Questions from a reader:

My relationship with my mother broke down the same year my husband and I got married, nearly 10 years ago. I tried for the first year with phone calls on birthdays, holidays, etc. That broke down so then I sent cards which I kept doing up until a year ago. My husband and I moved so I felt compelled to send her my new address (which I did by mail). She has never contacted me. Neither have my siblings or my father (who, I believe, have helped enable her behaviour). I have questions that constantly ruminate in my head, especially around birthdays and holidays.

1. How do I stop feeling guilty about choosing to not to have contact with my mother, especially when I know she’s elderly and possibly not well?

2. Should I make contact with my mother and try to reconcile my relationship with her?

3. What if my mother dies and we haven’t reconciled before then? How will I feel? Will I be able to handle that?

Dear you:

You are so not alone on this one.

I am going to answer your questions in reverse order.

#3 What if my mother dies and we haven’t reconciled before then? How will I feel? Will I be able to handle that?

“You won’t know until you get there that you’re okay.” ~ Sally Hollar* (*From the movie “The Hollars“)

Most of us fear emotions like regret, grief, and guilt. We think if we feel those emotions it proves something bad about us. But really, all they prove is that we’re human, and that our brains think thoughts that create regret, grief, and guilt.

Your “what if” question supposes that it’s bad or wrong if she dies and the two of you haven’t reconciled. It also supposes that the alternative – to reconcile – will eliminate all those bad/wrong feelings.

Here’s what I know for sure: when you’re not afraid of feeling any emotion, you trust yourself to have your own back, no matter what. This doesn’t mean you’re tough and that you won’t cry or feel broken open, but rather that you know you are emotionally resilient. You can do fear. You can do regret. You can do grief. You can do guilt. And in so doing, you expand your capacity for joy and contentment.

#2 Should I make contact with my mother and try to reconcile my relationship with her?

The word “should” here is problematic. If you “should” make contact and you don’t then what? If you “should” make contact and you do and it doesn’t go well then what?

I’m guessing that either way, you’re afraid. You’re afraid to make contact and you’re afraid not to. I would make a list of all the things you’re afraid will happen (either way). It can help to get all your fears out of your head and onto paper where you can look at them, consider them, and question them.

Ultimately, when we fear an outcome, what we’re really afraid of is the emotion(s) that might come up as a result.

Example: “If my mother dies and I didn’t reach out to her, I will feel guilty and regretful for the rest of my life.”

Or: “If I reach out to my mother before she dies and it doesn’t go well, people will think I am a bad daughter.”

Clarity comes from deciding and doing. This doesn’t mean the decisions are “right” and the doing is “perfect” but rather that when you’re in the midst of “this or that?” nothing happens and you’re stuck in the paralyzing and unsatisfying energy of “maybe”…of having not made a decision. It’s not an easy or fun place to be: feeling that no matter what choice you make, it’s the wrong choice.

Get quiet. Take some deep breaths. Unlock your shoulders. Soften your eyes. Now consider this question instead: If you weren’t afraid of the outcome, either way, what would you do?

#1 How do I stop feeling guilty about choosing to not to have contact with my mother, especially when I know she’s elderly and possibly not well?

Guilt…

  • is a sneaky devil.
  • keeps you from believing that you deserve to have needs, desires, and preferences.
  • makes you regret having needs, desires, and preferences.
  • prevents you from believing in yourself.
  • arises when you try to manage your mother’s response to your needs, desires, and preferences.
  • arises when you believe your mother is disappointed in you.
  • arises when you believe that you don’t deserve to say “no” or have boundaries.
  • arises when you’re not sure how to express yourself.

Your question reminds me this one: How do you make peace with the idea of never actually making peace with your mother? As with my answer to that question, this answer isn’t neat and tidy.

You stop feeling guilty…

  • by getting curious about your guilt.
  • by noticing it.
  • by asking yourself what it wants you to know.
  • by forgiving yourself.
  • by giving yourself permission to feel something else.
  • by being kind to yourself.
  • by recognizing that guilt is a choice.
  • by knowing that if guilt is a choice, then other emotions are also a choice.
  • by giving yourself permission to choose another emotion.
  • when you stop judging yourself as good or bad, right or wrong.
  • when you accept that the situation is the situation.
  • when you accept that your mother is who she are.
  • when you accept that you are who you are.
  • when you practice feeling something else.

How to practice?

In sitting down and writing out your thoughts to me, you created a moment of awareness for yourself. A moment of peace.

And then, perhaps, you bounced back into guilt and regret.

This is normal. This is human. When our brains are used to one way of being, and they’re introduced to a new way of being, they will tend to bounce back to what they’re used to. For those of us who grow up with guilt and regret (and dysfunction), guilt and regret (and dysfunction) can feel normal and familiar.

With courage, devotion, creativity, and practice, you can transform from being a guilty and regretful daughter who sometimes finds peace…into a peaceful woman who – from time to time – feels guilty and regretful.

It’s in those guilty and regretful moments that you can breathe and place your hands over your heart, even if just for a moment.

(Consciously create peace for yourself: hands-over-heart is a simple and quick way to calm the amygdala – aka lizard brain – which is responsible for the fight-flight-freeze reaction.)

Conscious creativity (which takes place in the prefrontal cortex) is the opposite of fear (which takes place in the amygdala).

The more aware you become, the more you recognize that you now have a choice and that you have preferences – you get to create what you would prefer.

Sometimes what you prefer will be at odds with what you unconsciously create. Sometimes you will stumble and feel awkward. Sometimes you won’t be able to “out-think” your negative thoughts, and nor should you. This isn’t about being happy-happy-joy-joy all the damned time. No. That’s a recipe for chronic anxiety.

Your power lies in consciousness – in knowing that it doesn’t matter whether you create guilt or peace in any given moment.

Your power lies in knowing that you, in fact, created.

You might say to yourself, “But I shouldn’t create guilt for myself! I should create peace!”

Rather than beat yourself up for what you have created, revel in the contrast of what’s possible.

Much, much love,

Karen

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