Ask The Therapist: “For as long as I can remember, my mother and I have not been close…she yells at me, insults me and curses me.”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, or simply need advice about their problems, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained counsellor. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I am 20 years old and for as long as I can remember, my mother and I have not been close. We are never able to come to a compromise or make a decision together. It always ends in tears and arguments which take forever to settle down. Without any reason she yells at me, insults me and curses me. Not even my father seems to be on my side. He always supports her because she provokes him against me and gains his sympathy. She uses the ‘I am your mother’ card to get away with treating me this way. I am so exhausted. I have tried everything to get this to change. I even tried to share stuff with her and act like she’s my friend, but nothing works. What should I do?”

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

I can only imagine how distressing it must be to have a home environment such as the one you’ve described. I’m sure it must be really difficult for you. While I don’t know the full extent of things, some of the interactions you’ve described between yourself and your mother sounds quite alarming. It really does leave me feeling worried for your well-being. Let’s see if we can help you feel a little safer and grounded.

Pakistani culture: A breeding ground of toxic/abusive parenting patterns and intergenerational trauma. 

Through the generations of Pakistani parenting, I’ve often seen one common factor: at least one toxic parent. This might not be definite, but it is something that comes up more often than not. One other thing that I’ve seen is that children (as adults) are often defensive about their parents and any criticism towards them is followed by a defence like “they meant well” or “they only did it because they loved me” or “I must have been wrong” or “they didn’t know any better”. One thing becomes clear: there is a quite a lot of guilt associated with the idea of speaking out against parents, and a lot of internalised blame. What ends up happening is that one ends up dismissing their own hurt and emotions. Alternatively, the defence can also come from a place of protecting oneself from the pain of acknowledging the trauma associated with parents. It can be a painful truth to accept, and hiding it away seems to be the best course of action. However, in doing so, in making excuses and allowing things to continue on as they are, here’s the scary reality of what happens: the more we push the trauma aside, the more it’ll sit and stir and remain unhealed, and before you know it… that trauma and abuse will carry forward to the next generation in some form or the other. This is known as intergenerational trauma.

What does a toxic parent look like?

With every relationship, whether it’s a parent, a friend or a significant other, there can be certain warning signs or red flags. Let’s look at some of those specific to parents:

  • Using emotional manipulation to get their desired outcome from you
  • Controlling
  • Invasion of your boundaries
  • Excessive criticism
  • Disregarding emotions
  • Disallowing “negative” emotions such as anger or sadness 
  • Disregarding your needs
  • Using you as a scapegoat and not accepting blame for their actions
  • Interactions with them can lead to feelings of anger, guilt or shame
  • Being verbally/physically/emotionally abusive (physical reprimand from punishment, calling you names and mocking you)

It’s not your fault!

Keeping some of these red flags in mind, see how much of this resonates with you. It’s important to acknowledge the reality and move towards protecting yourself from this. In toxic relationships with parents, children tend to believe that it’s their fault, that they’re the reason their parents are like this. They begin to internalize blame and convince themselves that it’s their fault. One of the most essential things to remember is that is NOT your fault. Your mother may have her own unresolved trauma, and it is not your job to heal it, nor will you be able to. 

You can’t change them

We often try to “fix” our parents or believe that we can change them. The truth is, if your parent – or anyone for that matter – doesn’t want to change, there’s not much you can do about it. You will end up exhausting yourself emotionally and physically trying to bring about that change. You can bring up your feelings and say how their actions are affecting you, but that’s the extent of it. The intention to change or heal can only come from them. 

Set boundaries.

Culturally speaking, this is a tough one – but it is a big one. Set boundaries with your mother. Toxic parents are masters of boundary invasions and they want to be in control. It might be a battle but setting clear boundaries with them is a step towards building a healthy relationship. This may mean keeping a distance from them, limiting your interactions, saying no when you need to (etc.). You’re allowed to have boundaries. It may feel uncomfortable and that’s mostly because in our culture, it seems “selfish” to look at your own needs but really, it’s just a way of protecting ourselves as well as our relationships with those around us. Boundaries are key to healthy, functioning relationships and it’s important to uphold them.

Knowing what’s okay to share, and when it’s time to disengage from a discussion or argument.

Sometimes your parents will disagree with some things you believe in – and this usually leads to arguments, fights or heated discussions. Reasoning with toxic parents can be a never-ending battle and at times, you may need to disengage. Take note of the interactions and try to gage how much your mother is willing to listen to you at that time, or if she’s even open to it. Sometimes it’s important to step aside and resume the discussion at a time where she might be more open to listening.

Pleasing them is a never-ending road

While it’s natural to seek the approval of a parent, it becomes exceedingly difficult to please a toxic parent. No matter what you do, it will not be enough for them. Again, that has nothing to do with you – it has everything to do with them and their own narrative. More importantly, if you continue to live by their ideas and values, you will eventually lose sight of your own self and neglect your own needs and what you would like. Give yourself a break and unburden yourself from the quest of constantly pleasing your parents. 

Self-care is crucial

Being in a toxic home environment can be emotionally taxing for anyone, Anon. I would really recommend reaching out to people close to you, people who make you feel safe and positive and talk about what’s going on. Make sure you’re practicing self-compassion during this time. Take care of your health – eat well, exercise, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. It even helps to journal or paint. Go out with your friends and give yourself a break from what’s going on!

Anon, it really seems like you have been trying to mend the situation at home. It takes a lot of courage to do so. I just really hope that you’re able to look out for your own needs during this time, and allow yourself the space to be. It is not your job to “fix” your parents. Look out for yourself and stay in your power. I wish you all the best. Good luck!

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