[I’ve been asked many times over the years why it’s so hard for some of us to have anything more than “superficial” conversations with our mothers or daughters…after a recent conversation with my mother, here’s my long answer.]
The day before my 57th birthday I was driving home from a storytelling workshop and heard part of an interview with Saeed Jones, author of How We Fight For Our Lives, which is about growing up black and gay in Texas in the 1990s. He talked about how he “erased” himself in order to have a good relationship with his mother:
“We laughed a lot. We could talk about literally anything except my being gay, which began to feel more and more like a void. But you know, we talked about the news, and we would laugh, and she was so proud of how I was doing in school and as a student and in speech. … It’s this weird dynamic where you’re struggling and you end up prioritizing the other person’s feelings over your own, and I did it because I loved her. I did it because I felt like I was causing her pain by trying to talk about this, but she was still my mom. I needed to have her wisdom in terms of love and relationships, and I didn’t get it, and really struggled as a result.”
I thought a lot about the ways I had erased parts of myself, not just with my mother, but with others as well.
The next day, my mother called to wish me a Happy Birthday.
The conversation then followed the path it normally does.
Then I decided to share something about me…something I would normally “erase” for her.
With each back-and-forth of the conversation I could feel my nervous system responding. My heart started to beat faster, my breathing became more shallow, and my limbs felt weak. I was having what Pete Walker, therapist and author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving, calls an emotional flashback. I was starting to disassociate and “freeze.”
I wrapped it up pretty quickly after that.
Later, I joked with my husband that the theme from Jaws would have been an appropriate soundtrack for the conversation.
Then I had a significant moment of clarity.
If my nervous system perceived the conversation as dangerous, then it’s possible (probable?) that my mother’s nervous system also perceived danger. Our authentic selves weren’t having the conversation, our triggered nervous systems were.
As long as the conversation is “safe” it’s fine. But when we enter “dangerous” territory, my nervous system wants to flee or freeze and her nervous system wants to fight (again, Walker’s book shed so much light on this for me, and based on stories my mother has told me about her growing up years, it would not surprise me if “fight” is her nervous system’s default mode). This doesn’t make either of us bad or wrong, it’s simply how we learned to cope. It’s what happens when the ancient parts of our brains perceive danger, whether we’re actually in danger or not.
As an adult daughter (with the emphasis on “adult”), I can choose to have superficial conversations with my mother and not see it as a bad thing, or a sad thing.
As an adult daughter, I can do my best not to trigger my nervous system or hers. This is an act of kindness. And I can acknowledge that I am not responsible for her or her nervous system!
As an adult daughter, I can remind myself not to take my mother’s words and tone of voice personally. Interpreting her tone isn’t always helpful to me.
As an adult daughter, there will be times when I’m awkward or uncomfortable, times when I feel prickles of annoyance, and times when I feel grief (and myriad other emotions).
As an adult daughter, I can acknowledge my humanity. And hers.
As an adult daughter, I can establish healthy boundaries. I can gracefully end phone calls. I can choose not to answer calls. I can choose to visit or not. I can define the parameters of our interactions (and so can she).
Without a lot of drama.
And without shame.
Because when I am an adult daughter, I like and respect myself, and that, my friends, is priceless.
What questions do you have about this?
Much, much love,
Reveal patterns. Heal shame. Transform legacies.
P.S. Two things:
#1 I have one 1:1 spot, starting December 1. Click here to learn more.
#2 More than 70 brilliant humans have signed up for The Make It Real 2020 Transformational Book Club. Pre-order The Difficult Mother-Daughter Relationship Journal: A Guide For Revealing & Healing Toxic General Patterns and you can join us for free!
Here’s what some of my private clients have to say about working with me:
Working with you has changed my life. The other day I Skyped with my mum and she said something that months ago would have been so hurtful. This time it just rolled off me. I didn’t even let it bother me. Months ago I would have got off the call and stewed about it. This time I just smiled and got on with life. ~ MP
Thank you for helping me reveal the truth of who I am and who I want to be. Working with you was both the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done for myself and the effects go waaaaay beyond my relationship with my mother. I am more confident at work, in my marriage, and most importantly as a mother. ~ TM