I don’t want to be like my mother!

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I am trying to better understand my mother. A little history: her father was an alcoholic, she was sexually molested by her brother, she married an abusive man (my father) who cheated on her numerous times. He left her and she ended up marrying another man who was abusive to me (not her). In a nutshell, she’s been through a lot.

My mother is a complicated woman. In one sense, she has a heart of gold: she is constantly volunteering, visiting the sick, taking care of her friends, being loving and supporting; however, that’s not the full story.

She has cycles of putting me down by being overly critical, overbearing, controlling, and downright mean. She will degrade me, blame me, hurt me, lash out in whichever way she can which usually results in a fight. Afterwards, she will either apologize profusely or pretend like it didn’t happen and move on. Sometimes she seems genuinely confused about it ever happening at all!!

With her husbands she is overly suspicious, paranoid, mean and bitter. She will drive out of her way to make sure her husband is where he said he would be. She sneaks around, sets up “traps” for him to catch him in whatever she thinks he’s up to, lies to him, and is overall extremely bitter towards him.

She seems to have some characteristics of BPD, but she is not self-cutting, and sometimes, she has an overinflated self esteem. She acts very superior to everyone else and definitely plays the victim role. She can’t understand why I am such a bad daughter to her, which isn’t the case. It’s that she makes it almost unbearable to be with her when she’s in her “moods” (when she is not, she is a fantastic woman).

I desperately want to understand my mother not only so I can continue to repair my relationship with her so I can avoid being like her in the future. I have found some tendencies in myself to behave like her on occasion and I abhor it. When I do it, I KNOW what I’m doing and she doesn’t seem to recognize it or know at all. I think she has set up her own reality and the truth is too painful to realize so she goes on believing her lies.

When I feel like her, this is how I feel: It’s a fear of abandonment, really. It’s like something happens that I perceive as threatening (even though I KNOW it is not).. like my boyfriend having a close friendship with a female. Even though I know it’s a-okay, and I have male friendships, I get overly jealous/suspicious. If there is mention of this person, I shut down and lash out. I get vindictive and angry. I think it’s like.. if I feel the threat of being hurt, then I am going to defend myself and hurt the other person instead (The best offense is a good defense??). It’s horrible because I know my emotions are an overreaction to the situation, but I still feel the emotions. What I do when I experience that (which is rare, really), I force myself to “shut down”. I let myself feel what I feel, but I don’t ACT on it. I just force myself to have some quiet time so I don’t do or say anything I regret.

Anything at all can be a trigger. Obviously a friendship with a girl can cause redflags for anyone, but it can be something SO STUPID like just feeling “left out” of his life in any small way. Like the feeling of, “Oh, I didn’t know that about you.”
I think (???) that’s how my mom is too, but she’s extreme. I just get emotional/angry on a rare occasion because I think I learned those coping mechs. from her. She is like this A LOT and in worse ways.

I don’t feel like I’ve adequately explained her but hopefully you can pick up what I’m trying to get at. What is this? Is this a disorder? Is there something I can call it so I can research it and learn more? How does someone get over those little triggers that cause irrational thoughts/behaviors? How does someone DEAL with someone like this? I am at the end of my rope. Any insight/advice would be so helpful. THANKS!

A: What you are describing does sound like borderline personality disorder. What may be confusing you is that not all people with BPD engage in self-cutting or other types of self-abuse. What characterizes this disorder, among other things, is unstable and intense relationships and frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. Less well-known symptoms include instability of mood, feelings of emptiness, inappropriate intense anger, and sometimes even paranoid ideas. See the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for a complete listing of symptoms. It is unclear whether there is a genetic predisposition to this disorder. Of course, a child growing up with this type of mom could learn the mother’s fears and reactions. (It’s one of those nature-nurture questions for which we don’t yet have answers.)

It sounds like you are working hard to stay on top of when you are being irrational, even when your feelings are pretty intense. You know from experience how destructive your mother’s responses to stress can be. A negative example like that can be a powerful incentive to do things differently. Give yourself lots of credit for giving this so much thought. It seems to me that you could use some additional information and support to help you in your efforts.

The best treatment for BPD is Dialectical Beahvior Therapy (DBT). Developed by Marsha Linehan, it is a well-researched and well-documented approach to managing BPD. I suggest that you locate a therapist trained in DBT to do an assessment, to give you support, and to perhaps help you develop other ways of coping besides those you learned at your mother’s knee.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Dec 2007

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2007). I don’t want to be like my mother!. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2007/12/08/i-dont-want-to-be-like-my-mother/