How Do I Deal With My Critical Mother?

Having a critical mother is a big challenge. I know, because I grew up with an extremely critical mother. I can certainly relate to Lori, who asked the follow question:

“Dr. Paul, my question is about what to do to take care of myself with my mother. She comes to visit me every so often, brings her husband along, and goes out of her way to put down everything about my life and the city I live in when she is here. It is heart breaking because I am a loving person and choose to keep my heart open, yet she goes out of her way to hurt me by putting down my life. I want to be me, and be loving and giving, yet it hurts a lot to be open with her. Can you provide some Inner Bonding thoughts on this? Thank you so much!”

Lori, there are a few options to consider here.

  • You might want to re-evaluate whether you want her to continue to visit you. Do you know that you have the right to not have her visit you? You are not obligated to have her at your home if her being there is very hurtful to you.

  • If you do want her to continue to visit, then you might want to lay some ground rules before her next visit, such as saying to her, “Whenever you visit, you criticize everything about my life and the city I live in. This is not okay with me. If you want to visit, then you need to be accepting rather than critical. If you criticize me, I will ask you to leave.” However, in order to say this to her, you would need to be prepared follow through and ask her to leave if she is critical.

  • Another option is to utilize her visits as an opportunity to learn to not take others’ behavior personally, which is especially challenging with a parent. Your challenge is to be you – keeping your heart open and being loving, and when your mother is critical, compassionately attending to your heartbreak while reassuring your little girl that your mother’s behavior has nothing to do with you. I find it hurtful whenever anyone is critical, but I can easily manage the hurt by staying connected with my little girl with kindness and caring toward her and letting her know that other people’s behavior is not about her. It’s helpful to my little girl when I let her know that when others are being mean, it’s because they are abandoning themselves in some way and taking it out on me, but that it’s not about me and there is nothing I can do about them.

Lori, in the case of your mother, it is likely that she has a harsh internal critic who judges herself a lot. She probably learned to deal with her inner pain over her own self-abandonment by projecting her self-criticism onto others. When people act this way with me, once I am fully compassionately connected with my own feelings of pain over being treated badly, I can then extend compassion out to the other person, knowing that they are hurting or they wouldn’t be acting that way. I imagine how badly their inner child feels with that level of self-abandonment and I feel compassion for their inner child.

  • Another option is, if there is any chance that your mother would be open to learning, to ask her, with your own intent to learn, why she is so critical of you. However, if you have not had any experience of your mother being open to self-exploration, this would not likely be a viable option. If you do think she would be open, you can combine this option with setting limits before she comes.

At one point with my mother, I told her that if she kept judging me, I would no longer have a relationship with her. Being an only child, I had leverage. But she didn’t know what I was talking about. So I asked her to arrange for us to see a therapist together, and she did. Thankfully, the therapist was able to clue her in to how critical she was. After that time, whenever she started to judge me, I’d give her a look, saying, “Mother,” in a warning tone and she would say, “Okay, okay,” and stop criticizing!

I hope this is helpful to you, Lori. This would be a challenging situation for anyone, and I honor you for wanting to learn from it.