Dear Crucial Skills,
Any pointers on a conversation that should have happened many years ago?
I’m interested in asking my mother why she was so angry when we (the children) were young. When I say angry, I do mean physically abusive. I have done a lot of personal work and am almost (honestly, almost) past wanting to punish her.
The reason I’d like to do this is I have avoided an honest relationship with my mother for forty years and would like to change that. How should I approach her?
Dear About Time,
First, the disclaimer: I am not a therapist. I am an organization development consultant. And while I feel confident offering suggestions for how to effectively communicate both at work and at home, I do not pretend to possess expertise in accommodating the challenging psychological dynamics resulting from abuse.
Second, the due diligence: But I know someone who does. My father is a veteran Marriage and Family counselor of forty years. He is also a trained psychotherapist. So to ensure that I do justice to your important question, I collaborated with him in writing this response.
A first challenge in this very crucial confrontation will be to clarify—and retain your grip on—your motives. There are certain goals that are both unattainable and unhelpful in this conversation. One is revenge. If your goal is to hurt your mother as you feel she hurt you, you are likely to be dissatisfied with the result. I admire your honesty in recognizing that you harbor some of this motive. That honesty will stand you in good stead in preparing and holding this conversation. A second ineffective motive will be to change your mother. While if the conversation goes well your relationship might change, the majority of the change might be in the stories you tell yourself about your mother rather than in her behavior toward you. I hope and pray that both happen, but can only suggest that the former is the likeliest outcome.
So my suggestion is that one of your motives be understanding. If that is the goal, you stand a good chance of succeeding. A second goal may be also to obtain a future adult relationship with her. She may never be the mother you always wanted, but you may be able to obtain the relationship she is capable of having—in the here and now and not one that makes up for lost time and childhood.
The second challenge will be to suspend your stories. The stories you carry today can be fixed and unchanged products of the ones you shaped in your childhood with your mother. You still see her through the eyes of a hurt and disappointed child. You still see yourself as hungry and small. Once again, your goal in this conversation must not be to convince your mother of your stories, but to come to understand hers. This new information may completely change your stories. Or it may just add context to them—and changing the dimensions a little can change the colors greatly. For example, you may see her today as villain and yourself as victim. After your crucial conversation you may still see yourself as victim—and rightly so. But the villain may have more depth and context than she does now. And that alone will change your relationship with your mother.
The third challenge will be to listen—to explore her path. You may have a compelling need to talk, to explain, to convince. If you do, check your motives. Recommit yourself to your goal of understanding rather than convincing or punishing. Ask many questions. Create safety. Try to appreciate who she was and where she is coming from. If you do this, you will not only find yourself influenced, but she will be more likely to be spontaneously open to your influence. You may find a small opening through which she will begin to wonder about your views and perspective. But perhaps not. And if she does not, you will still have succeeded if you gain insight and understanding. And you will still have the potential of creating some level of future relationship with her if that is still important to you.
You will never resolve or recover the past you didn’t have with her. But if you approach this and future crucial conversations with her well, you may possibly have a meaningful friendship in the future.
And while even that goal is not assured, I suspect you will find greater peace of mind just in the attempt.
You have my full best wishes as you contemplate this important conversation.
Dr. Guy Grenny