Tell Me About It

My mother is a controlling, manipulative, narcissistic person

Tell Me About It: I have lived abroad for 10 years and she still tries to manipulate me

PROBLEM: I’m 31-years-old and I have always had a difficult relationship with my mother. She is a controlling, manipulative, narcissistic person.

Growing up, her bad moods, aggressiveness and controlling behaviour made my teenager years very unhappy. She wanted to choose my friends, decide what kind of clothes I used, who I should date – she wanted to control all aspects of my life. While my father was able put up with this behaviour, I always resisted her in my own ways.

As consequence, I kept emotional distance from her. I avoided her at all costs and did not let her participate in my life, only minimally. I have lived abroad for the past 10 years, and even then, she finds a way to try to manipulate me with texts and phone calls. Nowadays, she regrets her past behaviour, and to my great concern she insists we can be mother-and-daughter best friends. She has idealised our relationship and she doesn’t realise we are friendlier these days because we are physically distant from each other. I only share the strict minimal aspects about my life abroad and cut her contact with my partner (she tries to communicate with them to get to me). I feel bad about it, but my partner understands and agrees with me.

Recently, she said to me she is not happy because of me, because I don’t live close to her. I promptly rejected her claims, leading her to a crying session. She is very resentful I live away from her or that I haven’t given her grandchildren, like her friends’ daughters have already done.

I love her dearly, but I can’t stand to have a closer relationship with her because she is emotionally draining. She makes me feel like a bad person, but I feel I can’t and shouldn’t sacrifice my career prospects and happiness to be close to someone that sucks all my positive energies.

ADVICE: Strangely, your relationship with your mother only hurts and causes pain because you love her. However, loving someone does not mean being blind to their faults and it does not mean giving in to their versions of the world. It seems that you have taken many actions that have created boundaries between you and your mother – moving countries, keeping your relationship distant and limiting access to all parts of your life.

Yet you still feel invaded by her and I’m wondering if it is time for you to understand that this comes from a feeling you have that she has power over you. Is this true? Your mother was a very controlling person in your early life and my guess is that this is due to fear – fear that if she let you chose your own friends and life, that you would grow up to leave her, and of course this has happened. Her worst fear has been realised and she is trying to deal with this by doing what she has always done, ie manipulate you through guilt and resentment.

It might help if you use a different frame to view her behaviour

You are an adult now and are able to see this for what it is – the actions of a woman who is desperately trying to keep a relationship with her daughter but is stuck in a pattern of behaviour that can only result in pushing her daughter further away. It might help if you use a different frame to view her behaviour: move from one where a powerful force is trying to manipulate you to one where you are dealing with a person who is full of fear and has little self-awareness that her actions get her the opposite to what she wants.

It seems that her resentment leads to your resentment and all that is achieved is a lifetime of frustration and bitterness. There is a wise saying that resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die, and at the very least you can do something about your own reaction.

You might try compassion for your mother, as this might free up your emotional ground so that you feel less trapped. It might also allow you a choice of responses, ie you can respond to her loneliness and fear (without the need to fix it for her). When you see her as someone who has lost all that is precious to her but who is without the capacity to understand the effects of her own behaviour, you might stop expecting anything different from her. There is no doubt that your mother carries the responsibility for her damaging behaviour to her child and you have been successfully keeping her at arms length, but this has meant that you too have suffered continuously.

You can continue to love her while maintaining a distance

Accept that your mother is the way she is (including her recent acknowledgment of past behaviours) and also accept that you have taken the actions that you needed to take in order to survive. When she tries to guilt trip you, see that this is a hopeless attempt to get you closer; but also understand that you no longer need the high level of defences against someone who has so little power over your life.

You can continue to love her while maintaining a distance, but let go the anger so that you can focus on being happy in your own life.