Dear Angel, I'm angry and I don't know what to do ...
I'm angry and I don’t know what to do. My mother is 89 years old with a lot of health problems. In short, she is dying slowly. I haven’t called in a long time or gone to see her in at least a year even though we live 20 minutes away. It’s hard to talk to her on the phone because she can’t speak as clear as she used to. It’s usually hard to make out what she’s saying. My younger sister goes to see her every day and does things for her that we should probably all be doing, but my mom has always favored my sister, so maybe it’s the way it should be. They can have their time together without all of us interrupting them. I know you can hear my bitterness.
My brothers, sisters, and I are between the ages of 60-69. I’m afraid I sound ridiculous talking about who was the favorite and admitting that it still bothers me, but it’s not like it stopped when we grew up. My mom still favors my sister and her kids, and even my sister's grandkids over ours. It’s no secret to anyone.
I have my own serious health problems, but my doctors haven’t been able to diagnose what the problem is. I’ve used this as a reason to not go see my mom, but I know she knows I go other places. I feel bad every day of my life, in the physical sense, and if I’m honest, in the emotional and mental sense as well. I’ve run into my sister shopping and she said my mom asks about me all the time, so I’m sure they’re all talking about me. I just hate feeling judged. That’s what our family does: we pretend nothing's wrong, stay quiet in front of one another, then trash talk behind each other's backs.
Is this normal, Angel? Am I a terrible person for not going to see my mom, or am I justified in staying away? How do I go there when my sister will be there looking down her nose at me for not coming around for so long?
The Distant Daughter
Dear Distant Daughter (D for affectionate shorthand),
First, take a deep breath with me. This inhale is letting in new life. Hold it until it’s no longer comfortable, then breathe out, with your mouth open, for a long time. Keep exhaling until you can’t anymore. When you hold things in longer then you’re meant to, they harm you.
When you exhale for longer than you inhale, your brain gets the message to dial down the fight or flight response and dial up the rest and digest response. We go into fight or flight when we sense a threat, and you've been sensing a threat for at least 60 years, dear one. Isn’t 60 the number of years your sister has been on the planet? And the number of years your mom, the person in whose body you grew and became human, placed the majority of her attention elsewhere?
When we, as small children designed to sense everything, experience our parents disconnecting—no matter the reason—it can feel like actual death. Mama is the source of life. As a small child, you needed her (your mom/primary caregiver) to be fed, sheltered, and held. You needed her to keep you alive. Every emotional or physical disconnection can trigger life or death terror in your system, because at that time staying connected is a life or death situation. The very young you didn’t have a brain developed enough to distinguish a difference.
I started this letter with breathing because your nervous system needs deep care, D. You mentioned two things that struck me as related. First, you have serious health issues that doctors have yet to diagnose. And second, in my own words, your family culture is to repress emotions to avoid conflict (and back bite). When we as a family talk about each other behind backs, it becomes an emotionally unsafe environment for everyone. No one gets the relational refuge everyone needs and we usually carry the anxiety caused into other relationships.
Now, the important bit about repressing and health. Extensive medical research tells us that stuffing things down creates conditions for disease. When we repress something, it doesn’t go away. It instead causes a flood of stress hormones in the body. Chronic stress-hormone-floods create inflammation. Chronic inflammation, via repression, is associated with cancer, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and bowel diseases, like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Please read or listen to When the Body Says No, by my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Gabor Maté. He addresses everything from fibromyalgia, migraines, autoimmune disorders, cancers, skin disorders, chronic fatigue, and how they are rooted in repression and stress.
Our bodies are trying to tell us that we're meant to connect and express. We connect by expressing ourselves and by listening attentively, especially when it’s hardest. We get more skillful at both through trial and error. It takes a lot of courage to go against your conditioning and open your mouth to say what is hurting you. It also takes courage to speak out loud what you desire, to specifically name what you want the family dynamic to look and feel like for you.
Vulnerability takes a hell of a lot more guts than holding things in. It takes strength to listen and to express yourself responsibly when you want to shut down, say nothing, and withdraw.
We can, at a minimum, set people up for success by telling them what we want. If they don’t meet us how we asked, the ball is in our court to stay, go, or compromise in clearly expressed ways. When we don’t clearly express what we actually want, or our hurts, or the ways we are willing to compromise, it is unfair to expect very much from the people we are in relationships with. When we don’t express, we also take away the opportunity for people to grow.
Your mom started having babies when she was 19 or 20 years old, D. At that age, her brain hadn’t even completely developed. She certainly didn’t know how to communicate compassionately in the face of stress, and she didn’t know how to maintain a level of gentle attention and care for all of her children. It’s not fair, but it is what it is. I wonder how she was raised and how much stress was involved in her upbringing. She birthed children when she was barely an adult, then needed to figure out how to keep those tiny creatures emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy when she may have never been taught how to do that for herself.
To be clear, I am NOT excusing her favoritism. It’s not ok. I wish you didn’t know the pain of rejection. Gabor often talks about how the same part of our brain lights up when we experience rejection as when we are getting stabbed. Ugh. You deserved to feel unencumbered connection and loving approval for exactly who you were. You deserved to be seen, heard, and held. You still deserve all of that, D. I wonder … will you relentlessly give it to yourself?
Staying connected to yourself means saying what is going on for you “even if your voice shakes." It also means you tend to yourself no matter how people respond, or don’t, to you expressing yourself truthfully. It means knowing how to self-regulate when you’re in conflict.
When you get in sticky territory with your people, you will of course have intense sensations happening in your body. If you try to not feel intense sensations, they get bigger. Starting now, practice feeling just 4% of sensations that arise. Sensations are things like: tight, hot, sharp, throb, squeezing, numb … you get the picture. Give them complete permission to exist, no resisting.
You can do this anytime, not just in conflict. Practice keeping attention in your own body while in conversation with others. It’s best to practice before you're actually smack dab in the thick of a big conflict moment. This practice is the best way I've experienced to learn to stay connected to me no matter what is going on outside me. This is self-tending, it’s holding the young tender part of yourself while you handle life on the outside.
It sounds to me like you want to see your mom before she dies, but please do not go see her out of obligation. Go see her because you love her, because you have compassion for her as a human who didn’t know how to love all of her kids the way they needed to be loved. If you’re a mom, go see her because you know the pains of raising children, of trying to do the right thing, and of failing. Go see her because she loves you. Go see her because this life is incredibly precious and soon she won’t be visible in it anymore.
I see you in your full expression and I love every molecule of you,
Header photo: Simon Rae via Unsplash