Dear Andy:

My mother is about to have a serious surgery and both my sister and I are feeling guilty.  We don’t think that her decision to have the surgery is a very good idea.  Why?  Basically, her father and grandfather became miserable old wrecks in bad health who drank themselves to death and needed constant care until they died.  Our mom seems to be on the same path. In addition, although we love her, in some ways we don’t like her.  She is difficult to deal with.  She can’t sustain relationships with friends or family members.  Mostly people try to minimize contact with her. Often they find it easier to not talk with her altogether.  In a sense, it would be easier for my sister and I if she passed away.  We feel guilty about feeling this way.  But we do.

-  GUILT-RIDDEN SON

Dear Guilt-Ridden:

I’m sorry that you haven’t had the experience of having a mom you can admire.  You make no mention of your father but by what you have said, it sounds like your mother has chosen to be alone other than to have some contact with you and your sister.

Let’s talk about emotions, shall we?  There are millions of books and scientific articles written about emotions.  There are researchers in psychology labs around the world (Paul Eckman,  Les Greenberg, Nico Frijda, and Klaus Sherer to name a few) who have spent their careers studying emotions.  Human beings across the world are biologically hardwired to experience a range of emotions. Emotions serve important communicative functions.  Guilt, envy, anger, jealousy, fear, sadness, joy, shame, love, and disgust are all core emotions.  Guilt and shame are often mislabeled which is what may be going on for you here.  What follows is a massive oversimplification about guilt and shame, but nonetheless, I hope it’s helpful to you.

Guilt involves condemning an action, while shame condemns the whole person as ‘no good’.  There are two types of guilt:  Adaptive guilt and maladaptive guilt.  In adaptive guilt, you’ve done something wrong and feel badly.  For example, if you stole your neighbour’s lawnmower, you have done something wrong.  If you are not a psychopath, a guilt response emerges to signal to you that what you did was inappropriate.  Guilt then acts as a motivator to make amends or repair a wrong so you end up putting your neighbour’s lawnmower back in the stealth of the night.  In this example, your guilt is adaptive because you felt badly AND you did a factual wrong.  In maladaptive guilt, you feel guilt and have NOT done any wrong.  For example, if your mother forgot to ask you to turn off the crockpot, you may feel guilty about the overcooked meal even though you didn’t do anything to contribute to it.

I wonder if it is not guilt that you are feeling about disliking your mother, but shame.

You say you and your sister love your mother but do not like her and that this causes you “guilt”.  I am going to hazard that you feel shame because it’s generally not cool to not like one’s mother.  Society frowns upon this.   Adaptive shame is society’s way of keeping its members in line.  For example, carrying around a placard that says “I am a thief” is form of punishment meant to publicly shame a person into following the rules.  The issue here may be that your shame is maladaptive, meaning that the shame that you are feeling is misguided.  I say this because the facts seem to be that unfortunately, your mom is unlikeable.  It’s therefore understandable for you to feel the way you do.

Our society has strong messages that we should love and respect our parents.  This rule is meant to encourage families to stick together to protect each other.  Most religions teach us to love and respect our parents.  Under usual circumstances, this is a no brainer, however your mom sounds like she can be difficult and this makes her unlikeable.  You feel like a bad person for not having the warm and fuzzies for you mother.  Picking out a mother’s day card is likely distressing.  By saying it would be a relief if your parent died generally won’t earn you any fans and yet no one can judge you because they haven’t lived your experience.  In having good reasons to not like your mother but by still loving her, you haven’t committed a crime for which you should be socially sanctioned.   This concludes me to think that you are experiencing maladaptive shame.

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You are worried that your mother will become a curmudgeon and develop the “thirst”.  Your fear is understandable.  Health complications may lead her into victimhood or you could imprison yourself in a caregiving role, which you do not wish to take on. Others around you won’t understand your dilemma and may look at you with incredulity:  “What’s wrong with you that you don’t like your mother?”  We are rarely taught that respect needs to be EARNED regardless of the other’s role.  The only exemption to this is society’s most vulnerable including children and the infirm.

Which brings me to my final point.  Your mom has come by some of her unlikeability honestly.  In fact, you state so when you say that her father and grandfather were nasty.  We can assume that your mother was mistreated by them.  The grumpiness of your grandfather and great grandfather as they aged is a reflection of how they lived their lives before they grew old.  Your mother’s mistreatment sounds to me like it may have resulted in mental health problems for her.  Her life sounds so impaired.  One can see that she is impaired because she does not possess the capacity to pull herself together in a sustained way.

Knowing this, is there a way that you can soften to your mother, while observing and respecting your own limits?  I suggest you balance the fact that she is unlikeable with the fact that you have a life of your own to live.  You may want to read Christine Lawson’s (2000) book Understanding the Borderline Mother and put into practice some of the lessons available through Out of the Fog http://www.outofthefog.net

 

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