Even the most chill relationships between mothers and daughters have their bumps in the road. It’s pretty much impossible to always be on the same page as the people who raised you, especially as you get older. But if your conflicts with your mother seem to go beyond what’s normal and into an area that leaves you feeling sad, helpless, or bad about yourself, then the two of you may have a toxic relationship. A toxic relationship is one based around anger, emotional manipulation, and other negative and hurtful feelings, instead of mutual support. We can develop toxic relationships with anyone in our lives — partners, parents, bosses, friends, siblings. But for many of us, toxic relationships with our mothers are especially common, and especially difficult to deal with.
After all, you can’t exactly dump your mom and then jump online to look for a new one. And the guilt and blame that our society places on the shoulders of children who are estranged from their parents can often feel like motivation enough to just shut up and suffer in silence. As someone who grew up the only child of an extremely toxic mom (and continues to have the mental health issues as a result), I take issue with the idea that totally sacrificing your well-being for a mother who constantly tears you apart is “doing the right thing.” There are many options between suffering your mother’s toxicity with a smile and cutting her off completely. (And honestly, cutting an extremely toxic mother off is not the tragedy that many uninformed folks make it out to be.)
So if you think you might have a toxic relationship with your mother, then read on for six of the most common signs — and know that you have options.
1. She Dismisses Your Negative Feelings
It can be hard to have compassion for yourself when your mother took care of your physical needs but ignored your emotional ones. Have you ever started to think about how your mother made you feel invisible or as if your feelings were a nuisance, and then caught yourself and thought,”I had a roof over my head and food, and she never hit me. I shouldn’t be complaining”?
Well, you don’t need to think this way. Your suffering is real, even if others have had it worse. And though physical abuse and neglect are definitely damaging, emotional abuse and neglect can deeply scar us, too. In fact, a 2014 study published by the American Psychological Association found that children who only suffered from emotional abuse experienced the same rates of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and suicidal impulses as children who had suffered physical and sexual abuse.
Emotional neglect from our mothers can have lasting consequences. As Peg Streep, author of Mean Mothers, put it in Psychology Today: “Daughters raised by dismissive mothers doubt the validity of their own emotional needs. They feel unworthy of attention and experience deep, gut-wrenching self-doubt, all the while feeling intense longing for love and validation.”
Maternal dismissiveness can take lots of forms. Maybe your mother makes it clear than any steps you take to satisfy your own needs don’t matter to her — say, by making undermining comments whenever you achieve something that makes you feel good about yourself. Or maybe your mom makes plans for your life without consulting you, and demands that you stick with them or else — like deciding that you’re going to grad school, setting up interviews for you, and insisting that you attend them, even though you’ve never expressed any interest. Streep notes that in cases like this, “the message is, effectively, that the daughter is inadequate, cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment, and would simply flounder and fail without her mother’s guidance.”
2. She Thinks That You’re Responsible For Her Happiness
I spent a lot of my childhood hearing about all the things my mother had given up in order to take care of me and make sure I was happy: her good looks, her life in the big city, her chances to develop a good career or meet a decent man. She didn’t hold it against me, of course, she always said. But since she had given up so much for me, wasn’t it only fair that I could give up a few things, too, so that I could make her happy? Like having boyfriends, friends, or spending time developing my own life?
While there’s no argument that parenting involves a certain amount of personal sacrifice which all children should appreciate, my mother was after something else. She thought that I was responsible for maintaining her happiness by complying with all of her demands, including ones that would make my life less happy. And when I didn’t, she’d explode into rage.
No one is responsible for anyone else’s happiness — only we have the power to make ourselves truly happy. But as therapist Daniel S. Lobel, Ph. D., wrote in Psychology Today, some toxic mothers “see their children as forever obligated to them by rite of birth. They feel entitled to demand from their children unlimited support and service.” These mothers are searching for the root of their unhappiness, and falsely believe that it lies in their child’s refusal to give in to every single one of their demands.
If you have this kind of mother, you’ve probably spent a lot of your life hearing about how selfish you are. Know that this isn’t true — this kind of toxic mother makes demands that are impossible to be completely complied with. And even if you somehow did do everything she asked, it wouldn’t make your mother happy. As I got older, I realized how sadly ironic it was that my mother had cut everything out of her life that could have made her happier — friends, dating, fulfilling work — in order to laser-focus on me, in hopes that I could somehow fix her. You can’t fix your mother, even if you want to, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for failing to do so.
