DEAR CAROLYN: Because of difficult childhood experiences, my mom has unhealthy and hurtful communication patterns — mainly a tendency to avoid direct communication and instead use mean, passive-aggressive comments or totally avoid an issue. She passed those patterns down to me. Through therapy and with the support of an incredible spouse, I've been able to identify these unhealthy patterns and largely break away from them. My mom has a deep fear of being deserted or left behind, and she frequently makes snide, cutting comments about how far away I live — an hour — how she feels alone and unwanted, etc. She does not come out and say that she feels insecure about our relationship or fearful of being left alone; rather, she holds on to those emotions and then slips in mean and hurtful comments that feel like grenades being launched at me. I feel confident that I am doing my part to maintain contact with her and send the message that I love her, but her insecurities run very deep and her fears become her perceived reality, and all the efforts I make don't change her perception. How can I continue to show love and a desire for a relationship when she seems to not believe it's true? How do I set boundaries so that I do not become consumed with trying to convince her I care? And, how do I communicate with her knowing she does not have healthy communication skills?
ANONYMOUS: It's your job to tell your mother the truth. It's not your job to sell it to her.
There is a way to talk to your mom that's worth trying, IF (big if) you have the presence of mind to do it in the moment. And it's not a failure on your part if you can't; it's difficult, especially when emotions are high. But if you're able:
Try listening to her mean and hurtful comment until she is finished, and then reflecting back to her the emotion you think is driving it. For example:
She: "[Mean and hurtful comment.]"
You: "I'm hearing that you're worried I won't visit you as often as you'd like." Stop, wait.
If she says no or backpedals or says another nasty thing, then just say as neutrally as possible, "OK, my mistake." Then change the subject or end the conversation.
But keep up the reflective listening regardless. As calmly as you can muster, holding firm. This response is both loving communication — because you're showing willingness to express your feelings and validate hers — and a firm boundary, because you're demonstrating that you will be genuine with her but won't react to hostility and won't be manipulated by it.
That is what is happening now, by the way — your mother's barbs are very effective at getting you to act in service of her feelings.
Given how deep these issues run and how you've struggled with breaking the pattern yourself, the best place to address this is probably ongoing therapy — so you can bring situations to your appointments while fresh in mind and role-play them. "She said X. My response was, Y. Could I have handled that more productively?'"
Here's a cheat-sheet version to get you through as you figure this out: Engage with the good, disengage from the bad. Good luck.