, it tends to come from situations where there is inconsistency. You might be abused at times and other times you may be doted upon and supported. Your primary attachment figure becomes both someone that you want to seek comfort from, but also someone that you fear. That is very confusing and can definitely cause disruption in relationships in adult life.
In terms of what to do about the situation with your mother, I don’t blame you at all for not making a solid decision yet. It’s a tough thing to consider. Sometimes it is true that it’s impossible or extremely hard to heal in the environment that is harming you. In your case, drawing boundaries and backing off could be what helps you to move forward with your life. There are different cultural ideas about family, but from my perspective, family is happenstance. You had no control over who you were born to or raised by. The fact of family is much less important to me than the relationships that are cultivated between family members. It’s very often the case that people who treat you poorly have clear reasons for doing so from their past and upbringing. That doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need to accept certain types of treatment. Sometimes imposing boundaries can serve the purpose of pushing the person toward change – other times, it’s just what needs to happen for your sake. Either way, boundaries are not a punishment. They are protection. I know that you would ideally prefer to not cut off contact with your mother, so I wonder if there is a middle ground. Is there a way that you could change your relationship to her and impose some boundaries without having zero contact? I recently did an episode talking about how to set boundaries and what to expect when you do. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I’d highly suggest it. That was episode 307. There’s also a blog post about it at duffthepsych.com/settingboundaries. You may be accused of being selfish or cruel, but in reality, boundaries can be an extension of empathy. You are not excusing her behavior, but you are also not villainizing her. You might be able to recognize that this is how she is and why, but that understanding can help you not take it quite as personally. Someone can hurt you without even intending to. You are allowed to keep yourself from being hurt regardless of reason or intention.
If you do try to find a middle ground, you can try your best to communicate this. You can tell her your intention. That you have been fighting so much that you are going to need to change the way you interact. That you love her, but you are not willing to be treated in the way that you are, so you are going to be taking a step back, but you don’t want to be out of the picture entirely. If she is unwilling to honor those boundaries and continues to make you feel the ways that she has, then you may need to cease contact for your own sake. In communicating with her, you can focus on being as clear as possible, even if she doesn’t want to hear it. If she’s the type to talk over you or blow up etc. you can always write a letter or email explaining yourself. In terms of clarity, you might literally say that you still love her. That you feel for her and that this isn’t about a lack of care. This is about care for yourself and that you are open to things getting better in the future. In the end, you can’t control her. You can set contingencies such as being open to talk in the presence of a professional or mediating family member, or that you would be willing to engage if she seems to be getting help for her issues in the way that you are getting help from hers as well. But there’s no promise that she will do these things. You can only express your desires and your feelings and then do what is right for you.
I’m not sure what the moment-to-moment struggle with your mom looks like, but I would ask if there is possibly more opportunity for you to simply not engage with her. I don’t mean stay away from her entirely, I mean “drop the rope”. If she tries to pick a fight, don’t respond or leave if you have to. Essentially train her to stop expecting reactivity from you. Having a very surface-level relationship with her may be painful in its own way, but it can also definitely be protective. There is not one perfect answer for what to do here. You are not the bad guy for thinking about how to take care of yourself. Especially if you have been trying and trying to talk about things and to move toward more healthy interactions without any progress. Nothing has to be permanent either. Perhaps it is just during this season of your life that you can’t handle continued contact with her. You might take a break and work on yourself and allow the space for her to make some progress too. Maybe you try some boundaries out before moving to full no-contact. After some time, you might be able to rebuild the relationship or endure her in a way that isn’t as unhealthy to you. You can always try to adjust.
Overall, I just want to reassure you that you are doing a good job. You are trying to make some hard choices here. It’s clearly not coming from a negative or selfish place. There’s just only so much you can try to do to maintain a relationship with someone that is toxic to you. I believe in you!
You can listen to this on Episode 309 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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