Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Click here for part two

Dear Neil: My issue is to try to understand the negative feelings I have toward my mother and how to best let them go. I constantly find myself annoyed with anything she suggests. Often she begins with “you should,” which immediately puts my defenses up. I feel I can’t completely open up to her for fear that she will take this as an invitation to resolve my issues, when all I really want is for her to listen. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this? I am an honest, hard-working, successful woman and I have managed to get through life very well, thank you, by making my own decisions.

Still Feeling Treated Like I Need a Mother in Wellington, New Zealand

Dear New Zealand: It sounds like you are wanting validation from your mother—that you’ve turned into a good Mom, a strong adult and a capable and competent individual—and that she trusts that you have the skills to succeed in life and to figure out your own problems. Her advice, no matter how well-meaning, is making you feel that you’re still being treated as a child instead of a competent adult.

Very likely, it’s not that you still need a mother. It’s that your mother still needs to be a mother—and she’s having a hard time letting go of that role. It could also be that you are rejecting her because you feel rejected by her. That you’re not willing to let her in because you expect her judgement, control or criticism—and that you’re not wanting to be subordinate to her anymore.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that these issues with your mother began in childhood and are life-long. Jasmin Lee Cori, in her book The Emotionally Absent Mother (The Experiment Publishing), lists ten different “Good Mother” messages that shape our feelings about ourselves and largely defines the relationship we have with our mother as we grow up. Those messages are:

  1. I’m glad that you’re here. This message is communicated through behavior that tells the child that s/he is valued and wanted. The message “I’m glad you’re here” helps us be glad that we’re here. It helps us feel comfortable, welcome and wanted.
  2. I see you. This is conveyed primarily by accurately helping a child to identify his/her feelings and for that child to feel that someone is being responsive to those feelings. A mother who “sees” you, knows for instance, what you like and what you don’t like. She knows what your interests are and how you feel about things. Being seen is being known.
  3. You are special to me. This tells us that we are valued and prized. It is best to pair this message with being seen for who we are so that we do not associate specialness with some superficial quality or image.
  4. I respect you. Children who feel respected and loved in a genuine way will have permission to discover and express their unique self, and they will not feel they have to constantly mirror the parents or conform to some parental blueprint.
  5. I love you. Those words need to be experienced as sincere and authentic in order to have meaning. It is important that those words not be perceived as manipulative and not be paired with requiring something of the child. Love is most effectively communicated nonverbally through touch, tone of voice, eyes and facial expression, body language and attentiveness. Helping a child learn some boundaries and offering friendly guidance can also feel like love.
  6. Your needs are important to me. You can turn to me for help. You don’t have to hide your needs or try to take care of them yourself. Your wants and needs I consider important.
  7. I am here for you. I’ll make time for you. Conveys the messages: “I am here as a consistent presence in your life. You can count on me, I won’t disappear on you” and “I’ll make time for you.” It expresses availability, priority and that you are valued.
  8. I’ll keep you safe. I’ll protect you. I won’t let you be hurt or unnecessarily overwhelmed. Without safety, we may never learn to really go out into the world. Without a caretaker’s protection, our only protection is to stay small and build defensive postures into our personality.
  9. You can rest in me. With me, you can be at home. You don’t have to be on guard. We all want a place to be totally ourselves, where we don’t have to perform, and where we feel soothed and comforted in the company of another.
  10. I enjoy you. You brighten my heart. An affirmation of the child’s preciousness. An acknowledgement that others take pleasure in our very being.

These messages are frequently communicated more through behaviors, attitudes and facial expressions than they are through words. Go through these “good mother” messages, and ask yourself which of these do you think your mother conveyed to you as you were growing up. Which of these feel familiar? Does your mother communicate any of these messages now? Which of these do not fit your mother at all?

I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

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