Amid the endless picture parade of smiling mothers hugging loved-looking daughters on Mother’s Day this year, I sighed and scrolled faster than usual, half not looking and half not caring.
I’ve been working hard to accept everything about my life, and this mother and daughter relationship is one of my life’s bigger challenges. This year’s Mother’s Day was tough because it marked the first year I didn’t talk to my mother. We haven’t spoken since the fall. Our relationship has grown increasingly toxic, and I was spending so much time recovering from our interactions that I needed a break.
Note that I said our relationship was toxic. I used to blame her for everything, but as I’ve developed spiritually, I’ve been able to take a step back and realize how we play off of each other. I’ve watched my reactions in her presence, and I’ve also been able to take a wider view into the things she does that hurt me so much.
Recently, I shared thoughts about this on Instagram and the huge response shocked me. So many people said they experienced similar problems, and I realized that once again, no matter how messed up my life has been, other people have experienced the same things. This is the gift of vulnerability.
This also means that many of us are wandering around with bleeding holes in our hearts, searching for a warm, fuzzy nurturing image of mother that will never come to life. Others of you may feel a similar way about your father, or someone else in your life.
Despite the endless Mother’s Day social media display, having a difficult mother and daughter relationship is not uncommon.
In the past, I’ve written about the mother wound, which results in persistent, nagging feelings that you’re not good enough and don’t deserve good things. And this is not at all to cast blame because let’s remember it’s hurt people who hurt people. These are learned patterns passed down from generation to generation.
Fortunately with the light of awareness, we can heal. (Click here to download a free meditation for emotional healing.)
Here are a few things I’ve learned while healing from a painful mother and daughter relationship.
1. Accept your mother (or whomever) as she is.
For so, so, so long, I tried to teach my mother how to heal as I taught myself how to heal. This was a big mistake.
First, it perpetuated our relationship’s diseased dynamic of parentification — where the child takes on typically adult roles. This usually happens after one parent dies, as in my case, or perhaps when a parent abuses alcohol or drugs and becomes unable to care for the child.
In this case, my unconscious process of trying to heal my wound perpetuated it. As a result of my childhood, I often feel responsible for other people. While spiritually unaware, I felt responsible for helping my mother heal, for caring for her.
My own healing was limited because the two of us unconsciously played out our dysfunctional roles, again and again. As I became more aware and accepted that each of us is independent and responsible for ourselves, my relationship with my mother deteriorated dramatically.
Another reason efforts to help her heal backfired was likely because I subconsciously hoped that my experience of childhood would change. That will never happen. Moving on requires completely accepting the past and realizing that a sad past doesn’t make me flawed nor does it doom me to eternal suffering.
Believe in your goodness. Believe that healing is possible.
We don’t always need to understand why things happen, but only accept that they did.
2. Create distance
This may not be the right step for everyone, but looking back on my life, the times I’ve made the most personal progress on healing my mother and daughter relationship were times when I had that distance.
Even if you don’t create physical distance, create boundaries. Establish rules for how you will and will not be treated, and don’t be afraid to enforce them. Don’t scream and yell and cause more problems, but simply leave the room or let the phone keep ringing, tell your mother or whoever that you will not be treated this way. We teach people how to treat us, and this is one instance where teaching is totally permissible.
3. Listen to your heart, not others’ opinions.
The world is full of people who will say, “But it’s family,” and this will make you feel bad for establishing the boundaries that you know in your heart you need to heal.
Here’s the thing. As compassionate as someone can be, nobody will ever understand your pain. We try endlessly to make people understand our pain because we feel this will validate our experience. But we need to validate our own experiences and not worry what other people think because it’s our life.
Trying to explain yourself to people who will never understand only hurts you. It wastes your energy and makes you doubt yourself. By all means be vulnerable, but be smart about it. Engage in radical acts of vulnerability strategically, when it serves you, and not simply to generate compassion or understanding. If that’s your only goal, vulnerability will empty you, not inspire you.
4. Have compassion.
Take a wider view and understand that the people who hurt us are themselves hurting. Mental illness runs deep in my mother’s family and I’m not sure what her house was like growing up because she never has really shared stories with me.
But looking at her, I see a scared, lonely child. Someone who’s afraid of doing things the wrong way. Someone who’s afraid of her emotions and buries them so deep inside she doesn’t even know what they are. Someone who was essentially told, “feelings are not rational. They’re wrong. You’re bad for feeling them.” Someone whose husband and daughter left way too soon.
Someone who’s suffering.
Her suffering has made me suffer and our mother and daughter relationship is damaged. I’ve often felt bad about that, like it says bad things about who I am. I know I’m not perfect because nobody is. But I know I deserve to be treated a certain way and if someone can’t treat me that way, then I can’t have them around me, no matter who they are.
5. Give yourself what you need
So many people feel this maternal void and fill it with things — shopping, television, drugs, food, sex. But what we really need is to show up for ourselves.
We need to nurture ourselves. Take time to do what fills you up. Talk nicely to yourself. Be your biggest cheerleader. Tell yourself, “great job!” Feed yourself wholesome food. Create a beautiful home. Plant flowers, water them and watch them grow. Learn to tell yourself that you’re good enough and it’s okay to take a break.
Learn to tell yourself that you’re still worthy even if you’re not famous and changing the world. You, your heart, your smile, your tears — all of you — is good enough exactly as you are.
As you accept your mother, even from afar, you will accept yourself. Her genes are part of you, hating her is just hating yourself.
You may not be able to rewrite the past, but you can definitely create whatever kind of future your heart desires.
How have you navigated your difficult mother and daughter relationship? Share your story in the comments below.
Image by Emery Co Photo via Flickr