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What To Do When A Loved One Is Chronically Negative

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Dear Dr. Ben,

This was such a wonderful, delicate yet at the same time powerful read.

Among many insights in your post, the biggest gift for me this time was being able to connect the dots in my own life, as you shared that you don't talk with your parents about your hopes and dreams or any important decisions. I finally realized why the dynamic with my mom has been so complicated, especially since I began living more consciously. I always had such a deep desire to connect with my mom and share my life with her, but after sharing I usually have to spend so much time coping with her energy of fear and doubt. It feels so discouraging... I have realized that because she is not working on her own wounds, she will not be able to understand my increasing inner freedom and desire to act in accordance to my heart voice. 

But even knowing this leaves me puzzled - I want to communicate with my mom, but I am not sure what is a better way to do so. All I tried doing was being my true self with her... But it seems now I have to hide parts of me and not be as open. From your experience with your own parents, do you then keep the conversation only about the basic things? Also, is holding a space for someone with a victim mentality can be of any help to that person? It is usually very discouraging for me to listen to the negative talk, but whenever I ask my mom not to continue with this, she feels rejected, and I feel bad either way. I know there is a lesson for me in this, like in every other challenge I experience. 

I am truly ready to do things differently, and I would be so grateful for any advice on this journey. 

May you have a lovely weekend ahead.

Warmly,

Jurgita C.

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Dear Jurgita,

Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful message.  My instinct is that there are some among our readership who will likely be able to share thoughts that you may find helpful.  So I'm posting this here with a request for those who feel called to share to please do so in the comments section below.

With my dad, I do limit our conversations.  I strive to be respectful and helpful, but I maintain a healthy boundary because experience tells me that when I am more open and friendly with him, we will invariably end up hurting one another.  I've come to accept that he and I have very different values due to stark differences in cultural upbringing and life experiences.  I would much rather maintain peace than to risk gnashing of teeth that is often the result of trying to be closer.

I've been able to share much more with my mom and vice versa over the past 15 or so years.  In recent months, I've come to the realization that our relationship is best when we don't talk about the past or discuss our views on certain matters.  While we understand each other, we differ in some of our core values, which is what causes friction if we're not mindful of what we talk about.  So that I'm not too vague, a foundational difference in mindset stems from old school Korean culture placing a lot of emphasis on saving face and doing all that is necessary to look good and proper.  I had the luxury of growing up in Canada, and having to work my way through school and figure out how to survive on my own from a relatively young age, I'm not wired to live with this same mentality.  

I'm in regular touch with my parents and strive to give them steady financial support, including Costco hauls that bring them great pleasure, and I'm happy with the sweet spot that we've found in our relationship, as it makes no sense to discuss matters that lead to all of us feeling miserable.  

I think what I've concluded is that we can't be all things to all people, even to our family members, nor can our parents, spouse, siblings, children, and other relatives be all things to us.   

It's clear that you care very much for the well-being of your mom - she is truly blessed to have such a daughter.  Unless she has a transformative experience that dramatically changes the way she views the world, I think it's safe to assume that she cannot be someone in your life who can give you the level of listening and understanding that your soul wishes for.  This isn't to suggest that she doesn't care - I'm sure she is caring in the best way she can in the moment, and regrettably, it isn't the type of care that you hope for.

Similarly, it seems that she needs someone to vent to and be comforted by, and she wishes that you could be this person, but for where you are at in your spiritual journey, you are not able to be the presence that she needs without being negatively impacted.  

As you wrote, you can't ask your mom to avoid talking about things that bring you down because this causes her to feel rejected.  Perhaps it's worth setting up your interactions in a way where there is less room for her to bring those feelings up.  For example, if you plan to chat via video or phone, maybe you can do it along with your young son - I would guess that she would be quite happy to speak with both of you about everyday things, and she won't feel that it's appropriate to bring up matters of personal pain in front of her young grandson.  For times when you get together in person, you might plan an activity or outing that you both find fun and engaging so that the experience is more about doing and being than it is about her sharing her pain.

This isn't to say that your mom should be left to marinate in her own sadness without any support.  Rather, it's to suggest that you don't have to be the one to fulfill this role in her life, and she likely can't provide the emotional connection and understanding that you are wishing for with her.  

I think that caring for those we wish to be close to requires that we understand ourselves and them well enough to know what level of care we can provide and expect to receive without either person suffering damage.  And for needs or wishes that are unfulfilled in one relationship, hopefully, we can find fulfillment through other relationships in our lives.  

