“I love my mom, and I want her to be a part of my kids’ lives,” Nicole told me, during our first meeting. “But I feel so much guilt. She would spend every second with us if she could. And I feel terrible telling her no.”*
Nicole felt she was abandoning her mother by setting boundaries on their time together. She kept thinking, How can I be happy while Mom feels left out? When Nicole was young, her single mom had struggled with illness and loneliness. She looked to Nicole to keep her company and help run the household—more than is healthy for a young child to do. Back then, Nicole couldn’t process her mother’s dependence. As a result, she had developed a false belief about herself and her role as caregiver in the relationship.
Learning to set boundaries with her mom would become a process of healing faulty beliefs she’d unwittingly picked up. It was good for Nicole, and it was good for her mom.
Setting healthy boundaries with your mom is more than just convenience. There’s often a root down deep at the tail-end of your angst that is longing to be brought to the surface and healed.
I want to be clear: I’m not here to lay blame. Moms are amazing, and even the best of relationships can get complicated. On the parenting spectrum, there is no marker for “perfect.” But all women, at some point or another, have to figure out how to set boundaries with their mothers.It’s part of becoming a healthy adult. (Don’t worry—we’ll get to the men next month.)
For some, boundaries with your mom came naturally as you matured 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 felt safe enough to tell your mom some of your true thoughts and feelings, you’re lucky. Your mom created an environment in which you could begin to assert yourself and set healthy boundaries. And that’s exactly as it should be.
But for many people, differentiating (or separating in a healthy way) from mom didn’t happen quite this easily.
Why are boundaries with mom so 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, absorbing those messages without having the capacity to filter the good ones out from the bad. And, the messages you received from your mom, whether explicitly stated or not, echo in your mind as you navigate your own 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 great 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 people-please.
There’s a reason why many women struggle to set healthy boundaries with their moms.
God designed you to separate. You’re supposed to leave your family of origin and create a life of your own. But if your mom undermined this process, moving forward in a healthy way can be extremely hard.
Rationally, you may understand that you don’t need to feel or think the way you do and that the hurts you suffered were not your fault. You know you need to move on with your life, but parts of you stay stuck in the past. You may still be angry, for example, even though you may have removed yourself from unhealthy family dynamics. Or you may cling to guilt, the only way you know to feel connected.
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 (or sometimes drag you!) to feel things and act in ways you wish you didn’t.
You might find yourself struggling with loneliness, because you have a hard time creating healthy connections. Or, parts of you might feel sidelined and invisible, even though you know you have friends who love you. You might even find yourself drawn to unhealthy people, seemingly recreating relationships that will never meet your deepest needs.
If you’ve felt some of these things, please hear me say:
You can heal. God wants you to become whole. He longs for you to unburden past hurts and move forward into a new life and the kind of healthy relationships he intended.
Setting healthy boundaries with your 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 so worth this 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.
What are some of the obstacles you face when it comes to setting healthy boundaries?
*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