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My mother has perfected the guilt trip

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The question

My mother has perfected the guilt trip. Nothing I do is ever good enough. If I visit for a day, I should be spending the night, for example. I'm an adult woman with a life of my own. How do I get her to back off without hurting her feelings? She's very sensitive.

The answer

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The power of our thoughts and expectations is stunning. On your next visit, remind yourself that you are ultimately in control of how you feel. Your mother (if past behaviour dictates future behaviour) will likely throw in a critical comment or two.

Go into the visit with the expectation that this will happen and that your focus will remain on enjoying the visit, not attending to her requests or expectations.

Mother-daughter relationships can be one of the most wonderful and fulfilling relationships in our life, but can also make us want to pull our hair out when there are any areas of conflict or discord.

First and foremost, know that there is only one person who is in control of how you feel: you. This is not to say that there are not things your mother is doing or saying that contribute to that guilt, but rather to empower you to realize that ultimately you can change how you emotionally experience the requests or expectations your mother has.

Keep in mind that guilt, like any other emotion, can serve a useful function in some situations. An important question to ask yourself is: "is my guilt valid?". By valid, I mean are you engaging in behaviours that are illegal, unethical, disrespectful, or inconsistent with a value that you hold dear to you. if the answer is yes, then the answer is simple.

But my guess is that your answer is no.

If so, the only thing that you can do is establish some boundaries with your mother; express to her how her expectations (implicit or explicit) are impacting you; and work to change your emotional reaction.

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Keep in mind that when we communicate, the specific words we use only account for about 10-20 per cent of how our communication is received. The primary source of our messaging relates to the way we nonverbally communicate. So, they way you deliver what you say to your mother is key.

Speak in a gentle yet assertive tone, reassure your mother that you love her and want to spend time with her, but that you also have other responsibilities and things that you would like to be doing in your time.

You could say something like "I understand you are disappointed when I don't stay the night, but I have other things I'd like to be doing. I had let you know I would just come for a visit for a few hours, and when you repeatedly ask me to stay the night it feels frustrating to me as it seems that nothing I do is good enough".

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at psychologist@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Samra.

Click here to see Q&As from all of our health experts.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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