We all need empathy at times.  But no one is well served when a person voices the same grievances on repeat.  So no, I don't think we are helping a loved one if we allow them to be a chronic "neg-head" in our presence - in fact, to allow this only further cripples them.  So by planning your interactions with your mom in a way where there is little to no space for repeatedly being negative or expressing self-pity, you will preserve yourself and also avoid encouraging such behaviour in perpetuity.

I hope that you're able to find some peace with this in the days ahead, Jurgita.  And hopefully, you will find some helpful thoughts from those who choose to share below.

With best wishes to you and your family,

Ben

 
 

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Comments

Hi Jurgita,

I agree with much of what Ben says. I would like to add some tactical considerations:

You get to choose how you feel.
Wow, easier said than done, isn't it? I think this is a practice, like going to the gym. It is a muscle that can be reinforced. A person's negativity is their's to own, but you can choose to be infected by it. This is the kind of practice that takes months/years to develop.

I see people stuck in a cycle of negativity that I cannot break for them, and nor should I expect to be able to. I empathize, I listen, and if they ask for advice, I give them some. Then I wish them the best, and I am on my way to other things. I believe that I helped them by listening and empathizing. The key is that I do not let it affect me.

What I don't do:
a) Tolerate the conversation for too long. I protect my time, and I am not immune. to the negativity contagion.
b) Try to cheer them up more than once. They can be very comfortable in their misery, and will resent you for trying to take it away.
c) Seek those people out.

What I do do:
a) Change the topic. Find something positive they like to talk about. I will actually say
b) Give body language that shows I am not interested. Stand sideways, look around, fold my arms.
c) Limit the time.

Dangerous things to do if you are feeling brave or want to enter some pseudo-therapy:
a) Ask the person to name the best 3 things that happened to them lately.
b) Point out that the world is much safer and better than ever. We have it better than the kings and queens of old.
Really Dangerous, and yes, I have done it:
c) "You have told me this story before. Do you have a new point to make? Otherwise, I would prefer to talk about something else". Prepare for either fireworks, or a level of self-awareness in the complainer that you did not expect. Perhaps they "regret being so negative", and need help getting out. They also have their cycles that take work to break...

Anyways, those are my thoughts. Hope they help!

Marc

I agree with Marc's comments on how to deal with this type of person. My mom is like this and I dread her phone calls. Then I feel guilty that I really didn't want to talk to her. I finally decided to talk to her about gratitude and how I've been doing a gratitude journal. I share my experience with her and tell her how much happier I am since I've been more aware of all the blessings in my life instead of dwelling on the negatives.

The last time I spoke with her she was much more positive and I think she's been realizing that she has a lot to be grateful for.

Lori

Sometimes the person venting their negative feelings and thoughts needs a safe space to talk about them and then they will feel better. Being brushed aside, having the topic changed or not being given any opportunity to be heard due to activities can actually leave them feeling more unheard, and more desperate to be heard, especially by those nearest and dearest to them. Sometimes you can listen, without focusing on the negativity you're hearing, but rather try to hear their pain, rephrase (reflectively listen) until they feel heard. Sometimes, really being heard is enough for them. I say this as a person who has listened to others who have had a pattern of negative conversation, and as a person who has been guilty of it myself at times. Sometimes it's being really heard, not just for the words or complaints, but for the feelings underneath that is needed.... especially by those who matter. Once really heard there is a kind of relief.

Another suggestion, is, after allowing them time to vent, and reflecting rather than judging ("So you feel really disappointed about that?", "You sound pretty frustrated..", "I can understand you would feel...."etc), asking questions and reflecting some more, then, rather than offering suggestions to fix their problem, to ask them what they are going to do about it; how are they planning to deal with it? Do they have any ideas? .. This might get them thinking about possibilities, perhaps not now, but later. It's also a way of turning the conversation to be more positive without cutting them off, so long as you've heard them out first.

I've had to school myself beforehand not to get drawn into the negativity myself but still to listen - yes it is possible, but takes practice.
If it's a relationship you care about, then it's a better alternative to making obstacles so they can't talk. Sometimes people are having a genuinely hard time and need a compassionate listening ear. Sometimes they are stuck in a pattern but can be helped out.

