Susan has a loving husband, and she cares deeply about her daughter Claire. At this point, however, she doubts whether Claire cares back. Claire constantly misleads others about her mother by giving exaggerated accounts of conflicts at home, sometimes even spreading fabricated stories of abuse. She seems to be looking to others for support against Susan.
There are moments when Claire seems loving to her mother. On the other hand, there are moments when she criticizes Susan directly to her face, targeting her insecurities and accusing her of being an unfit parent.
Susan knows how hard she’s tried to nurture her daughter, and love her unconditionally. But she cares, so these things hurt. They’re starting to affect her physical health; she’s had chronic insomnia for a while now, and other symptoms are beginning to appear. Susan’s relationship with her husband is also under strain.
Sometimes, Susan blames herself for her daughter’s behaviour, and wonders if things could have been different if she had been a better mother. Nevertheless, Susan is at a loss for what she should do to help her daughter, and she wonders whether she needs to let go so she can protect herself.
THE REAL PROBLEM
Susan is conflicted because the more she cares about her daughter, the more she suffers. Since she feels unable to help her daughter, she may wish she could give up on her so she can at least save herself. But this is not easily done; when we care about something so deeply, it has to cause us a whole lot of pain before we can let it go. There is a better way.
Susan needs to fortify herself against Claire’s attacks by understanding herself, and her role as a mother. She also needs to weaken Claire’s attacks by understanding Claire, and her motivations and vulnerabilities. Once she is fully convinced of the realities of her situation, she will develop a stoicism that makes her impervious to Claire while preserving her sympathy and emotional availability for her.
The most important thing that Susan needs to understand is that Claire’s bullying is not about Susan, or her value as a person. Further, the bullying is certainly not because Susan mistreated her as a mother. Claire’s accusations and criticisms may target her where she is most insecure, which is when they hurt the most.
Bullying, however, always says more about the bully than it does about the bullied.
To take the power out of her insults, she needs a strong understanding of the emotional drivers that are guiding Claire’s behaviour. It will be difficult for her to consider things objectively; her concern for Claire could bias her. She should try to think of things from outside, as a friend giving advice to another friend. If she accomplishes this, she may find that there are two potential motivations for Claire’s behaviour: she either is manipulating Susan, or she is seeking positive regard (either from herself or from peers).
TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
Claire is insecure. She is also either too inexperienced or too emotional to cope with it in a way that is actually sustainable. Instead, she pursues short-term solutions that ultimately make her more insecure than she began. Claire is seeking positive regard from others. She knows that she can take Susan’s positive regard for granted, so she uses it as leverage to secure the positive regard of her peers. She spreads misinformation to her peers because she is trying to gain sympathy from them.
Of course, her dishonesty damages her credibility in the long term. Not only that, but it forces her to contend with the knowledge of her own dishonest and bullying tendencies, which further threatens her self-esteem. Her conscience and her insecurity are in bitter opposition to each other.
Her solution to this problem has been to believe in her own fantasies. This serves many purposes: it allows her to feel like she is right and that Susan is wrong. It allows her to project her undesirable qualities and behaviours onto Susan. Finally, it allows her to feel justified when she criticizes Susan in a targeted and hurtful way. The more she hurts Susan, the more she feels the sense of power, status, and control that she is lacking. For this reason, many of her insults are carefully curated to hurt Susan.
Claire is not a monster. She’s just a person faced with vulnerabilities that she doesn’t know how to handle. Susan certainly knows a side of her that is sweet, sympathetic, and afraid. This side may be buried in insecurity and anger, but it can never be extinguished. This is why Susan can’t simply stop caring. Understanding Claire’s vulnerabilities in their truest form can help Susan remember Claire as a child in need of support, whose outbursts are a product of short-sighted frustration. She isn’t a real threat.
COMING TO TERMS
This answers how Susan should understand her daughter’s hostility towards her. But Susan should be also mindful of how she views herself. Susan needs to develop a positive identity of herself as a mother. Above all else, she needs to remind herself of how she’s cared. She should be proud that she never let go, even though it has been difficult. Insults can never damage a strong sense of identity once it’s been developed.
Susan has made some mistakes along the way, and blames herself for them. It is this self-blame that makes Susan vulnerable to Claire’s attacks.
But everyone makes mistakes, and everyone needs the opportunity to learn from them. Some people may wish they could do more, even though they are unable. If she cannot come to terms with her mistakes, then she will be unable to draw on the past as a resource towards developing this sense of herself. But even without the past as a precedent, she can develop a new identity of herself going forward. To accomplish this, she only needs to challenge herself to keep growing in this difficult situation. If she can say with total confidence that she is trying her best to do what’s right for everybody (including herself), her conscience should be clean.
Trying your best can take many forms. Sometimes, “trying your best” means forgiving yourself for taking a break when you need to recover. Other times, it means facing the truth, even when it’s painful. One possibility is that Susan might need to distance herself from her daughter, in a controlled way, so that she can recover herself. This doesn’t mean giving up on loving her; in fact, this might even be the best way for her to help Claire later on. On the other hand, it may be that Claire really needs her mother right now, despite her outward appearances. Life can force us into some terrible choices. In the face of uncertainty, do your best, and carry on with pride.
Susan is fortunate in that she is not alone: she has her husband. If she trusts him, she should share her pain with him. This may be an opportunity for their relationship to deepen, rather than weaken. As a couple who have shared each other’s hardship, they can help each other emerge it. Susan should consider her resources as broadly as possible; in addition to her husband, she may have access to friends or professionals who can help her with her struggles. When Susan’s physical health is on the line, it is in everyone’s best interest for her to get the help she needs.
Claire may herself grow distant someday. She may become convinced that separating herself from her mother will solve all her problems. But her mother is not the source of her problems; the source is within her. Her problems will follow her around, and she’ll have the opportunity to develop a broader context of how her own decisions and behaviours attract these problems.
Some people may have to make the same mistakes many times before they are willing to adapt. But slowly, she will let go of her defense mechanisms, and replace them with an awareness of her own vulnerabilities. This will be a humbling and perhaps painful time for her. This is the time to reassert yourself as a supportive, loving influence, and to remind her of the inherent potential you see in her.
The fact is that Susan is her daughter’s only reliable source of positive regard; Claire’s loving side probably says the most about how she views her mother, even as this side grows evermore absent. Susan should consider the moments when Claire shows genuine vulnerability. Make no mistake; these are moments of lucidity, not fantasy. They are the rare glimpses of who Claire really is underneath it all. Through them, Susan can see what Claire is dealing with, and who she knows her mother to be.
Susan is a caring person with good intentions, and her daughter is deeply vulnerable. Susan may become convinced of this if she is able to view her situation with a bit of emotional distance. She may also be better prepared to deal with her own insecurities by establishing support systems, and making good use of them.
If she succeeds, she will ultimately be able to do what is best for her daughter and herself, even in this imperfect situation. Claire needs to figure things out on her own. But someday, if Susan is patient, Claire may self-actualize and return to her true self. If she finally comes back around, Susan will be ready for her.