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Does your mother treat you like a child?

From boundaries to our universal need to matter

Mary shared several challenges she has in communicating with her mother.  She describes her mother as the one who "violates the boundaries" and "invades her privacy."  In addition, her mother often calls and shares her frustrations about her life and talks about her conflicts with the rest of the family, as if she uses Mary to vent about whatever is on her mind.  In Mary's words, "she is taking advantage of me."  To reduce the contact, Mary decided to engage only in "small talk" types of conversations with her Mom.  But this is no longer satisfying to her and she wants to try a different approach.

Let's see how Mary could start the conversation with her Mom.  To do that she first needs to understand her own needs in relationship to her Mom.  And second, she needs to make the best effort at understanding the needs of her Mom.

To understand our needs it is helpful to honestly look into our judgements of others.  This may sound counter-intuitive and surprising, but the judgements we have of others contain very valuable information about what's important to us - what we need and value so dearly.  Our judgements serve the role of an alarm, alerting us to the fact that some of our dear and precious needs are not being met and we need to pay attention and do something about it.  Every judgement is an expression of our pain and our unmet needs.

Unfortunately, many of us are not taught, as we grow up, to recognize our needs behind the judgements that we have, and it's something we need to consciously learn to do.  Even more unfortunate is that often we express our judgements to each other, hoping in vain, that the other person will understand that we are in pain and will know what we need and be moved to fulfill our needs.  The greater the degree of our pain about our unmet needs, the stronger the judgements.  However, the stronger the judgement, the less likely it is that the other person will be moved to respond with compassion.  So it's a vicious cycle.

To break free of this tragic vicious cycle, we need to approach our judgements with care and to find the beautiful and universal human needs hidden behind the judgements.

Let's look at two of the judgements Mary has of her Mom:  "she is violating the boundaries" and "invading my privacy."  Communicating these judgements to her Mom is not going to create the quality of connection that Mary desires with her.  So Mary needs to see what it is ???" something of deep importance - that is hidden behind the judgements.

It's not hard to imagine that what Mary wants is a sense of autonomy, as all of us do in relationship to our parents (and our significant others).  We want autonomy from the time we are about two years old.  When we realize we are a separate person from our parents, and we have our own desires, we develop the need to make our own choices in life and we want these choices to be acknowledged and respected.  I know my three year old son has a strong need to make his own choices and he feels delighted when he is able to do that.

So what Mary wants is so basic to our human existence ???" our desire for autonomy and for making our own choices about our life.  We want to create our own lives just the way we want our lives to be.  And we want our parents (and other people) to respect the choices we make in life.

Naturally, it also happens that our parents have their own ideas about the choices we "should" be making.  But their desire for us to make certain choices in life (the choices that we don't want to make) is also based on some basic human needs that our parents have ???" and that is the need for their children's well-being.  Or more precisely, I believe what all parents really want is to have peace of mind about their children's well-being.

And, naturally, all parents also want to contribute to their children's well-being.  Often they do it by giving "very helpful" advice.  My own Dad is a master at this.  He has an unshakeable conviction that he knows what is best for me and he never fails to let me know that.

Back to Mary and her needs.  In addition to autonomy, Mary also wants others to have respect for her privacy, which is a closely related need.  I believe that all of us have some parts of our lives that we want to keep to ourselves.  For example, diaries and journals become precious precisely because they are intended for our eyes only.  We want them to be seen as personal, private and even sacred.  And while we differ about the extent to which we like sharing our personal details with others, we all want to have a choice of how much to share and with whom.

So when Mary's Mom asks some questions that Mary would rather not answer or offers suggestions about how Mary should live her life ???" the need for autonomy and privacy take the center stage for Mary.

Another set of her unmet needs can be seen around the judgements of "she is taking advantage of me" ???" the way Mary refers to her Mom's habit of calling and "unloading" on the phone.  Mary says:  "It's like she only cares about herself ???" what about me?  I have my own frustrations in life ???" why should I only listen to her all the time?"

This makes it clear that Mary wants a different quality of relationship with her Mom ???" one in which she also feels cared for and one that is more mutual.  Perhaps she wants to be able to rely on her Mom for support when she needs it and to be able to share what's on her mind and to be listened to without advice or judgements.  And most likely Mary also wants a type of relationship in which it is demonstrated that her needs matter.  Like we all do.

This fundamental need ???" to matter ???" is a foundation for our relationships ???" be it with our parents, our friends or our significant others.  We want to have relationships with people who matter in our lives and we want to know that we matter to them.

How different it is to say (or even just think to ourselves) ???" "she is taking advantage of me" vs. "I want to matter to her!"  The latter makes us a lot more vulnerable and exposed. It's as if we are opening our heart to the other person, fully unprotected.  And it's a scary proposition, especially with people with whom we have a history of being hurt.  It's scary because our gift of vulnerability may not be received with the level of care we want, and it maybe painful to share.

In a way, the judgements protect us from being vulnerable ???" they are like an armor we put around our hearts.  But the same armor blocks the closeness and connection that we desire with people we love.  We can choose what we want to do with the armor.  Sometimes it's safer to keep it on, and sometimes we want to dismantle it.  The more we allow ourselves to drop our armor, the more open we are going to be for truly genuine human connection.

Besides understanding our own needs, and willingness to express them vulnerably, connection requires that we make our best effort at understanding the other person's needs.  Our "homework" is to imagine what universal human needs the other person may have that might explain their behavior.  While we don't have to like their actions, we need to make an effort to understand the needs motivating those actions.

As we discussed above, Mary's mother is likely to have the same needs that all parents have in relationship to their children ???" the need to contribute to Mary's well-being and the need to have peace of mind about her well-being.  She may have some other needs of her own.  She may feel lonely and want companionship, or she may want support in dealing with her problems with other member's of the family.  And again, as all of us do, her mother may want to know that she matters to others, especially to her children.  The actions and words that may be triggering to Mary may be a reflection of a deep yearning of her mother's heart to matter, to belong and to be loved.  When we can see the beauty of these needs, we feel the natural sense of compassion for the other person.  This compassion will open the door to a genuine human connection.

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