How can I detach from my mother?

If I distance myself from her, won't I feel like a horrible person?

Published November 2, 2009 12:27AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Over the weekend, I have been at the Sun Magazine Into the Fire celebration of personal writing at Big Sur, Calif.

Whenever I go away for anything, I get behind on everything. So the column may take a day or two off this week as I regroup.

Dear Cary,

I just read an article you wrote in response to a woman who was having trouble with her mother.

I am feeling extremely desperate and overwhelmed by my own mother. You wrote that this woman needed to detach from her mother. I was very moved by your response to her. The problem is, can you tell me how to detach without feeling like a horrible person? I have three kids and a husband and their needs to worry about.

Please help.


Dear Adriana,

You do not just ask how you can detach. You ask how you can detach without feeling like a horrible person.

So let's break this down. Let's just ask, "How can I detach from my mother?" -- ignoring for the time being what effect it might have. How might you detach from your mother? You might, for instance, politely refuse certain of her requests. You might contact her less frequently. If you are accustomed to doing whatever she asks without question, you might try not granting her every request. You might try saying to her, for instance, Let me look at my schedule and get back to you about that.

You might also try, when you are in the same room with her, to stop whatever you are doing and simply observe her. Relax, breathe and simply observe her. As you do so, observe what you are doing in your own body. Sit in a neutral way and notice what you start to do. Do you hunch forward, or start to get up to help her? Are you able to sit in a relaxed way in the room, or does she make you nervous and tense? Watch these things, and try doing nothing. If there is something you want from her, try asking her for it. For instance, maybe you really just want to sit and talk with your mother. Maybe you want to be heard by her. I don't know. I'm just suggesting that you try out things, to feel where you are.

Your mother may notice the change and say something. She may react with anger. She may accuse you of some kind of behavior she does not approve of. This will probably be a familiar scene to you. If this happens, see if you can just ride it out and be there.

As to your fear that if you detach from your mother you will feel like a horrible person, how about this:

What if you were to allow yourself, just for an instant, to feel like a horrible person?

In fact, your unwillingness to feel like a horrible person can keep you in a kind of prison, where you are not allowed to do certain things because you would feel like a horrible person. If there is something we need to do, yet we fear it will make us feel like a horrible person, then we feel like a slave.

Cognitive therapy lets us ask, OK, so, What if, indeed, I were to feel like a horrible person? What does that really mean? What would be the end result of that? Would I die? Would I feel intense pain? Would others be harmed? Maybe we have had this voice in our heads, this little voice, saying, You can't do that or you'll feel like a horrible person! If we write these thoughts down, and see them, we see that they are not so accurate. We can ask ourselves, OK, how long would I feel like a horrible person? Would it be momentary? Would it last an hour, or days? And just how horrible a person would I feel like?

In this way, we defuse the bomb. We take it apart.

Perhaps we also fear what others will think of us. If we think about our reputation, and we are honest, we have to admit that a fair number of people probably don't like us. They talk behind our backs and say unkind things about us. We can know this to be true because that is what we and our friends do, too. We talk about other people. We express opinions about them.

This is unavoidable. So we must be the judge. Is it OK to work toward some degree of detachment from our mother, if our current relationship is painful and stressful? Of course it is. It's best for everybody.

There are probably many good introductory books on cognitive therapy by now, but the one that introduced me to it and really blew my mind was "Feeling Good" by David Burns. I must say, reading that book along with the help of a person who practiced cognitive therapy worked very quickly to get me out of a certain crazy, repetitive thought I had, that was keeping me from doing what I needed to do. But it's not just me. I'm an odd duck. After all, Ping-Pong works for me, too. But cognitive therapy is one of those that studies show actually works -- for many people.

So that's my suggestion, that you do certain concrete things to detach from your mother, and  use the techniques of cognitive therapy to help you manage what happens.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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