'My Mom Says I'm Pathetic!'
It's time to start questioning your mother's judgment instead of your own.
The Lawrence Tree (1929) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I have a complex around making friends. When I was younger, I was told that I was too bossy. No friends invited me to be on club leadership in high school, despite them being high on the totem pole (club leadership featured highly in my high school's rat race of college admissions). This may be because I was a poor leader. Additionally, my utility may not have been high enough - I count on being of use to others as the main vehicle to friendship making, mostly because I do not believe I am pleasurable enough for others to tolerate my flaws nor do I have virtues worth admiring.
Then in freshman year of college, I chose to live in a liberal arts community despite being a poor philosophy student. I was unable to keep up with scholarly discussions, the main conversation after hours, and subsequently felt that I was too idiotic to make friends. I attend a university where being intelligent and articulate rank very highly. The few friends I do make I generally keep the conversation to plans and dreams for the future, with a few ethical dilemmas scattered in. When I am unhappy, I do not lean on them - rather, I isolate myself until the feelings have passed or the issues have resolved themselves. I am afraid of driving them away from being high maintenance, because I have chosen not to start friendships with people who need more emotional support than I could give. I am starting my fourth year of college this fall, terrified of being immature and friendless.
I recently asked my mother, who I was close with, why I had difficulty making friends. I hadn't been looking for complete honesty, because I do not believe that honesty is the best policy, but I had forgotten that my mother was and remains a very straightforward person. She said, in complete honesty, that although I was a generous and loving person, I pushed people away by rejecting overtures of closeness and that I was too sensitive. One example she cited was that when talking to her, I refused to make eye contact. I find it easier to avoid eye contact in difficult conversations because it helps me remain calm, but she perceived it as me pushing her away. My sensitivity arose from the fact that I was easily insulted. Here, it was that her answer to this question had made me mad, and that she was afraid of my anger. She felt it palpably, although my voice remained steady and low. It made for a very unpleasant conversation.
My response made me extremely embarrassed and ashamed, because I had spent a lot of time working on being less sensitive, mainly by assuming the best intentions of everyone else. When I talk to people, I try to read all of the possible meanings of what I am about to say, to avoid offense and to manage praise. I suppose the tagline would be "positive vibes only". My mother acknowledges that I am often successful at this, and the many people I speak to often leave with positive feelings after our conversation. Additionally, any negative implication would have to be deliberate - thus, no accidental insults. I assume that whenever I am spoken to, most other people use a similar approach. I then assume that negativity lurks under the surface. For example, a comment about me being on my phone too much can be construed both as a concern for my eyesight, a denigration of my addiction to my phone, or both. I suppose I am too sensitive. This may also be the time to say that I was diagnosed as a moody preteen, to which my mother decried that I was mentally ill, something she repeatedly denies she says but that I remember. It is as clear as day. But people can make false memories, so perhaps this is one?
I am again ashamed to admit to you that I began to cry, to which she muttered that I was pathetic (which I was) and disgusting (I refrain from commenting, because I can't bear it) and ridiculous (again, I agree, but did she have to say it loudly enough that I could hear? I suppose the point - that I could hear, given that it was loud enough for everyone else in the family to hear too). My behavior was completely unacceptable.
I wish I could grow up. My response was immature and ridiculous. I do not believe my situation is tenable - I do not desire to drift through life, lonely and pathetic and ridiculous and useless. I want to be a good, mature person who adds positive value in other people's lives.
Polly, I suppose this is my question - how do I grow up? How can I be a better friend and person?
Immature and Lonely
Dear Immature and Lonely,
When you ask your mother “What’s wrong with me?” and your mother answers with a long, detailed list of your flaws, you don’t need to wonder what’s wrong with you anymore. You need to start asking what’s wrong with your mother instead.
Emotionally secure, stable parents don’t call their children pathetic, disgusting, immature, and ridiculous when they cry. They don’t hear that their preteen was diagnosed as “moody” and say “No, she’s mentally ill” AND THEN DENY THEY EVER SAID THAT. Your mother has been gaslighting you since you were very small. She’s terrified of your emotions, and most of what she says about you is a projection. You reject her overtures of closeness because you don’t trust her.
And also? She rejects your overtures of closeness. Crying is a way of being honest and vulnerable with another person. When you cry, you let down your defenses and show how sad you’re feeling. At the very moment when you’re the most open, your mother goes on the attack.
She would never see it as an attack. In fact, she seems catastrophically unaware of the hex she’s putting on you just by being her “helpful” self. She thinks she’s giving you useful information. I’m guessing that she had a wildly unpredictable childhood so now she’s hyper-vigilant and controlling and she gets anxious whenever anyone else is emotional. For her to feel safe, you have to stifle your emotions and ignore your needs. This is reflected in what she values about you: She says you’re kind and generous. But only self-sacrifice has value to her. When you show up and tell her the truth about how you’re feeling, you’re punished for it.
