My mother is always complaining that I don’t spend more time with her but when I do all she does is complain anyway. It’s not that I don’t love her because I really do. And I get that she’s had some hard stuff to deal with in life. But I think sometimes she forgets that the violent husband she had was also me and my sister’s violent dad. I know my mom won’t live forever so I do want to spend time with her but what’s the point if she’s always going on about a marriage from 10 years ago? Is there anything me and my sister could do that would help her not waste the last part of her life?
Dear Worried Daughters,
One of the most challenging aspects to being healthy is watching our loved ones choose to be miserable. Of course they don’t see it as a choice. That’s why when you complain about having to listen to her, your mother sees that as you not being supportive. In reality, you and your sister are just responding to a natural compulsion to get her to leave the past in the past so that she can live today.
Because she feels in pain and feels small, she perceives commiseration as connection when really it’s the empathy that creates the connection. Empathy is where we can understand the experience of another. Commiseration is joining someone as they engage in self-pity.
There are times and places where that can be the right thing to join someone in. It’s up to us to decide when we’re in that situation. Sometimes people need those they love to confirm how bad it is before they’ll turn around to climb out. Someone stronger has to confirm, ‘yeah, it is that bad.’
But as they feel cared for we can switch to empathy, a state in which we’re equals in understanding. In commiseration one person is okay and they are offering sympathy to someone not okay. In commiseration there is separation. But with empathy we remember our own pain, and so we choose instead to just be present for theirs. We don’t attempt to fix it or them, we just make sure they aren’t alone in that psychological ‘place.’
You don’t view your mother as a beaten and defeated person so it is uncomfortable for you to be in the presence of her when that is the persona she is manifesting. Your discord comes from the differences in the frequencies of your thinking.
Keep in mind, your mother can be thinking about a marriage 10 or 20 years in her past or she can be thinking about something that happened earlier this year, this week or even a few hours ago.
The principle is the same: if you think it you re-live it and if you re-live the thoughts you will re-live the chemistry and the chemistry creates the emotional experiences that we all then translate into the narrative that most of us use to habitually define our lives. So it is not only possible to continue to live then, now, in fact that’s what the vast majority of people do. Almost no one lives in the now.
Everyone is always time traveling by using their ability to tell themselves stories about themselves. How it was, how it could have gone.
As an example, even you took time you could have spent enjoying life and instead you spent it creating your email to me —an experience which required you to re-live your mother’s unpleasant behaviour on previous occasions.
Obviously your objective in going into that negativity was done in the hope of increasing your future enjoyment of life, so it was courageous and loving. So thinking about painful things isn’t ‘wrong.’
We don’t have to choose to live only thinking about the present moment or even strictly choose pleasant memories. The point is that we all will experience whatever we think. The issue isn’t so much about controlling our thinking as it is about understanding it. Once we truly understand then we also immediately gain control. Your mother doesn’t need to get happier, she needs to understand.
Your mother’s challenge is that she thinks the collection of narrative stories she tells herself and other people is her history. She thinks that she’s locked-in and that she can’t change her past, and because it was bad that means now has to be bad too. In truth that’s incorrect and a terrible waste of your mother’s precious existence.
Every human being will have tragedy in their lives. We can’t see this in most cases. It’s not visible. Half the people your mom is complaining to probably have much harder lives than hers. But she doesn’t ask about that because she’s too busy being in pain. We can’t blame her.
It’s unlikely she’s learned to see her pain as being what she’s doing, so she’ll believe the pain was somehow inflicted upon her in her past. But if you ask her how it manages to still do that today, after so many years, the only thing she’ll be able to do is say, ‘but,’ and then tell you the narrative of her life again.
She’ll think narrative is an actual thing but it isn’t. It only lives in her thoughts and her thoughts are malleable and changeable and fleeting and forgetful, like all of ours. So she nor we should take them too seriously. As Alan Watts used to say, “Just as the wake does not move the ship, nor does the past move the present.”
I too hope your mother wakes up before she passes. You’re right that she is surrendering her time on the stage to sit backstage asking for rewrites of scenes already performed. But you two can’t awaken for her. About the only thing you can do is model healthy behaviour.
When she starts to talk about the past don’t engage with it by trying to talk her out of talking about the past because that’s just another way of talking about the past. Instead change the subject. And when you can’t do that anymore then leave and let her know you’re going to do something enjoyable.
Don’t ask questions that lead her towards negative thoughts. Don’t talk about negative things or she’ll draw parallels to her own life. Don’t even discuss yourselves or your lives. Talk about ideas or places or activities but try not to talk about people and emotions. The rest is up to your mother.
It’s important to remember that learning comes in many forms. Your mother may be precisely what prompted you to read this blog. She might be at the heart of most of your spiritual and psychological growth. So maybe her pain is your teacher.
Like the irritating grain of sand that is the basis of every pearl, her negativity is likely to be the very basis for much of your own psychological strength. Such is the strange flow of Yin and Yang in life.
The Dalai Lama talks about how vexatious people are our instructors. By living in the past and creating a negative psychological environment, your mother has helped make you aware of your own freedoms in that regard. By grinding against her negativity you are learning more and more about positivity. It’s why I always say, no matter what happens in life, we’re always either benefiting by joy or benefiting by growth.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.