Updated: 6 days ago
“The people closest to us should be most likely to believe our descriptions of reality and to care when we’re hurt.” - Deborah Tuerkheimer
Having the mother wound is bad enough. The last thing we need are judgmental comments that invalidate our experiences.
It might be 2023, but it’s still way too common for us to open up about our mommy issues only to be questioned, scrutinized and doubted by the friends and family (and sometimes even mental health professionals) we go to for support. Truth be told, we’re tired of it.
In this blog post we're covering six exhausting phrases that you'll agree need to be drop-kicked into the stratosphere. And in case you need to pass this one on to a well-meaning person in your life, we're also including actually supportive phrases that can be used instead. Let’s get started.
1. “At least you have a mom”
Ah, the classic “at least.” Let’s unpack this unhelpful attempt at a silver lining that children of dysfunctional mothers would love to never hear again.
For starters, helpful, supportive, empathic statements don’t start with the words “at least.” I mean, think about it:
“At least you have a head to ache.”
“At least you got to be married before he left you for someone else!”
“At least you had a dog before it died.”
“At least you had a bike to get stolen.”
“At least the miscarriage means you know you can get pregnant!”
Yikes, right? If you wouldn’t say any of these to those in your social circle, then you shouldn’t tell someone “At least you have a mom to hurt you!” either.
Meet Hurtious Feetly and Atty Leaster
Still holding out hope for the potential merits of this insensitive comment? Consider this conversation between Hurtious Feetly and Atty Leaster:
Hurtious Feetly: I’m in pain! My date to the dance stepped all over my feet in heels, and now my feet hurt!
Atty Leaster: Oh yeah, Hurtious? At least you had a date to the dance. I didn’t have a date at all! I’m in more pain!
Woah there, Atty Leaster! Instead of being there for his friend by showing compassion and empathy, Atty Leaster is throwing Hurtious Feetly’s pain on the ground and stomping on it to center himself. Desperate for relief from his own pain, he hijacks the conversation and pits his friend’s pain against his own pain as if it’s a competition.
But what if Atty Leaster knew that compassion and empathy aren’t rare commodities to be “won.” What if he knew they’re actually limitless resources with more than enough to go around for all of us?
If he knew this truth, Atty Leaster would have responded to Hurtious Feetly without the Pain Olympics. He would have known it was never a matter of one person’s pain needing to triumph over another’s, but simply a matter of caring for one person’s pain at a time.
If you see yourself in Atty Leaster, you’re not alone. Most of us have centered ourselves like Atty Leaster did here at least a time or two (see what I did there?). I know I certainly have. Fortunately, when we find ourselves tempted to play the Pain Olympics again, we can opt to say supportive things like these instead:
“What you’re facing with you mom sounds really tough. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
“I’m glad you told me about your mother wound. What can I do to best help you?”
“I know it doesn’t fix what you’re dealing with as far as your estrangement from your mom, but I want you to know I’m here for you.”
2. "She did the best she could”
This benefit of the doubt response is probably the most common one those of us who have dysfunctional mothers hear. And it really makes us want to pull our hair out!
It’s really not surprising that the biggest fans of the “best she could” excuse are the same people mad at millennials for getting participation trophies in elementary school. Apparently their “logic” looks like this:
✅Participation trophies for bad moms: fine!
❌Participation trophies for second graders: not fine.
For the love of all that is holy make it make sense! Okay, obviously that’s impossible, but something you can do is chose to not be like this person’s therapist:
And instead, be like this person’s therapist:
Participation trophy hypocrisy aside, my number one question for those who defend the cause of hurtful mothers with “But she did her best” is this: What difference does it make? If a mother’s “best” was hurtful to her child, how does this change anything whatsoever for her child? The answer: it doesn’t.
The bad doctor, babysitter, builder, and dentist
Still not convinced that bludgeoning folks with the “she tried her best” sledge hammer isn’t best practice? Imagine opting to use it in these situations:
Them: The surgeon made a serious mistake with my heart operation.
You: But your surgeon did the best they could!
Them: The babysitter slept the whole day while my twins cried in dirty diapers.
You: But your babysitter did the best she could!
Them: The builder forgot to reinforce the roof so that’s why it collapsed on the residents.
You: But the builder did the best he could!
Them: The dentist pulled out my healthy front tooth instead of filling the cavity in my back molar.
You: But your dentist did the best they could!
You’d never respond like this. That’s because you’d come off sounding A) ridiculous and B) like you lack any and all empathy. With a simple tweak here or there you can take what you already know and apply it to your conversations with people who have dysfunctional moms. You might say things like:
“I’m so sorry to hear your mom treated you like that. How awful that must have been for you.”
“What your mom did is not okay. So inappropriate.”
“There’s no excuse for your mom saying that to you."
3. “Your mom’s nice to me"
I get where you’re going with this, but I’m going to go ahead and stop you right there. You don’t think Ted Bundy went around murdering every single person who stood within a ten foot radius of him, do you? No, you don’t think so? How about Jeffrey Dahmer? No, not him either?
Now take that same thought process and apply it to dysfunctional moms because that’s not how dysfunctional mothers work either. As uncomfortable as it is, the fact is that someone can come off as nice to you and still be absolutely heinous to somebody else. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to avoid reality, take up residence in Pleasantville, and live free of human nature too. We could all exist in a constant state of bliss where the unlogic of “Since this lady is nice to me that means she’s an awesome mom to her kid” is reasonable instead of laughable.
