Many of us–including therapists–still hold on to some small sense of grievance about old wounds, even after we’ve succeeded at achieving a degree of psychological adjustment or emotional health. When it comes to our parents–and what they’ve allegedly “done” to us–we may have forgiven them, learned to accept them the way they are, and acquired the skill of maintaining a relationship with them that works reasonably well, but still hold in reserve some hard, inner core of resentment. Every interaction raises in us something of the old defensiveness that makes us feel that when we’re with them, for all our hard-won maturity and patience, we’re playing a kind of role–a little forced, a little false. Now and then, however, we’re lucky enough to meet someone who doesn’t want to settle for this arrangement, who feels driven to let go of the old emotional baggage and find the kind of freedom and inner integrity that comes with being able to love wholeheartedly, without inner reservation. When such a person is a client of ours, we may be doubly blessed by someone who’s not only a pleasure to work with, but a great lesson to us in our own lives.
Donna was such a client. At 46, a well-respected therapist and author, she called to say she wanted some sessions to help improve her painful relationship with her mother, Bernice, 72, an intense and opinionated widow, who, according to Donna, was “a real piece of work.”
A week earlier, Bernice had called Donna on her cell phone in the middle of a couples-counseling session. Donna said, “Normally when I’m in session I wouldn’t answer the phone, but my mom pushed the emergency 9-1-1 code that she knows would make me think it was a crisis call from my 10-year-old son. So I picked up and was surprised to hear my mother’s voice, telling me that I’m the most selfish and uncaring daughter in the world.”
Apparently, Donna had forgotten to call her mother the previous weekend, when it was the anniversary of Bernice’s marriage to Donna”s father. According to Donna, “My dad put up with my mom’s demands and mood swings for 37 years before he died, of a heart attack, 12 years ago. Even though their marriage was a battlefield, ever since he died, my mom’s decided their wedding anniversary must be treated as a sacred and solemn date.”
Trying not to reveal too much to the therapy clients sitting a few feet away from her, Donna had said quickly into the cell phone, “Mom, I love you and I’ll call you back in 45 minutes.” She remembers feeling, “quite exposed–as I often do when my mom rips into me. I felt for a moment like a four-year-old, pulled against my will into a whirlwind where my mother’s needs, hurt feelings, and angry outbursts are so draining. Yet despite all that, I somehow managed to complete the session with that couple.”
When the couples session ended and Donna called her mother back, she was able to be a supportive listener and hear how hard the anniversary date had been for Bernice. Then as soon as she got off the phone, Donna arranged for a new cell phone code for her son, a code that they weren’t going to let Grandma know about. Ever.
An Ambitious Goal
Sitting across from Donna in my office, I was impressed at how much work she’d already done on her issues regarding her mother. Like many therapists, Donna already knew far more than most people about what makes a fragile person like Bernice act demanding and manipulative. From previous counseling experiences, Donna had mastered the art of drawing boundaries, having her own life, and still being a supportive daughter for an explosive and highly critical mother. During her first two sessions, I discovered that Donna seemed to have found a healthy middle ground between doing too much for her mother and doing too little. As she explained to me, “I’ve gotten better over the years at being resilient when my mother unloads her frustrations and at reframing the hurtful things my mother’s said to me in anger. I’m still willing to call her a couple of times a week to see how she’s doing, and to include her in all the important family holidays and life-cycle events. I still love my mother, even though it’s not easy to like her or spend much time around her.”
Near the middle of our second counseling session, I asked Donna, “Since you seem to have a good approach for dealing with your mom, I’m curious about what made you call and come into counseling. If you could have exactly what you want from these sessions, what would that be?”
Donna’s answer surprised me. She got tears in her eyes as she said, “I want to stop feeling weighted down or burdened by the fact that I’ve got a mom who simply cannot see anyone’s needs but her own. I want to stop feeling put upon by my reality of being her daughter. I know it sounds like a crazy idea, but I wish somehow I could just embrace this whole mother-daughter relationship thing that I”ve been sorting out for all these years. I wish I could finally stop needing it to be different and just put my arms around it and say, ‘This is the real deal.’ I want to feel fully alive already, and not like I’m victimized by this heavy issue called Mom.”
