“Did I tell you what my mom did in front of my boyfriend when I was sixteen?!”
Therapy clients often recite painful incidents from childhood. The tendency becomes toxic when rumination over past grievances threatens to take up most of the session.
I get it. There’s pain, regret, sadness and shame locked inside these memories. Often therapy is the only place where stories are told.
Not surprisingly, “mom” takes center stage when childhood pain comes up. This is not to say that “dad” or siblings, friends, and teachers don’t make the cut -- just not as much.
“Haven’t we heard this before?”
The problem with retelling tales is your mother is not in the therapy room with you. No matter how dysfunctional, mean or abusive she may have been -- she doesn’t have to change.
Some clients don’t take this truism lightly.
It’s not productive to allow you to wallow in the past. Humans have a negative bias, and the tendency is to remember bad events. Sometimes this means omitting positive memories, and discounting the truth.
When “How does that make you feel?” fails
Reflecting on unpleasant feelings has a time and a place. The therapy room can be that safe space, to a point.
Endless rumination can lead to depression.
Complaining is not healthy. If left unchecked, this habit creates problems at home, in the community and in the workplace.
The bottom line is there’s no such thing as Jerk Jail, or Dysfunctional Parents’ Prison.
What to do instead of complaining about Mom
1. Acknowledge your loss. It’s hard to recover from dysfunctional parenting. Allow yourself to grieve the mother you never had. Hold a ceremony and say ‘goodbye’ to the mother you wished for.
2. Find compassion. This can be tough -- especially if you suffered abuse or neglect. But you weren’t privy to what your mom was going through back then. A helpful reframe is most people do the best they can with what they have at the time.
3. Designate a daily 15-minute ‘whining window’ and let out your complaining then.
4. Get in touch with you. Self-awareness is the first step to replacing negative patterns with healthy and direct communication.
5. Ask yourself, “What am I doing to make my life better?” the next time you’re in a “Mom rut.”
6. Focus your energy on changing those situations you can control.
7. Realize your mom doesn’t have to change. Especially at this stage of life. Her emotional well-being may be greatly benefited by apologizing, treating others with respect, and acting kind, but if she doesn’t see this, you can’t convince her.
8. Rewrite your childhood ending. Your therapist can assist with this exercise. Search for words to reframe your situation so it makes sense. The moral will be far from perfect, but it will be realistic.
Remember, your mom is not in the therapy room. But you are. And you can change you.
About The Author:
Linda Esposito is a licensed clinical social worker. Read about her work on overcoming anxiety here.
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