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When you are your Mother’s Best Friend
After having worked with several thousands of clients on each of the populated continents in our world, I began to see repeating patterns that crossed all racial, ethnic and cultural and class barriers. Each culture had its own version of the same theme, but the results looked pretty much the same: individuals living lives of limited emotional, spiritual and expressive freedom as they were tied up in a distorted relationship of friendship with their mother, who was for the most part, the ‘good’ parent. Many women, feeling that they lack choices, feeling disrespected and objectified by the men they’ve had or are having relationships with, then look to their children for emotional fulfilment. Many men on the other hand, feeling that all of the love and attention now goes to the children and not to them, also distance themselves – amplifying whatever lack may be present already in the relationship. As I write this article I do so from the perspective of the individual who is entangled in an unhealthy relationship with their mother. This is one of the most challenging entanglements to unwind as our loyalties run very deep and on top of that, the fear of losing our mother prevents us very often from seeing things clearly – we actually fail to see that we are caught in a web as it feels like home and it is what we know.
If at an early age we are brought into friendship with our mother, hidden shame becomes a part of our secret world. Often it is held so tightly that we are not even aware of it ourselves and how it bleeds into almost every aspect of our lives. Shame is born as we have been asked to do something that we simply do not have the capacity for, to be our mother’s friend. As we do not have either the intellectual or emotional ability to be in equal relationship with an adult, we simply fail over and over and over again and begin at a very young age to blame ourselves for our mother’s unhappiness. Yes, we begin to blame ourselves for our mother’s unhappiness. It is subtle, it is deeply buried, but it thrives in the form of shame, guilt and self hatred and self blame. These are some of the ways in which we can be brought into an entangled relationship with a parent:
– Be told your mother’s secrets and be asked to keep them
– A mother who shares her feelings regarding her marriage or your father when you are young
– A mother who openly shares her disappointments in life with her young or teenage children
– A mother who looks to her children to fulfil her social and emotional needs with her young or teenage children
– A mother who complains about, discredits, shames or disparages the father
– A mother who discusses her emotional needs with her children regarding partners, lovers, friendships
– When it feels like the mature person in the relationship is the child and not the parent
The Problem with Loyalty
As infants we inherently know that without our mother’s love, we will die. We are totally dependent on the nurturing, love, feeding and physical care of our primary care giver – for the vast majority of us, which is our mother. When we are born to a mother who is disappointed with your father or in life, or in both, we can forever be caught in the trap of waiting for her to see something else other than her own unhappiness- we wait for her to see us, the love us, to hold us. Instead we can end up becoming the adult in the relationship, holding onto a distorted friendship in the vein hope that only if we stick it out, try harder or wait long enough; we will finally get what we need. Sadly, this never happens. This entanglement can lead to us showering our mother’s with gifts, financial support, taking charge in her life, being involved in all of her decisions, approving or disapproving of her relationships – the extent of such unhealthy entanglements can seem quite normal from the inside, but from the outside – the child is the loser. Over and over and over again. Some of these aspects are not unhealthy when our parents are elderly, infirm or sick, we’re there to help. What is being spoken about here is when these patterns emerge in early childhood, continue on through our teenage years and well into adult. The relationship between parents and child naturally change when old age and sickness are a theme. It is our very own denied and unexpressed need that keeps us loyal to a ‘needy’ parent. It is the vein hope that one day we may get what we need, we may get seen for who we are – a child who wants to be seen, heard and held by its mother. We are reluctant to release this loyalty and vein hope as there is a core belief that keeps us stuck: If I give up, then I will have nothing. When we are raised by a mother whose needs are primary we are left feeling empty, unloved, shamed and unsupported. As these are intolerable feelings we are then very motivated to try, try, try again – and this can go on for decades. The work that is required is to meet and address the inner world of emptiness; however, many conflicts can arise as we begin to work on healing ourselves of this damaging and entangled relationship, especially guilt.
