Michelle loves her mom, but she’s terrified of becoming just like her. Ever since Michelle was a little kid, she feels like her mom always seems to make herself the center of attention, hurting her relationships in the process, including with Michelle. Michelle wants to manage her own emotions better and stop creating unnecessary drama herself—otherwise she’s worried she’s turning into her mom. On a recent episode of How To!, Susan David, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of Emotional Agility, reveals how all of us can break the bad cycles we’ve adopted from our parents and choose a more sustainable path in life. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: Michelle, can you describe your mom for me?
Michelle: Well, over the course of my life, she has exhibited these really toxic and manipulative behaviors. When I was a kid, my parents would fight constantly and eventually they divorced. That was super hard on me and my brother because my mom would start putting me and my brother in the middle of this situation. [Over the years, I realized] she kept taking advantage of situations and making them about her. For example, at my brother’s wedding, the mother of the bride said something to her in passing, nothing horrid, and she ended up thinking, “This is it. I’m not a member of this family.” And she stormed off and cried. It’s this odd cycle of “oh no, here we go again.”
Charles: What are ways in which you worry that you might become like your mom?
Michelle: There are a lot of ways that I’d want to be like my mom because she is an incredibly strong person. But she feels like the world revolves around her. My mom never really had any close friends and as I grew up, I noticed that I had trouble keeping long-term friends and relationships. I found myself having a new best friend every two years and I wondered why I fell into this pattern. I had an ex-boyfriend of mine who told me at one point after an argument, “You sound just like your mother.” I remember feeling like that was the worst thing anyone could ever say to me. Just last week, my boyfriend and I got into a small argument about taking out the trash. I was in the bedroom and he was in the office and I remember texting him, telling him that I was mad at him. And I’m thinking, “This is so crazy. This is not me.” I was acting like my mom in a way.
Charles: Susan, what’s your first piece of advice for Michelle?
Susan David: I think being in a situation where you are almost parenting your parents as a young child is just extraordinarily difficult. [One of the first things I tell people to use] are “early intervention strategies,” when you go into the day or the situation having a sense of what emotions might arise for you. You start to think through how you are going to deal with those emotions and also, very importantly, what your values are. When we’re more attentive early on to the pit of our stomach or to the story that’s going on in our minds about how something might happen, we are more able to be effective with our relationships.
When we think about breakdowns in communication and in relationships, often what’s happening is that we aren’t expressing what our needs are to the other person. So there’s huge power in saying to someone, “Gee, I’ve had a really tough day. Are you willing to give me half an hour just to veg? And then I promise I’ll come and I’ll help with dinner prep and I’ll be with the kids.” What you’re doing is you are asking for empathy and expressing your need.
Michelle: Recently, I met my mom in Florida to help her move and we were shopping for tiles in a hundred-degree weather in this warehouse. I went into a corner and started centering myself a bit because I couldn’t really breathe very well. But as we’re leaving, she blames me for not helping her and started calling me selfish. I just thought that was really out of left field, because I don’t think flying in the middle of a pandemic to help my mom pick out tiles is selfish. We ended up in this screaming match and she starts crying at the end of it. I didn’t necessarily yell back, but she was pushing my buttons to make me get into that place where I ended up crying and then so did she. When I wanted to talk about it and make things better, she didn’t want to talk about it. She wants to sweep things under the rug and pretend like nothing ever happened, which is super difficult because that just leaves these wounds.
Susan: Even the recognition, Michelle, that you can’t change your mom is really powerful because then you’ve got choices about how you are interacting or not interacting. Recognizing that you can’t change her that then allows you to figure out what are the strategies that actually help you to deal with the context itself? But I think there’s something else that’s worth exploring here and that is the pain. It sounds like this was a really tough experience when you were growing up and seeing your parents constantly in conflict, when you were being asked to become the go-between between your parents, when you were struggling to contribute.
Michelle: Yeah, our relationship feels like a form of emotional abuse where I’m constantly being pushed and pulled to showcase that I love my mother. [It sounds like she’s saying,] “if you love me, you’re going to fly to Florida to help me pick out countertops.” Or “if you love me, you’re going to post all of my furniture on Facebook and sell it for me.”
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Charles: Susan, I know that you’ve spent a lot of your career thinking about the kind of emotional agility necessary for this situation. How did you become interested in this?
Susan: I grew up in South Africa, so I was raised in a white community in apartheid South Africa. It was very much a community that was committed to not seeing. In a way, when Michelle speaks about this idea of not being seen, that’s a powerful subtext, and not even always a subtext, of the community that I grew up in. Then, when I was 15 years old, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After he died, I recall trying very hard to do the “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.” Society presents this idea that we should all be OK and that our difficulties that we are having are very specific to our experience. I was really struggling in the face of my father’s death and a teacher invited me to journal like no one is reading. And I started to actually write about my regret and my experience with my dad and generate a great level of insight from it.
When you experience the death of a parent, everyone says to you, “you’re doing so well.” They praise you for being strong, but actually inside you are crumbling. What you are being praised by is a form of denial. It’s a denial of the reality that as human beings, we have a full range of emotions and that every single one of those emotions is helpful to us. You know, let’s say a child comes home from school and says, “Mommy, no one would play with me today.” The child is experiencing pain and so the parent with really good intentions says, “Don’t worry, I’ll play with you.” But what are they communicating to the child? They’re communicating a form of denial that if we just sweep away these difficult emotions, that actually will be okay. Actually what happens is we become more and more fragile.
Michelle: I really like what you said about understanding that we’re human and we have a range of emotions. We’re not robots—feeling happy, sad, depressed, but understanding that it’s temporary. I don’t need to sweep it under the rug. I can learn to use it to my advantage.
Susan: Yes. Often what happens is we jump into our child’s sadness with really good intentions. But what are you teaching the child? You’re teaching the child that firstly there are good and bad emotions. The good emotions are happiness and joy, and when you’re happy and joyful, then that’s okay. But when you are angry, go to your room and come out when you’ve got a smile on your face. So the first thing we’re doing is we’re teaching children what are called “emotional display rules.”
There’s this beautiful and powerful phrase in South Africa, which is “Sawubona.” “Sawubona” is a Zulu greeting. You hear it on the street, and it basically means “hello.” But what “Sawubona” literally means is “I see you.” By seeing you, I bring you into being. So when you’ve got a child who is upset, instead of trying to quickly fix the upset, you “Sawubona” the child. “I see you. I see you.” What that does is it conveys to the child that you love them in all of their messiness and that you are with them in all of their messiness.
Michelle: I am thinking of this statistic around happiness along the lines of “life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.” I’m trying to reframe that victim mentality because that is exactly what I want to avoid like my mother. I just want to better manage my reaction and have this graceful awakening in the process.
Susan: Right. And as a very young child, when you were asked to basically be the go-between between your parents, your capacity to set boundaries was being ripped away from you. So a really important part of the adult Michelle interacting with your adult mother is about these boundaries and practicing these boundaries. An example of setting a boundary is: “Mom, I understand that you want me to put all of these things on Facebook for you. I know that it can be difficult, Mom, for you to do all of this because it feels like technology is really quite overwhelming.” But then you express your need. “But my need right now is that I am struggling with my deadlines at work. So I’m happy to send you this list of how to do it, but unfortunately, I’m not able to engage in actually doing it for you.” I’m suggesting not that this is gonna resolve the relationship, but rather that actually what you’ve got here is this beautiful capacity to relearn ways that you are expressing and interacting in this relationship.
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