Building Better Boundaries

Learn How and When to Speak Up

Recently several women in their 20s have come to see me because of their troubling relationships with their mothers.

These women are smart, ambitious, and otherwise successful in their careers and intimate relationships. But when it comes to their mothers, they haven’t developed the skills necessary to maintain healthy boundaries. Because of that, these young women enter therapy depressed, anxious, or sometimes both.

The mother-daughter relationship is complicated, particularly as the daughter becomes an adult. Since mothers often see their daughters as mirrors of themselves, they can be quick to point out their daughters’ flaws, damaging their self-esteem.

For their part, daughters can feel conflicted between pleasing their mothers, for whom they may feel a sense of obligation, and creating their own lives. In addition, adult daughters, more so than sons, tend to take on the responsibility of maintaining family harmony, which means they sometimes edit their feelings, or stifle them altogether.

“Carrie” (not her real name), 29, is an example of a woman with a painful relationship with her mother. Carrie likes her job as a public relations executive and she has a stable relationship with her boyfriend of two years. But nearly every time she gets off the phone with her mother she feels anxious, so much so that she had four panic attacks in the two weeks prior to seeing me.

The problem starts with Carrie’s mother. She tends to either make judgmental comments about Carrie’s appearance or activities, or passive-aggressive statements, such as “You know, I didn’t really mean that. You’re taking it the wrong way.”

In either case, Carrie feels hurt by her mother, and often manipulated. What’s worse, the few times Carrie has expressed anger or frustration at her mother, her mother has reacted poorly – hanging up the phone or refusing to speak to Carrie for several days. Scared that she will lose her mother’s love and feeling guilty for her mother’s pain, Carrie apologizes after these interactions. Later, she feels even worse because she’s always the one initiating reconciliation.

As a way to develop better boundaries with her mother, Carrie and I have focused on three main points:

Carrie is not responsible for her mother’s feelings, or for that matter, anyone else’s. Carrie didn’t “make” her mother angry, leading to her mother slamming the phone; instead, her mother chose to respond that way. There’s nothing to apologize for if Carrie expresses herself honestly and tactfully.

Be assertive. That means being polite and respectful, but also firm in getting your needs met. It also means owning your feelings and not blaming another person, so it’s important for Carrie to make “I” statements. (Example: “I know you want to help, but when you tell me what dress to buy I feel belittled and hurt.”

There is no “perfect” way to say something. Carrie sometimes avoids confrontations with her mother when she feels she can’t find the exact words to express a thought or feeling. More important than the language is the message.

In our brief time together, Carrie has worked hard at building healthier boundaries with her mother. She’s more assertive and she no longer rushes to apologize after an argument. And, as Carrie is happy to report, she hasn’t had a panic attack since starting therapy.

This article appeared on in April 2007.

Call Hallie Condit at (425) 462 2799 to make an appointment, or schedule a FREE 15 minute phone consultation.

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