As I listened to Donna’s words, I was struck at how she might just as well have been describing my own feelings about my father and stepmother, who live far away, in Florida. Yes, I love them, but mostly I’d been feeling irritated and guarded toward them. The parent with whom I was closest, my mother, died of cancer when I was 14. I’ve always found it much harder to connect or find things in common with my father and my stepmother. Like Donna, I knew how to “handle” the frustrating moments with my own family, but there was something missing, something that Donna had described so beautifully as to “finally stop needing it to be different and just put my arms around it and . . . feel fully alive already.”
I realized at that moment that Donna’s goal for her therapy sessions–to get beyond just putting up with aging relatives and take the relationship to a higher level–was something I wanted to do in my own life. It wasn’t the first time a client had taught me about my own relationships, nor would it be the last. But at that moment, I felt grateful to be sitting in Donna’s presence and going with her on this journey of discovering how to embrace the imperfect relationships we have with our own family members.
The Healing Power of Meaning
After that session with Donna, I went back and reread portions of two of my favorite books, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and The Doctor and the Soul, which spell out the logotherapy approach to counseling. Frankl defines logotherapy as the healing that can happen when a client discovers his or her own meaning and purpose in a painful situation.
An Austrian psychotherapist who lost his father, mother, brother, and wife in the Holocaust, Frankl survived Auschwitz psychologically because, he explained later, he knew and held on to his own meaning and purpose, despite the external circumstances he was facing. No matter what freedoms were taken away from him, or what hardships were imposed on him, he knew that he could still choose his reaction to each event. He could be alive and purposeful each day, because at every moment he made sure to engage fully in something humorous, something compassionate, something thought provoking, something growth producing, or something that connected him to a meaning bigger than the camp and the guards.
I began to ponder whether there was some deeper meaning or personal quest that I might bring to my phone calls and visits with my dad and stepmother. I thought about whether, even if they don’t change a bit, through my interactions with them I could learn more about what it means to be human, or how to have decency or compassion in a stressful situation.
I was exploring these questions a few days later when Donna arrived for her next session. I told her that her description of “embracing the reality” about her mom had inspired me to question my own stagnation in my dealings with my father and stepmother. Donna’s face lit up with recognition, wiping away any doubt I had about my self-disclosure. We talked briefly about Viktor Frankl, and I suggested Donna think about a few questions: “Is there some personal meaning or deep purpose that might be taking place when you have a phone call or visit with your mother? Is there something about your interactions with your mother that’s given you a strong push toward your own personal growth and development as a human being? Is there something about your mom’s irritating behaviors that’s been a crucial stimulus to your becoming the remarkable person you are now?”
Donna thought for a moment and then began to laugh. She said, “I can’t believe it’s so obvious all of a sudden. If I were to look at my life and ask what’s the one thing that’s forced me to become a better parent, a better therapist, a better spouse, and a better person, it’s been the constant concern of not wanting to be like my mother. My dear mother and her extreme lack of empathy have forced me to learn about compassion, perseverance, teamwork, mutual respect, and fairness. It sounds totally absurd to say this, but I owe so much to my mom. She’s the irritating sand in the oyster that’s forced me to seek to become a pearl. I still have more to learn, of course, and I guess each phone call and visit with her will give me more chances to see how far I still need to grow.”
A Sense of Renewed Energy
Over the next several months, I saw Donna every two weeks to talk about her experiences of this shift in her feelings about her mom. During one session, Donna told me about an incident earlier that day. She said, “My mother called to say she was furious at me because my youngest daughter hadn’t sounded excited enough when she’d called to thank her grandma for an unattractive blouse my mother had sent her for her birthday.”
Donna told me that normally she would’ve felt angry, hurt, and even a little guilty while listening to her mother’s tirade. But this time, Donna was able to listen calmly and empathically, as it suddenly became clear to her that her mother just needed a little validation that she was a decent grandma and a worthy human being. So she took a breath and said, “Mom, I completely understand what you’re saying. If I were in your shoes, I’d be wanting my granddaughter to give me a real affectionate thank you as well. I’m going to talk to her and, hopefully, we’ll make some progress on this in time for the holiday presents.”
