My mom and I have had a contentious relationship ever since I was a young teenager. She’s always been very preoccupied with weight, and anytime she thought I gained a few pounds, she would point it out and berate me, often to the point of me crying. I should note that I’ve never been anywhere close to overweight at any point during my life. I also go to the gym and try my best to eat relatively healthy. She also tries to micromanage everything around her, criticizing me for the makeup I wear, whether I have my hair down or in a ponytail, and other minute things. I told her these sorts of things hurt my feelings, but she hasn’t stopped. Luckily, I grew up, went to college far away, and now live about 500 miles away from family. I worked on cultivating my own identity, saw a therapist, and gained self-confidence from being away from my mom.
However, two years ago, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Apart from this being an absolutely awful event, it means I’m in contact with my family and visit them much more often than I used to. Whenever I go home, my mom always brings up my weight. Most recently, my dad told me that he’s so happy and proud to have such a smart, hardworking, and beautiful daughter. My mom later whispered, “He has to say that you’re beautiful because he’s your dad. Wouldn’t it be nice if you lost weight and he could actually mean it?” I got many other comments from her about how I could be pretty if I lost weight, that I can’t actually be popular with men looking like this, how sad it is to look how I do in my 20s, and similar things.
I want to be able to see my dad more often, but I’m anxious about having to see my mom. How do you deal with toxic family members when interacting with them is unavoidable?
New York, N.Y.
I’m so sorry that you’re in this situation while also coping with your father’s diagnosis. I have some good news and some bad news, but since the bad leads into the good, I’ll start with the bad.
Your mother’s emotional struggles—and her behavior is a manifestation of them—aren’t in your power to change. They’re in her power to change, but the problem with difficult family members is that often they lack the willingness to self-reflect. Instead, their inner conflicts get projected outward so that they can toss their pain, like a hot potato, onto someone else. In this case, that person is you.
It sounds like part of your mom’s pain is related to a belief that appearance determines lovability. You don’t say what her relationship is like with your dad, but somewhere along the line, probably before she met him, she likely got the message that love is a very precarious thing—that it’s earned and maintained primarily based on physical appearance. She also seems to have a very rigid idea of what constitutes love-worthy physical appearance, and a distorted image of your beauty as a result of her own distorted views.
But as offensive, insensitive, and detached from reality as her comments are, believe it or not, they’re also coming from a place of caring about you. In fact, she’s not unlike those parents who believe that the key to a successful life is to go to an Ivy League school, so they agonize over each test score their child gets but can’t recognize her many accomplishments. In their mind, there’s only one path to success (and happiness), and because they love their child so much, they feel that they’re simply doing their parental job of helping her to create the best life possible. I’ll bet that your mom, if asked, would say the same thing: I care enough to bring this to your attention so that you can have a good life. Unfortunately, what she’s bringing to your attention isn’t helpful advice or even an accurate view of your appearance. It’s a giant ball of anxiety—hers.
When we’re younger, it’s hard to disentangle our parents’ own issues from the messages they send us, but the reward of growing up is that we can start to view their criticism as being less about us and more about them—here, it’s been turned into a form of misguided caring. Once you start to consider it this way, her comments won’t sting as badly, because you’ll be less apt to personalize and internalize them.
You may even be able to see their contradictions. For instance, if she’s sharing information about your appearance in order to “help” you, does that mean that your father is actively trying to sabotage you by lying to you about your appearance and thus ensuring that you’ll never find a partner? Could it be instead that your mom, insecure about her own appearance and lovability, secretly believes that the only reason your dad compliments her is that he “has to say that”? Critical people tend to be unhappy with themselves, so however critical she is of you, she’s probably doubly critical of herself, no matter what she looks like on the outside.
A friend once heard a therapist say: “We tend to overvalue the people who reject us.” And though your mom isn’t exactly rejecting you, criticism can feel a lot like rejection. But here’s the good news: There’s so much freedom that comes from placing your value elsewhere—like on your dad, especially during this challenging time with his health.
Moving forward, before you arrive at their house, make a point of reminding yourself that your company matters to your dad and that he matters to you. Then remind yourself that what your mom says is related to who she is, and not to who you are. Once there, instead of doing the same frustrating dance you two do when she makes these comments—trying to set a boundary, explaining that she’s hurting your feelings, or perhaps arguing with her assessment about whether you really are overweight or your hair looks better down than in a ponytail—try doing something new. Which is: Muster your compassion for her anxiety, as hard as that may be.
So when your mom brings up your appearance, you might respond, “I appreciate how concerned you are about me, Mom. It’s nice to know how much you care. I hope to find a great partner someday too, and you know what would be the most helpful thing you can do? If you can mention the things you value about me, that will give me the best chance of finding a partner who values me, too.” If she continues making critical comments, simply take some deep breaths to calm yourself, then walk over and give her a big hug and say, “I’m sorry you’re so worried, Mom. I care about you, too, so I hope you’ll find a way to worry less, especially with everything going on with Dad.” And then you change the subject, or if she escalates the criticisms, muster that compassion again and say, “It breaks my heart to see you so anxious, Mom,” then exit the room and go visit with your dad.
The point is to not engage in any discussion about your appearance—not a word—but instead to empathize with the maternal anxiety that’s fueling her not-so-useful “assistance.” Over time, she’ll see that she’s criticizing without an audience, and though the comments probably won’t stop entirely, they’ll likely decrease significantly, because the criticisms have nowhere to land. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to respond like this consistently—the strategy won’t be effective if you go back to responding emotionally in the moment or to trying to engage in a discussion around your appearance. For future visits, you can shorten your response to a brief, “Okay, Mom, thanks for caring,” or even, “Oh, Mom, I’m sorry you’re still so anxious,” and then shift your focus over to your dad, whose company you can enjoy. Fortunately, you get to leave at the end of the visit, while she has to live with her worry. It’s up to you to remember to leave that worry in its rightful place—with her, 500 miles away.
By LORI GOTTLIEB for The Atlantic