“Brutal honesty is never a threat to love—it is love. If love can be threatened by this kind of authentic, loving honesty, it isn’t the kind of love you truly long for.” - Jeff Foster
Boundary issues in mother-adult child relationships are a lot more common than you might think. They’re just not usually talked about. Why all the crickets?”
Thanks to our culture’s romanticized notions about mothers—think tropes like “Mother means love” and “No one will ever love you as much as your mother”—when we do have a boundary problem with Mom, we assume it’s just us.
And just like with anything else that’s hard, the more alone we feel in our struggle, the more shame we feel.
And the more shame we feel, the more likely we are to get stuck.
What helps us get unstuck?
Hearing someone else say, “Me too.”
In this blog post, I’m breaking down 4 signs that you need boundaries with your mom.
And just in case you’ve been dealing with the whole stuck thing, I’m also sharing a related story from a client of mine.
To assure privacy names and other identifying information have all been changed.
1. You feel uncomfortable or uneasy around her
It’s common to feel a bit nervous during an interview or around someone you’re just getting to know, but when it comes to long-standing relationships like the ones we have with our moms, feelings of discomfort or unease could be trying to tell us we need to do something different.
For those of us who have experienced abuse, this is particularly true. As trauma expert Peter Levine writes in his book Healing Trauma, “In order to heal trauma, we need to learn to trust the messages our bodies are giving us.”
I first met Jane when she was 38. Jane had been through a lot recently and also in childhood. Years of the stresses of infertility, grief around two pregnancy losses, plus her history of childhood physical and emotional abuse by her mom were adding up in a way that was leaving Jane on the brink of collapse.
Feeling overwhelmed and at a loss, Jane decided to reach out to me for counseling. Fast forward to our fourth session when she came in looking completely and utterly crushed, which surprised me because she’d been making such amazing progress in the weeks before.
As I soon found out, Jane’s 93-year-old grandma had sent her an invitation to an upcoming Mother’s Day brunch the day before. Now Jane’s emotional alarm bells were going off. And she wanted strategies.
“So my grandma invited me to Mother’s Day brunch,” Jane said to me. “It’s this family tradition for all the mothers on my mom’s side, and my abusive mom will definitely be there. Anyway, it happens every year, and it means a lot to my grandma so I do whatever I have to do to suffer through it. But this year… Well, it just feels different. Now, just the thought of seeing my mom makes me want to cry. I’m worried I’m going to cause a huge blubbering scene. What can I do to make that not happen?”
“I heard you use the words “Suffer through it.” What does that look like?” I asked.
Jane shifted nervously in her chair. “Well, I had a really bad panic attack the morning of the brunch. It’s awful, but now I just expect it. And then at some point during brunch, I have to go to the bathroom to put on more deodorant because I’m nervous-sweating so bad. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can see her fine on other days, but for some reason just seeing Mom on Mother’s Day seems to make me lose my shit. It’s like my whole brain gets fuzzy and my heart can’t stop racing.”
Nothing of course was wrong with Jane. She was describing a very understandable trauma response.
“That sounds beyond miserable. What do you think might happen if you didn’t go this year?”
Jane looked through the screen at me as if I’d just canceled Christmas. “Didn’t go? What?? I mean… like I said the brunch is this big huge deal for my grandma, and she’d be super disappointed if I said I wasn’t coming. She has this thing about “getting the family all together” and I guess I just feel obligated to make that happen for her.”
“That’s a lot of pressure on you.”
Jane’s shoulders immediately deflated, and she began to sob. And sob. Tears flowed down both sides of her cheeks for at least ten minutes. Instead of rushing in to “fix”—nothing was broken—my job was simply to hold compassionate space for her valid feelings while she did the work of allowing herself to sit with them.
Finally, Jane wiped her eyes and said, “I’ve been working so hard to take care of everyone else that I’ve completely forgotten to take care of me. I know what I need to do. I’m going to turn down the Mother’s Day brunch invite. And when my grandma starts to argue with my boundary, I’m not going to budge. This time I’m doing something to take care of myself.”