How would it be for you to close your eyes, feel your mother and say ‘Please bless me if I have the courage to be happier than you’? Take a breath, say that again. Very often the child that tries to break free from a needy mother feels guilt for trying to do so. They feel great conflict around the betrayal of their mother until such times as they fully realise how their very own childhood has been betrayed by the mother’s need. There are also some who believe that they have indeed broken free, however, they feel a lot of hostility, rejection or even hatred for her. This is a false freedom, we are still entangled and we will continue to punish ourselves for it for years to come. The betrayal of a parent by a child can be excruciatingly painful as so many of our core beliefs of survival, self worth and being ‘good’ are tied up in it. We can feel frozen and unable to individuate and step more fully into life whilst leaving the woman who gave us life alone with her unhappiness. However, it is the only way forward for both mother and child. The mother too does not benefit from this entangled relationship. It may look like she does on the surface, but deep down, she never has to face herself and is therefore left in perpetual spiritual poverty. Many of my clients imagine at first that the request is to break all ties and connection with their mother. This is not the case, for that does not work either. What it requires is a step by step process of facing and filling the inner emptiness of the child and a slow process of re-education in terms of the relationship and how it manifests. As the separation and individuation process starts the feelings of ‘How could I do such a thing to her?’ can come up.
There comes a time when a little girl or boy goes out into the world as an adult and leaves their mother behind. They are no longer a child; they’ve been filled from the inside, loved form the inside and are now ready to face the world as an individual with their own identity. When we are entangled in a friendship with our mother, then the process of individuation has not taken place. Staking our claim to the world, our life and carving out a piece of it for ourselves becomes a challenge. Relationships don’t work because we either don’t allow ourselves to be happier than our mother or our relationship with our mother takes such precedence there is little to no room for anyone or anything else – save perhaps a cat or a couple of dogs. Our entire lives may be taken up with bemoaning our fate, complaining to others and yet still, our loyalty runs deep as we have yet to truly taste the world and life as an individual. When we have been smothered instead of mothered each and every approach of love and friendship from others can feel like an invasion as we have rarely, if ever, felt ourselves as an individual. This is especially true when we’ve extricated ourselves physically from the relationship with our mother but have yet to do the deeper inner work required to find resolution. Hatred for her binds us much more deeply than dependence or fear of betraying her.
Friendships and Relationships
When we’ve been our mothers’ best friend and out own sense of Self has not developed fully, then friendships and relationships can reflect this in many ways: – Feeling of guilt for having other friends and relationships – Needing the mother’s approval of certain friends – Forming other friendships that are ‘mergers’ , losing the sense of self in them – Caretaking friendships, their needs come first – Abusive relationships – Repeating the same pattern with our own children – Fear of intimacy ‘If you love me, I cease to exist’ – Setting ourselves up as the one who approves of or vetoes our mother’s relationships What is clear is that the entanglement of having our mother as our best friend has very far reaching and long lasting effects.
Healing the Hurt
Hidden in this friendship is a lot of pain and deep hurt for both parents. The mother is not a bad person, she also simply did not get enough growing up and is yet to face her own wounds – similarly caught up in the belief that without you, she is and has nothing. What needs to be faced with an open heart and gentle guidance is the sense of separation from self, the sense of emptiness and the much deeper wounds of abandonment. Very often we can turn to hatred in such relationships for hatred has the function of separating us from the experience of a deep and profound love that was betrayed. It is that very experience of our innocence being betrayed that we must face – we were simply asked to do too much too soon, we failed, for we could not possibly fill the shoes of an adult, and much was lost in the process. Your mother did not gain a friend, she lost a child, you did not gain a friend, you lost your innocence. Now it is time to heal.
To learn more about the hidden dynamics of relationships, read my book: The Healing of Individuals, Families and Nations
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1 thought on “When you are your Mother’s ‘Best Friend’”
Thank you, very thought-provoking.