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How can I stop my mother’s constant criticism bringing me down?


I love my mother most of the time, but sometimes I hate her. She has always been critical of me; it’s as if she has to find fault (with my hair, my clothes, the way I do things). My brother is spared this criticism.

My mum is in her late 70s, and unlikely to change. It’s never worth arguing with herespecially now, as she is grieving and vulnerable following the death of my father last year. I suppress my anger, keep quiet and change the subject. I call and visit often, as I now have to help her with legal and financial affairs; my brother lives abroad and this isn’t his skill set. Mum lives in a different part of the country from me, and it’s not practical to go just for the day, so I am very much on her turf when I visit; if I don’t do things the way she wants, there is an explosion. She then seems to recognise that she has gone over the top and sends sweet emails a day or two later about how capable I am.

What I need is to find a way of not letting it get to me as badly as it does. I suspect that a large part of my hurt probably stems from recognising a lot of both parents in myself, and liking the bits that are all Dad, and not liking the bits of me that are more Mum.

I’m sorry to hear about your dad. Sometimes when one parent dies, you not only miss them but realise how much they diluted the other person’s less positive traits. However, I would be careful of eulogising the parent who died and demonising the one left behind; things are rarely that simple.

It is early days for all of you in your grieving journey, but it’s important to realise that while your mother lost her husband, you lost your dad. Sometimes in families one person can claim all the grief, but you need to grieve, too.

The way you describe your mother, the love and hate, is, psychologist and psychoanalyst Prof Alessandra Lemma (bpc.org.uk) said, “completely normal” and yet it’s easy to struggle with that ambivalence.

“It might be helpful,” Lemma said, “to think about the distinction between your actual mother [the one you love and hate] and the mother you’ve internalised in your head [who is always critical]. Because it sounds as if you have strategies for dealing with your actual mother when you are with her, but when you leave you seem to be at the mercy of the critical ‘internal mother’ and you may be left feeling that you haven’t got it quite right.”

This may be why it gets to you so much. It must be exhausting to see her as relentlessly critical even when you’re not with her. If you could try to separate out these “mothers” in your mind, it might help. In the meantime, Lemma suggested you may “need to have a second look at how and where you set the boundaries. Are you taking on too much?” Do you need to go that often if these visits leave you feeling so depleted? What is your brother’s skill set when dealing with your mother? Can he not lighten your load in any way, even remotely?

Perhaps reconsider your idea that “it’s never worth arguing with her”. I am imagining that somewhere along the line you learned that it seemed less painful not to contradict her, and sometimes family patterns become so set that we no longer challenge them. But, as you say, you suppress your anger; where do you think that goes? Our minds are very good at turning quashed anger into other, more corrosive emotions such as resentment, even hate.

It’s good that your mum does try to repair things. I wonder if there might be a conversation to be had there? Could you try – maybe over an email in response to hers – saying something such as, “Why does this always happen? I come to help you but I don’t like it when you speak to me like this, please stop.” I understand you don’t want the explosions, but in order to contain them you have become her emotional sandbag. That’s not fair on you and will be hard to sustain in the long term.

Your mother isn’t young, but late 70s isn’t old, either. It might be worth trying to explain, at least once, how you feel and letting any subsequent explosion be her responsibility to contain. Maybe even saying that if she’s so set on doing things her way, she does them herself.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@theguardian.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, a new podcast series, is available here.

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