My mother is about to make me lose my mind! I don’t know if we need to pick up and move across the country to get away, but something’s got to change. I cringe when I see her number pop up on my phone, but then I tell myself I should just be grateful that she called and didn’t just stop by. I don’t want to feel this way, but (insert frustrated Wookie-type noises)!!!!!
Clark Griswold in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation may have captured your sentiments about your intrusive mother exactly:
“Can I refill your eggnog for you?
Get you something to eat?
Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead? “
Boundary-crossing moms are a regular topic of conversation between me and my friends and clients. I’m picking on poor mom here, but you could really insert any other friend or relatives name in place of “mom.”
No matter how much you may hope for change, this type of mom will probably keep on doing what she does. You can wait forever for her to finally realize the error of her ways, or you can change what you are in control of: you. I recommend the latter option. You get to decide what your boundaries are.
Before getting to the freeing, powerful work of setting limits on your mom/friend/other difficult person, let me define “boundary.” When I use the words “boundary” and “limit,” I’m referring to your right to say yes or no—to decide what you will let into your life and what you will keep out. In their aptly titled book Boundaries, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend define the word this way:
“Boundaries are personal property lines that define who you are and who you are not, and influence all areas of your life.”
Now let’s turn to the perennial question: How do you act in love and set limits/boundaries at the same time? Most people that I talk to want to be kind and loving to their moms, but in their “kindness,” they don’t set limits, and end up secretly wishing to enact Clark Griswold’s middle-of-nowhere suggestion. While leaving someone for dead could be considered a limit, you don’t have to go that far in order to be free from intrusion.
If you aren’t used to setting firm boundaries in a relationship, doing so may be uncomfortable. But choosing discomfort (that tough conversation in which you tell mom “no” or “stop”) leads to freedom and love. When you’re free in a relationship, you’re free to really love and be loved. The other option, resentment, is a dead-end; resentment only builds over time, and holding onto it ends up being far worse than having a tough conversation. As Brené Brown has said, “choose discomfort over resentment.”
You’ll know you need to set a boundary when something feels icky, if I may use the proper psychological jargon. Icky is that slimy feeling you feel when you say yes but you really want to say no, that sense of doing something you don’t want to do but feel like you have to. It’s a burdened, trapped feeling. You might be so used to blurred boundaries that you don’t realize you feel icky; it might just feel normal. Let the ick be a red flag that lets you know you need to do something different.
And then there’s mom’s dreaded reaction to being told “no.”
Intrusive, boundary-crossing moms aren’t known for handling “no” very well. How does your mom react? Anger, defensiveness, the silent treatment, pouting, guilt trips, and tears may fill her arsenal of responses. Remember, by setting healthy boundaries you may not stop her from doing her thing, but it may help set her in the direction of personal growth at some point. The point is for you to protect your heart, your relationships, and your freedom, not for you to protect your mom from difficult feelings. At the same time, love is crucial in this process. It’s helpful to word your boundary-setting in a kind way, acknowledging and validating her feelings. Asking for what you need in a positive way is a great way to go about it rather than reciting the reasons she makes you want to pull your hair out.
Here are some examples of common situations and what you might say to ask for what you need:
- To the mom who calls five times a day: “I love talking to you, though I need you to limit your calls to me to once a day.”
- To the mom who habitually pops in unexpectedly: “Will you be sure to call and ask if it’s a good time before you come over?”
- To the mom who gives lots of unsolicited parenting advice and/or criticism: “Would you be willing to keep your parenting ideas to yourself unless I ask you for them?”
Since these are all questions, your mom can always say “no.” Even if she does, you are still in charge of you, and you can still determine you own boundaries. For example, if her response to the first request about fewer phone calls is to tell you that she may need to call you multiple times, then you can let her know that you’ll only be able to answer one of those phone calls. This way, you’re not controlling her or telling her what she can or can’t do, you’re letting her know what you’re going to do in a kind way.
When your mother demands more time and attention than you have to give her, that’s the time to take control of yourself and make some changes in you. Make yourself a little uncomfortable, ask for what you need, and allow yourself the freedom to love your mom and enjoy your relationship with her, resentment free. Boundaries lead to freedom, which lead to deeper, more loving relationships. When you’re free to choose, you’re free to enjoy and love the other person. And you’ll keep your sanity.