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The Unexpected Impact of Growing Up with a Difficult Mother

“Difficulties in your life do not come to destroy you, but to help you realise your hidden potential and power, let difficulties know that you too are difficult.” ~Abdul Kalam

Do you sometimes daydream that your mom is gone, and all your troubles disappear along with her?

I used to imagine that, too.

When Mom was in intensive care, swaying between life and death, I sat outside, shell-shocked, trembling all over my body, trying to comprehend the doctor’s words: “Her condition is critical, and only time will show if she will make it. I’m sorry.”

For a moment, I imagined that Mom was going to die right there, in that old hospital building with rotundas, pylons, and stucco ceilings.

And the thought of her not returning into my life felt like a relief. It felt terrific: finally, I could relax and live my own life… Then, the moment passed, and the muscles tightened around my chest, suffocating me with the energy of a rested beast.

My mom was a fighter, and she survived against the odds. We had thirteen more years together, drifting between bad and awful. Then, close to the end, it all changed unexpectedly. It was nothing less than a miracle… or was it?

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water

The thing is, you can run away or go incommunicado, and it might bring you temporary relief. But sooner or later, history will catch up with you unless you stop running and heal yourself.

Don’t misunderstand me—in extreme cases, the only way to save yourself is to get away from your tormentor. But in the majority of cases of family tension, it’s about a cavalcade of unhappy, struggling women who never felt loved by their mothers and don’t know how to love us as a result. Generations of unhappiness and needless suffering.

It’s like being a part of the machinery, a gear in a wound-up clock that keeps running till either someone forgets to wind the clock, or one gear gets out of synchronicity and sabotages the entire mechanism.

You can be that irreverent, rebellious gear and break out of a generational pattern of mistreatment as long as you have the will to heal. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What on earth do you mean? 

Let me explain.

You Are YOU Because of Your Mom

I’m guessing your mother never really listens, or if she does, she turns it against you. She is critical, hurtful in her remarks, and she controls your life with a hard hand. And she loves to complain about her life all the time, how hard it is, how lonely and unappreciated she feels, and how tired she is, being left without help.

These complaints drive you crazy—you have enough worries of your own. You may be still too angry and resentful to find understanding and empathy for your difficult mother. I get it.

At your core, I know that you are kind and sensitive, a good listener, and an empathetic person. You understand the pain of others because you have been there, too. Even if you do not always know what to say, you know how to be there for another person.

But you are also a fighter. You have to be because your mom tries to run your life according to her plan, but you won’t let her. This life is yours, you are a separate person, and only you know what’s right for you, so you have to prove to her and yourself that you can be happy on your own.

You fight for your dreams and make them come true, one by one. You don’t wait for a fairy to come and give you everything you need to be happy served on a plate. Instead, you try to change your life for the better, bit by bit.

You are strong and resilient, more than you give yourself credit for.

You see, the “side effect” of being criticized and chastened, of having another’s will imposed on you, is your ability to think for yourself. You see that your mother’s behavior is irrational and confusing, and you question her judgment and decisions. You can sense people who potentially can hurt you, and you avoid getting involved with them when you listen to your inner voice.

Always remember that that resilient and robust part of you is in there, and you can connect with it at any time. It may feel like being angry for a good reason—that anger gives you the energy to stand up for yourself. Use it to protect yourself and grow.

You may not see it right now, but your trials are gifts to help you become a better person. Just zoom out, and you will see it—the bigger picture of your existence.

As the Steel Was Tempered

Each experience we live through is valuable because it teaches us a lesson we need to learn.

Your mother was responsible for you when you were a kid. Well, you’re not a kid anymore. How you feel about yourself is your responsibility now. Take it, and you will be able to change your life.

And what has to be done?

Healing.

It takes time, but that doesn’t mean you should be on a treadmill working hard all the time. You should live and enjoy your life here and now; doing so will help speed up the healing itself.

Thinking back, the most important milestones of my healing were:

#1 Undergoing therapy.

