Julia Vaughan Smith: Writer, Action researcher, Thinker, Public speaker
Many adult daughters who do things for their mothers end up feeling resentful if they receive no thanks or acknowledgement. It’s not just daughters of course, mothers can feel resentful if their daughters take rather than give in the relationship. Resentment can build up in any relationship.
Resentment can eat away at us, fuelling anger and distancing. In this book ‘The Body Says No’ Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-Canadian physician, calls resentment ‘soul suicide’. The problem is in some ways we bring it on ourselves. If we continue to give (time, energy, commitment) in the hope that it will bring recognition and maybe love we are caught in an entanglement. If we choose to give to our mother, or another, then we need to do so freely or not at all.
Here’s a made up example – Prue’s mother requires quite a lot of attention from her daughter, not because she is ill or disabled but she wants attention. She is not very focused on her daughter or her daughter’s life. Prue tries to be a ‘good daughter’, to respond to her mother’s requests, to maybe sort out her paperwork, and to ‘think’ for her mother trying to anticipate what might be needed or wanted. Prue has never felt ‘seen’ by her mother and carries this deep hope that one day, if she does enough, her mother will turn to her, see her for herself, and say she loves her. It never happens, so Prue keeps going giving her time and energy, being dutiful, while the resentment builds up and up. She complains a lot about her mother to her friends and hasn’t yet looked at her part in this ‘game’. If she examines her motivation she may find the drivers for this entanglement. Can she bear to break it? Can she bear to set boundaries, to say no, or to limit her contact? Can she bear to break the cycle? She can if she finds it within to honour and respect herself, to step back and look afresh. To decide for herself, what is she willing to do and how does she need to reframe it in order not to feel this toxic build up of resentment. The other thing she has to face is that her mother is highly unlikely to change, if she could be different, she probably would have been by now. She will probably find, in her self-enquiry, that she carries a hope that her mother will change. Best to face the reality that she probably won’t and to plan for that.
Good loving relationships comprise equal amounts of give and take, that is, we give to each other and are able to take care and actions that support us from others. Poor relationships are where there is more giving on our behalf than what can be received. We get little support, encouragement or endorsement in return. Sometimes, we are given these things but we block them out, we deny them or they are things we don’t really want and would rather have something else given to us. Healthy relationships can explore that in ways that are not about blame or victimisation, but a clear discussion about what we need.
It is useful to remember to create a ‘circuit break’ between stimulus and response. That is between an impulse to react and what we actually do. We can be helped in this by metaphorically stepping back, taking some deep breaths and allowing ourselves to be with the situation. We can engage with the question of ‘what response might I make that will not leave me with resentment?’ This might be linked with an intention not to make the situation worse or to look after our wellbeing by not stepping into toxic resentment. This might give rise to some fresh thinking about what would be the best response, including maybe not responding.
In some relationships with mothers, especially when they are ageing and/or vulnerable we may be wish to take on the role of care-giver in some way. We may decide to give our time and energy to making her life as comfortable as possible, without stepping into heroic rescuer, recognising what is in our gift and what isn’t. This needs a deep reality check. We need to make this decision knowingly, weighing up the consequences for us and the potential contributions we can make. We can enrol others to also contribute if they choose. If we can make a clear choice, we have to be prepared to reframe our thoughts so we give the time and energy we have decided to give, without expectation of reward, recognition or thanks. If thanks comes, great, but if it doesn’t we have still given freely of entangled hopes and wishes.
In an entanglement it can feel as if we have no choice at all, that the situation is a given as if programmed in from birth. We always have choices and we can take responsibility for the choices we make so that we are not inviting toxic resentment into our lives. Forgiveness can help too, forgiving ourselves for possibly having not done that in the past; we can recognise that our actions came from a place of caring or concern. Engaging our capacity for self- compassion and compassion for our mother may also help. From that position we can engage empathetically with her humanness, and how she may be experiencing that, while not getting caught up in the hurt that maybe her values or opinions are different from ours.
It takes work to build up the emotional muscles that enable us to step back, reconsider, decide and act on our decisions, and to let go of the hoped for longing to be seen and feel loved by her. If we are willing to commit to this, it will help free us from the suffering of entanglement.
Julia Vaughan Smith
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