Tell Me About It

My mother is toxic and tries to control all aspects of my life

Tell Me About It: ‘She’s aggressive, abusive and can fly into rages that last hours’

PROBLEM: My mother is completely toxic and, ever since I was young, she has attempted to control all aspects of my life. She’s aggressive, abusive and can fly into rages that last hours at the slightest opportunity over something she doesn’t agree with. She’ll phone me multiple times a day and insists on getting to know people who I’m close to so she can contact them if I attempt to put up boundaries. Social media also gives her great access to exert control.

I know she’s had several traumas in her own life but I’m so tired of her passing them on to me. I’m now in my mid-20s and on the outside I’ve a good life. I’ve a good job, etc, but I simply cannot continue to have her controlling me like this.

I’ve never been in a serious relationship because doing that would mean exposing somebody else to the awfulness that having her in your life means.

I’m wondering if you’ve any advice for how to put boundaries up between us and how to get my life back?

ADVICE: Lots of letters come in about poor or toxic relationships with mothers in which the writers are intensely struggling with the relationship. The reason is that the relationship of mother and child feels not only fundamental, but it is celebrated and sanctified in literature, media and history.

When it goes wrong the child feels not only loss, hurt and confusion but they feel outside the experience of their communities and friends who have great relationships with their mothers. There are many people we can cut out of our lives with some difficulty but to cut the mother figure is fraught with complicated emotions and often lifelong conflict. Attachment Theory goes some way to explaining this: in early childhood we form attachments to our caregiver and this can shape our attachment patterns for life – thus you may find it difficult to consider having a close intimate person in your life from your experience of being parented.

When the loved one (mother) does not return unconditional love, but instead offers criticism and unexpected rages, the safety and security of the child are compromised, and they have to restrict their needs in order to survive. Because love or care is often or occasionally offered, the child continues to look for approval and thus this sets up a habit of continually trying to make the relationship work. This however can lead to endless periods of hope, disappointment, and sadness.

The truth is that she has created exactly what she has feared the most; she has made you want to leave her

What you dislike most in your mother – rage, criticism and controlling behaviour – can develop in you as you have been so close to it all your life and the danger is that these experiences may impact your intimate relationships.

It appears from your letter that you are now intending to return to your mother exactly what she has doled out; rejection in some form. While this is very understandable you have to ask what the long-term effects of this on you might be and what does this mean for your own relationships, particularly with any children you may have in the future.

Resentment and exasperation break down all the boundaries we had intended to create to protect ourselves as it is such an intense experience, so this is where you start. Your anger is based on the injustice and unfairness you have experienced growing up but if you continue to hold onto it you will be sucked into a perpetual, intense and negative relationship with your mother with little room for joy and connection elsewhere. Crazy as it sounds, compassion is the way out of this.

Your mother behaves the way she does as a result of her own upbringing and circumstances – no person who is full of confidence and happiness behaves as she does. Her need to control signifies a huge fear that if she does not control she will be abandoned and the truth is that she has created exactly what she has feared the most; she has made you want to leave her. Of course, with this comes anger and lashing out and you are in receipt of it as she probably has no one else who would tolerate it.

Take a long breath, ask yourself what is really happening with her and choose a response that meets that

Instead of seeing her as all powerful and controlling, see in her the huge vulnerability, fear, shame and hurt that is behind her behaviour. This is not a call to be her therapist, but it will free you up to see what is actually there and it might allow a less ensnared response from you. It is not your job to fix her but if you can practice compassion with her you might also allow some compassion for yourself and instead of putting off your dating life for some future time, when your relationship with your mother is fixed, you might see that you have a right to this now and you might put your energy into achieving this desire.

You are in charge of your own feelings and responses, do not put your mother in charge of these.

Take a long breath, ask yourself what is really happening with her and choose a response that meets that. Do not carry your frustration and resentment around with you but accept that this is how she is (for whatever reason) and let her be. By dropping the need for her to change, you will find you have more freedom to focus on growing the characteristics you want for yourself and this will open up the possibility and desire for a pleasurable connection with another.