Coping with a Critical Mom

Prevention Magazine . May, 2005
Learning how to listen can heal your relationship.

I was in my early 40s before I began to see my mother as a person, rather than as my own private critic. The transformation occurred when she was dying. The family had gathered at the hospital to say their good-byes, but she’d been whisked off for tests. After it was determined that the tests wouldn’t make any real difference, I took her back to her room.

On the short elevator ride, a miracle unfolded. She looked deeply into my eyes, took my hand, and told me how much she loved me. Then she asked if I could forgive her for all the mistakes she’d made as a mother. Years of pain melted away in the time it took for me to say yes. I was able to thank her for her love, and then to ask her forgiveness for all the times I’d pushed her out of my heart. We entered that elevator like caterpillars and emerged as butterflies.

That metamorphosis helped me think back over our lives together with a new appreciation for who she was. Like all human beings, she had her share of sorrows and disappointments. And she was determined that my life would be better. What I had seen as years of biting criticism was her way of correcting my faults so that I could marry a wealthy man and be taken care of. Her intention was noble, but wanting me to live her dream nearly destroyed the love between us.

Why do relations between mothers and daughters seem so much more fraught than between mothers and sons? It’s in part because we don’t engage in the same dance of separation that boys do to find their own identities. Research by psychologist Janet Surrey, PhD, and her colleagues at the Stone Center at Wellesley College found that girls develop a sense of self in relation to, rather than in opposition to, their mothers. That very closeness can sometimes make communicating with your mother frustrating and competitive if she sees you as an extension of herself.

If you’ve ever fantasized that your mom lies awake at night thinking up ways to be gnarly and intrusive, you’re not alone. But here’s the scoop: Most moms don’t pester their daughters out of meanness. They’re actually trying to express love and concern. If you can train yourself to look beyond the surface of what seems like nit-picking and criticism, you can develop a deeper relationship with your mom and separate from her in a healthy way. Here’s how to deal with a mother who’s brilliant at zeroing in on perceived mistakes you make in work, love, even your appearance.

Work-Meddling Moms

A client of mine, Tonia, had a mother who said things like, “Are you still working for those idiots? How come a smart girl like you just gives herself away?” Tonia usually got angry. But as we talked it through, Tonia realized that her mother’s intent wasn’t to criticize. She just wanted her daughter to have a job where her talents were appreciated.

At first Tonia couldn’t imagine how to change the conversation. So we role-played, which I recommend you try too—it gives you a chance to practice new behaviors and different responses in a safe setting. I played Tonia’s mother, and was delighted when my “daughter” responded to me with a practical suggestion: “Mom, I love that you defend me and think I’m smart and I deserve better. There are Web sites that have good job postings. Maybe you could check them and let me know if there’s anything interesting.” When Tonia tried out the script with her mother, it worked. Not only did her suggestion make her mother feel useful and needed, but it also created a new sense of respect on both sides.

Romance-Meddling Moms

I have a twice-divorced friend, Susan, whose mother is like the romance gestapo. She gives her daughter an automatic vote of no confidence in the love department by asking questions such as, “Are you still dating What’s-His-Name?” or “How’s Prince Charming?”

If your mom is a romance critic, it may be that she fears you will abandon her when you embark on a new relationship. It might help to interpret your mother’s criticism as a fear of loneliness. So if your mom is carping on your new relationship, you might say something that includes her in your new romance, like, “Mom, can we please have a different kind of conversation about this? I’d love to tell you about who I’m dating and then we can have some quality girl-time sharing what’s really happening.”

Body-Meddling Moms

Some mothers are more observant than Sherlock Holmes about your hair, your recent weight gain, or that blotch on your skin. So why is she embarrassing you by bringing it up in public?

First, give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that her intent is not to shame you. Sometimes a mother will point out flaws with the hope that you’ll be spared from someone else doing it.

A simple, “I can understand your concerns, but is there something you’re really trying to say?” will help pave the way for an open-minded, openhearted exchange—even if it’s about a blemish!

In the best of worlds, you and your mom would finish these kinds of conversations feeling good about yourselves and each other. However, I’m a realist, and I know that may not happen. But each time you respond to a critical mom with love and understanding—not defensiveness—you’re building a more authentic relationship and a stronger sense of self. That’s the way to celebrate Mother’s Day all year long.

Make Mom’s Day Mean More

  • Make a list of the most common criticisms that get your goat. Write out what you think may be your mother’s underlying concerns, and then practice a response that opens up genuine conversation rather than closing it down in defensiveness. Her real-life reaction will surprise you.
  • Write your mom a letter, call her, or tell her face-to-face about three specific things that you’re grateful to her for. Appreciation means a lot more when it’s grounded in specifics rather than generalizations. If she has passed on, like my mom, you can light a candle and talk to her as if she were right there in the room with you.
  • Send a Mother’s Day card to a woman who isn’t your mother, but who has encouraged you, and thank her specifically for the ways that she’s made a difference in your life.

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