In a functional mother-son relationship, both need to take responsibility for their own thoughts and emotions, for their own wellbeing, and have the right to their personal space. Once the child becomes an adult, it is beneficial for the relationship to be redefined so that the interaction is from Adult to Adult, not from Parent to Child.
If you feel infantilized in your relationship with your mother, if you feel responsible for her happiness, if you lack intimacy and you end up sharing every aspect of your life with her, if, before making a decision, you first think, "would my mother approve?" or "what would my mother think of me?", if you frequently feel manipulated and emotionally blackmailed (you feel guilty if you don't do as she wishes), it can be challenging to start changing this dynamic. However, the first step is to recognize that there is a problem, to become aware of how you feel in the relationship with your mother, and how it influences your life.
Even though it may seem simple, is not always easy to become aware of this aspect, especially if things have always been this way in your family. It may be normal for you to follow family traditions, to make various compromises, to prioritize your mother's wishes above all else, to sacrifice your needs and desires to meet her expectations and demands. It may be normal for you to continue doing things you dislike or that harm you out of fear – the fear of being criticized, judged, rejected, or "punished."
When "normality" is harmful, it's necessary to redefine it. Once you have realized that there is a problem and you want to change something, it's time to focus on yourself - from "what does my mother want?" to "what do I want?"; from "how does this thing make my mother feel?" to "how does this thing make me feel?". This perspective doesn't mean selfishness, cruelty or indifference but rather that, in order to live a fulfilling and joyful life, it's necessary to place yourself at the center of your existence and become aware of your inner strength. Ask yourself what is that you want for yourself and for your life and how you can make those things happen. For example, you want to feel more confident and stop fearing to make decisions or you want to be able to say "no" more often. How can you feel more confident and trust your abilities if you continue to seek maternal safety, comfort and protection?
Discover who you are independently of your family. Even if you have adopted certain beliefs and values from them, ask yourself if you truly resonate with them. Develop your own identity, find out what truly matters to you, try new things, expose yourself to new experiences, explore your passions, develop your skills, observe your interests, desires, and follow them. Focus on your personal development, as it helps you cultivate a sense of self-worth and independence.
Establish, first and foremost for yourself, what you are willing to accept and what you are not, what you feel comfortable with and what you do not feel comfortable with. Set clear boundaries and limits of interaction, make them known, and assert them every time. For example, if your mother calls you five times a day, and it bothers you, you can talk to her and tell her you'd like her to call less frequently, or you can choose not to answer the phone every time. Of course, this will upset her, especially at first, but you know it's good for you (and eventually will be good for her too) to do so. Every time you set a limit, you feel lighter, and every time you no longer accept doing things against your will and stop betraying yourself, you feel a weight lifting off your shoulders. If you feel "lighter" and more at peace with yourself when you set certain limits and boundaries, it means you did the right thing, and those limits are beneficial to you.
Be aware of your emotions and accept them – be aware of how you feel in your relationship with your mother and what emotions and feelings you have towards her. You may feel anger because you don't feel respected, because she doesn't consider what you want. That anger may intensify as you become more aware of the relationship patterns and you start seeing things differently. You may tend to blame her; you may recall certain moments and situations from the past that you didn't necessarily find disturbing at the time. An essential aspect at this stage is to allow yourself to accept your emotions without judging what you feel and not to dwell on them, not to feed them by obsessively thinking about what your mother did or did not do, what she said or did not say, what happened. Observe your emotions and allow yourself to free them. Yes, it's natural to feel anger when your personal boundaries are violated. It's natural to feel sadness.
Guilt is another feeling that can accompany you for a long time in your life. You've become accustomed to feeling guilty if you don't meet your mother's expectations or if you don't please her, but every person has the right to create their own life, whether their parent approves or not, agrees or disagrees with their choices and decisions. The guilt and shame you feel are induced by emotional blackmail and manipulation. Expressions like "after all I've done for you, can't you do at least this for me?", "is this how I raised you? You should be ashamed!", "do you want to kill me?" etc. may sound familiar.
Although you may feel anger and continue to blame your mother, this approach doesn't truly help you. Accept that things are as they are, that you can’t change her, that you can’t change the past, and take responsibility for what is within your control. For example, if you feel infantilized in your relationship with her, think about how you allow this to happen – perhaps you are afraid to take 100% responsibility for your life, perhaps you believe you can’t handle things on your own and you need a safety net or protection, perhaps it's more comfortable for you to know that your mother does things for you or in your place. If you change, inevitably, the relationship will change as well. Try to realize how you contribute to certain behaviors of hers and observe what changes you can make.
Start saying "no" – you probably think that something very, very bad will happen if you start saying "no". What is really the worst thing that can happen? Often, we fear saying "no" to our parents because in the relationship with them we remained the Child and they the Parent, even if we are adults now. We remain in a child ego state regarding our interaction and we fear as we did when we were literally children. We fear we will be scolded, punished, or that we will no longer receive their affection and support. We fail to realize that our fear is irrational. We fail to realize that we have nothing to fear. We fail to realize that we no longer NEED support and protection. We have grown up, and now we can take care of ourselves and love and respect ourselves as we may not have felt loved and respected in childhood. We no longer need permissions. We no longer need their validation as long as we validate ourselves.
Communicate – communication is essential in any relationship. Start expressing your emotions, needs and desires, setting aside the fear of judgment and rejection. Develop your assertive communication skills - this involves expressing your point of view, needs, emotions, ideas, and opinions directly, openly, and honestly, while respecting the needs and opinions of the other person. By communicating assertively, you respect yourself because you are willing to defend your interests and rights while considering the needs, feelings, and rights of the other person. You take responsibility for yourself and your actions without judging or blaming others.
Sometimes, to focus on yourself as you need to and to heal, you may feel that it would be best to "break away" from that environment, to have less interaction, or no interaction at all for a while. If you feel this way, it's okay. Don't blame yourself and don't judge yourself. You have a responsibility to yourself above all else. It's not your responsibility to make others happy, to live for them, forgetting about your own self. You don't need to explain yourself to anyone or justify yourself. You have the right to live as you wish, which means remaining loyal to yourself above all.
Be patient with yourself and with the process you are going through, as it won't always be easy. Such a change is difficult and takes time. There are thought and behavior patterns you've followed all your life, and you have to be aware that they won't change overnight. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself and don't punish yourself when you notice a tendency to repeat old behaviors.
Also, don't hesitate to seek the help you need. Psychotherapy can be extremely useful in this process.
Start putting yourself first in your life, take control of your own existence, and, step by step, make the changes you need with patience and understanding for yourself.
Dr. Ursula Sandner