Controlled by Guilt

backsBarb had been trying for years to improve her relationship with her mother, Sandra. Barb tried everything. She would go over there for a quiet dinner with Sandra and then find herself being criticized for neglecting her husband and son. Barb tried staying away. She caught hell for that too. Her mom would lash out: “You don’t care about me. You don’t care about anyone but yourself.”

In one session, Barb began: “So mom asks me to come over Friday night. I hate to say `No,’ but I can’t take it any more.”
Therapist: “What is the worst part?”
Barb: “I hate feeling guilty.”
Therapist: “Of what crime are you guilty?”
Barb: “Of selfishness.”
Therapist: “Is it selfish because you want to spare yourself four hours of name-calling?”
Barb: “I feel that I should go there and work on our relationship.”
Therapist: “You are `shoulding’ on yourself. We should on ourselves, we should on others and end up feeling like a pile of should! Did you go to school to learn how to work on relationships?”
Barb: “Of course not!”
Therapist: “Then what you are talking about is not selfish, but self preservation. Selfish begins and end with you. You take care of yourself and let everyone else be damned. Self-preservation means I take care of me so I can be there for everyone else. To be a good mom, wife, daughter, friend, employee; I have to care for my own needs first. Self preservation is like when your on an airplane and they go over the safety instructions. Put on your air mask first so you can the help those around you.”
Barb: “I never thought of it that way.”
Therapist: “You are feeling guilty of the crime of irresponsibility – you’re the caregiver – you are guilty because you assume you should work on the relationship.”
Barb: “Well, shouldn’t I if that’s what I want?”
Therapist: “Why you? Why not your mother?”
Barb: “She’s busy and has health issues, she won’t change, but I love her.”
Therapist: “She is an adult and plays an equal part in this relationship. She is using your `criminal guilt’ against you. As long as you and she both agree that you are guilty, she will punish you for your crimes and you will let her.”
Barb: “Why do I keep letting her?”
Therapist: “Because you are taking more responsibility for making this relationship work then she is. You cannot let her take ownership over the consequences of her own choices. If you did perhaps you’d find out that your mother didn’t care enough to make any effort. That would be terribly painful. So rather then face that potential, you hope that if only you try harder she will see your effort, appreciate it and change. But when she doesn’t, you are left feeling guilty for failing, for not doing ‘enough’.”
Barb: “Why doesn’t she appreciate all I do?”
Therapist: “Because she has contempt for herself and for the person she bore. As a `good daughter,’ you stand there and let her, for fear of hurting her feelings.”

Mother and daughter image available from Shutterstock.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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