Gayle Paul, therapist from My Mom is Obsessed, explains how to confront the difficult topic of obsessive behavior.
You think your mom is obsessive. Your best friend thinks your mom is obsessive. And even your little brother thinks so. But what’s the best way to talk to her about it?
Let’s start with some facts. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines “obsessiveness” as actions, behaviors or thinking that circle around the same thing repeatedly, even to the point of getting in the way of conducting the regular activities of daily life.
So, if your mom's daily three-trips-to-the-gym routine means she's forgetting to pick you up after school, skipping out of work early, missing parent-teacher meetings and never showing up for dinner, you've got yourself a mom with a workout obsession.
SET THE STAGE
People usually feel extremely defensive about their obsessive behavior. It can feel like the thing that keeps them together. And moms often feel like it's the one thing they've got for themselves after giving all their time and energy to their families. So, it’s good to proceed thoughtfully. Here's how:
- Choose the right time. Don’t blurt out what’s on your mind because you feel frustrated and can’t hold it in anymore. And don’t pounce on your mom at a moment when she’s exhausted or under pressure. Pick a low-stress time to bring it up.
- Pick the right place. Where you do it can make a lot of difference. You want a calm, restful setting where you both feel comfortable. Try to avoid places with distractions so you won’t be interrupted - and also so you won’t be giving your mom an easy way to avoid having the conversation with you.
- Start in a low-key way. How you begin the conversation sets the stage for how it will probably go. So start gently and ease in. Don't ambush her with a string of accusations about how messed up she is with her "stupid" obsession.
WHAT TO SAY SO MOM WILL LISTEN
- Tell your mom about how her obsession affects you. Explain the impact it has on you and your relationship. If she’s away a lot because of her obsession, you might say, “I miss having you here when I get home from school. I miss telling you about my day.” If she's diet-obsessed you could tell her, "I miss our family dinners when we would all get together. It's not as fun as it used to be when we ate as a family."
- Ask for what you'd like to have happen instead. Make a clear request. It might be, "Could you meet me at home on Mondays because that's when I have lots to talk about?", or, "How would you feel about some ‘you and me’ time when we make dinner after work?"
- Really listen to her answer to your request. Hear what she’s willing to do. If she veers off onto other topics or gets defensive, gently ask her again about your request. Don't take on an attacking tone: that will lead to defensiveness.
- If she's on board with your request, great. But these talks don’t always turn out perfectly. Focus on what she's willing to do and start there. Maybe there's a compromise you can agree on. If she does offer to make some change, don't forget to tell her that you're happy she's willing to try to work with you to make things better.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
- Don't tell her she's wrong, bad or ”blowing it”. That will just make her defensive and effectively end your conversation.
- The tone you use and the words you choose are very important. The idea is to keep your mom open to what you have to say. It may be a big effort not to get angry or sarcastic, but it’s definitely worth it. Your goal is to get your mom to listen and really hear how her actions are hurting your relationship.
- Remember that you can take a “time out” if things start to go badly. All you have to do is suggest it. Don't yell and leave: just state that things are getting off track, “so I’d like to stop now and talk about it another time.”
Remember, you're not responsible for your mom. You can love her and be concerned about her, but you can't make her do anything. What you can do is take care of your health and well-being as best you can. Once you've let her know what you're seeing and how it's affecting you, you've done the right thing as a daughter. It can be useful to talk about it. Some conversations with a friend could be very helpful.