…here’s what I’ve learned.
(If you’d prefer, you can listen to the podcast version of this blog post by clicking here)
Ten years ago this week I received an email from my mother that at the time I deemed “the last straw.”
I struggled with myself for a little while on how to respond, or whether to respond at all.
Unlike all the previous times, I chose not to defend myself, explain myself, or prove myself.
I wrote back and said that I didn’t want to see or speak to her again.
I was deeply hurt and deeply angry.
Even though I know some of the things I know now, 10 years ago I was pretty unconscious to the thoughts and beliefs I had about myself – the identity I had created for myself.
And it’s funny because I might not remember that situation the way I do now if it weren’t for the fact that a few days later on December 30, 2010, I called my Dad to tell him what had happened.
If you’ve been with me for a while you know my parents were divorced when I was 2.5 and I didn’t see much of him when I was growing up…the custody laws were very different…every six weeks. As I got older I saw him more often and my relationship as an adult hanged and evolved and we became pretty close.
We had an enlightening conversation in which he told me some things he hadn’t been willing to tell me before, and he specifically addressed a memory I have – the only memory I have of my parents together – and it was of them screaming at each other. He described what had happened and it was probably “the last straw” for their marriage. It explained so much and put things into context for me.
That night I went to bed feeling content. Several hours later I woke up in a cold sweat, feeling sick. I went to the bathroom and passed out cold on the floor. I came to, my husband grasping my shoulders. He brought me a pillow and blanket as it was clear I’d be spending some time in the bathroom.
A while later the phone rang. I could hear my husband talking and I could tell that something was wrong. It was my father’s wife. She’d called to say he’d had a massive heart attack and wasn’t going to make it. When I started to feel better, I had my husband bring me the phone. I had my father’s wife hold the phone up to his ear so I could say goodbye. Although he was on life support, there was no hope.
I remember thinking, “The wrong parent died.”
But no, my father and I were complete. My mother and I were not.
In the days and weeks and months that followed there was a lot of therapy, a lot of writing, a lot of venting to anyone who would listen.
A couple of years later I decided to become a life coach and attended The Life Coach School, founded by the one and only Brooke Castillo. It wasn’t until my Master Coach Certification training that allllll my mother stuff came to the surface in a way it hadn’t before. And one day Brooke was coaching me and I can’t even remember what, exactly, she said, but my response was, “But I WANT to be angry at my mother.” And Brooke’s response? “Congratulations you’ve just taken your power back.”
Because up until that point? I believed I was at the mercy of my mother…her victim…that she got to dictate how I felt…and if I was angry then it was her fault. I had no idea how to take responsibility for myself.
At that point I made a conscious decision: I no longer wanted this thing with my mother to be the defining issue of my life…to be something that made me “less than” or the lens through which I viewed life. I decided to see myself as powerful and capable and creative…and to use my relationship with my mother as a catalyst for growth.
Here are the enduring lessons I have learned as a result:
#1 Most of your final decisions are made in a state of mind that isn’t going to last (thank you Marcel Proust). The state of mind with which I made the decision to go no contact with my mother did not last. And that’s okay. It’s okay to change your mind. It doesn’t mean that you have to go back to the way things were (see #7).
#2 Your mother doesn’t have to be involved in changing the relationship…apologies, forgiveness, compromise, and rehashing the past aren’t necessary. It’s more about changing your relationship with yourself than it is about changing the relationship you have with her. In fact, simply focusing on yourself automatically changes the relationship.
#3 She doesn’t have to change in order for you to feel better. And this is such a relief. So often we think, “Why do I have to be the adult? Why do I have to be the one to change?” I reframe it this way: “I GET to be the adult…I GET to change.”
#4 The healthiest, most mature boundaries you’ll ever establish and maintain will not be not about your mother’s behavior, but about your energy, thoughts, and feelings. Your actions will reflect that and your boundaries will become energetic.
#5 Letting her off the hook for having to approve of you (or the things you do) is one of the most freeing and generous things you can do. And I get it. You might not want to be generous with her, but just like kindness, respect, and compassion, when you choose generosity, even if she receives it too, you benefit.
#6 When you trust yourself and are grounded in your values, you don’t have to trust her. You don’t have to defend or protect or prove or explain. Cultivating self-trust and self-respect “protect” in ways that anger and defensiveness do not.
#7 Risking the relationship (as it is) is one of the most courageous and loving things you can do.
#8 “Breaking the cycle” is not about DOING things differently (or the opposite way), but in thinking and feeling about yourself differently. It’s about being willing to reveal and transform painful beliefs you have about yourself, which is something your mother probably never had the opportunity to do.
#9 Her personality disorders, addictions, mental illnesses, codependence, dysfunction, and other coping behaviors are most likely the result of some sort of trauma. And so are mine. And so are yours. And you still get to have boundaries, up to and including going “no contact.”
#10 Sometimes it’s not you and your mother having the relationship, it’s your triggered nervous systems that are in relationship. Simply knowing that her body and your body sometimes perceive danger and are trying to protect themselves, even when your logical selves know there is none, makes all the difference.
#11 It’s not about never feeling angry, sad, guilty, or anxious again, it’s about catching yourself sooner and recovering from tailspins more quickly (and no this isn’t a competition). And most importantly, not judging yourself for them.
#12 It’s not about the past…it’s about who you want to be now and in the future. I used to feel (and so many of my clients feel) that this process is a burden, but now I see it as something I get to do…a life-affirming act.
#13 You get to define healing, or recovery, or whatever you want to call it. For me it means no longer being angry at or ashamed of myself when I’m triggered. It means offering myself some grace and compassion when I’m triggered. If you’ve been striving for some sort of untriggered perfection, you can relax now and just be human instead.
#14 Something that seems fraught with suffering and negative emotion (the relationship you have with her) can also be a source of humor, creativity, and wisdom.
#15 It’s not a micro issue. It was never just about me and my mother…or about “difficult mother-daughter relationships.” These issues don’t happen in a vacuum, they are are the result of 10,000 years of conditioning that tells women that we are property, that we are less than, not as valuable, that we are helpless, that we must strive for perfection that isn’t even defined by us…the internalized patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy.
#16 I believe that this is the most important work a woman can do because while on the surface its about her and her mother, it’s also about gender equality and dismantling that internalized patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy.
#17 I use the word “work” but it’s also about choosing to rest, not comparing ourselves to others, not buying into the binaries and shoulds and shouldnts, saying no and setting impeccable boundaries, taking exquisite care of ourselves, and treating ourselves as the sacred human souls that we are. Because all that dismantling is exhausting and triggering in and of itself. Take breaks. Rest.
#18 So many of us approach personal growth with the idea that when we’re “done” we’ll no long have anxiety, self-doubt, and thoughts about ourselves like “I’m such a pathetic loser” (<—— that one is mine). And when we find ourselves feeling those same damned feelings and having those same shitty thoughts we think we’ve failed. And so ultimately, the final lesson is this:
Unconditional love is not only possible, it’s a choice you can make in any given moment. You can love yourself unconditionally even if she didn’t or couldn’t.
There is no failure and there is no eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.
Unconditional love isn’t perfect love, it’s simply being willing to feel love for yourself BECAUSE _______ (“even though,” “in spite of,” and “no matter what” are what we say when love is conditional…when we’re disappointed in ourselves).
Thank you so much for reading, listening, asking questions, being willing to do this with me, and for being part of my community. I appreciate you so much.
Much, much love (and Happy New Year!),
Are you interested in working with me on your relationship with your mother? Click here to learn more about The Mother Lode 1:1 Mentorship.