Conflict with mom? Make your anger work for you
Question: Ever since I had a baby a few months ago, my mother keeps sending me baby clothes that I don’t like, need or have space for. She constantly texts me with advice. She’s always been like this — doing things for me because it meets her needs, not mine. When I express my irritation, my mother says I’m unappreciative and that it’s unladylike to be angry, which really infuriates me and makes me feel a bit ashamed. What should I do?
When I was a 20-something living in San Francisco, my Harvard-educated feminist roommate introduced me to “her bible:” Dr. Harriet Lerner’s “The Dance of Anger.” Initially, I couldn’t understand why such a privileged, educated young woman could feel so strongly about a book that explores women’s anger. But as I began to read, many of Lerner’s points and examples resonated with me, only I had been socialized to hide my anger or call it something more acceptable: frustration.
While it’s been ages since I read Lerner’s book, a few points have always stuck with me:
- Anger is not only a natural emotion that is nothing to be ashamed about;
- It’s also a powerful signal worth heeding;
- When channeled constructively, it can transform relationships, especially with ourselves.
Let’s start with the first point: It’s natural. Anger is one of the five fundamental emotions: mad, glad, sad, bad (guilty) and afraid. It’s hardwired into our brains to protect ourselves against perceived threats. Like other emotions, it triggers physiological and biological reactions in our bodies, including changes in heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline. So honor your anger — it’s there for a reason.
This leads to my second point: Anger is a signal that our boundaries are being violated. Historically, anger rallied men to protect their land, livelihood and family against intruders (perhaps another reason why men are allowed to express anger, even celebrated for it, while “bossy” women are often called a word that rhymes with witches).
In your case, your mother is the intruder into your personal space, undermining your sense of competency. Aside from being a doting grandmother, she clearly has a hard time determining where she ends and you begin.
Because she doesn’t show respect for your own needs and boundaries, your anger is urging you to push back. This leads to my last point: How you push back can make a difference in how she responds and, more importantly, how you feel about yourself. Lashing out at her is only going to make things worse. Yet suppressing your anger isn’t the answer either, especially if this has been an ongoing dynamic. Here are my suggestions:
1. Write an uncensored letter to her that expresses every horrible and annoying thing she has ever done. But do not send this letter; it’s intended to help you release anger from your body so that it doesn’t fester or leak out in undesirable ways. Give yourself permission to fully feel your feelings without judging them.
2. Show appreciation while setting clear boundaries. Set up a time (when you’re not in the middle of an argument) to meet. Begin by saying that you appreciate her desire to be helpful and involved with her grandchild. Then, explain that you need some room, free of her feedback, to develop your own parenting style and confidence as a new mother. You might appeal to her own sensibilities as a parent; for example, “Mom, you must understand how fun it is to pick out your children’s clothes. I, too, would like to do that for my own daughter.”
3. Finally, accept that while you can assert your own needs, you can’t control how others respond. If your mother still refuses to respect your wishes, you may need to let go and approach her with a sense of humor. At least you’ve made your case. And if she sends you stuff you don’t need, donate it to charity. At least her goodwill won’t be completely wasted.
This column is not intended to be a substitute for a private consultation with a mental health professional, nor is this therapist liable for any actions taken as a result of this column. Metro does not endorse the opinions of the author.