BY STEPHANIE WILLIAMS, PH.D.
For some, Mother’s Day is not a warm day of celebration. Many dread its arrival because their mother has passed or their relationship with their mother is tumultuous. The coming of this day brings with it the sting that “I am different” because I am not like everyone else who is looking forward to happily sharing the day with their mom. It is hard for people not to fall into the trap of “comparing their insides to other people’s outsides,” i.e. thinking that just because people look normal and happy on the outside that they really are.
The sting may also hit you while standing helplessly in the greeting card aisle. With each sticky-sweet card you pick up with sentiments like: “You’re the best mom ever” or “You’ve always been there to guide me and teach me all of the important things in life,” you may find yourself wanting to grab the first blank card with a flower on it and run out of the store.
You may also question what is wrong with your mother. Why can’t she be a normal mom like the idealized image you have of everyone else’s? Or, you may take the shame on yourself and question what is wrong with you. It is hard not to feel defective when it feels like your mother doesn’t love or approve of you. Many wonder when they will ever be good enough to please their mothers. For some, on an unconscious level, it feels like one cannot approve of themselves until their mother does. They hold on to unrealistic expectations that someday their mother will give them the love they need if they change to her liking and meet her expectations.
Some try to avoid the pain of this dilemma and overcompensate by being super-achievers. One may know they are successful in a career, relationship or some other aspect of life, but still continue to feel the ache of incompleteness. They strive to get another degree, another promotion, a bigger house or car, and still feel inadequate or like an imposter.
While others surrender to the pressure of not feeling good enough and self-sabotage and under-achieve as a form of self-punishment. Some find themselves in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable, neglectful or abusive, mirroring the familiar parental relationship.
One may believe in their rational, logical mind that they are good enough, but the human subconscious mind holds onto what was conditioned in childhood. It is very hard for the subconscious mind to synch with the logical mind. In other words, what one thinks may not be what they actually feel. This is the biggest challenge I see my clients facing that makes them feel emotionally stuck and damned to repeat the same unhealthy behaviors. One may go to therapy long enough to realize why they are the way they are, but they are unable to stop the emotional triggers and break the life-long patterns.
Talking about one’s emotional pain with a therapist can be relieving in that another human being validates one’s pain and helps them make sense of what has happened. It can provide comfort to know that one isn’t crazy and that there are reasons for their triggers and behaviors. There are ways to change outdated maladaptive coping mechanisms, but sometimes talking is not enough. I believe that in addition to talk therapy, therapeutic interventions focused on feeling rather than thinking must be employed to effect the physiology of the brain and produce lasting change.
Some thoughts on how to cope with the upcoming Hallmark Holiday:
I often suggest to clients to write a letter to their mother (whether the parent is alive or deceased) and in doing so, hold nothing back that they need to express. I then suggest they share their feelings with a trusted friend or therapist (if they feel safe to do so) and then destroy the letter.
Why not spend time or do something nice for a woman you admire or look up to? This woman may be aware of your admiration of her or not. It does not matter. Possibly a card or gift given to her to express your high regard for her will make both of you feel good.
Lastly, practice a random act of kindness by visiting a woman or multiple women in a retirement facility. There are plenty of women there that would appreciate your visit and possibly some chocolate chip cookies.
Many people spend tremendous energy trying to change their mother’s behavior and hold out hope that someday the relationship will be all they wished it could be. I suggest if your mom cannot receive the goodness you have to offer, find another grateful woman who can. You both will be the better for it.