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Complicated relationship with your mother? Here are 5 things this psychotherapist says can help

Mother’s Day is all very well but the relationship between a mother and daughter can be a handful of emotions. Author and psychotherapist, Hilary Jacobs Hendal has advice

Mother-daughter relationships are fraught. I have never met a woman that didn’t have mixed feelings about her mother. At the heart, there is typically deep love and gratitude. Yet, mother-daughter relationships are replete with conflict, blame, grudges from the past, criticism, neglect, guilt, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, fighting, even estrangements caused by stalemates that go on for years.

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Mother-daughter relationships are replete with conflict, caused by stalemates that go on for years.

Courtney had a challenging relationship with her mother who was moody and inconsistent in how she treated her. At her best, Courtney’s mum was sweet and supportive. At her worst, she was critical and mean. Courtney held a deep-seated belief that her mother was mean because Courtney was bad. The part of her that held that belief felt if only she could please her mother she would get the love she wanted consistently. I asked Courtney if her mother was like this before Courtney was born. With a little bit of research by interviewing her mother’s sisters and brothers, she learned her mother had always been “difficult” and had struggled to maintain relationships. People got fed up with her and she either lost friends or cut people off to save face. This new knowledge was relieving to Courtney. With Mother’s Day coming soon and her mother declining a bit with age, Courtney wanted to try to communicate more authentically with her mother.

My internal voice might say this, ‘I love my mum AND I’m so irritated by her right now

I am a psychotherapist specializing in emotions, trauma and relationships. Over the years I have been in practice I have really come to appreciate the complexity of feelings around family members. Before I learned about emotions in my training, I had a very limited capacity to deal with conflicts other than to blame my mother for the ways she failed me or blame myself for not being a better daughter. Now I look at relationships with much more nuance. This approach helps by allowing space for curiosity to learn more about your mother’s past and to hopefully gain a more profound understanding of why it is such a complex relationship.

Learn to walk away, take a break or even better, sleep on it.

I helped Courtney by sharing five helpful tips to managing her emotions while working to stay authentically connected to mother. I hope they help you too.

1. Know that feelings just are—not good or bad

Feelings are hard-wired programs that tell us how the environment is affecting us. We need to listen to them and use them wisely. Judging yourself doesn’t help. Thinking through how to communicate your feelings is time better spent. For example, when Courtney thought about talking to her mum about some of the things that bothered her from the past, she got anxious. I taught Courtney to notice the anxiety in her body and breathe deeply to relax. It made sense that anxiety came up for Courtney as she was trying something scary and new, and something to which she knew her mother could react badly.

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Learning that we can have opposite emotions at the same time is one of the most helpful things I have learned.

2. Know you can have two opposite feelings at once

When my mum irritates me because she gives me unsolicited advice, I honour both my annoyance and my love for her simultaneously. My internal voice might say this, ‘I love my mum AND I’m so irritated by her right now’. Learning that we can have opposite emotions at the same time is one of the most helpful things I have learned. And holding conflicting emotions in mind decreases anxiety. Courtney had to hold three feelings: her love for her mum, her anger for being harsh, and her desire to improve their relationship.

3. Give yourself compassion, and even if you’re furious

Most people immediately feel guilty when they are angry at their mother. They feel they should have more patience and they internalize a sense that they are a bad daughter. I have learned to validate those feelings when I have them, but then to immediately and purposely make a shift toward feeling compassionate to myself for two main reasons. I give myself compassion when I am angry because that feeling hurts and makes me feel bad. I give myself compassion because being in a fight with one’s mother is upsetting. We can strive to have self-compassion and still work towards becoming more patient and less reactive. Courtney was working hard to have compassion for herself although it was a struggle not to beat herself up for being angry.

4. Resist the temptation to blame

Instead, lean into taking care of your own feelings. Acknowledge any sadness, anger, fear and pain. Accept what happened, be it in the past or present. Validate that miscommunications between mothers and daughters are very typical, and strive to both understand her and help her more fully understand you.

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Returning to a conversation after the dust has settled will allow for a better understanding of each other.

5. Try to repair ruptures but only after emotions have calmed down

Nothing good ever happens when we communicate with others in an emotionally reactive state. Learn to walk away, take a break or even better, sleep on it. Then come back to the table. Ask your mother if she is interested in having better and kinder communication. If so, go back to the moment when things started to escalate and see where you misunderstood each other. If she doesn’t want to work on better communication, allow yourself to feel sad—that’s a real loss to be mourned.

Mother-daughter relationships can evolve and grow over a life-time. I have many patients whose mothers were mean and even abusive when they were young, but then mellow with time. This can be confusing. It is hard for the brain to update to a new normal, especially when emotions from the past haven’t been addressed. There are few things that help relationships more than being authentic and having your true feelings heard. Maybe this Mother’s Day you’ll take a chance and share something with your mum that you need to get off your chest. If she hears you, it will feel great. If she doesn’t, you’ve already survived your childhood and you’ll survive the truth as well. Accepting reality and tending to your deepest feelings is the best way to be your own wonderful mother on Mother’s Day and beyond. And being your own good mother is a relationship that will nurture you 24/7 and last for the rest of your life.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor based in New York City. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hilary was also the mental health consultant for the TV series Mad Men.

To learn more about managing the emotions that complicated relationships bring up, read: It’s Not Always Depression: A New Theory of Listening to Your Body, Discovering Core Emotions and Reconnecting with Your Authentic Self

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