QUESTION: I have a question that I hope you can help me work through. I have a demanding and manipulating mother. We have a complicated relationship, to say the least. She visits me constantly, under the auspices of helping me. Once she arrives, she drains me emotionally as well as financially (I do give her money on a regular basis, even though she just spends it irresponsibly). She demands constant attention and care. I have been in this pattern with her since I was a child: I was made to be the parent and her, the child. I was made to feel responsible for her well-being, and things have not changed many decades on.

There is a similar pattern that I’ve noticed over the years: when I leave her alone on her visits (I had to leave for several days on a business trip) she will not leave the apartment or help with the things she said she would. She starts feeling sick at very inopportune moments. I feel all this drama is also affecting my intimacy with my partner, as my mother wants all of my attention.

I’m having trouble masking my anger and lack of empathy. At the same time, I see spikes in my own patterns of insecurity that she fuels when I am with her. This runs the gamut from my appearance/comparing myself with other women as well as obsessiveness. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this behavior on my end. What’s the best way for me to cope with this? Am I being a selfish narcissist for not emotionally taking care of my mother?

ANSWER: Dealing with parental patterns is one of the most difficult things. They are so loaded with unconscious emotions and needs. We all crave love from our parents on some level. This is true no matter how old we are or how incapable they might be of giving it. One has to make room for this deep yearning, no matter how much one comprehends intellectually.

There is no other way for you but to have an emotional divorce. In order for you to go forward in your life, you will have no other option. I know it feels like an impossible task, but you have to start somewhere. The tables were turned on you as a young child: you were “made to be the parent and her, the child”. Now it is your duty to mother your own self and leave her to tend to herself. She will fight you tooth and nail, but you have no choice but to put yourself first. 

This will feel horrible and wrong initially. But you will notice that she will actually be fine. Narcissists are always fine, since they are masters at self-care (if one considers vampirism self-care, which it is not). You, on the other hand, are quite poor at self-care. The tendency at such junctures is to try to reason with the other person, to beg for our freedom, or want the other to free us. But this seldom works, as the other is vested in being taken care of.

This is not something that you discuss with her. “Mom, I have decided to stop taking you on…” It is something that you do silently. Before you even do that, watch the ways you try to buy your freedom. And beg for love. Watch the places where you do or give things that you do not want to. Examine the underlying reason you do what you do. You are trying to buy her love, to show her what a good daughter you are, to have a relationship where none exists. Caring for another from a willing place of love is a joyous experience. Being manipulated to give - is a totally different experience.

You have to make peace with the fact that you are an emotional orphan. She is the way she is because of her own pain from her own past. You can not heal that. All you can do is focus on your own neglected self. Her reaction is irrelevant, most likely unpleasant. What is relevant is you feeding your own starving self. That is a long process that you need to start working on.

Are you selfish you ask? People who ask this tend to be codependent. A narcissist would never ask that. As a codependent person, you were falsely taught to satisfy your own needs by meeting the needs of your mother. So for you, there is much confusion between self-care and being selfish. Suffice it to say that there is a huge chasm between the two. You will mostly err towards putting the needs of others first. Self-care will feel selfish initially. It will be uncomfortable, but it will also feel empowering.

People are the way they are because of wounds they have not tended to. Whatever the reason, we can not heal another. Only they can. It is up to you how long you want to try, but in the end you will come up empty-handed. You have tried your whole life and nothing has changed. How much longer would you like to keep at it? Try a new way. You deserve no less.