Just once you’d like to get off the phone or come away from a visit with Mom and feel good about yourself, is that too much to ask?
Instead, you feel beaten down, dismissed, demoralized, and never good enough. What’s worse, dealing with her causes you to flip-flop between resentment and guilt. Tired of arguing with her boundary-crossing, gaslighting version of motherhood, you’re exhausted from the drama. You aren’t sure if you are the problem or if there’s something wrong with her. If anyone else treated you this way, you could cut out of your life, but…she’s your MOTHER, so… how do you deal with a toxic Mom?
As a psychotherapist for over 30 years counseling daughters of difficult mothers, I know what works and what doesn’t.
The thing is, it’s rarely what comes naturally.
Because Mom has systematically programmed you to her way of thinking, even if you aren’t fully aware of it, therefore, what pops in your head is usually some watered-down version of seeking her approval or asking for her permission. She has, by definition, interrupted or violated the natural way of things and set up patterns (etched into your subconscious) that cause you to self-sabotage.
To break free of the toxic dynamics that keep you stuck going round and round the same arguments and experiencing the same pain, you have to think outside of the box.
Here is a list that will take you beyond the standard “stand up for yourself and set healthy boundaries“: curated suggestions that will definitively move the needle forward, not just tell you what you already know.
Don’t be fooled; it can sometimes years of trial and error, therapy, and/or soul searching to get there, but I’ve cut out all the fat and given it to you straight. Here is your bottom-line, take no prisoners, ways you can effectively deal with a toxic mother, and not lose your mind.
How to deal with a toxic mother -10 Tips
1) Find out what’s behind your Mother’s toxic behavior.
Knowing what drives your mother’s behavior is an essential key element when planning how to deal with her. Is she deeply insecure, need to act superior and grandiose, fitting more of a Narcissistic profile? Does he hide her Narcissisitism behind martyrdom or appropriate your successes and manipulation through passivity like an academy award-winning Covert Narcissist? Are her extreme fears of abandonment behind her desperate need to cling to you, thus signifying a possible Borderline Personality Disorder? Is she high in NPD traits or BPD, or does she have trauma around a single issue?
When you know where Mom’s unreasonable behavior is coming from, you also have a clear understanding of how it isn’t your fault, and no, you’re not too sensitive. Arm yourself with knowledge and build a solid basis from which to make changes that stick.
2) Realize change is only going to come from you-
Why would Mom change? As far as you can tell, that dynamic seems to be working for her. OR it is also possible that she is incapable of acting differently. Remember, we are talking about a Mom with limitations. If you wait for her to realize the error of her ways, you could be waiting a lifetime. Even though it will feel like parting your hair on the wrong side, you will need to take the lead if you want things to change. It isn’t fair but it is the reality. Any change in the way you all interact will need to be introduced slowly, thoughtfully, and deliberately if a change is going to happen in this lifetime.
3) Mom only has as much power as you give her-
At the end of the day, the power dynamic changed when you became an adult. Except, no one bothered to tell you. Mom had the power when you were a kid; now you have the power. When you endlessly explain yourself or plead for her to understand where you are coming from, you give that power away.
And I get it. You are only trying to be respectful and kind. However, if she’s toxic, she doesn’t play fair. You are playing a relational game while she is using power moves. But, as Dr, Phil would say, “How’s that working for you? ” You don’t have to stoop to playing dirty, not if you know where you stand and stand tall.
4) Be ready for family pushback–
Families operate in systems and systems are very stubborn things. There is enormous pressure to maintain the status quo, even when it’s miserable and unfair. It isn’t unusual for Dad ( if he’s stuck in there this long) to be passive and enabling. It’s great if your family is supportive when you put a new plan into place, but don’t expect it, and above all don’t let it derail you.
5) Surround yourself with allies.
You are going to need a support system in place when you make a change. When Mom pushes back, and your family tells you to get over yourself, you need friends and/or a partner to remind you that you are more than someone’s daughter and hold your hand when you are scared. Pick people who genuinely want the best for you and let them know you’re going to need them.
6) Release your unconscious blocks.
You may be at “tear your hair out ” levels of frustration with your mother, but underneath it, all have unconscious blockages programmed from early childhood that threaten to sabotage your best intentions. Examples of that programming are ” Mother knows best” and ” I can’t upset my mother” I know these sound patently untrue, but they can be the reason why you can’t bring yourself to call her out or say the thing that might hurt her feelings. You can care for mom but not let her emotions control you. Repeat after me,” I am not responsible for my mother’s happiness. I am not responsible for my mother’s happiness. I am not responsible for my mother’s happiness.” Got it!
7) Make small changes. Expect pushback. Stand your ground.
Don’t expect one declaration to turn things around. The best strategy to go about making changes is to start small. Pick an issue that matters to you but is not the hill you are willing to die on, communicate it succinctly, and expect she won’t like it. Whether you encounter a mere tremor of a tsunami of pushback, standing your ground will let her know you mean business.
8) Set boundaries you can control.
Telling a toxic mother to stop acting badly is about as effective as telling a leopard to change her spots. It does not work and sets you up for failure. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t want you to criticize my parenting anymore,” say, ” if you criticize my parenting during our visit, I will need to leave.” When you tell her what you will and will not do and then follow through, voila, you have created a base of control you can build on.
9) Be prepared to feel guilty even if you not
When you change patterns that have been in place your whole life you will feel guilty. This, I can guarantee. This feeling is primal, is gut-level, stemming from old, outdated unconscious programming. You are guilty of changing things up, but you are not guilty of being a bad person. Yet, your nervous system can’t tell the difference. When you set your life on the track of autonomy, you will feel a speed bump of guilt instead of a five-alarm fire. You can be kind without becoming a doormat. With preparation, you can tell yourself, “I ‘ve got this,” and mean it.
10) Find your adult voice and use it.
You are an adult now. You have more power than you know. As an adult, you get to call the shots about how much access Mom has to you. You can’t control her behavior, but you can decide how much to engage with her. When it’s all said and done, it really is that simple.
Here’s a secret. She knows it too. If, (and that’s a big if), you don’t fall for insults, guilting, or bullying, you remain in the driver’s seat of the relationship. Whether you go low contact, no contact, or constant contact, the relationship now can run on your terms. Operating out of a full sense of self (no ish) is the only way forward.
Good news, follow just a few of any of these suggestions, and your life quality will change exponentially. Think for a moment and tally up the hours you’ve spent running over arguments in your mind. Now add the hours you’ve spent feeling resentful, plus the hours flying blind spent in unbalanced relationships because your relationship template was all messed up. Now imagine having those hours back, your peace of mind restored, and the confidence you will gain the knowledge that you can take care of yourself in the face of a bully, even when the bully is your mother.
Making any one of these changes will be harder than you imagine. But once you cross over into the land of fully adulting and dealing with your toxic mother effectively, you will gain peace, self-esteem, and sanity.
What are you waiting for? A better, saner life is waiting for you.
What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.