Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the cofounder of Harley Therapy Platform, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
I have a really difficult relationship with my mother. As I get older, I find her opinions, viewpoints and personality at total odds to mine. If I'm being honest, if she wasn't my mother, she wouldn't be someone I would choose to have in my life. I dread when she visits, we have nothing to talk about and my mood drops, much to the despair of my partner who recognises who I turn into when my mum visits. I have had periods of time when we've not communicated but she just reverts to her usual behaviours after we've resumed talking. She is in her 80s, in very good health and fitness, still works part-time so on the outside, other people think she is amazing. But to those who are closer she is extremely negative, selfish and ultimately not very happy. Each time we do meet up or she visits, I find myself more and more distant from her. What do I do? Or what coping mechanisms could I adopt to make our relationship more bearable?
The starting point should be questioning whether you want family to take special priority. How important is family to you as a value system? Has it worked for you in the past? Or would it be better for you to have quality relationships as a priority, which sometimes means that immediate family may not feature. We often assume blood is thicker than water and we need to have closer bonds with people who we are related to. But actually, there are a lot of divided families. A lot of ruptures. And maybe it doesn't need to be often repaired at the expense of one's own personal well-being.
If you do want family to be prominent that can often be very hard work. Sometimes it can be done together, for example in family therapy. But often, it takes one person to be the driver of that effort. It might be one person (in this case, it could be you) who carries the weight a bit more to try and bridge those difficulties. On top of that some people are relatively rigid or fixed in their mindsets, and they're less likely to change than we are. But the one thing we do have control over is how we respond to other people's behaviour. Sometimes it's easier just to accept that they're not going to change rather than attempt to make them do so.
It is also quite common that people can be kinder and more polished to strangers than to people closest to them. So you might find that parents are more aggressive with their children or vice versa than they are outsiders. To some extent, we have to maintain a front in order to stay at school or keep a job, but our family are generally more forgiving, or at least we think they are. At the same time, there's a price to be paid for relaxing and mistreating people around us, which is that it's more deeply felt and can cause ruptures.
As for coping mechanisms, there is the process of adapting our viewpoints. For example, you could do a thought diary – a CBT exercise where you write down what you're thinking and the thoughts that underly that emotion. This can lead you to potentially seeing things a different way: for example maybe you think "she's a difficult woman who has high expectations and she sees me in the same light, she's not taking it personally out on me." And then you rate how you're feeling afterwards.
That deals with cognitions, but the other important part of CBT is behaviour. What do we do around that person? Can we expose ourselves less for example, with shorter visits? Can we establish boundaries, even saying something like "You may not realise but actually I hurt when you say something like that". Once you highlight that you're uncomfortable, then you can test the waters. Your mother is probably unlikely to change but she may shift a little bit by hearing the impact.
If you want to stop any relationship like this from worsening, you should pay attention to self-care as a barometer of how much this is affecting you. That is a really important starting point to then be able to adapt. And then we can either modify our thinking or be a bit more protective of ourselves. And self-protection can keep things from spiralling.
There are no rules about when you should and shouldn't set personal boundaries with family. It's essentially down to how important it is for you to be in touch and maintain a relationship, and how far you're willing to work to maintain that or to achieve that. Generally, the breaking point hovers around levels of abuse. To what extent are you being verbally, physically, emotionally manipulated, or harmed? That for many people is the cut-off point, but for others, they cut it off before it gets that serious. Self-respect above all must be your guide.