All that said, yes, we have different kinds of relationships with different people. Sometimes our parents can't be who we wish they would be, but if we could understand their background and stuff, we can realise they are often doing their very best... Just as we hope our children will realise about us one day, because for sure, they're gonna realise we're not perfect either. Sometimes acceptance of our parents' inadequacies is very freeing.

Sue you must be in my mibd and my thoughts and my heart . You hit the nail on the head a hundred percent for me with the space I am in and the way my relationship has degenerated since I have been really suffering and my son us nit ciohbbbwithbghis so I am not allowed to verbalise my pain and heartbreak etc which has made things thiyssbd tines worse for me .

Well written Sue, I would suggest the same. I had a similar impatience with my mother till I we had her diagnosed with Parkinsons and realised it was a side effect. She would change moods so suddenly that we came to understand it was beyond her control. That being said, I tried to make her laugh, smile, get busy with things she liked to do and talk about until the very end. So ignoring or changing topics could be the coldest thing you can do. Chronic depression is probably a precursor for this sad disease.
So please Jurgita even if it depresses you to listen... Do so sometimes. You probably have so much in your private life to lift you up. Our parents have only us, once they reach that age.

Love and regards

Sofia

Beautifully put.

Strategies for dealing with toxic/negative relationships
Sadly this topic is a very common occurrence especially within families. I agree with all the comments made above and after much personal research Id like to share this article which succinctly clarifies the signs, symptoms and most importantly strategies for dealing with toxic/ negative relationships. For anyone struggling in this complex area Id recommend the Quora posts > Surviving and Thriving thread - responses from people are deep and insightful - its good to know you're never alone in the world and many others share similar difficult situations. Ive found it really useful because the most difficult thing for me was trying to understand exactly what it was I was doing or saying wrong?!?- totally nonsensical to get the venomous hatred directed towards me. Ive since found peace in knowing that sometimes things cannot be explained easily where personality disorders are involved. Stay strong, seek freedom and peace in your life. Namaste & a blessed Christmas all. B

9 Signs You Were Raised in a Toxic Family (and How to Move On)
by Maria Zampella
https://www.purewow.com/wellness/toxic-family-signs?utm_source=quora&utm...

Marc you know what to do I also have friend that way I treat them as momentarily listening then change the subject almost like you would if they had dementia. Good luck and God Bless

This resonates with me on MANY levels. My mother and I had a horrible relationship in my teen years. I was a mess in many ways and I had no respect for her. As I matured I began to love her but not like her. Over the years I have grown and learned to become accountable for my behaviours, actions and thoughts. She seems incapable to recognize any imbalances in herself. She is extremely critical and negative. Whenever my sibling and I bring our challenges with her to her attention she always puts it back on us. I have managed to "handle" all of this by being very measured in our conversations and much prayer before we spend time physically with one another. This has worked for many years until a health challenge brought her to live with my family for the past couple of months. Oh my, I am having a hard time. So many issues I thought I was past have come to surface. I have had to confront that I love but don't like her. Dealing with this and all the guilt associated with these emotions have me in a whirlwind. I know she needs love and I do love her but do not have warm, welcoming feelings. This brings more guilt. A wonderful nun I met on a recent retreat helped me to honor my process. I can only give what I have. Just sharing this is cathartic. Everyone keeps praising me for welcoming my mom into my home. Saying what a blessing it is. I hate it but realize I must face my issues with my mom head on and find peace in this experience. Thanks for always being a voice of reasoning Dr. Kim and providing a place for me to vent. God bless

I experience a similar situation with my own mom who has an addiction to gossip and negative talk. I think it gives her some sense of control over her world. It was impacting our relationship in bad way where I would feel used and drained after talking with her. Like you, I did reach out to Dr. Ben Kim a while back and one thing he said was “manage the distance”. That stood out and since then I have made a conscious effort not to call my mom too much. Once a week or maybe twice is enough. We don’t live close so phone calls are about all I can do with a few visits a year. I have also found that if I call her in the a.m. time, 9am/10am her mood and outlook is much better, and we have a more pleasant conversation. If I call late in the day say 4pm - 7pm her tendency to gossip and be negative is greater. Look for patterns in your mom’s behavior and if you see where one time is better than another to call or stop by for a visit, then put your energy into those times. Don’t be guilted into giving your mom all your energy all the time. You don’t owe that to anyone.

This is excellent advice Sherry in dealing with a negative parent, in my case my dad. Over the years unconsciously the time difference between us and reducing the number of conversations/topics of discern have steered me to make some peace with myself,I owe my energy to myself like you said, amen to that!.