Unfortunately, your mother is very persuasive. To her, each small choice you make has a moral weight to it, and contains a verdict about whether you’re being mature and serving others or being a selfish baby. When you show your true feelings to your mother, either by looking away from her or by crying, to her, you’re not just being a regular human being with your own separate needs and desires. She has no boundaries, so when you make a choice she wouldn’t make, you’re disgusting and pathetic. You need to do better!
Even though your letter is ostensibly about making and sustaining deeper friendships, your underlying goal, stated repeatedly, is for me to help you become someone your mother will love without reservation. You want to grow up, to be less immature and ridiculous, to be less lonely and pathetic and useless. You see your worth as a person the way your mother sees it: You want to bring positive value to other people’s lives. Your mother’s constant undermining has led you to a life of pretending and hiding in plain sight, while experiencing waves of deep insecurity and panic.
And if you keep listening to her and believing what she says about what’s “wrong” with you, you’ll become just like her: terrified of emotions, suspicious of others, and enraged by people who don’t hold themselves to the same impossibly high standards she does.
So listen to me closely: You’re good the way you are, right here, right now. You’re not an idiot. You’re not immature. You’re a sensitive, emotional person, that’s all. You need to get a therapist so you can let out a lifetime of emotions you’ve been tamping down for the sake of not being seen as weak.
You say you hate to let down your guard. No wonder! The second you show your true feelings, your mother calls you names. You feel insulted when you’re with her BECAUSE SHE IS INSULTING YOU.
Other people reading this might wonder why this isn’t obvious to you. But I get it completely. If you challenge your mother, she counterattacks or changes her story, and you accept her version of events in order to keep the peace. You’re absorbing all of the self-doubt in this picture, as she remains completely unaware of how unsettling and corrosive her words are. She doesn’t even recognize how upset and out of control she starts to feel when you’re struggling and you say so. She doesn’t understand that your emotions make her feel angry and panicked.
Your mother doesn’t know herself or what she’s doing. Your tears are a trigger that make her go ballistic. And whenever she’s under stress or feeling some unwelcome emotion — and most emotions are unwelcome in her world — someone is to blame for it.
You can only stay in her good graces by remaining in total control, anticipating what she needs without considering your own needs for a second. That’s what counts as growing up in your mother’s book: Strength is silent servitude. Maturity is disappearing in plain sight.
Meanwhile, all of the flaws you claim to have are directly linked to her. You assume that negativity lurks beneath the surface with everyone because there’s always negativity lurking under your mother’s most positive statements. She’s always saying something soft while thinking something sharp and pointy. You get angry at her easily because you feel insecure and unable to ask for what you want from her. If you assert yourself, she criticizes you for it.
And why might you sometimes be a little bossy? Because when you try to lead, your mother rejects your initiatives and tells you that you’re doing it wrong. Bossiness springs from the insecure assumption that people won’t follow you – an assumption that’s usually based on past experience. That’s why women leaders are often perceived as bossy. Not only are most people of all genders a little bit sexist and therefore unable to handle being led by a woman, but women have years of experience being gaslit, denigrated, and ignored whenever they try to lead. We assume that no one will follow and that makes us preemptively angry or annoyed or uneasy. Sometimes we sound bossy. BUT WHY WOULDN’T WE SOUND THAT WAY? It’s the most natural response in the world.
That’s how I want you to view your flaws from this point forward: as natural, even adaptive responses to a bewildering upbringing. Even though you’re going to feel overwhelmed as you try to move forward from here, don’t reject yourself or try to banish your flaws. Celebrate your flaws and quirks, because your truest talents live nearby. And trust me, you won’t figure out how brilliant you are until you embrace your supposed weaknesses with an open heart, and love yourself for exactly who you are.
Unfortunately, that part will feel completely wrong, because it goes against everything you know. But make no mistake: Your flaws are also beautiful and lovable and special. Even though this is a rough moment in your life, when you start to push on walls around you and they start to crumble and you feel like everything you ever believed was a lie, it’s also a breathtakingly vibrant and perfect moment. Because now you get to feel your way forward and TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS FOR THE FIRST TIME.
You’ll still tell yourself your instincts are horrible. You’ll still announce that you’re lost, and you don’t know how to move forward, and you need help. The thing your mother never taught you was that you do know how. She’s convinced you that you can’t trust yourself, but she’s wrong.
That said, you do need a good therapist to talk to so you don’t keep relying on your mother for advice and input. And at first, you probably won’t trust your therapist. They’ll say things like, “Emotions are good for you!” and “There’s nothing sick or weak or wrong with crying!” and you’ll think, “That’s not true. My therapist is just a touchy feely weirdo who lives on some groovy planet of feelings and warm hugs.” When your therapist seems concerned, you won’t trust it. You’ll think they’re faking it for the sake of a paycheck.
