I have always had a difficult relationship with my mother. I always blamed myself. As I get older, with the help of some friends, I can realize some of the issues. It is impossible to have a normal conversation with her. It’s like she won’t say straightforward what she means, and nothing gets resolved. For example, I can tell she is angry and something I did upset her, but she denies it but then seems to ignore me for days. When she talks to me it’s hard for me to figure out what she wants, and I always seem to get it wrong. When I express how I feel, somehow, I always walk away feeling guilty. When discussing this with one of my friends in seminary she said that my mother sounds like she is “passive-aggressive”. I would appreciate your insights on this condition and your advice on how to deal with it. Thank you.
There are three basic aspects inherent in your situation: your mother’s general personality and communication style; your particular relationship with your mother; and your emotional reaction to your mother’s form of communication.
To some degree, your mother’s general nature and her communication patterns are likely experienced by at least some of the people in her life in similar ways. Your relationship with her may be very similar to that which she has with most people, or with some people. Or your relationship with her may be very different from your mother’s other relationships.
If you were to discuss your feelings with other people in your mother’s life, they may not share your experience…or they might think that you’re exaggerating the extent of the problem. This could be due to the fact that we maintain different types of relationships with different people in our lives. For instance, your mother may not ignore a close friend for fear of alienating her. Even if she does ignore a friend, they may not notice—or may simply chalk it up to something normal and innocuous (like being busy or overwhelmed).
Your emotional reaction to your mother’s actions is likely also contributing to the effect that they have on you. Others might notice some of the things that you mentioned, but since these things don’t bother them much, the issue seems minor. When your mother treats you in the same manner, it can be much more hurtful, causing you to place more emphasis on the problem.
Understanding the emotions that are triggered by your mother’s actions can help you to mitigate them. Simply feeling guilty and hurt when your mother ignores you—and focusing on her issues—will probably leave you feeling frustrated and continuously upset. As an example, recognizing that the silent treatment makes you feel unloved and worthless can help you to challenge the association between your mother’s actions and your emotional reaction, thereby decreasing the emotional impact.
I don’t know if your mother is “passive-aggressive” within her relationships with people other than you. If she is, others probably recognize her tendency to get her way in a subversive manner, but it may not affect them emotionally…or they may view it as a minor annoyance. As you get older and move on in life, your relationship with your mother will inevitably change. Your feelings about the way that she acts will also likely change. In addition, changes in the nature of your relationship may cause your mother to act differently toward you.
Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
Brooklyn, NY | Far Rockaway, NY
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317