2. You feel smothered by her
Having a close relationship with your mom and being smothered by your mom are two very different things. When I talk with people who describe feeling smothered in their relationships with their moms they often say things like “Mom tries to control me.” Or “She thinks she knows what’s right for me more than I do.” And perhaps most often, “Mom gives TONS of unsolicited advice!”
In healthy mother-adult child relationships both the mom and the adult child see themselves as separate people who want and need different things. In other words, they aren’t enmeshed. And when Enmeshment’s at the party, that party has gotten out of hand and boundaries are an absolute must.
Emily and her mom had been close for years. Too close. Emily's mother treated her more like an on-call therapist or life coach than a daughter, and it was clear that she expected to play the same role in Emily’s life.
Each hour Emily spent with her mom included at least three pieces (yes, she counted) of unsolicited advice on everything from her career to her marriage to her personal style. Emily was feeling suffocated by her mother's constant presence in her life and realized she needed to set some boundaries.
At first, Emily was unsure about how to approach her mom, which is how we ended up working together. I listened as Emily told me how concerned she was about hurting her mom’s feelings—something that’s really common for people who have the mother wound—and also how she knew missing out on her own goals for her life wasn’t a valid option. And then there was the fact that Emily was a mother herself. She wanted to be a strong role model for her daughter, not someone who models shrinking yourself to make other people happy.
Emily and I spent the next few sessions on self-actualization. This work together would soon become the solid foundation for her new boundaries. Knowing how responsible she’d been raised to think she was for her mother’s happiness, I knew I needed to help Emily disentangle herself from this exhausting narrative that wasn’t serving her. Or quite frankly, her mom either.
“Your mom’s feelings are her feelings. Your life is your life. And you have every right to live your life the way you want to live it. If your mom has big feelings about your boundaries, those feelings are for her to sit with. Not you. It’s not your job to rescue her. Only she can do that,” I said to Emily.
In time, Emily was able to find her voice, set needed boundaries, and have the hard conversations she needed to have with her mom. Slowly but surely, mother and daughter were able to find a new balance in their relationship.
While it unfortunately isn’t the case for everyone I work with, in Emily’s case her mom lovingly responded by respecting her boundaries. I can’t even begin to describe to you how beautiful these mother-adult child relationship evolutions are that I have the privilege of witnessing. By respecting rather than challenging Emily’s boundaries, Emily’s mom gave her daughter the space she needed to grow and develop into her own person. In turn, this gift served to deepen their relationship, which is now different but so much better than before.
3. You feel offended or hurt by her
You and your mom don’t have to agree on everything, but if you find yourself feeling hurt or offended by her it’s time to get curious about what these feelings are trying to tell you. When we feel hurt or offended by someone, this is often a signal to us that we need to create a new boundary or hold firm on an existing boundary.
Consider my client Sophie. Sophie’s mom Maria’s comments about her weight were scathing and downright offensive. Feeling incredibly hurt and humiliated by the things her mom was saying, she was desperate for a way to lessen the sting.
“With a tummy like that no man will ever marry you,” her mom would say. Or “You would look so much prettier if you just lost the weight."
Her awareness about the mother wound and the key role it plays in eating disorders wasn’t a thing yet, so Sophie fell back on what was familiar: The eating disorder she’d been in recovery from for two years but was still always teetering on the edge of. Now she was back to skipping meals, counting calories, and exercising excessively.
Thankfully, Sophie came across a conversation in The Porch where people were sharing personal stories about the connection between eating disorders and the mother wound, and she reached out to me for help.
“Stephi, I’m 42 years old and here I am feeling so hurt by the things my mom says about my body. I just don’t get it. They’re just words! Why am I having such an over-the-top reaction?” Sophie asked me in our first session.
I assured Sophie that there was in fact nothing over-the-top about how she was feeling regarding her mom’s cruel comments. “The problem,” I said to Sophie, “is not that you feel hurt by the awful things your mom is saying but that your mom is choosing to say these awful things.”