Unfortunately, back over here on Planet Earth the inconvenient truth is that a mother who’s abusive to her child isn’t necessarily abusive to any one else. Heck, even siblings don’t have the same exact mom: the mother who dotes lovingly on her oldest child might terrorize her youngest child or vice versa.
The next time someone tells you they’ve been harmed by their mom and you yourself have only had good experiences with their mom, you don’t need to discount their experiences for yours to still be true. And maybe, just maybe, they know an important thing or two about their mom that you don’t know as someone on the outside looking in. Either way, consider responding by saying things like:
“What you’re describing with your mom sounds so painful.”
“Your mom was in the wrong, and I’m holding space for you.”
“I believe you about your mom.”
4. “Someday she'll be gone"
When a client tells me they’ve been told, “Someday your mom will be gone,” my blood pressure doubles. Noteworthy fact: Someday every person who’s ever walked this earth will be gone. In the meantime should we invite the abusers all over for tea and a game of pinochle? “Ted and Jeffrey, would you please pass the cucumber sandwiches?”
The fact that someone’s dysfunctional mother will die someday doesn’t obligate them to pretend for your head-in-the-sand benefit that she didn’t treat them how she treated them. Instead of suggesting such a thing to someone who’s in enough pain as it is, ask yourself why you feel the need to suggest it in the first place.
Flip it to test it
Still holding out hope for the supposed merits of this one? Imagine saying these versions of “Someday they’ll be gone” to a friend:
“But someday that lady who robbed stole your money will be gone.”
“But someday that politician who physically assaulted you will be gone.”
“But someday that guy who abandoned your litter of newborn kittens on the side of the road will be gone.”
Awful, right? And I promise you it doesn’t sound any better when “your mom” is subbed in. But don’t just take my word for it. Imagine yourself saying these to someone you care about:
“But someday your mom who stole your money will be gone.”
“But someday your mom who physically assaulted you will be gone.”
“But someday your mom who abandoned your litter of newborn kittens on the side of the road will be gone.”
Since crappy responses like these obviously gotta go, you might try saying these instead:
“How your mom behaved is wrong.”
“You deserve so much better from your own mom!”
“Your mom never should have put you through that trauma.”
5. “Other people have it worse"
If we all played this awful game, none of us would ever give or receive compassion and empathy about anything. Lost your keys to your house and car? Well this guy over here lost his keys to his house, car AND boat! But then there’s this guy over here who lost his keys to his house, car, boat AND second home. And on and on and on it goes.
At the end of the day, the fact that someone somewhere on this earth has experienced something more painful—BTW who’s the judge???—with their mom (or with anything else) than another person just doesn’t matter. I mean, it matters in the sense that the pain matters, but not in the sense that a “greater pain” cancels out a “lesser pain.” That’s just not how any of this works.
The evolutionary roots of comparison
Our knack for comparison isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s played a huge role in helping us humans survive as long as we have.
For example, our ancestors needed to be able to quickly decide which wild animal made the most sense to pursue for food. Of course, unlike with compassion and empathy, the energy and time these early humans had to work with were limited. The failure to hunt the right wild animal was no small thing—it could result in not enough food for the whole group.
Thankfully, pain isn’t something we need to compare. And when we let go of our impulse to compare pain, this frees us up to use the energy we would have spent on unnecessary comparisons to instead cultivate compassion and empathy for all. Like we talked about earlier, compassion and empathy don’t need to be hoarded and rationed because there’s plenty to go around for everyone. We offer compassion and empathy to children of dysfunctional mothers when we say things like:
“You’ve been through so much. I hope you can take space from your mom to heal.”
“Your mom never should have hit you. “Spanking” is hitting and hitting is abuse.”
“Moms are supposed to be there for you. I’m sorry your mom wasn’t.”
6. "But she's your mom!"
At least once a week a client tells me about someone dismissing their mother wound with the exemplary “But she’s your mom!” I’ve been known to respond to these clients by saying, “Exactly! She IS your mom. That’s WHY this hurts so much!” From here I help my clients learn to do three key things:
Resist the urge to justify their mother wound to the person who said this. Their feelings about their dysfunctional mom and how she has hurt them are 100% valid. Full stop.
Recognize that this hurtful comment isn’t actually about them, but about the person who said it. Maybe this person is working really hard to deny their own mother wound? Or maybe they’re a mom who’s avoiding the fact that they’ve been abusive to their own kids?
Come up with ways they can respond to crappy comments like this moving forward. “I’m not going to justify my trauma to you,” “The fact that she’s my mom is the reason this hurts so much,” and "Please don’t say that to me again” are all good options.
If you’d be willing to say, “But she’s your mom!” would you also be willing to say, “But he’s your husband!” to a woman fleeing from domestic violence? Or “But he’s your priest!” to someone who was sexually assaulted at church? Or “But he’s the boss!” to someone who was fired simply for being gay? All I can say is I really hope not.
The bottom line is this: The role someone plays—parent, doctor, teacher, pastor, etc.—doesn’t preclude them from acting in ways that are hurtful, traumatic, or abusive, and yes, this absolutely includes moms. Instead of standing up for perpetrators, do us all a solid by saying something supportive like:
“Your mother had no right. I’m angry for you.”
“No mother should ever act like that towards her child.”
“What you’re describing is abuse, even if the person doing it was your mom. God, I’m so sorry.”
Are you someone who wants to take your mother wound healing journey to the next level? Come join the conversation, learn more about the mother wound, and receive compassionate support in our now 100% free private mother wound healing community over in The Porch. Interested in keeping up with the latest Mother Wound Project news? Follow us on Instagram.