Lean on Me – But Just the Right Amount

Wakana pulled back, standing squarely on her own two feet again. I felt my body relax.

“It’s like your mother,” she said. “She needs you to be dependent on her in order to have a sense of herself. But you can’t lean on her too much – I don’t think she could handle it.”

“You’re right,” I replied. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to figure out how much to lean. I feel safer not trusting her than risking that we’ll both collapse, or that she’ll use whatever I confide in her against me.

“But it hurts! She’s my mother!”

Wakana was huddled in her chair, arms and legs crossed, like the lost abandoned child crying inside me. Her eyes seemed to have a grey cloud over them – likely reflecting what she saw in my eyes. Her lips were turned downward in a frown. I was staring at my own pain.

“She’s also a person,” Wakana explained. “People can’t always be what we want them to be.”

The silence was broken only by the flood in my eyes.

“It’s disappointing.”

My mom just can’t be the mother I’ve always wanted her to be. I need to accept that about her and relate – as my real self – to the person she is. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I’ve been chasing a dream … and living a nightmare!

I need to get my needs met elsewhere: other family members, friends, and by caring for myself. And I need to establish and enforce boundaries between Mom and me. We can’t lean on each other anymore! It’s too dangerous for me.

But I’m not sure what “boundaries” entail! It’s one thing to talk about this stuff with my therapist – quite another to get it to work in my real, imperfect, living and breathing relationship with my mother. I’m paying Wakana to spend an hour every week being whatever I need her to be; she’s had decades of training and experience in helping clients heal lifelong emotional wounds. My mother … to be fair, I’m sure she’s tried her best. But that hasn’t been enough – often, it’s actively hurt me! I don’t trust her to respect my boundaries; nor do I trust myself to get it right when I try to establish and enforce them.

Should I say “no” her her requests? Refuse to listen to her stories? Avoid expressing any vulnerability? Should I schedule times when we are allowed to talk about a limited, predetermined list of topics? Set a timer and when it goes off she has to stop speaking and listen to me?

When does it stop being about boundaries and become about control? How can I let her be her without it hurting me?