“At that moment on the telephone with my mother,” Donna told me, “I sensed her calming down a bit. She was silent for several seconds, whereas before she’d been yelling and carrying on. In that silence, I felt love for my delicate and complicated mother. For a moment, we were just a mother and a daughter hanging out calmly together on the phone. We chatted for a few minutes more and it felt great–just two women connecting–after years of trying to change each other.” I could see that the heaviness in Donna’s expression had lifted during the past several months. Her mother hadn’t changed much, but Donna had significantly changed her internal response to her mother.
That afternoon, I called my dad and stepmother. I wanted to do in my own life what I’d seen Donna accomplish so beautifully. At first, it was difficult. My father kept interrupting me and turning everything I said into a story about himself. At that moment, I realized I could either go back to the old ways of feeling put upon, or try the new way of finding meaning in each interaction. I couldn’t change my dad, but I could choose to feel compassion, decency, and relaxation.
So, like Donna, I took a deep breath and began to participate fully in conversation about what was going well and what was difficult for my father and stepmother that week. Then, for a few moments, they listened to what was going on in my life. For the first time in years, we were simply hanging out on the phone and connecting like old friends. It felt wonderful.
During our final session, a few weeks later, Donna told me, “Something’s changed in the way I feel inside. And I move more gracefully through my life now. The heaviness and the burden have finally lifted. I no longer resent each phone call or visit from my mom, because I now expect there will be a few nice moments of connection along with the curve balls she’ll toss me, which keep things interesting.”
Donna leaned forward in her chair. “It’s like my soul has come into this life to receive a huge number of lessons and opportunities for growth as a result of being around my mother’s fragile, wounded soul. Sometimes when I’m sitting next to my mom and listening to her complain about something, I actually feel a sense of amazement and satisfaction that having her in my life has allowed me to pursue a conscious and caring path. I don’t know what might have happened if she’d been different.”
By Molly Layton
There was a period when, at 6:00 every morning, I’d stand on the edge of a swimming pool, dreading the first plunge into cold water. Finally, I’d grit my teeth, make the dive, feel the first awful shock of the water and my body and joints constricting as if to get away from the cold. I’d stroke like mad for several laps until at last that water and my body were one.
One day, I decided to suspend my judgment of the cold water. Instead of going along with the gritting teeth, the constricting joints, I resolved to open myself up to the cold. I might be surprised, I thought. And I was. I discovered how it can be enlivening, in fact wonderful, to plunge into a pool of cold water–if you don’t spend a lot of energy trying to resist it. I’ve treasured that memory, a body memory of opening up, ever since.
I was reminded of this dive into the pool while reading about the plunges that Donna and therapist Leonard Felder took. It also reminded me how we’re presented every day with some noxious experience that stops us up, shuts us down, and gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves: why not experiment with opening up?
And it is an experiment. Donna wants to learn how to be with her mother. To do that, she has to suspend her judgment, soften her own reactivity, and try something new. What would happen next, she can’t predict. The old way–of judging, reacting, withdrawing–she could predict; she knew well the accusations, the resentment, the hopelessness she and her mother could generate with each other. Buddhists would call this opening of her heart bodhichitta, with its connotations of enlargement, of facing into a large space, groundless. Wilfred Bion called it patience. John Keats, the poet, called it negative capability, the capacity to stand without knowing, without “irritably reaching after facts.” We don’t know what we’ll encounter.
Donna wants to change her life plot, and Felder has to admit to himself that he’s not going to be the big expert on remaking a compromised relationship with a difficult parent. Despite his role as the expert, he’s honest enough, and open enough, to recognize what is, after all, a frequent occurrence for therapists: the arrival of a client whose capacity for growth is a startling challenge to our complacency. When that happens, we’re tempted to fall back on formulas we trust, or worse, nostrums we want to trust. The therapist’s expertise abides, however, in his tolerance of his own state of not-knowing.
I can’t help but think that for all therapists there’s something about our capacity to stay on the scary edge of what we don’t know that sustains those of our clients who are going beyond our own limits. Like a cyclist eased by the wind-slip of the biker just ahead, the client is transported–uplifted, carried to the finish line–by the unsparing synchronicity of the therapist.
Leonard Felder, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist in West Los Angeles whose eight books have sold more than 1 million copies. His latest book is When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People: Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity.
Molly Layton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice.