Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: Years ago I made a horrible, stupid decision and told my mom on Mother’s Day which college I had decided to go to. This was a terrible mistake because she was furious that I didn’t pick her favorite college and yelled at me until I cried, then told me to leave her house.
I knew she wasn’t going to be thrilled with my choice so this was terrible timing and I really should have known better.
I feel bad for hurting her feelings and I regret what I did. I’ve apologized many times since.
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What I am having a problem with is she loves to tell an artfully edited version of this story at family events; her version doesn’t include screaming at me or telling me to get out of her house. I know what I did was wrong but I hate being humiliated with this story in front of family.
Now we’re supposed to spend time with family and I am just dreading hearing her version of that day again, and listening to everyone cluck at what a bad daughter I am when they’re hearing barely half of the story – but I can’t even defend myself without making myself look like an even worse daughter. I feel sick and stressed just thinking about this visit. I don’t even want to go but I don’t want there to be two stories floating around about me being a bad daughter if I skip this visit. Do I just keep staying silent when she tells the story?
“Horrible, stupid decision”? “I know what I did was wrong”?
You are not at fault.
Your mother responded horribly – abusively – to your taking the absolutely appropriate step to guide your own education. That you said so out loud on the “wrong” day is the kind of choice that wouldn’t have been treated as a misstep at all if your mother were emotionally healthy. A healthy parent would not have made you pay at all, much less as steeply as your mother made you pay.
If you were my good friend and I knew the whole context, right now I’d probably be telling you (probably for the fourth straight eve of a visit to your mom) to SKIP IT already. Don’t go. Save yourself from her cruelty, poor boundaries, and breathtaking self-absorption.
Not knowing how ready you are to take this on, though, and guessing you’re weighted down by a childhood spent kowtowing to an I’m-guessing-but-not-diagnosing narcissistic mother, I feel I have to be more circumspect:
Do whatever it is you feel you need to do to get through this weekend. Then, either right away or first thing on Monday, call a medical provider you know and trust to recommend a good family therapist, then call to make an appointment. I expect it’s going to take some exploration to flush out the many ways your experience with your mother affects your thinking and behavior, and then some rebuilding to gain your own strength independent of her.
However, the strength you used to make your own choice on schooling and, yes, to present her with it publicly is obviously inside you. Now’s a fine time to start cultivating it. Take care.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.