I received an interesting response to last week’s column (Grieving a mother who is still alive) and wanted to share it because it occurred to me that I AM NOT DOING MY JOB if anyone who reads my books/columns/newsletter believes that they have to wait for someone to die in order to feel better (and I make this distinction…it’s okay if you want to wait, but you don’t HAVE to wait).
One of the things that occurred to me is that when someone is hurting me I feel constant stress and like I am constantly looking over my shoulder. Somewhere along the way I decided (emotionally) that if one person didn’t like me they would convince everyone else on the planet that I was a bad person. The interesting thing is that when they died (and this has happened a couple of times) I was greatly relieved because they could no longer hurt me.
As my mother’s care needs increase, I am trying to break free of her. She’s angry about that. In the meantime, I am afraid of her and her anger. I’ve been getting IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapy and working on when this feeling, this relationship model came into being. I don’t feel grief about the mother I never had, I just want her gone. When she passes I will feel relief because she won’t be able to hurt me anymore.
Internal Family Systems therapy is so powerful (and I say this as someone who is currently doing the same work with my own therapist). Good for you for giving yourself that gift. What I am going to share here is not a replacement for therapy…it’s something to consider along with therapy.
Here’s my question for you: do you want to feel relief now, before she dies?
If the answer is no, stop reading 🙂
If the answer is yes, I can help. It won’t be like flipping a switch, but with practice you can, if you want to, reduce the amount of fear you feel, and increase the amount of relief.
What you think will make you feel better or worse.
Because your brain likes to be efficient, the thoughts you think over and over again become automated. They feel like “the truth.” You’re not even aware of them.
Right now you believe your mother can hurt you and that she needs to die in order for you to feel better.
You can begin to create distance from that belief by stating it this way:
“I am struggling with my thinking in regards to my mother.”
Nothing more, nothing less.
If the source of your problem is your mother, you’re stuck with the problem (until she dies). If the source of your problem is the way you think about your mother, you can feel better now.
Before I go further let me say that I get how rattling it can be to question yourself in this way, but please stay with me and stay open.
What I know about thoughts I learned from Brooke Castillo, Master Coach Instructor and founder of The Life Coach School. She coached me through the worst of my mother struggles and what I am about to share here, I learned from her.
It doesn’t matter whether your thoughts about your mother are true or false – what matters is that they are helpful to you. Is it helpful for you to believe that she can hurt you?
We tend to believe that:
- thoughts are reality (what we’re thinking is actually happening)
- thoughts are the truth (we completely believe them)
- thoughts are important (we take them seriously and give them our full attention)
- thoughts are orders (we automatically obey them)
- thoughts are wise (we assume they know best and we follow their advice)
- thoughts are threats (they can seem disturbing or frightening, and we feel the need to get rid of them)
But here’s the thing:
- thoughts are not reality
- thoughts are not the truth
- thoughts are not important
- thoughts are not orders
- thoughts are not wise
- thoughts are not threats
So what ARE thoughts?
- thoughts are simply the 50,000 to 70,000 interpretations, sentences, judgments, and opinions that run through your beautiful brain every day, all day
- thoughts are merely sounds, words, stories, or bits of language
- thoughts may or may not be true; but we don’t have to automatically believe them
- thoughts may or may not be important; we can pay attention only if they’re helpful
- thoughts are definitely not orders; we certainly don’t have to obey them
- thoughts may or may not be wise; we don’t have to follow their advice
- thoughts are never threats; even the most painful for disturbing of thoughts does not represent a threat to us
No matter how harsh, cruel, silly, vindictive, critical, frightening, or downright weird your thoughts may be, you can’t prevent them from popping up. But just because they appear doesn’t mean you have to take them seriously. Question them. Ask yourself if your thoughts help you feel better or if they create pain and suffering.
Here’s a really effective exercise, straight from the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.
Bring to mind an upsetting thought related to your struggle. Pick a thought that recurs and usually bothers you. Now focus on that thought and believe it as much as you can for 10 seconds.
Example: “My mother hurts me.”
Next, take that thought and in front of it, insert the words, “I am having the thought that…my mother hurts me.” Focus on that for a few seconds. What happens?
Now do it again, but make the phrase slightly longer: “I notice I’m having the thought that…my mother hurts me.” Any change?
So, now that you have a bit of distance from your thought (“My mother hurts me”), you can start to play with it, modify it, or change it completely. Notice how you feel with each tweak. When you feel neutral, or even a little better, write it down and practice thinking it. Use it a screensaver. Put it on a sticky note on the fridge.
Tweaking or changing your thoughts about your mother doesn’t mean she will change, and it doesn’t mean that she will stop staying hurtful things. It also doesn’t mean that you will choose to have no boundaries with her.
It simply means you will be creating relief for yourself. Before she dies.
This is what makes you a powerful human being.
Much, much love,
P.S. It bears repeating that “thought work” can be confronting. It can be identity-rattling. And? It takes you out of powerlessness. Did you know that word power, at its roots, simply means “to be able?” My wish for you is that you experience how able you are to make yourself feel better.