Both of discuss a matter of importance but what I did not see mentioned is , now considering the subject, what sort of parent are you going to be? Encouraging, supportive and loving is a good place to start. Our children obviously have their own paths to take. A overly cautious or foolhardy route may both have the same destination. They will have their dreams and the parents should aid them in the attainment, perhaps with advice for sure, but like them, keeping one’s eye on the prize. As Bob Dylan sang , “Your sons and daughters are beyond your command.” We can best help our children by modeling love and integrity and giving some material aid when possible knowing your children have their own destinies. I just thought this didiscussion was also a good opportunity to address parenting too.

Another thing that has helped me is to finally accept things the way they are, rather than what I wish them to be. Once I realized that I will never have that warm fuzzy relationship with my parent, I am able to grieve over it, be sad occasionally if I feel like it, then get on with life as it is. Once acceptance came, then all expectations went out the door and I am free to be me and let her be her. I’ve had to do that with my adult children also. It changed my life and helped me to accept life as it is, not what I want it to be.

Dear Jurgita,
We often tend to expect people the to be a certain way, or act the way we would,but unless we walk in that persons shoes, do we know why they respond the way they do.....the most important way to respond is to love yourself and to share that love by loving your mom unconditional love...that means no judging, analyzing, no fixing, no critising,,,love her the way she is,have a good
rapport by talking about simple things she is interested in, and share
simple things in your life...
you cannot share all you would love to....keep it simple.

When I ended up the daughter to go live with our mother for 3 years, I figured out how to change the dynamics of our conversations. When I was there she fell back into the reprimanding mother, forgetting I was a 50 year old adult. I broke this pattern by not responding as I had done as a child, defensively and wanting to win the argument. It was so interesting to hear the bating comment and let it just drop like a lead balloon. With the silence I could change the pattern of our conversations. I also could break the pattern by excusing myself to use the bathroom and then coming back with a whole new topic. Surprisingly enough, after awhile she didn't engage me in the same way so I must have broken that dynamic of mother/child to mother/caring adult. It also seemed to allow her to stop having to be the authoritative mother. She became fun to be with, even silly, which never would have happened if we had stayed stuck in the original dynamic.

Hi Jurgita - I am pasting Karla's contribution from our Facebook page here, as I really value what she shares. - Ben

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I think it’s important to acknowledge to yourself the grief that comes from a situation like this, where someone you love and want to have a deeply connected relationship with isn’t capable of what you envision. It‘s critical to allow and process the grieving, though. It’s hard to release the expectations and honor the grieving while this person is still alive (or still in your sphere of daily life) and while also exploring different ways to interact. Give yourself room to grieve and release, then ponder and develop the new expectations.

"I thought you quit smoking 3 years ago" I said.
He took a desperate drag from his cigarette and stared down at the front lawn of his mother's house. "I did" he said "don't tell my wife. I've just gotta have a cigarette, Mom's driving me crazy!"
"I told her you hadn't come back from the store yet. There's food warm in the oven for you whenever you want it. She and I are back to sorting through her closet now."
"How do you stand her?"
"She is your mother, not mine. I do not need her to be my mother. What she herself needs right now is a mother, and I know how to be a mother."

I went back to helping his mother sort through her closet...and her life. There were a thousand memories to sort through...some to be treasured...but many more old issues, injuries, angers, disappointments to be vented, re-visited, sorted out. It is a long process to sort out the memories, issues, and baggage of a lifetime. What his mother needed was a mother of her own to cook and clean for her and to listen to her anger and her sorrow, her issues with her own parents, partners, children... to clip her toenails and brush her hair and tell her that that in spite of all of the chaos, catastrophes, arguments, and disappointments of life... that she had done well enough... that she herself had been good enough...to be loved. "There was the war, you know, it changed everything..." she said.

There were shopping bags of things to be given away, paper to be recycled, trash to be emptied. I put a box on the stack of boxes to be moved with her into assisted living as her son finished eating and poured himself another glass of wine amid the piles of paperwork on the kitchen table. Her son was a man of sixty... yet also somehow looked like a young boy... in need of a father to tell him that he had done well enough...that he had been good enough... to be loved.

There comes a time in life when roles reverse... when the child becomes the parent... and the parent becomes the child...
but long before that eventual point of surrender both parents and their adult children will struggle with themselves and one another whenever they simultaneously are in need of the comfort, reassurance, love and support of a mother.