Sins of the Mother: Recognizing Unhealthy Patterns

I made up with my mom a little while ago. She says we “got back together.” And that’s what it feels like. Everything is fine – actually, it’s pretty good – at least for now. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted. I want to tell her everything she’s missed over the last year plus. I want to tell her what I’m going through now, of the ways I’ve been reflecting on my life and wishing I’d done certain things differently. As difficult it is to have a borderline mother, it is equally as confusing. When things are good, she feels like my confidante, a best friend… and she is motherly. The anger is gone and the other emotions she expresses feel similar to my own. We share feelings of regret, sadness over missed opportunities and fear/confusion about what will come in the afterlife.

The CoVid-19 pandemic has led me to reflect on my life in an even more comprehensive way than usual. I wrote a long letter to my younger self, inspired by a class I’m taking. In doing that, I recognized some patterns I hadn’t noticed in the same way before. They were things I hadn’t really wanted to notice, I guess. Who wants to confront the ways they were at fault in shaping courses of events gone wrong?

I had formerly thought of myself as one who turned away from the negative traits my parents possessed, but what I’m realizing is that I’ve unconsciously acquired many of my mother’s sins (and probably some of my father’s, too). I’ve repeated some of her destructive patterns, just in my own personalized way.

I’ve inherited a pattern of darkness and negativity: when something would go wrong in my life, I’d turn towards a vortex of self-hating darkness instead of focusing on solving the problem at hand. When I got injured, I worked harder despite the pain of my body’s warning signal. I pounded on my foot until it shattered, and then smoked cigarettes in despair when it did. I then focused on my flaws and found other things to feel ashamed about. I repeated this type of pattern, with different variables, throughout my life. Negative event + self-hate = things getting worse. The healthy pattern I wish I’d inherited is one of gentleness and care. I wish I’d engaged in eating health food, breathing deeply, consulting expert doctors immediately, and cultivating friendships during times of distress; I do this now.

I’ve internalized a pattern in which I vacillate between feelings of entitlement and self-hatred, though it can be embarrassing to recognize this. I knew about the self- loathing, but to realize that I’ve sometimes acted entitled made me cringe. Aren’t borderlines and narcissists the ones who act entitled? Yes and no; it’s not only them. I learned from my mom to expect things I didn’t necessarily deserve. I remember complaining to her once that I wasn’t listed as the rank I thought I should be at my workplace (in my first year there!). Since I was doing more than the lowest level employee, I wanted the credit. My mom encouraged me to demand a new title. (Eek!) I didn’t ask for more money (I didn’t care about that), but I believed that it was so important that my rank be formally corrected. I mostly desired this switch in rank because I was hoping to get a better job the next year and wanted my resume to look as good as possible. I was young and naive about workplace tax arrangements and the fact that your “listed rank” really doesn’t mean or matter much, especially when you are just beginning. I wish my mom had instilled a sense of humility in me rather than a sense of entitlement. (This particular instance was complicated by my history of past injustices. At this place of work, as a child, I had been taken advantage of by a senior employee. Part of my feelings of entitlement came from the fact that things had gone unrecognized in the past.)

I can think of a few other times when I’ve almost felt owed things — parts, recognition, or understanding. Also, at times I’ve felt ungrateful or only temporarily grateful when I could have been on cloud nine. On the flip side, I have gone into spirals of self-hatred, thinking I am the absolute worst when I really just wasn’t at the top. I’d assume certain mistakes or flaws made me completely unacceptable. This is the danger of a lack of humility and gratitude. When you fail yourself or find yourself failing, the fall is much harder.

The times in my life when I’ve felt truly grateful and in awe have also been my most cherished moments. It wasn’t all about me, and I got to be a part of something great. I want to find this space again… this space where I am able to see the wonder. Humility and grace just feel better, all around.

Part of what is difficult about having a borderline mother is that you become confused about general social expectations. Persons with BPD/NPD don’t like to play by the rules, so it’s easy to become confused about what the rules actually are and which ones you yourself should follow. My mom would sometimes provoke me if I was too polite or not combative enough with her (saying things like, “why are you so meek?”). I internalized a belief that being polite was expected but can also be annoying. It became very confusing. I remember feeling this struggle when navigating workplace dynamics. Should I play by all of the rules, or is that annoying? Sometimes (now) I read the little memes on “success” websites and feel like I finally understand some of what I wasn’t taught as a child.

My mom’s impulsivity under (real or perceived) pressure was a pattern I also inherited. I think she acted most impulsively when she felt trapped or full of emotional torment, which is what I learned to do as well. For many years, not understanding her impulsivity, I let my mother choose things for me. I guess that is what children often do; they let their parents lead the way. Sometimes, when things didn’t go well (e.g. my mom took me to an incompetent surgeon and didn’t listen to the warning not to), I’d wonder how she hadn’t known better. Why hadn’t she heeded warnings? Then I grew up, looked back at my own impulsivity and wondered the same thing. I think that when you are cut off from a sense of peace & inner-knowing, it’s very easy for wheels to spin off track before you realize it’s happening. Taking space from my mom to heal my own mind and heart has helped me to learn how to center and ground myself. (Note: It can be extremely difficult to effectively distance oneself from an enmeshed/co-dependent relationship with a parent, but it is sometimes necessary for growth.)

After talking with my mom yesterday, it became clear to me that the patterns didn’t start with her. In the Bible, there is a verse about generational sin. Although it is referring to fathers, I believe the sins (iniquities) of the mother can also be passed down.

