Dear Dr. Dan: For many years I have been struggling with my mother, who makes me feel guilty. As long as she was married, she was fine. But now that she does not have a husband, it seems as if she expects my husband and me to take his place.
She also will not ask for what she wants but will try to manipulate us into meeting her needs. I have tried to distance myself from her, but if I do not see or call her for a while, she becomes even worse.
She is a negative and unhappy person. She has had a history of depression in her family, but she refuses any therapy or medication. She is 83 years old and in great health. She could have a good life but all she does is complain and make everyone feel guilty.
I feel bad that she is so miserable, but it is hard for me to want to be around her when I am continually made to feel guilty.
I am at a loss as to what to do. My guilt keeps me from cutting communication altogether. I know this will get worse as she gets older and I do not want to spend my life feeling guilty. Maybe you can help.
Dear Meryl: Although your mother sounds pretty angry and manipulative, a woman in distress lives underneath her distasteful behavior. Given her history, she probably has a clinical depression, which is often associated with very low self-esteem and anxiety.
Anxiety demands comfort and nurture, but her low self-esteem probably renders her unable to say what she wants directly; hence the manipulation.
Ideally, she would see a good geriatric psychiatrist who could evaluate her and maybe recommend some medication. In addition, some wonderful programs exist that could help her manage her anxiety. She could also get involved with some friends to socialize or volunteer. This would help change her focus from inside to outside. From what you describe, she will not take a simple recommendation, so the message needs to be different.
Your mother sounds more scared than mean.
The guilt, though, is coming from you. My hunch is that you feel guilty because you tell yourself you should be doing more to make her happy. When that doesn’t happen, you feel guilty and you get angry at yourself or at your mother. So while her suffering comes from depression, yours comes in part from your own expectations and maybe from your mother’s. You cannot cure her anxiety, nor can you change her depression. Often, guilt is a reaction to one’s sense of helplessness. This may well be what’s happening with you.
You said she is 83 and could have a good life. But what if you were wrong and the life she leads is the one she always will have? What if you could give up the fight to make her less anxious and more independent?
Usually what harms people and their relationships is not what they feel, it’s when the feelings are unspoken. Because then we cannot learn from one another.
Imagine what would happen if you stopped fighting with your mother and asked her what she is feeling when she is alone. Invite her to say more than simply “lonely” or nervous. Ask about her fears and how long she has had them. Ask her to describe the pain of her loneliness. I’ll bet it sounds a lot like yours.
Please don’t try to reassure her that she will be OK or that you will be back soon. Just listen. If your mother could speak about her anxiety and you could talk about your helplessness and sadness, the relationship might shift dramatically. Her anxiety would not go away, nor would your helplessness. But the struggle might end.
Perhaps then you could both go into therapy together to work on your relationship. Then maybe your mother will understand that her depression, like all depressions, causes pain to loved ones also. Remember that first the emotions you both carry need to be faced, not fixed.