Diagnosing Your Mother

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I understand why you want a diagnosis for your mom or dad; it would validate your experience. If you could get an official label for their behavior, an official reason for why they are the way they are, you could rest easy that you are justified in your struggles with them.

And yes, that might help. They might meet criteria and you may know the diagnosis because maybe they sought their own treatment and shared what their therapist or psychiatrist said. Or your extended family might acknowledge it, might agree with the way you see things. Or your own therapist might venture a guess (and that’s all it would be, really, an educated guess since therapists can’t diagnose people they haven’t formally assessed).

Most people aren’t going to get a diagnosis for their parents or else they one they get will be pure armchair. You read a self-help book about “Children of Parents with XYZ” and take the quiz in the back and get a passing score. Yup, your dad checks all the boxes! Or you’ll recognize someone on TV or in a book. “That sounds like my mom!” You think and then start wondering if that could be her, that fictional diagnostic representation.

I get it. I do. But I’m going to challenge you here to say that your experience — your lived experience — is enough for me. I trust you and you can trust yourself.

I know that’s hard for you to believe especially if part of the dysfunction in your family was to tell you that you can’t believe what you see, think, or feel. If you’ve been told that you’re unreasonable or too sensitive or “everyone else is fine, why can’t you be?” then it’s awfully hard to trust yourself. That’s part of what makes it so difficult to heal. You think, “But do I really have anything to heal from? Other people had it worse! Who am I to complain?”

You don’t have to justify your pain. You don’t have to justify your anger or grief or trauma. Healing starts when you believe yourself even before you’re sure you can.

So that’s how we’re going to start.

We’re going to start with the absolute assumption that you can trust yourself. You do not need to defend your experience or explain it or get someone to justify or validate it. We’re going to begin with the premise that your experience is/was real.

Now that we have that out of the way we can get to the work of healing.

Healing means moving past blame and moving towards taking responsibility for your present circumstances. Blame is not helpful because it focuses entirely on the behavior of others and we have no control over the behavior of others. This doesn’t mean we’re letting people off of the hook; it means acknowledging that there is no hook. You get to decide who is in your life or out of it. You get to decide what boundaries you set and how to hold them.

This is a big part of taking responsibility.

It doesn’t matter if your parent meets diagnostic criteria if you don’t like their behavior. You get to decide what behavior you will tolerate and what you won’t. You also don’t get to decide how they behave. Let’s say there’s a diagnosis of “jerky people who name call” (there isn’t) and based on your reading you think your mom might meet criteria. Well, she might or she might not but you don’t have tolerate jerky people who call you names whether or not there’s a reason for it or they have excuses for it or everyone else around you says it’s no big deal.

You get to decide. Period. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. You don’t have to have a reason or a justification or anyone else to back you up. You don’t have to explain if you don’t like things whether that’s anchovies on your pizza, sitcoms with laugh tracks, or name calling.

You can communicate that.

“At our house,” you say. “We don’t have anchovies on our pizza and we don’t call names. You can order your own pizza, if you like, and you can do all the name calling you want at your house but I’m not facilitating it and it can’t happen here.”

If your parent has a diagnosis, that’s also no excuse. It’s a reason, for sure, but no excuse. You still get to decide how you want to handle it.

Once you understand this, that you get to decide what your experience means to you, you can work on the nuance. Once you don’t need to validate your own internal narrative you get the room to dance around with it. It frees you up because you’re not spending all of your time and energy being defensive about it.

You are trustworthy. I trust you.

I believe you. Full stop.

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