The hurt Sophie was feeling, I went on to explain, was actually a healthy reaction to what she was experiencing. And there was action she could take. “I think your feelings are trying really hard to tell you something important. Often when we feel hurt or offended, that’s a sign that we need a boundary,” I said.
The next day Sophie sent me a copy of the text she’d confidently sent to her mom that morning along with an “I DID IT!” Her text read: “Mom, the comments you’ve been making about my weight and the size of my body need to stop. When you say things like this I feel really hurt. Moving forward, I need you to not say anything about my weight or body size at all.”
I was so damn proud of her.
And then things started to shift quickly. By the end of the week, Sophie was no longer skipping meals. Before our third session, she’d successfully put an end to the excessive exercising. And within a month her eating disorder was back in recovery.
4. You feel like you can't be yourself around her
If there’s anyone you should be able to be completely yourself around it’s your mom. But for many of us who have the mother wound, our experience is actually the reverse. For us, mom is the last person we’re able to be our true selves with.
Wondering if you’re someone who’s able to be your full awesome self around your mom? Ask yourself this question: “Would mom be surprised if I were to tell her the things I care about most?” If your answer is yes, that’s worth thinking about. If you’re a more introverted person, that’s one thing. But if you find yourself wishing you could share who you really are with your mom, but you feel hesitant, that’s something else.
Max, 27, had always known he was gay. His mom, Chris, a devout Catholic and avid Trump supporter, on the other hand, while she knew her son was gay—how much more obvious than, “I’m gay, mom” does it get?—refused to accept it. Unsurprisingly, the two had a tumultuous relationship.
“I don’t care what you do on your own time,” Chris would say to Max, “but when you’re with me and your dad we don’t want any of that gay stuff going on. You need to respect our faith and values. You hear me?”
Chris’s homophobia was horrible. Max knew this. He also knew he’d been making excuses for his mom’s hateful behavior for years because he was afraid to have boundaries with her. “I didn’t want mom to feel upset with me. I’ve felt like it’s my job to make her happy since dad’s so checked out,” Max told me.
But now things were different. Now Max was dating Jeremy, and the two were becoming more and more serious. Max knew he couldn’t expect his boyfriend who meant the world to him to just sit home alone every time an event with his bigoted parents came up. Max reached out to me for counseling.
“I’m done tolerating mom’s hatred,” Max told me. “But when it comes to actually setting the boundary with her, that’s where I get stuck. If I don’t explain it to her right, she’ll never understand why I need this boundary.”
“What won’t she understand?” I ask Max.
“My why I guess. Like why I need her to quit the homophobia. Mom’s all about logic. She’s a lawyer. If I say it in a way she can logically understand she’ll be more likely to accept my boundary.”
“Max, it sounds like you’re tying yourself up into knots and taking on way more responsibility that’s fair. Your mom needs to accept your boundaries and drop the homophobia. That’s on her. You can’t convince her to do the right thing. Only she can do that. Also, if your mom valued logic as much as she thinks she does, she wouldn’t be so homophobic in the first place,” I say.
Over time, Max came to recognize that his efforts to prioritize his mother and her fragile ego were coming at the expense of his own mental health, and if he wasn’t careful, eventually his relationship with Jeremy too. He decided to tell his mom something he’d been wanting to say to Chris for years.
“Mom, I’m gay. I have a partner. His name’s Jeremy. We love each other. I won’t go places where I have to leave Jeremy at home or pretend he doesn’t exist. I’m also not going to be silent around you or Dad anymore about my sexuality. If you can’t accept either of these boundaries, don’t invite me at all.”
Unsurprisingly, Max’s mom jumped right away to play the victim. “After everything I did for you!! How could you say something so hateful to your own mom?!?!” she cried.
The last time I spoke with Max he told me his mom had his number blocked and that he still hadn’t heard from her two years later. “But Stephi, I’m actually really okay with it,” he said to me smiling bigger than I’d ever seen him smile before. “Now I get to be wholly myself and spend my time with people who love me for me.”