In our first session, Isabel, an agitated newcomer to therapy, declared: “I can’t stand it when Molly is upset about anything. For 16 years, it’s been my job to keep her happy and make sure nothing interferes with her always feeling good about herself. I get anxious when she’s anxious, and I work very hard to make sure her bad feelings go away. I don’t feel like a good mother unless I make sure Molly never has uncomfortable feelings.”
At first glance, it’s easy to conclude that Isabel’s comment is the expression of a parent who wants to see their child grow up to be a happy, self-confident person. Indeed, Isabel is dedicated to raising Molly to become a person with high self-regard and the ability to have successful relationships and positive feelings about life. While this is a laudable goal, Isabel’s method for helping Molly attain it is flawed.
Isabel’s statement captures the viewpoint of many parents who believe good parenting means never letting their child have intolerable feelings. This raises questions about the consequences for children of parents such as Isabel. I am going to explore this parenting experience and look at the potential impact on the children when parents smooth over or facilitate the avoidance of anxieties and other uncomfortable emotions.
Developing Competence with Uncomfortable Feelings
From childhood through adulthood, the ability to tolerate uncomfortable and unwanted feelings is essential for negotiating every kind of relationship. If we learn early on that we have the wherewithal to get through situations that make us uneasy, anxious, unhappy, angry, etc., we are in a good position to manage our lives. This is learned through repeated encounters with these feelings, the successes and failures of dealing with them, and finally the experience of oneself as competent to manage.
By running interference for uncomfortable feelings, Isabel has been depriving Molly of developing her capacity to regulate her own emotions by feeling them and developing comfort with them. This constricts Molly’s ability to relate and leaves her without the necessary experiences that promote resilience and competence with her anxieties. Instead, she must find ways to defend against these unwanted feeling states and/or remain dependent on others to make them tolerable.
The Dance of Anxiety
Isabel has lived her life avoiding her own difficult feelings and now is devoted to protecting Molly from unwanted emotions. For Isabel, Molly’s discomfort or unhappiness is not simply a painful affect that they both must endure; rather, it is a signal that she is failing at her job of mothering. This signal creates intolerable anxieties for Isabel which, along with Molly’s uncomfortable feelings, must be eliminated. The need to protect herself and Molly from such unwanted feelings has become a central dynamic of her mothering.
The difficult issue for both Molly and Isabel is they both require the absence of anxiety. But each makes the other anxious. Molly has been a participant in this mother-daughter dynamic for most of her 16 years. The awareness that her anxiety makes her mother anxious makes her more anxious. This creates the (often unconscious) dilemma of how to both make her mother comfortable and get rid of her own anxiety. As a result, there is a dance of anxiety in which each partner attempts, but often fails, to self-regulate and simultaneously regulate the other.
In our work together, Isabel has come to understand that her anxiety over Molly’s emotional state has created problems for their relationship:
“I know I have to stop constantly taking her emotional temperature,” Isabel said. “Things between us are not so good. She’s getting older and I can see that she has a lot of anxiety about herself and her life. In the past few months, we’ve started fighting. It’s crazy-making. Either she yells at me that I’m controlling her and that I should butt out of her life or she comes to me in an agitated state and needs to be talked off a ledge about something. The thing is, I do help her and then we have a respite and I’m the good mother again and she seems happy—and I am too.”
I asked Isabel what she thought about Molly’s recent confrontational behaviors. She sighed a large sigh and responded:
When one is deprived of learning to cope with uncomfortable feelings, it is likely that compensatory strategies for dealing with discomfort with others are developed. Relationships must be constructed to elicit positive reactions and avoid creating unwanted feelings. This limits relational possibilities and requires (consciously and unconsciously) the concealing of one’s authentic thoughts and feelings.
“Well, you and I have been talking for some time now and I get that my anxiety over Molly’s feeling states hasn’t given her tools to grow up or take risks and learn that she’s capable of taking care of herself. I know in my head it’s a good thing for Molly that she can assert herself with me. She’s been so dependent on me and I don’t like to admit that I like that. But I can still get scared when she is upset. When she confronts me, I know she is having emotions that are too much for her. I feel so guilty that I become like the scared child I was with my parents and I do whatever she wants so she won’t be upset with me.”
