How can you set healthy boundaries in your relationship with your mother and regain control of your life?
Become aware of the messages she has transmitted and question your beliefs - often, the messages conveyed by parents become our fundamental beliefs. We come to consider them as true and act as if they are unquestionable. For example, you may hold beliefs like "I can't handle things on my own," "I'm not good enough", "I need protection" (even though you are an adult; protection from what?). These false beliefs make you feel insecure, unconfident, and fearful. Whose voice is that, really, and whose interests does it serve?
Another relevant aspect of an enmeshed mother-daughter relationship is that you may have felt, from a young age, the responsibility to "save" your mother, to "fix" what seemed not to work for her. To save her from her own suffering and personal problems. If you had succeeded, you could have proven that you were a good daughter, worthy of her love. But because we can’t save anyone from themselves, the failure of your attempts to save your mother may have induced you the feeling that you are inadequate, "wrong," as if something is wrong with you. It made you feel ashamed, and you have somehow carried that chronic shame with you. As an adult, you remain very sensitive to your mother's needs, rushing to fulfill them every time. Even if you don't want to, even if you can see that it's not good for you, even if you don't understand why you keep doing it, satisfying her needs is familiar to you and represents the easiest way to prove to yourself, but also to her, that you are competent, valuable, and not deeply "flawed." This belief is, in fact, entirely untrue.
Allow yourself to become aware of your painful emotions and accept them - even if you feel anger or sadness, you may have repressed these emotions. You might believe that you are not allowed or do not have the right to be angry with your mother, that anger is a dangerous and uncontrollable emotion, that if you are angry, dissatisfied, or sad, you are automatically a bad, ungrateful, and selfish daughter. Don't judge yourself for what you feel. In fact, anger signals to us that something is not right for us and needs to be changed. Often, behind sadness, there is anger, and behind anger, there is sadness. It's like two sides of the same coin. Becoming aware of how you truly feel in your relationship with your mother, bringing old emotions to the surface, accepting them, and letting them go is not easy, and psychotherapy can be of great help.
You might be angry with yourself, wondering how you could continue to tolerate behaviors that were not good for you, why you couldn't confront your mother, take a stand, and change the situation. A dependent, helpless child who was "programmed" to obey has no choice. You were conditioned from an early age to submit to your mother and try to please her. Later, the feeling of guilt and the fear of consequences were stronger than your motivation to make and support certain changes in your relationship with your mother. It's important to understand that you acted in accordance with the information and possibilities you had at that time, and that self-blame does not help you at all. Allow yourself to be patient and compassionate with yourself, to accept and forgive yourself.
Another aspect that can help you in this process is to write a letter to your mother. Tell your story and don't downplay it. Write about how your childhood was, how your adolescence was, how it is now. Write about what you felt and what you feel. Write about how your mother's words, gestures, attitudes, and behaviors influenced you. Write about what you want from her and your relationship from now on. Let what needs to come out, come out, then burn the letter as a symbol of release. It can be difficult, you might feel overwhelmed, you might need guidance and support, so remember that you are not alone. Seek help if you feel you need it.
Set clear and firm boundaries - you are an adult who has the right to make your own choices and decisions, and you don't have to feel guilty or responsible for your mother's dissatisfaction or problems anymore. To set boundaries in your relationship with her, you need to decide what you want and what behaviors you will no longer tolerate from now on. What are you willing and unwilling to do in response to her requests? What makes you feel minimized, invaded, and powerless? What are you no longer willing to accept? Clearly and directly communicate your boundaries to your mother. Use non-defensive communication. For example:
- I am no longer willing to...
- I will not accept...
- I want you to...
- It's not okay for me to...
-This makes me uncomfortable, and I no longer want to...
Communicate what you agree with and what you don't agree with. You don't have to justify yourself, apologize, or offer a multitude of explanations. If your mother doesn’t respect your boundaries, you have the right to leave, ask her to leave, or hang up the phone. You don't have to stay in a situation that harms you. You have the right to be respected and to take a stand against behaviors that harm you. Be consistent and tell your mother what you will do if she doesn’t respect your boundaries. For example, "if you continue to insist on this topic, I will end the conversation and leave," "if you continue to call me at work, even though I asked you not to, I will not answer your calls."
To redefine the terms of the relationship, tell your mother what are the most important aspects that need to be addressed, what you are willing to do for it, what you want her to do (or stop doing), and what will happen if the situation doesn’t change. Be aware that there is a high probability that your mother will resort to emotional blackmail again, she will try to make you feel guilty, and that's why it's very important for you to have inner clarity about what you want and what you no longer want. Stay loyal to yourself, keep your calm, and have an assertive and non-defensive attitude.
If your mother is not willing to make any changes, if she continues to resist the changes you want to make, limit her involvement in your life as much as possible. Do not engage in personal matters, do not give her details about your life, and change the subject if she tries to bring up topics that would lead to the same type of approach from her. She might ask you things like:
- why are you acting this way?
- why don't you tell me anything anymore?
- why have you distanced yourself from me?
There is no need to open a "Pandora's box," simply respond like this:
- I am busy with some personal projects. What have you been up to?
- I need to handle some things on my own.
- I'm fine, tell me what you've been doing.
You may feel that a superficial relationship of this kind is preferable to complete absence of a relationship. However, there are situations where cutting off all contact seems to be the only feasible option. It's an extremely difficult decision, but when nothing works, it may seem to be the only way to free yourself and lead a normal and fulfilling life.
Embrace and encourage the child you once were - in an enmeshed mother-daughter relationship, the part of you that reacts is the frightened child who still expects approvals and validations from your mother, who fears losing her affection and care if you don't meet her expectations, and thus, your survival will be jeopardized. Tell this little girl all the things you wish your mother had told you, give her all your affection, encourage her, and assure her that she is safe and that you will always be there for her.
You are a wonderful woman, you have changed and grown. You are stronger, braver, and have more resources than you think, and your role as a daughter can be redefined according to what you know is best for you, regardless of the expectations and definitions of others about what "fulfilling your duty" means. First and foremost, you owe it to yourself - to define your individuality, to reclaim your power, and to build your own life.
Dr. Ursula Sandner