3. She Doesn’t Respect Your Boundaries
Though a lack of respect for boundaries is an issue in almost all toxic relationships, it can be particularly intense with mothers — especially mothers whose toxicity comes in the form of refusing to allow their child a separate identity. Psychologists will often refer to people in this kind of relationship as “enmeshed” — unhealthily close, without a separate sense of self. As Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine told Real Simple, most enmeshed mothers act that way due to a fear of abandonment. And as Tom Bunn, LCSW, wrote in Psychology Today, this kind of toxic mother “sees natural and healthy growth [of her child’s independence] as rejection.”
Toxic mothers can disregard boundaries in hostile ways, like punishing you for making decisions without them. But they can also disregard them in ways that seem loving, too — like by always jumping to be by your side and offer assistance the second you have any problem (whether you want them there or not). It can feel comforting to be taken care of, of course. But know that if the kind of closeness your mother desires doesn’t feel natural or normal, you don’t owe it to her.
4. She Can’t Deal With Not Being In The Spotlight
Does your mother seem to support your accomplishments … but only so she can talk about how great she is for having raised you? If you tell her about your problems, does she easily find a way to turn them around so they’re actually her problems? It’s a sexist myth that all mothers must be so self-sacrificing and egoless that they no longer care about their own interests, opinions, or achievements after having kids. But if your mother is focused on making sure that everyone pays attention to her, at the expense of showing any interest in you, then you are probably dealing with a toxic relationship.
The real pain of dealing with this kind of toxic mother does not lie in not getting enough attention, but rather in not feeling like your needs or opinions have any worth. As Dr. Robin Berman wrote in Goop, this kind of toxic mother does “not have empathy for her daughter … Children learn when parents mirror their feelings and help them understand their experiences. When narcissism interferes, the mirror is reversed. Narcissistic parents need their kids to mirror them.” This kind of treatment can make it hard to understand who you truly are beyond your mother’s desires and demands.
5. She’s Cruel
Sometimes, toxicity is hard to spot — so subtle that you’re not sure if it is really happening. But sometimes, it’s pretty much all out in the open.
Does your mother call you names, mock you, or imply or outright say that you’re stupid / ugly / a disappointment / a loser? Does she ridicule your beliefs, friends, partners, or passions, under the premise of trying to save you from something “unworthy” of you? My own mother was an exciting mix of the above — one moment making a degrading comment about my taste in men, the next telling me how my life was going to be hellish and confusing because I didn’t take enough of her advice.
Cruel mothers come in all kinds of varieties, and have all kinds of motivation. Perhaps they suffer from undiagnosed mental health problems that make them act aggressive. Perhaps they’re taking out their anger and disappointment about other aspects of their life on you, the person who always is at hand, ready to listen. But no matter the cause, the damage they can cause is as devastating as it is difficult to break free from.
As Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote in The New York Times , “the assumption that parents are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true.” Friedman also noted why we’re likely to stick with a cruel mother: “Research on early attachment, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, shows that we are hard-wired for bonding — even to those who aren’t very nice to us.”
6. You’re Scared To Stick Up For Yourself
Sticking it out with this kind of mother can have very dire consequences. Even though I thought I was disregarding my mother’s insults, in reality, a lifetime of dealing with it left me believing everything she said, and treating myself as if I truly were the person in her insults — a loser who could never be happy unless I allowed her control of every single element of my life. Even after I put distance between us, I believed she was right about me. Because, well, why would a mother lie?
It took me a long time to accept that my relationship with my mother was irredeemably toxic. I felt that I loved her. But having a toxic relationship with your mother doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t love her, or that she doesn’t love you. Honestly, I’ve personally found that most of the pain in a toxic relationship comes from the fact that you do love each other, but still can’t seem to get along.
But that doesn’t mean that the best (or only) thing that you can do is either take it or become involved in constant fights that make you feel like the worst version of yourself. Therapy — both for yourself and, in some cases, with a parent — can be helpful, as can other methods of working on developing boundaries and creating distance.
If you decide that the right thing for your own well-being is to stop talking to your mother, then don’t believe that doing so makes you an awful person (you know, like your toxic mother may be telling you). You’re doing what you need to do to take care of yourself — and contrary to what you may have been told while growing up, there’s no shame in that.
Most importantly, know that if you see your own relationship with your mother in these words, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad child or an ingrate. You’re just someone who’s been dealt a rough hand, and odds are you’re trying to do the best you can with it. There’s nothing wrong with striving to improve things, but don’t forget to give yourself credit for how strong you are to have made it this far, either. No matter what your mother has told you, you’ve earned it.