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5 Ways to Deal With a Guilt-Tripping Mother

You might not be the problem, but you could be the solution.

Key points

  • Some mothers may deal with their own guilt by projecting it onto their children.
  • A mother who regularly inflicts guilt can leave a child feeling angry, critical, unresponsive, and unloving toward her.
  • One way to respond to a mother who inflicts guilt would be to try to empathize with her.
  • “It doesn’t matter what I do for her; it’s never enough.”
  • “I bought my Mom a beautiful gift for her birthday, but she took it back. She always takes my presents back. What’s with that?”
  • “I hate Mother’s Day. I can never get it right.”
  • “My mother’s feelings are forever being hurt. Why doesn’t she appreciate how hard I try?”
Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Guilt-provoking mothers are everywhere. If you have one, you may react in a number of different, common ways, such as with anger, frustration, sadness, hurt, and guilt.

If you feel guilty about not being "good enough" to your mother, or angry at her for “making” you feel guilty, chances are that your mother actually feels guilty, too. While she may not show it directly, psychoanalysts have suggested over the years that guilt-provokers are often guilt-sufferers themselves.

Why is this?

One major reason may be that guilt is a painful emotion. Defined as either actual culpability (“the fact of having committed an offense, crime, violation or wrong”) or “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined," guilt is a feeling most of us hate—and work to eliminate. That’s one of the reasons it is such a powerful tool for getting someone to do what you want them to do. It is also one of the reasons that most of us dislike people who try to make us feel guilty. (In recent years, psychoanalysts have focused less on guilt and more on its cousin, shame.)

Early psychoanalysts understood that unconscious or unrecognized guilt was a driving force behind much neurotic behavior. Freud and Melanie Klein believed that anxiety about normal aggressive wishes towards parents—like the wish to get rid of one parent in order to be the most important person in the other parent’s life—could create guilt in young children that, if unresolved, could impact that child’s mental health throughout the rest of his or her life. Whether conscious or unconscious, guilt is an important factor in our lives.

Guilt is not a nice feeling. We try to avoid it; when we cannot, we try to get rid of it, sometimes by trying to put blame on others through the psychological action called “projection.” “I don’t feel that way; she does,” we say. American psychoanalyst Jody Davies calls this a “hot potato” feeling—if a feeling is too painful to hold onto, we try to pass it on to someone else.

When we cannot give a bad feeling away, we often get angry at the person who seems intent on making us feel it. “It is not my fault, it's yours,” or “I’m not the bad one, you are!” we think to ourselves (even if we do not verbalize it).

If your mother is trying to make you feel guilty, some of her behavior may be driven by her own unrecognized and unresolved feelings of guilt. Should you accuse her of this the next time there’s a conflict between you? Probably not. But being aware of this possibility might help you manage your conflict better.

What you and she—and all of us who struggle with guilty feelings—really want is to be forgiven, to know that we are not all bad. Often we end up getting the exact opposite, though. Your “guilt-provoking" mother may really just want to know that you think she’s a good person—just as you want her to let you know that she thinks that you are good. She may long to hear that her children love her, even as she drives you and your siblings away with her anger and guilt.

Her guilt-provocation might not have anything to do with you at all. It might be about impulses (not even actual behaviors) that she felt towards her own parents or siblings when she was a child. She may want to know that she was not a bad, angry, or hurtful daughter. Maybe she secretly or unconsciously feels that she is a bad person. Or it might even be about you—indirectly if she sometimes hated you when you were a crying, colicky baby. (Mothers do sometimes hate their babies, and according to D.W. Winnicott, these feelings are not only normal but in moderation are a healthy part of mothering!)

Since she can’t ask for it directly, she may use guilt to push you into giving her what she wants. Of course, that doesn’t work—instead, it achieves the opposite. It may leave you feeling angry, critical, unresponsive, and unloving toward her.

What would happen if, instead of reacting to the surface meaning of your mother’s words, you assumed that she was struggling with guilt? What would happen if instead of getting angry when she criticizes you, attacking her back, giving her a meaningless gift, or saying meaningless nice things that you don’t actually mean, you tried to respond to her underlying guilt?

How would you do it?

Here are five simple suggestions. You might start by trying just one. Sometimes one small change in your habitual interactions can trigger new ways of being together, without a single “sorry” ever being said.

  1. Say something positive to your mother about her mothering. It has to be something that is true and that you truly admire or like. It can be something you have always taken for granted, have never thought about, or that you realize you have been doing with your own children. For instance, you might say, “You know Mom, I was thinking about you today when the kids and I sat down to watch a TV show. I always loved that you sat with us when we watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, and I try to make sure that I do it at least once a week with the kids. It’s just a nice time of being relaxed together.”
  2. Try to put yourself in her place and respond to her accordingly. For instance, if you are staying home for Mother’s Day in order to be with your own children, or if you are going to see your partner’s mom instead of yours, you might try saying, “I know how hard this is for you, Mom, and I just want you to know that I love you! I’m sorry I can’t be in two places at once.” If it’s true, you could add, “And you’ve been a terrific mother in so many ways, I don’t want you to think that our not being with you means that we think you haven’t been a good mom!”
  3. Pay attention to your own wish to get rid of your guilty feelings. Is it possible that you and your mother are playing a game of hot potato with guilt? Are you trying to push your bad feelings off onto her? If so, try to honestly assess what you might be feeling guilty about. We all do things we wish we hadn’t done from time to time. What can you do to fix it? What can you forgive yourself for? What can you simply let go of? Managing your own guilt will make it easier to stop pushing it back onto your mother when she tries to hand hers off to you.
  4. Keep your own needs and the needs of the other people in your life in your mind. But don’t rub them in your mother’s face. Right now she might be thinking about only her needs, but at some point, she may respect you for having taken care of yourself and the other people you love without making her feel like a bad or selfish person for wanting you to take care of her instead.
  5. Avoid name-calling. The term “selfish” has become such a loaded one in our culture that it’s better to keep it out of the conversation altogether. If it comes up—not from your own mouth, of course!—remember that it is healthy to take care of your own needs. Both you and your mom are probably trying to take care of yourselves. It’s too bad that you can’t do it together, and at the same time meet some of each other’s needs; but if you can’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she's a bad mother, that you're a bad child, or that either of you is a bad person.

If you do try any of these techniques, please let me know how it works. I’d also love to hear about anything else that you might have tried to deal with your own feelings of guilt.

Copyright fdbarth@2015

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