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When Your Mom Is the Bully

It's time to look out for your own best interests.

“Blood makes you related, loyalty makes you family.” — Unknown

A woman named Leslie* recently sought me out for assistance managing the relationship with her estranged mother and the severe guilt she developed as a result.

Leslie's mother, Dolores, was the daughter of a single teenage mother who was herself motherless for the majority of her life. Dolores was never physically abusive, and like the compassionate adult children of many toxic parents, Leslie recognized that her mom did the best she could given her circumstances and situation. At the same time, Leslie knew her mother did abuse her emotionally and mentally.

The trauma from that abuse left her incapable of loving her mother in the way many of her girlfriends do theirs.

Mental and emotional abuse (a/k/a gas lighting)is far less easy to recognize than physical abuse, but the resulting damage is just as debilitating, even if neither party realizes that abuse is, or was, occurring.

It wasn't until Leslie became a mother herself that she realized one of the reasons she was plagued with feelings of unworthiness — as well with contempt for her mother — was the emotional abuse she'd endured as a child.

In emotionally abusive relationships, “The abuser projects their words, attitudes or actions onto an unsuspecting victim usually because they themselves have not dealt with childhood wounds that are now causing them to harm others."

Leslie told me that as a child she was sensitive, creative, and quiet. She was frequently criticized for being “too sensitive” and told to “lighten up.” Because of her mother’s strict dogmatic approach to religion, Leslie was constantly edited, judged. and criticized for speaking her thoughts.

Her mother’s need for constant control and domination left Leslie feeling powerless and crushed.

As soon as she was old enough, Leslie moved out of her parent’s home, but to this day she struggles with moving in the direction of her own happiness rather than striving to do the right thing by her mother, who has not changed.

Dolores still criticizes Leslie for speaking her thoughts, as well as for raising her children in a spiritually-minded but non-religious home, for dressing according to her own style preferences, and more. Her mother continues to be the devil on her shoulder reminding her that she is unworthy, and shaming her for not returning her mother's calls, or for not spending the holidays at her mother's house.

As if this wasn't enough guilt and pressure on one person, Leslie’s close friends would ask similarly shaming questions, such as:

  • “How can you not love your mother?”
  • “You really don’t talk to your mother?”

Or they'd make mindless comments, like:

  • "But she’s your mother.”
  • “You only have one mom.”
  • "MY mom is my best friend …”

Leslie has gone through cycle after cycle of trying to forgive and have a “normal” relationship with her mother. After all, that's what a good daughter is supposed to do (thank you, society!). 

And every single time Leslie engages, the same old passive-aggressive verbal cuts come shooting towards her like arrows in the night. Inevitably, to protect herself and to keep her focus on what makes her happy, Leslie opts to cut the cord again. And again. And yet again.

Leslie knows that when her mother is out of sight and out of mind she feels more peace, confidence, and joy. It's not until someone chastises her that she feels even an ounce of guilt for refusing to allow her abuser entry into her life. It's not until Dolores begins to cyber-stalk Leslie and harass her with calls on her cell and at work that she gives her mom — her bully and her abuser — a second thought.

And why should she?

Society wouldn't criticize a teenage girl who was date raped for refusing to go out again with the guy who raped her.

Society wouldn't criticize a little boy on the playground for refusing to go to a playdate (and possibly subject himself to yet another round of black eyes) with the playground bully.

Society wouldn't criticize a violently battered wife who escapes her husband for finally making it out of the physical and emotional hell of their home together.

Yet here we are saying, “Oh my God, Leslie. You shallow, ungrateful, selfish, foolish daughter. Your mother birthed you, clothed you, and fed you. The least you can do is to show her love and gratitude and suck it up.”

“We cannot give that which we do not receive.” — T. Harve Ecker

I say, "No."

Bless the mothers of the world who, like Dolores, gave birth when they could have had an abortion.

Bless them for marrying the first guy who came along to try to make a tough situation better for themselves and their children.

Bless them for endeavoring to persevere and for doing the best they could with the resources available to them.

Bless them — and, yes, forgive them. But by no means does any of that mean that their children, like Leslie, owe their self-worth, their confidence, or their beautiful, shining soul to anyone less than a person who showers them with unconditional love, support, respect, and honor — regardless of whether that person is their mother, father, brother, sister, Oprah or the Pope, for that matter.

*All names changed to protect privacy.

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