Exodus 34:6-7 states: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed [himself], ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’”

I don’t believe the verse needs to be read literally, like a curse, but as an explanation of how we are often greatly affected by the failures of our parents, our grandparents, and even our great-grandparents. My mother’s father greatly failed his family when he abandoned them; I still feel the effects of his actions when I experience my mom’s borderline rage or adopt her maladaptive coping strategies.

We each learn from our parents. I don’t doubt that they do the best they can. I’m sure my children will be able to attribute their negative traits onto me, also, one day. Still, I believe that understanding the patterning can be the first step in getting out of the cycles. Although I couldn’t see and name negative conditioning as a child or young adult, it is clear to me now. I think this understanding has allowed me the freedom to make meaning from my mistakes. I can own the battle wounds, the revelations, and the newfound resiliency. I can take on new dreams. I can grow beyond the patterns of my parents.

Richard Rohr, in the foreword of The Sacred Enneagram writes, “One knows oneself only at the price of one’s innocence.” I love the simplicity and truth of that statement. I am no longer innocent or naive, but so much more self-aware.

Have you noticed any unhelpful patterns in your own life which remind you of one of your parents? (If you have trouble recognizing patterns in your life, try writing a letter to your younger self!)
Have you noticed any positive patterns or tendencies of yours? What internal space have you been in during your very best moments?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!

“You’ll be sorry”: a narcissistic projection?

I opened the French door to her bedroom and said goodbye; I was leaving early. She was in her bed in the late morning, coming down from her last rage, and she looked at me with her eyes squinted & cold as she said in a deep, haunting voice, “You’ll be sorry.” I walked away.

Maybe I would be sorry for leaving, for not anticipating what she’d wanted the day before, and for not making up for the lacks she’d had in her childhood. I was always feeling sorry. I had walked around apologizing nonstop for most of my life. “Sorry,” I’d say, when someone banged into me at the store. “Sorry,” I’d say, after talking too much, or not enough, or if I asked a question. I was sorry for being indecisive, for being decisive, for having an opinion. I was sorry for it all. That day, I was tired of trying to make it all okay.

I had wanted to connect with my mom on that trip. Recently married, I’d only known my husband for about a year. I had been living in a whirlwind with a new husband, new home, stressful performing career and college classes on the side. I was trying to be and do it all. I’d made some mistakes during this whirlwind of a time that were weighing me down, though I hadn’t had the space to confide in anyone or even come to terms with them yet. My mom didn’t seem too interested in the things going on in my life, but threatened by them. She was not the type to enjoy seeing the newlywed photos.

We were making dinner and discussing evening plans (including my plans to visit a friend in a bit) when my mom offered to play a new song for me on her piano. I’d listened to my mom’s songs before and knew I would need to be fully focused while listening. No smirks or smiles that might be incorrectly perceived, which can be difficult to monitor during hystrionic moments. Full attention. I suggested that I shower first, thinking that I could let my hair dry while I listened and be more attentive, rather than rushing off to shower so I could make it to my date on time. My suggestion caused a narcissistic wound and she began to scream, with and without words. Shrill screams and then, “You know what I want but you WON’T give it to me!” There was no diffusing the situation and I’m not sure that at this time I really knew what “diffusing” meant. I could have apologized then. I could have given her a hug while she yelled at me. She couldn’t hear my reasons, nor did she care. We went back and forth for hours. The next morning, the fight continued and worsened. She shook me told me to go to hell. In her mind, I should go to my grave sorry that I didn’t want to listen to her song the moment she wanted to play it. That I didn’t love her well enough. I could have, she thinks, but I didn’t. Just like everyone else.

There have been quite a few times in our life where my immediate, natural response has been utterly offensive to her while not necessarily wrong or bad. Once, she showed up unannounced to my new apartment shortly after I’d moved out for the first time. I was seventeen. I was busy, tired, and sick with a cold. She’d recently broken up with her boyfriend and wanted a friend, but I was not immediately excited to see her and it showed on my face when I opened the door. It’s been twenty years and I still don’t think she’ll ever forgive me for that. There is no room for me to be myself, with my own separate feelings and desires, in her world. Internally, I long for the mother who can accept me, with my failure to perform appropriately for her. I walk on eggshells, but eggshells break.

I feel very sad that my mom feels so desperately needy that she cannot tolerate the slightest perceived rejection. It grieves me to think that she must have been denied the type of attention a child needs to thrive. I can’t make up for that lack and as much as I try, I cannot always have the response that she wants me to have. I resent that I have tried so hard only to have it all fall apart, cyclically. Last year, holiday planning caused a similar outburst. In that one, she expanded the guilt: “You should be sorry when I’m dead IF you have any remorse or empathy.”

Sometimes I wonder if the phrase, “You’ll be sorry” is just a projection. Maybe she is the one who is sorry, or fears she will be someday. Maybe deep down, she can see that she aggressively pushes away those who love her the most.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs, in her book “Small Fry” writes this about her father:

“It is possible that he didn’t want me to leave, that he helped cause the very losses he didn’t want, that he wasn’t able to keep in his life the kind of people who might explain this pattern to him. Had he kept them, he wouldn’t have listened to them anyway.”

Her words explain so well what it is like to be a in a personality-disordered relationship. There is no getting through about the pattern. Sometimes you must let go.

Please comment if you can relate.