Before therapy, I didn’t remember much of my childhood, and those memories that I still had were the memories I would rather forget. But the truth is, I didn’t want to remember any good stuff because it wouldn’t support the image of a terrible mother I had back then. My pain and fear so absorbed me that I couldn’t see any good in Mom at all.

Therapy helped me to clear the anger from my heart, and doing so unfroze the good memories of my childhood: Mom reading goodnight stories for me every night; Mom making pretty dresses for me or buying me an outfit she hardly could afford; Mom spending her vacation at home so that I could take a friend to the Black Sea.

In time, I realized that pure good and evil don’t exist—we are all mixed up, cocktails of light and darkness. Owning our shadows helps us get off a high horse of righteousness and stop pointing the finger at others. We are all humans, and that means being faulty.

#2 Studying trauma.

Educating myself about childhood abuse and other trauma-related topics helped me understand the cause of the problem. It also showed me that I wasn’t crazy, and none of it was my fault. That healing was possible and necessary if I wanted to live a happy life of my own. But probably the biggest takeaway was learning that I wasn’t alone in this situation.

#3 Getting curious about my family’s history.

Exploring my mom’s background and understanding her wounds helped me forgive her later and move on with my life.

#4 Building boundaries and keeping my distance.

Distancing myself emotionally from Mom helped me rebuild myself as an independent person and not an extension of her, and set up healthy boundaries.

#5 Becoming a better daughter.

Learning better communication skills allowed me to connect with Mom at another level, minimizing new hurt. Better communication means choosing your fights and avoiding some of the unnecessary ones.

For example, if your mother complains about being lonely, you can validate her experience—just like that! After all, she may live alone, and if she feels lonely despite all your help, she has the right to her feelings. So by saying, “I understand, Mom, it must be tough for you,” you can prevent an attack and help her hold on to her feelings.

P.S. You have to sound empathetic and authentic to get the response you want.

#6 Continuing with the effort.

Keeping up your efforts to keep contact alive to the very end, always trying to reach her, can pay off later when you least expect a change.

Not at all costs, however. Use your judgment. In cases where there is a very malignant relationship, it’s up to you to keep your distance or avoid contact altogether.

#7 Cultivating positive relationships.

Making friends with emotionally healthy people can allow you to enjoy sane, healthy relationships and learn better ways of interacting.

Is it easy? Not in the beginning, but you can learn. It can be scary, I know, but it will be rewarding, too. So, give it a chance.

Do the Work Only You Can Do

Losing my mom back in 2005 would probably have made my life easier in some ways, but would it have contributed to my healing and growth? Maybe not.

And I would’ve missed the opportunity to meet a different Mom that last year of her life—that one who beamed with a smile of delight on her face when she saw me, bottomless love and appreciation in her eyes. Our mutual forgiveness and hugs—she had never hugged me before!

All the pain and anger toward my mom are gone, and I finally feel at peace. Believe it or not, I miss her. I have pictures of her and Dad that I took from her apartment after she died; they are now in my office. I say “Good morning” to them every day when I step in.

There’s work that only you can do. Do it not just for you, but for the next generations of your family, and also for the world, which needs kindness and acceptance more than ever. Stop trying to change your mother and use the energy to build yourself up.

Be angry, sad, and hurt—feel it all. Then, let go and move on. If anyone can do it, it’s you, because thanks to your difficult mother, you are strong, resilient, and have a strong will to change your life for the better.

Do it!

About Irina Bengtson

Irina is a daughter of a narcissistic mother, clinical psychologist, and a founder of www.LoveGrowBeHappy.com. She combines her professional knowledge with a healing experience to help other daughters of narcissistic, hurtful mothers break free from their dysfunctional relationships. She’s a creator of online courses THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO DE-STRESS AND ENJOY LIFE NOW and HOW TO COPE WITH A HURTFUL MOTHER AND RECLAIM YOUR LIFE.

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