An Emotion- and Trauma-Informed Perspective
I am a psychotherapist specializing in emotions, trauma and relationships. Over the years I have been in practice, I have really come to appreciate the complexity of feelings around family, especially mothers. I know that personally, before I learned to work with my emotions, I had a very limited capacity to deal with conflicts other than to blame my parents for the ways they failed me or blame myself for not being a better daughter.
Now, I view blame as a way to avoid the underlying core emotions like sadness and anger, which naturally arise from being hurt by one’s mother. Unfortunately, avoiding emotions makes people feel worse (anxious, depressed, disconnected) in the long run.
Take Courtney, for example. Her relationship with her mother had always been fraught, but with Mother’s Day coming soon and her mother, Ruth, starting to decline with age, Courtney wanted them to learn to communicate more authentically. Like many children who are mistreated, abused or neglected, she had internalized a belief that she did something wrong when she had not. I encouraged Courtney to interview her aunts and uncle to learn how her mother had been before Courtney was born. Courtney learned that Ruth had always struggled to maintain relationships. People got fed up with Ruth so she either lost friends or cut them off to save face. This new knowledge was relieving to Courtney.
I helped Courtney by sharing some tips to understand emotions as she worked to connect more closely and confidently with her mother. I hope they help you too, whether you are healing from trauma of your own or helping your child to heal.
- Know that your feelings just are — they are not good or bad — so try not to judge them. Feelings are hard-wired, automatic programs that tell us how the environment is affecting us. We need to listen to them, validate them and use them wisely. Judging yourself doesn’t help. For example, when Courtney thought about talking to her mom about some of the things that bothered her from the past, she got anxious. When Courtney noticed the anxiety in her body, she learned deep belly breathing to calm it. It made sense that anxiety came up because just the idea of talking to her mom in a new way brought up many core emotions including fear (of what would happen) and anger (for all the harm done to her in the past). Many feelings all at once cause anxiety. When we slow down to name each emotion, one at a time, anxiety tends to go down.
- Know that you can have two opposite feelings at the same time. When my mom irritates me because she gives me unsolicited advice, I honor both my annoyance and my love for her simultaneously. My internal voice might say this, I love my mom AND I’m so irritated by her right now. Courtney had to hold many feelings: the fear of her mom’s wrath, her love for her mom, her anger at her mom for being harsh, and her longing to improve their relationship. That’s a lot to hold.
- Give yourself compassion. Many people feel guilty or ashamed when they have a difficult relationship, especially with their mother. They feel they should have more patience, may internalize a sense that they are bad, or suffer emptiness. I have learned, with practice, to validate my feelings when I have them, and then immediately and purposely give myself compassion. I even give myself compassion when I am angry, because anger hurts too. Courtney was working hard to have compassion for herself although it was a struggle not to beat herself up when she had hard feelings and felt bad in her body.
- Resist the temptation to blame (especially yourself). Speak your truth instead. Courtney felt virtuous taking her mother to brunch on Mother’s Day and she wanted the gesture to be appreciated. Sadly, Ruth complained about the food, had an angry look on her face and criticized Courtney for not being more dressed up. Typically, that would trigger racing thoughts and anger directed at both herself and her mother like, I can’t do anything right! You’re such a bitch! I wish I was dead then you’d really appreciate me! But instead Courtney validated how disappointing her mother’s behavior was and how angry and sad it made her. Then Courtney took that anger, imagined putting it in her back bone, and spoke her truth looking Ruth straight in the eye, “Mom, I really wanted to please you today. I hear you don’t like the food or my outfit and I sense you are angry. That makes me sad because I wish you could just be happy to see me.” Then she was silent, feeling her feet on the floor and breathing to deal with the anxiety of speaking so directly to her mom.
- It takes two to tango. You can directly ask the person with whom you’re in conflict if she is interested in having better and kinder communication. If she doesn’t want to work on better communication, try to accept that and maybe even let it free you. Allow yourself to feel sad — that’s a real loss to be mourned. But if the other person tells you she is willing to work on the relationship, go back to moments when positive communication breaks down and see where you misunderstood each other. For example, when Courtney told Ruth she wished she looked happy to see her, Ruth replied, I am happy to see you! But Courtney was confused because Ruth said it with a harsh and hurtful tone. Courtney responded, I am glad about that mom and I still sense you are angry with me because your tone is harsh. Are you angry with me? No, Ruth replied, I just don’t feel so well today. This interaction helped Courtney understand that her mom wasn’t always angry at her. Her anxiety made her seem angry when she was just irritable.
Conflict in families, especially between mothers and children, is part of the natural order of things. Maybe this Mother’s Day you or your child will take a chance and share something hard. When a mother cannot be there physically or emotionally for her child, it is a terrible loss. But, amazingly, humans are inherently resilient. If we allow ourselves to feel our full range of feelings, even anger and sadness, without blocking them with guilt, blame, or obsessional thinking, we can heal. And as do, we can work towards being our own kind, consistent, and soothing mother on Mother’s Day and beyond.