Does setting boundaries with mom really matter? You may love her dearly, but your relationship can also drive you crazy. Maybe you can relate to the following story.
“I love my mom, and I want her to be a part of my kids’ lives,” Nicole told me during our first counseling session. “But I feel so much guilt. Ever since my father died, she would spend every second with us if she could. And, I feel terrible telling her ‘No.’” Nicole felt like she was abandoning her mother by setting boundaries on their time together. She wondered aloud, “How can I be happy while my mom feels lonely and left out?”
When Nicole was young, her mom struggled with illness and depression. She looked to Nicole to keep her company and help run the household, which more than a young child could handle. As a girl, Nicole couldn’t process her mother’s dependence upon her. As a result, she developed a false belief about herself and her role as the caregiver in their relationship.
Setting boundaries with mom became a process of healing faulty beliefs that she’d unwittingly picked up in childhood. It was good for Nicole. But, it was also good for her mom.
The purpose of setting boundaries with mom
For some women, there’s a deep-rooted angst from childhood that is longing to be brought to the surface and healed. Let me be clear: I’m not here to lay blame on your mother. Moms are amazing, and even the best of relationships can get complicated. On the parenting spectrum, there is no marker for “perfect.”
All women, at some point or another, have to figure out how to set boundaries with mom. It’s part of becoming a healthy adult. (Yes, the same goes for fathers, too.)
For some women, setting boundaries with mom comes naturally as they mature into a young adult. It may have started with small, but significant, statements of personhood:
- “I want to try things a different way.”
- “I’d rather spend time with my friends this weekend.”
- “I love you, mom, but you’re SO embarrassing.”
- “I’m not sure I agree with you about that issue.”
If you feel safe enough to tell your mother what you truly think and feel, consider yourself blessed. Your mom created an environment where you could assert yourself and set healthy boundaries. That’s exactly how the dynamic should be.
But, for many young women, creating a healthy separation from mom didn’t happen quite so easily.
Why are boundaries with mom important?
When you’re young, you receive all sorts of messages about who you are and who you can become. You’re like a sponge. You absorb those messages, but you don’t have the capacity to filter the good ones out from the bad. The messages you receive from your mom, whether explicitly stated or not, echo in your mind as you navigate your life and make decisions about love, work, and family.
If you have a challenging relationship with your mom, you may have received damaging messages like these:
- You exist to meet my needs.
- You’re not doing it right.
- Don’t be like those people.
- It’s selfish to have your own dreams.
The messages you received as a child can be a force for good. But, when they turn toxic, they can be extremely hard to shake. If you haven’t addressed and healed these painful messages, you might find yourself struggling with constant feelings of guilt, a chronic sense of worthlessness, or an extreme need to please other people.
Why women struggle to set boundaries with mom
God designed you to separate from your parents. You’re supposed to leave your family of origin and create a life of your own. But, if your mom undermined this process, then moving forward in a healthy way can be extremely hard.
Rationally, you may understand that the hurt you suffered as a child were not your fault. You know you need to move on with your life. Yet, parts of you may stay stuck in the past. For example, you may still be angry inside, even though you’ve removed yourself from an unhealthy family dynamic. Or, you may cling to a sense of guilt, which is the only way you know to feel connected to your mother.
Bessel van der Kolk wrote, “Traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations”(see chap. 3, n. 3). Psychotherapist Richard Schwartz, calls traces “legacy burdens” (p. 138). Our parents’ unresolved burdens may impact our lives for decades, “to the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 34:7).
The hurt parts of you, stuck in the past, can lead you to feel things and act in ways you wish you didn’t. For instance, you might find yourself struggling with loneliness, because you have a hard time creating healthy connections. Or, you might feel sidelined or neglected, even though you know you have friends who love you. You might even find yourself drawn to unhealthy people, attempting to recreate family relationships that will never meet your deepest needs.
You can heal and become whole.
God longs for you to unburden past hurts and move forward into a new life and the kind of healthy relationships he intended. Setting boundaries with mom might be your first step toward growth and change. There will be some obstacles, and it will take some grit and determination. But, YOU are worth the effort. You matter to this world, and you matter to God. You can learn how to shed unwanted guilt and transform feelings of anguish into hard-earned pride and joy.
For further reading:
*Sections of this post are adapted from Chapter 7 of Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
What are the biggest obstacles you face when it comes to setting boundaries with your mom?
Got a question for Alison?
Click here to send your question. Please keep your message brief.
Due to the number of questions received each week, not all messages can be answered.