Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mother makes up stories. I don’t know how else to say it. Usually they’re false recollections of history that serve to make her look good. For example, for years she’s been recounting to people the story of how my stepdad, on a family vacation, took me to my favorite museum and got the guard to let me in after closing time for a private tour. This never happened.
What did happen is that we got to the museum, it was already closed, and I spent the evening crying because, frankly, I was 13 and didn’t like my stepdad all that much, and it was his fault we’d arrived after closing.
I get why Mom wishes it happened the way she says; it just didn’t. I have said to her, multiple times, “Mom, that did not happen.” But then a few months later she tells the story again.
I know I should just roll my eyes and say, ah well, she’s nutty. But it really, really bothers me that she constantly and publicly rewrites history to make herself feel better. Do you have any suggestions?
Yes, but not a welcome or satisfying one: Give up on her. Stop hoping she’ll get better. The person you describe here is emotionally unwell, and that’s not something you can persuade her not to be, no matter how right you are or how good your phrasing is when you call her out.
Do continue to call her out, though, for your own reasons, particularly since she does it publicly; you have a right to your own story.
To be fair, her behavior isn’t just some out-there eccentricity, it’s actually an extension of the very human trait of shaping memory according to our own needs. She just has taken it well out of the range of normal, presumably because her needs are outside that range. Very tough on you, I’m sorry. It might help you to have a few sessions with a good therapist, to help you figure out some strategies for dealing with your family — perspective, distance and insight chief among them.
Re: Mom in Fantasyland: Me too! Sometimes it just helps to hear that and feel less alone. So, me too. I get it and you are not alone in this. It took me a long time to fully understand how unwell my mother is, and to let go of an expectation that she will live in reality. In my mom’s case, this “magical thinking” (the term her therapist uses for it) doesn’t just apply to history, but to current events as well. I had to drastically change my expectations of her. I’ve been a lot happier — and our relationship has been a lot better, surprisingly — once I did.
I found the way you worded this to be very touching, thank you.
Re: Mom: It may help to infuse some humor into it. “Ha ha! I wish that’s the way it happened!” with a cheerful manner.
Helpful, yes, but tough to do when angry. If Rewritten can find some peace, though, then this tactic could hold that ground. Thanks.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at washingtonpost.com.