As Mother’s Day approaches, some of us might find ourselves exploring our relationship with our mothers or mother-like figures. These relationships can feel very complicated; many people experience conflict in their emotions as they feel unconditionally attached to their mothers but also resentful in some ways. For better or worse, and whether or not it’s entirely fair, we tend to place a lot of responsibility on mothers when it comes to child-rearing. This means that we expect a mother or a mother-like figure to protect us from pain and harm and that we may hold any failure to do so against her. At the same time, many of us feel as though we cannot imagine extricating ourselves from this relationship and whatever dynamic is established within it.
When we consider the relationship dynamic with our mother, it helps to ask ourselves the following questions: Do I have a codependent relationship with my mom or a healthy relationship? How can I tell the difference? If it isn’t codependent now, was it ever codependent at some point in our relationship? Has it been healthy lately?
We tend to think codependency is an issue that only shows up in couple’s relationships, but it is very prevalent in family relationships. In fact, that is why it can be so easy to fall into codependent romantic or platonic relationships later in life; we seek what is familiar to us and recreate what was modeled as we were developing. Families go through thick and thin in the same space as one another; they witness and participate in each other’s triumphs and heartbreaks. A family can become entrenched in an “us against the world” mentality, especially if that family is somehow Othered in the community, experiences extreme hardship, and/or is helmed by unstable parental figures.
What is Codependency?
Healthy relationships prioritize mutual respect, communication, trust, boundaries, and shared responsibility, while codependent relationships prioritize one person’s needs and desires over the other’s, often leading to an unhealthy imbalance. It is important to distinguish the difference between the two to establish a healthier dynamic and improve your and your mother’s emotional well-being. A codependent relationship with your mother may mean that you make decisions with her happiness or approval at the core, that you’re unable to create a sense of independence from her, that you feel obligated to format your life in a way that works for her, and more.
There is a closeness that cannot be denied when we think about mother-daughter relationships; it is a difficult bond to break and often defies and eludes definition. The repeated message we receive in our society is that a mother’s love is meant to be unconditional. We see this narrative cause real harm when a mother is unable to take action to support that theme, whether because she is struggling with addiction or mental illness or she realizes that she isn’t well-suited to motherhood. At the same time, we feel a cultural pressure to take care of our mother in any way we can. We don’t want to hold her transgressions against her; we feel obligated to live at home longer (sometimes all the way up until marriage). We feel guilt and even shame if we do move away; we never feel like we’re calling often enough to make up for being out of her house. It can feel impossible to create our own life and chart our own path because we are too focused on another person’s needs. This kind of self-sacrifice is a hallmark of codependency, and parent-child dynamics are almost set up to create some form of this relationship dynamic.
5 Ways to Set Boundaries with Your Mom on Mother’s Day
1) Identify your needs:
This can actually feel like the hardest step because the moment we begin to think about our needs, our inner voice reminds us whether or not our mom will be okay with them. To determine what works best for you, you need to be willing to make your list regardless of what you think your mother will feel about it. Take some time to reflect on your needs and desires in the relationship. What are you comfortable with, and what makes you feel uncomfortable?
For example, if you feel the need for more privacy. This need may go all the way back to childhood; your mother may have entered your room without knocking and undermined you when you complained. You may have been interrogated about your daily movements; your mother may have inserted herself into your friendships, school life, after-school job, etc. You may also regard your mother as the person you can go to for help with any issue; how do you insist upon privacy but also lean on her for support? This can be a tricky balance. If you feel that your mother is the person you are compelled to turn to, but it impedes the amount of privacy you want, consider how you might have that need met in another way. Can you access a therapist or counselor? Is there another person to whom you can get things off your chest so that you can take specific, carefully-selected topics to your mom?
2) Communicate clearly:
Once you have identified your needs, communicate them clearly to your parent. This means setting aside a time in which you can have your conversation in a way that works best for you. You may want to be able to sit in a quiet space together where you can make a lot of eye contact. You may feel more comfortable broaching the subject out for a walk together. Give your parent the opportunity to prepare in some way by giving them a heads-up about what you’d like to discuss. You might say, “I have been doing a lot of work on myself and realized what I need to change and work on. Could we chat about it sometime so that I can get your help and support?” Using “I” statements to express your feelings helps you to take ownership of what you are saying and avoid blaming language. This can make people feel more receptive to listening to what you have to say.
When you begin your conversation, stay focused on your goals and remember what your purpose is. If your ultimate goal is more peace of mind and happiness, then that is worth having an uncomfortable conversation about. You might tell your mom: “It is important to me that I create this time for myself; I need it to stay healthy and happy.” Take time to really let your words sink in for yourself, as well.
