Q:Every vacation, I visit my mother for several days and spend the rest with my partner.
Mom's always trying to get me to stay longer and attend parties with her friends, which I do NOT enjoy. This year, when I told her no, she got very quiet. She always does this when I disappoint her. Now I feel guilty.
Guilt is a tricky emotion. Whether or not you feel guilty isn't the issue. The fact is that you do. What needs to be understood is your internal conflict underlying those situations, which leads you to feel guilty. Only then can you regain some sense of control and feel less tortured.
This scenario exemplifies an old pattern of relating between you and your mother in which she has requests or expectations. If you do not comply she gets hurt and withdraws. Your guilt seems to indicate an internal struggle over your right to assert independent choices and pleasing your mother. These patterns get internalized at a very early age. You have a sense of responsibility for her feelings and I believe she has some level of awareness about this. Feeling responsible led you to ameliorate her hurt by giving in to her wishes which reinforced her behavior and a pattern developed.
How can anyone be responsible for the way another feels? We can empathize, but taking on the responsibility is a trap. As long as the guilt works, you will remain stuck in this pattern of taking care of your mother's emotions at the expense of your needs.
Shirley C. Malove is a licensed clinical social worker. The advice in this column is not a substitute for consulting a therapist. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
or c/o Health, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132.