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How to Survive Mother’s Day If Your Mother Was (or Still Is) Emotionally Abusive

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Mother’s Day, while a time of joy and celebration for some, can be a pretty tough holiday for a lot of people — particularly when emotional abuse is in the mix.

Maybe you struggle on Mother’s Day because it brings up repressed memories from your abusive upbringing. Maybe it’s a reminder that you can’t change the past and won’t get the mother you deeply yearned for growing up. Or maybe it brings up shame now as an adult for not feeling what you think you “should” feel about your mother on this day.

Because this holiday is loaded with expectations that can be difficult to navigate if you have an emotionally abusive mother, we spoke to Annie Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), who specializes in treating folks who had abusive or traumatic experiences growing up, and asked her to share her tips for navigating Mother’s Day when it feels difficult. In addition to her insight, we asked members of our Mighty community who have emotionally abusive mothers to share specific ways they survive Mother’s Day now. You can find their responses below Wright’s tips.

Here are three ways to survive Mother’s Day if you grew up with (or still have) an emotionally abusive mother: 

1. Be honest about how you really feel.

When helping her patients navigate Mother’s Day, Wright shared that before anything, she encourages her clients to be honest about how they really feel.

“[I recommend] acknowledging at the most basic level how you actually feel about this day vs. what you think you should feel. That’s actually where I tell my therapy clients to start — actually doing some deep reflection on your feelings about the day.”

It can be easy to skip over your true feelings when confronted with idealistic Hallmark cards and people telling you how you “should” feel about your mom. Even though it’s hard, being honest with yourself about your feelings — without judgment — is an important step in navigating difficult emotions surrounding family-centric holidays.

2. Think through your boundaries.

Wright explained that setting boundaries is a lifelong journey for most people, but may be especially difficult for folks whose boundaries were never respected in their environment growing up.

If you struggle with setting boundaries, Mother’s Day is a perfect opportunity to practice… Maybe you don’t feel comfortable spending time with her in person, but you feel OK with a 15 or 30 minute phone call. If you don’t feel OK with voice-to-voice contact, maybe it’s sending a text. Or maybe the boundary is no contact at all. So think about it in that way. What level of contact are you open to having?

Boundaries are most commonly thought of as what we will or won’t do, but Wright said it’s helpful to think of boundaries in terms of what we will or won’t say as well.

Think about boundaries also in terms of what messages you’re willing to say to your mother on the day. A lot of people will say, “World’s best Mom!” or “Thank you for everything!” but maybe your personal boundary to honor your own experience is just saying, “Hey Mom, happy Mother’s Day. Love you. Just wanted you to know that.” Whatever it looks like to be authentic to your own experience and to feel more congruent with what you want and need — that’s a great place to start with boundaries.

3. Create a plan.

Once you think through your boundaries it can be helpful to create a plan so you’re mentally prepared for the day. Keep in mind if you create a plan, then realize day-of you’re struggling more than you expected, it’s more than OK to change your mind. Do what you can do and take care of yourself. Here are some specific suggestions Wright gave for creating a plan for Mother’s Day.

[I encourage my clients] to brainstorm what they need to do to take care of themselves on this day — to create a plan of sorts. Does this include not celebrating the day at all? Maybe it includes not actually contacting your mother. Maybe it looks like taking a break from social media. Maybe it looks like spending the day with girlfriends who are really supportive and who mother and nurture you in ways your real mother never could. I encourage my clients to think creatively beyond the pressure to actually celebrate mom, to reconnect back to what their needs and wants are, and then to go off and pursue that.

Looking for more specific examples for how to navigate Mother’s Day? Here are some ways members of our community have learned to cope:

  1. Celebrating the positive female role models in my life and that played a mother like role for me and supported me in ways I would have wanted my mother to do. Let’s build up those positive people in our lives!” — Ashlee T.
  2. “My real mother is mentally and physically abusive. I moved out when I was 17… I just couldn’t take any more. I’m happily married now and have the best mother-in-law. She loving and caring and she really helps me through Mother’s Day. I also have my friend’s grandma who’s like a mother to me. They really are the sweetest women.” — Kailey D.
  3. “I went no-contact with her and work so I don’t have to think about it. I also limit my social media time so I don’t get triggered by all the effusive posts about great moms.” — Monika S.
  4. “Reminding myself I have no control over them, only myself. Remembering it’s them, and not me. I have limited contact anyway. I do send a card. I focus on my children instead and my husband usually does Mother’s Day pretty well for me. Switching up the focus onto something else that makes you happy gets easier over the years.” — Kelly S.
  5. “I usually stay away from social media on Mother’s Day, if possible.”  — Kaitlyn C.
  6. “No longer have contact with my abusive biological mother, and still struggle some with Mother’s Day, but having my own kids help and having a best friend who is also the mama of my heart who has shown me true unconditional love.” — Tracy S.
  7. “I consider my grandma to be my mom. She passed away in 2005, but I think of her every day and I know she’s always with me.” — Jessica S.
  8. “Just being grateful for the people that do love me in my life — my dad who has always taken the place of being a mom, and now being a mother myself, it has taught me how to be the best one I can be. It is very hard, and I try not to think too much about it, but I am just so grateful for the people I have in my life now.” — Sydney E.
  9. “I’m trying to cut my abusive mother out of my life. And I’m finally accepting that I can be happy. I have two amazing daughters and I love being their mom. Mother’s Day is always a happy day for me because of them!” — Janaina N.
  10. “I put all of my efforts toward my stepmom. She stepped up and has been there for me for as long as I’ve known her. I realize now that I may not have my birth mother in my life, but I do have a mother. One who loves me unconditionally and will always be there.” — Alanna B.
Originally published: May 11, 2018
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