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Carolyn Hax: Mom has a trust fund — and guilts grown child over money

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Hey Carolyn! How do I handle my mom always hanging money over my head, when she herself is a trust-fund daughter?

My mom will take any opportunity to guilt me about money she spends “for me” when I haven’t asked her to, yet she herself has never had an income and has lived off my grandfather’s fortune, which he left to her. If I even slightly mention this, she acts completely offended.

I am a young professional carving my own way, and my reality makes me increasingly tired of this dynamic. What would you do? Why can’t she see how hypocritical her behavior is?

— A.

Tell us: What's your favorite Carolyn Hax holiday column?

A.: Your reality, I’d guess, makes her ask questions of herself that she’d rather not be asking.

Could she do what you’re doing if she had to? Could she carve her own way? Where would she be had all that money not just dropped in her lap?

She knows she has always had a cushion. She knows the way you’re exploring and testing yourself is alien to her, having never faced that challenge. She knows you know both of these things about her.

Self-doubt is an uncomfortable place to sit.

She may not want to reckon with “how hypocritical her behavior is,” or have the guts to face it anyway. Maybe this giving-you-money-then-complaining-about-it thing is her way of acting out her discomfort. Simplistically speaking, it’s hard to dwell on one’s own stuff while harping on someone else’s.

Even if I’m completely wrong about her reasons for fussing at you, that general rule still fits. Persistent faultfinding is not a trait you tend to see in people who feel good about themselves, because they tend to be at peace.

All this “why” is a sidebar to the “what” of these guilt trips. Guilt-tripping isn’t just something someone does to you, such as hitting you with a brick; guilt is a transaction. You have to take part. You have to either feel guilty or care that she thinks you should.

The way to preempt these reactions — which is far more realistic, by the way, than expecting your mother to change — is either to stop accepting her money or stop engaging with her complaints. “No thank you, Mom.” “Thank you, Mom.” That’s it.

Make it genuine, not snarky, to show gratitude either way. Certainly those trust-fund swipes you’re taking seem gratuitous in almost any context — and if I’m right about why she’s being so weird with you, they’re a jab right in her sore spot. You may feel like a powerless person “punching up,” but I think you’re underestimating your power and, in this case, at least, actually “punching down” on your mom.

So: “No thank you, Mom,” or, “Thank you, Mom.” Till it sticks.

When you start to feel grounded in your decision not to engage, you might find it interesting to get to know your mom a little better — and to figure out what agitates her so. When she starts “hanging money” over your head, you can point out to her, kindly, what you see: “You seem conflicted about this. Is that fair? Is there something that you’d rather I be doing or that you’d like me to understand?” Mean it. Want to know. And decide upfront not to react emotionally, no matter how she responds. “Okay, I’ll think about that,” is a barrier to overreacting.

You can disrupt this bad dynamic between you, as I said, without knowing the “why” of her behavior — but understanding invites compassion, which brightens every room it’s in.

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