You may experience some pushback in the form of questioning why you “never said anything before.” This is a common reaction when someone changes the established way of doing things. There is often a defensiveness, where the other person is looking to be absolved of any “wrongdoing.” Sticking with “I” statements can be very helpful in combating this instinct. It also allows you to stand firm in your self-governance. “I have realized that I need to take responsibility for this aspect of my life; I think it will be really good for me.”
3) Be consistent:
Once you have set a boundary, it is important to be consistent in enforcing it. This can be really difficult to do with someone who used to make and enforce all the rules. But as you have grown up, the dynamic has evolved. Stick to your boundaries and do not let your parent push past them. This will help establish a clear behavior pattern and reinforce the importance of respecting your boundaries. Being consistent in your boundaries is not about being aggressive but honoring and respecting yourself. It is also kindness to anyone you set a boundary with, whether it feels that way or not. When we set a boundary and stick to it, we provide those who care about us with the information and practice to continue showing us their care. If we go back and forth about our boundaries, we undermine ourselves and the work we’ve asked the other person to put into understanding us and our needs.
Consistency can manifest in a lot of different ways. It may look like reminding someone gently: “Remember, I told you I wasn’t going to be out late on weeknights anymore?” It may look like offering alternatives: “I’m not available on Tuesday evening. Are you available on Friday?” This means that you are checking in with yourself on a regular basis and upholding what you have decided, even when you are tempted not to. Over time, as your boundaries are observed and respected more and more, you might determine that you can make exceptions for very special events and communicate that appropriately. There is no rule that says that your boundaries have to be your boundaries forever. The only rule is that they change for you, not for other people.
4) Be open to compromise:
While it is important to stick to your boundaries, it is also important to be open to compromise. Work with your parent to find a solution that works for both of you and respects both of your needs. This can feel like a minefield when you are first enforcing your boundaries because you might be tempted to give in to everything to avoid a fight. Making accommodations about some things but not others requires you to explain yourself in a way that might feel frustrating. Ultimately, compromise is about communicating and demonstrating a desire to make the other person happy while honoring yourself.
For example, if your mom wants to see you every Saturday, but you are beginning to realize that many other people’s plans and events fall on Saturdays, you can offer a different day or fewer Saturdays. This is not about valuing other people over your parent. It is about finding a way to offer consistent quality time to your mother without missing peoples’ bridal showers, weddings, birthday parties, etc. This might mean that you arrange to have a standing date that you may have to cancel sometimes as these special events come up, or it might mean choosing another day.
Some of your wants and needs will rank higher than others. Determine where you can be flexible without being resentful.
5) Practice self-care:
Setting boundaries can be difficult and may trigger feelings of guilt or anxiety. It is important to practice self-care during this process. This could include spending time with friends, pursuing hobbies, or seeking professional support. A self-care routine is whatever works best for you; it won’t necessarily be what you might see others do or hear about online. Self-care supports your total health, so it includes your basics like rest, nutrition, and hydration. It also supports your mental health and happiness by prioritizing things that make you feel mentally well. The practice of self-care not only supports our overall wellness but is a routine that enforces our worthiness of being cared for in the first place. The more habits you adopt that contribute to your feelings of happiness, clarity, confidence, and peace, the less likely you are to choose to participate in things that don’t feel good. The challenge of setting boundaries with someone who raised you and has shared so much of your history can feel like a specific test of your desire to nurture yourself.
You may realize that your codependency is something you need to work on independently of your relationship with any specific person. Therapy for codependency can allow you to explore your needs, wants, and boundaries in a neutral environment. A therapy practice like ours in Woodland Hills is also a good place to discuss your self-care endeavors, the feelings that arise when you put yourself first, and how to overcome obstacles and hesitation in your self-care routine.
As you consider your relationship with your mother, give yourself permission to be curious. You do not need to have all answers and plans in place in order to begin. You do not need to determine the whole picture right now. It is about considering your needs, accepting your thoughts and feelings, and beginning to build the puzzle piece by piece to see how it will look over time. A relationship with a parent is, by nature, as long as you are both living. Even in separation, you are still forever connected as a family. While this doesn’t mean you should hesitate to begin cultivating a dynamic that works for you, it does mean that you’re not in a race to find what works. It is better to be present and mindful in each situation; things can adjust if they need to as you move forward. People on long journeys together do best when there is open, respectful communication and acceptance. Nurture what matters, be true to yourself, and give yourself the space and permission to advocate for yourself.
Therapy for Codependency at Embracing You Therapy
Codependency does not only show up in a romantic relationship but is very present in friendships and family relationships. This is something we don’t talk enough about. Here at Embracing You Therapy, we are ready to work with you on uncovering how codependency may be showing up at work or in your personal life. When you seek Therapy for Codependency, it is not always about ending relationships but transforming and repairing them so that they can bring more connection, not disconnection.
Contact us today for your complimentary 20-minute phone consultation with our Client Care Coordinator.