Honestly, I didn’t realize when I started this two part series about moms and emotions that it would be released the week before and after Mother’s Day! But here we are, I guess it’s appropriate timing. Many of us want to celebrate the wonderful older women in our lives. But some of us may be celebrating with a tinge of reservation or obligation. If this is you, it’s probably because there are some unresolved emotional issues around your relationship with your mom (or mother-in-law, or step-mom, etc.).
If you are just catching us this week, make sure you go back and read Part 1, where I talked about some possible natural causes for heightened emotions in the moms of adults. Especially if you think I’m being hard on moms today, you’ll want to know I gave the benefit of the doubt last week! When I talked about giving the benefit of the doubt, I referred to well-meaning, mostly healthy moms who really want the best for their kids. Today, we’ll look at some darker, trickier explanations for why you might be feeling manipulated by your mom’s emotions.
Moms with Trauma
I often refer to the phrase “hurt people hurt people.” When someone is really awful to me or someone I love, I want to maintain curiosity about that person. While people with zero trauma in their lives might be shallow and glib, people with substantial unresolved trauma can cause a lot of pain. By trauma, I’m referring to anything that went beyond your mind and body’s ability to cope. Some of our parents have intense physical, sexual, or verbal abuse in their backgrounds. Other parents were simply raised in an environment of emotional neglect or stuntedness. Common family life events such as miscarriage, divorce, or employment instability can also be trauma.
When we’re looking at moms who use emotions to manipulate, control, or avoid, we’re most likely looking at moms who have unresolved trauma. Trauma that sits at the front of their awareness causes many unrelated interactions to be interpreted through the lens of the original pain. If your mom’s emotional response to your conversation seems disproportionate, it is likely that she is responding through the lens of a trauma that has nothing to do with you.
Moms with Mental Health Concerns
In the last few years, the word “narcissist” has come up as sort of a colloquial buzzword. As a mental health professional, I hate that in the way that I hate it when very precise people are called “OCD” or moody people are labeled “bipolar.” I think we all have some narcissism–at lower levels, it’s just self-centeredness that is inherent to humans. But to truly have the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not as common as you might think. The criteria for diagnosis are complex and the prognosis is grim. If your mom truly has a personality disorder, that could explain manipulative emotional behavior.
So while I think it’s unlikely that your mom is truly a narcissist, it’s possible that she does have some of those traits. It’s also possible that on top of trauma, she is dealing with other mental health diagnoses. Depression brings tears close to the surface, diminishes hope and pleasure in ordinary life, and increases self-hatred. Anxiety increases worry and physical complaints, ruins concentration, and disrupts normal sleeping. Any common mental health disorder can make it difficult to utilize critical thinking, make decisions, and exert control over everyday emotions. If your mom is dealing with one of these common mental health concerns, it could explain why she seems over-sensitive and emotional.
Moms Who Manipulate
The previous sections discussed some possible explanations for bad behavior in moms. I want to put those forward so that we maintain curiosity about why people act the way they do. That seems to be the loving thing to do, rather than condemn bad behavior immediately. However, there are moms who just are not kind and selfless people. They may be so self-focused that they really can’t see the destruction they are causing. Very few are really wicked enough to see the problems and not care.
I don’t think moms who manipulate do it on purpose to make your lives miserable. I think they believe there are valid reasons for controlling the outcomes of situations. They probably want to protect you from something that worries them. If this is the case, they need help to see better solutions for improving family life and interactions. At the very least, if your mom is manipulating you, it could be because she can’t bear the emotional fallout of the alternative. She needs to be reminded of her own internal resources and encouraged to develop new strength.
Boundaries with Moms
Understanding if your mom comes from a place of physical or emotional difficulty versus meanness and control is the point of this series. But there would be no value in understanding if we didn’t have a path forward. I believe that path is going to be healthy boundaries. If you have never read the work of Henry Cloud and John Townsend, you might be interested in the classic Boundaries book. Check out their website for more resources. You can take a quiz to help you understand your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to boundaries. Yes, there is even a book about moms there!
One of the most profound things I ever heard about boundaries came from John Townsend. He said that boundaries may hurt people, but they do not harm people. Setting a boundary with your mom might cause more of the emotional difficulty in the short-term because she will probably cry or be angry about it. However, in the long-term, your relationship will be healthier because you will avoid resentment and manipulation.
It’s impossible to know all the different scenarios that might exist for you and how to suggest boundaries for each one. In counseling, I see women (in particular) who need to set boundaries around their moms’ influence on their decisions. Women and their moms need boundaries around how time is spent together and how much. Some women need to set guidelines about how to treat personal space and belongings. Most women who become mothers will need to consider new boundaries around child rearing with new and eager grandmas.
Moms and the Gospel
I can’t wrap up a post or a series without pointing you to the true source of hope. How can we view emotional sensitivity, brokenness, and manipulation in light of the Gospel? This Tim Keller quote can guide pretty much any discussion: “You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope-at the same time.” (It’s been repeated in so many variations that you will easily find the reference on the internet or Twitter.)
Moms. You are sinful. Daughters. You are sinful, too. Moms. You are more loved that you can hope, by a love that outshines your children’s ability even to conceive of love. Daughters, your Father loves you more than your mother can. Whenever problems arise in the relationship with mom, it’s time to put yourself aside. Learn to see your mom or grown child in the light of Jesus’ completed work on the cross. If fear is getting in the way of trusting God with this relationship, seek a competent Christian therapist. We can help you break down the factors that contribute to your difficult relationship. As always, we want to point you to true wholeness in your relationship with Jesus.