Question from a reader:

My 80-year-old mother’s full-time home is nearby my summer home. I split my time between my two homes which are about and hour and a half apart. For the most part, she is a pretty healthy woman. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years she has become depressed and suffers from anxiety. She is being treated for these conditions. I have hired part-time aides to help me oversee her daily needs, doctor appointments, etc. However, she only wants me! She uses guilt, hysteria, and manipulation to get my undivided attention. It’s exhausting and somewhat unbearable. I am becoming consumed by her condition. My question is…how should I handle this daily bombardment? I want to help her but I also want to enjoy my time at my summer home. How do I do both? What words should I use to gently make her understand that I need my space? How do I create a boundary without feeling guilty? Please help. 

Dear you…

I don’t think there are any words, gentle or otherwise, that will make her understand. And, despite the fact that I once offered a workshop on how to establish boundaries without feeling guilty, it’s not possible to never feel guilt. Nor is it advisable.

What you CAN do is change your relationship to guilt AND in so doing, allow yourself establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

So let’s look at where guilt comes from. Generally, we feel guilty (when thinking about establishing boundaries) because we have thoughts and beliefs like these…

I’m being selfish. It’s my fault. I’m being unreasonable. Boundaries are mean. I don’t deserve to have boundaries.

Not to mention that guilt, hysteria, and manipulation have been used by women for centuries precisely because guilt, hysteria, and manipulation work…it’s how they got their needs met. Consider two historical facts: #1 women weren’t allowed to meet their own needs, desires, and preferences (in the same way men were) and #2 it wasn’t considered “ladylike” to be clear about their needs, preferences, and desires, or to ask directly. And if they did, they were punished in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Despite our awareness and progress, that shitty patriarchal wound keeps getting passed down, generation after generation. 

I digress…

How do you change your relationship to guilt? First, consider that, “according to the dictionary guilt isn’t an emotion, it’s the knowledge and acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Guilt is a state of circumstance: you’re either guilty or not guilty in relation to the legal or moral code you value” (this is from Karla McLaren’s wonderful book, The Language of Emotions). An emotion closely associated with a state of guilt is shame.

You get to decide. Is establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries with your mother wrongdoing? According to my own moral code, healthy boundaries are not wrongdoing, they serve the greater good. They create clarity and intimacy. They are kind because they help others know how to be with me and to get me at my best.

In Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide For Separation, Liberation & Inspiration, I provide a practical way to set healthy boundaries (it’s in Chapter 13). Now I want to share the evolution of that work (which will be included in The Difficult Mother-Daughter Relationship Journal: A Guide For Revealing & Healing Toxic Generational Patterns).

The Anatomy of a Healthy Boundary

The Request: ask her to stop doing whatever it is that crosses your boundary (you don’t have to say the request out loud, but it’s important to be clear about it; know what behavior you will no longer tolerate).

The Action: let her know what you will do if she chooses not to stop. It is an action that you will take. The more well-defined the action, the better and more effective your boundary will be.

The Benefit: be clear about the benefit this boundary will have in the relationship.

Example:

Request: Please stop calling me every day.
Action: If you call me every day, I won’t answer the phone.
Benefit: When we do talk (or I visit), I will be able to give you my undivided attention.

Be as specific as you can in regards to what you’re willing to do…what you WANT to do. Maybe you want to visit once a week. Or twice a week. Maybe you want to talk to her on the phone once a day for 15 minutes. Whatever it is, communicate that to her and then honor your boundary (the action you say you will take), because she probably will not (at least not at first).

And that’s okay. She doesn’t have to respect your boundaries in order for you to have them.

What do you think?

Much, much love,

Karen

P.S. Here are some thoughts and beliefs that mitigate “guilty” feelings:

  • I am allowed to want what I want.
  • I do not have to justify, defend, or explain my boundaries.
  • I can love myself through this.
  • I support myself.
  • It’s okay if she doesn’t understand.
  • I can handle her reaction.
  • This is used to be scary, but now I am choosing to trust myself.
  • I am letting her off the hook for having to respect my boundary because *I* respect my boundary.
  • I get to be the adult in this situation.
  • I am not responsible for how she feels.
  • She is not responsible for how I feel.
  • A boundary is simply being clear about my requests, the actions I will take, and the benefits.
  • I get to decide.
  • Advocating for myself is never unkind or unreasonable. Never ever.