What Isabel is describing captures two important issues that her behavior with Molly has impacted:
1. Limit setting: Because she can’t tolerate Molly’s unhappiness, Isabel has been unable to set limits for Molly when she experiences Molly’s unhappiness or displeasure with a limit. For example, when Molly gets angry at something Isabel asserts, Isabel can’t manage her own feelings and quickly gives in to make both their bad feelings disappear.
When there are no limits or when the child has too much power or control, she may become frightened (often unconsciously) with being given so much sway over a parent. Feelings of safety and being taken care of are compromised when the caretakers are not in control. Without a safe base growing up, independent actions and thoughts become risky, impeding the process of separation/individuation.
2. Dependency: Difficulties in future relationships are likely as Molly has not learned to self-regulate and has come to rely on significant others to maintain her positive emotional equilibrium, often at the cost of not knowing her own mind.
Relationships are dominated by the need to avoid intolerable feelings. In order to guarantee that others are pleased and no one has unwanted feelings, consideration and knowledge of what one wants is surrendered to others. There is a need to be agreeable, have no differing or opposing thoughts and feelings, and, in general, control the feelings of others to ensure everyone’s happy, satisfied feelings. This creates dependence on others for reassurance and approval of wishes, desires, and choices.
Anxiety About Anxiety
When one is deprived of learning to cope with uncomfortable feelings, it is likely that compensatory strategies for dealing with discomfort with others are developed. Relationships must be constructed to elicit positive reactions and avoid creating unwanted feelings. This limits relational possibilities and requires (consciously and unconsciously) the concealing of one’s authentic thoughts and feelings. In situations where the upset is so unbearable, the need to protect oneself may require hiding these feelings from one’s own conscious awareness, causing dissociation in the service of managing the feelings that emerge in interaction with others.
The dilemma of how to stay anxiety-free may lead Molly to become dependent on her mother for assurances that her life decisions are acceptable and will not create anxiety for either one. If she hands over this process to her mother, she will not develop the ability to regulate her own feelings and she will deprive herself of developing an identity separate from her mother: who she is and what she wants will be determined by the guideline of safety first—no intolerable feelings, not for Molly and not for her mother. It can become unclear who is taking care of whom. If Molly begins to feel trapped by this situation, she may also choose to deal with her discomfort and her mother’s anxiety by detaching from or rejecting her mother. For Molly, both dissociation and detachment would result in disconnection from herself.
Isabel could also deal with her anxiety by dissociating or detaching from Molly. This implies that, for the most part, her feelings about Molly would be largely on hold. While a parent could unconsciously solve the anxiety dance by unconsciously opting to anesthetize themselves, it is hard to imagine that Isabel would, under any circumstances, become so emotionally disconnected from Molly.
Isabel and I have been working on a strategy that requires conscious cooperation with herself. We have been talking about how she can reframe her “bad mother” thoughts to understand that allowing Molly to have her uncomfortable feelings is an act of good mothering that enables Molly to develop the skills to regulate her own feelings. Isabel intellectually understands that she and Molly need to be less dependent on each other for maintaining comfortable feeling states. She also recognizes she is in a symbiotic relationship with Molly that keeps Molly from being able to reflect about her own life and learn about her own wants and needs.
It is painful for Isabel to move beyond her intellectual understanding of her impact on Molly:
“I just don’t know if I can get there. I want to be able to feel like a good mother when I stand by and don’t soothe and reassure Molly. But it’s scary when I’m aware I did something that upsets her and I don’t jump in and make it okay. I’ve been trying, and she seems more anxious and she gets angry at me, which is horrible. I keep telling myself that she has to learn that she can take care of her own feelings. I tell myself she is not responsible to make me feel good. I tell myself over and over. I’m beginning to hear myself, but it’s so, so, so hard to listen to myself. But I do know I have to do this for Molly, even if it seems I’m hurting her. I hope you will stay with me while I keep trying.”
Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.
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