Dear Carolyn: I was laid off recently from a job of 15 years. My confidence took a blow.
When I told my mom, she said: "Hurry up and update your résumé. And don't forget to add your Employee of the Year award." I had of course already done that, and I asked her why she thought I would forget about the highlight of my career. She said, "Don't get so defensive; I'm just trying to help!"
It would have been more helpful for her to say she had faith in me. But her style has always been 0 percent cheerleader, 100 percent drill sergeant.
I hesitate to tell her anything. When I say I'm going to the beach, she says, "Don't forget sunscreen!" and if I say, "Mom, I'm 55 years old and you don't need to tell me that," she says, "Don't get snippy with me!" Then when I return, she says: "Did you wear sunscreen? Oh, good GIRL!" as though I'm a little kid, or so incompetent that I need to be told what to do.
I try to explain how I feel, but she starts yelling at me.
My confidence suffers every time I talk to her because it seems like she thinks I'm dumb or can't take care of myself. But if I object, she gets upset. What can I say to make her understand that her unsolicited advice insults my intelligence?
— Don't Need This "Help"
Don't Need This "Help": "To make her understand." That is your treadmill, your hamster wheel, your Mobius strip of maternal suffocation.
Trying to change her output — what she thinks or feels or advises — hasn't worked in 55 years, and it isn't yours to change, anyway. So, change your input.
Tell her less. Expect less. React less. That's what you control.
You know the ridiculous advice and invasive questions and "Good girl!" condescension are all coming — so, adapt accordingly. Either:
●Ignore. "So, Mom, how are you?" Don't underestimate the power of a non-answer.
●Rise above. "Ah, Mom. You taught me well, remember?"
●Hold firm. "Nope, not answering that."
●State the obvious. "Mom, I'm 55! years! old!"
●Get silly. "I used baby oil." "Yes, I wore sunscreen. Did you floss?"
But do not engage anymore.
Deflections can be mean if not said in good cheer, so here's where to find some: People tend to smother and control out of anxiety, not contempt, your mother probably included. Such worrying says she doubts her ability to handle risk.
That certainly explains her methods. She fusses over and drill-sergeants the people she cares about because she (fancifully, mistakenly) thinks her fussing helps keep them safe, so she feels better for fussing, which is why she does it — and why anybody does anything, right?
It also means you can expect her to resist your efforts to deflect her, but stand firm — and, again, try more smile, less exasperation. Make this your new way to assure Mom you can manage: quietly managing vs. discussing whether you can.
Don't just do this out of kindness, either. To take her seriously is to question yourself, and that's the crux of it. Self-doubt is the example she set and you now unwittingly live by. If seeing this pattern isn't enough for you to break it, then good therapy might bring relief.