It’s hard to trust people and experience their compassion as genuine when you were raised by someone who insults you whenever you cry.
I guess this is a good moment to officially apologize to the excellent therapist I had in my late twenties. I wrote about him in my first memoir as if he was slightly full of shit. But actually, he was good at his job. The problem was that secure, open adults didn’t fit neatly into the skewed philosophy that ruled my upbringing. The idea that emotions are a form of weakness was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I couldn’t help but see my therapist as either weak or a fake.
The repercussions of this belief are scattered across my emotional history: When I was younger, people who loved me landed at the end of my priority list, and people who ignored me rose straight to the top. I denied myself what I wanted and worked hard at the stuff that other people valued. I treasured time with people who treated me as useful and discounted the value of those who actually cared. I wanted to be of positive value more than I wanted to be loved, because I was taught to be useful, I was taught to support and give, but I wasn’t really taught how to relax and enjoy loving and being loved.
I used to find these facts about myself and my history embarrassing because I thought they meant I was extremely fucked up and unlovable. But mine was not an exotic or unusual upbringing, and neither is yours. (Lots of Ask Polly readers are going to tell you about their own experiences with controlling, avoidant, blaming parents in the comments section, so read on and you’ll see how common it is!)
The sad truth is that most of the people alive on this planet are wildly confused about the forces that act on them. They don’t know why their families make them crazy. They don’t know why they feel anxious about love, or why they can’t connect with their friends, or why they always feel like a third wheel in groups, or why they run away from a potential partner just when things start to feel serious.
Most of us don’t understand why it’s so hard to be happy. We can’t feel strong emotions without experiencing shame and self-hatred. We can’t navigate stressful times in our lives without subconsciously blaming ourselves for whatever is going haywire. We buy into the shared myth that we’re supposed to become happier and more productive with each passing year. The deeper reasons for our unhappiness are stubbornly indecipherable to most of us.
So you’re not alone, believe me. Your mother is just one of millions of parents who are trying their best but still failing at the most important part of parenting. Your mother’s most important job is to encourage you to be exactly who you are and to derive happiness and satisfaction from being that person. That’s where peace and confidence and deeper friendships begin — particularly for someone like you, who has always molded her behavior around serving others. You have to start with what YOU want, what YOU enjoy, what YOU feel, and accept these things instead of fighting them.
You can still serve others, too. But you won’t serve anyone until you stop denigrating yourself. You don’t know how to connect with people in meaningful, honest, expressive ways because no one has modeled that behavior for you. You’ll learn! The harder part is going to be sloughing off a lifetime of negative messages about how everything you do is idiotic and pathetic.
Try to forgive your mother if you can. Her childhood was probably very difficult. You can’t fix what you don’t understand, and your mother’s understanding of herself is extremely limited. Try to accept that, because you won’t change it. But above all, please don’t waste time regretting the confusion you’ve felt up until now. You have plenty of time left to be exactly who you are.
Notice I didn’t say improve or get better. You’ve worked way too hard to make yourself better already. Your new job is to be a flawed human out in the open, to feel everything, and to let the world in without judging it harshly. The deeper human connections you crave start there. All relationship troubles boil down to trouble with the self. When you foster a healthy, secure, accepting relationship with yourself, that’s when loving, mutually supportive relationships with others become possible.
So find a therapist and start. It’ll be really hard. My heart is with you. But nothing is harder in this life than blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong. Nothing. You don’t have to be better anymore. You just have to be you.
Did you have a parent who undermined you as a kid? When you’re under a ton of stress, do you revert back to believing that you fuck everything up? Let’s discuss! I have a lot to say about this, A LOT. Need advice? Write to askpolly at protonmail.com. Thanks for being here!
I love this advice, Polly. And for others out there experiencing similar self-doubt but whose parents never directly called them names: it happens in subtler ways too. If your parent gives you toxic positivity in response to sad feelings ("You really have so much to be lucky for! Just put one foot before the other! So many have it so much worse!") this is still reflective of their inability to be present with your feelings and to try to fix them or minimize them for their own comfort. It can have the same effect of making you believe the lies that your emotions are too much, that something is wrong with you, and that you should shrink yourself if you want to be able to connect.
I can relate to the letter writer having grown up with a loving but ultra critical mother. However, I think I have inadvertently become a lite version of this myself towards my own children. Not so much the outright criticism but definitely the lack of boundaries and blindness caused by my own anxiety. Heather, I’d love to know what you’d write to the letter writer’s mother. I love my children so much and want so very much to be better.