Advice from the Trenches: Help-rejecting clingers

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Welcome to Advice From the Trenches, a monthly feature on NRI NOW.

Advice From The Trenches combines the clinical experience of a double boarded psychiatrist, with a slap-in-the-face dose of reality from an artist and writer who has gathered her wisdom from the school of hard-knocks.

Do you having a burning question for the duo? Send your thoughts, ideas and woes to cathrenhousley@aol.com. Don’t forget to mention that you’re an NRI NOW reader so we can be sure to publish the answer here!

Dear C and Dr. B;

I love my mother but she is driving me absolutely nuts. She wants my help but then doesn’t let me help her. She also makes everything about her – during the pandemic, you’d think COVID was a personal plot against her. She complains she is lonely but then refuses to go anywhere with our family when I suggest it. She says she doesn’t feel well but doesn’t follow through with the doctors appointments I make for her. The few she does make, she never follows through with the advice or treatments.  

She is so frustrating I feel like I want to scream. I find I am lashing out at her in small ways, and it makes me feel so guilty I just end up hating myself. I can’t just ignore her or let her be – she has dangerous problems that she is ignoring, like diabetes. She has no one else but me, my dad died years ago. What should I do?

– Frustrated

Dr, B says: Some people think in a very black and white manner and have no ability to separate themselves from any outside stimuli. This is what makes everything personal and about themselves. Do not take this personally, it is the way they think and it is more or less unchangeable.  

This way of thinking often leads into behavior such as your mom’s. There’s actually a non-sanctioned term for it: “Help-rejecting Clingers.”  Inside they often feel trapped between helplessness and control, and, like a drowning person, they tend to grab onto anyone who tries to save them, and take them down too. 

It is not easy to maintain compassion with neutrality. Maybe you could try addressing the core: “You seem frustrated. Are you perplexed, confused?” Ask leading questions that make her think it’s her idea when you steer her toward goals. This is called motivational interviewing. You might want to find her a counselor who works with this technique and take a class yourself. It is a very effective teaching tool because it works without the person knowing they are being taught. 

It is normal to get so frustrated you want to lash out, but that’s something your own therapist could help you with. Don’t internalize the frustration. It is not your fault, and guilt doesn’t help anyone. 

Your mom is an adult and you can’t make her a happy person, no matter what you do. You have to learn to be happy yourself, not dependent upon your mom being happy. You have no way of knowing what is inside her head or what her thinking and motivations are, so don’t make up her story for her. You can only do your best and know you tried. Be the person you want to be and appreciate yourself for who you are. Sometimes the hand we are dealt is a hard one to play.

C says: I used to have a friend – “Ken,” a painter who lived alone. A few minutes with him showed why – his idea of communicating seemed to consist of fretting, worrying and bitching about things in lieu of conversation. He went on and on about problems and annoyances, like a dog settling down for a good chew on a bone, gnawing at whatever misery he was obsessing over.

No one else, including his family, said anything to deter him. They just played along, let him gnaw and fret, then avoided him afterwards for months, even years, at a time.

I couldn’t stand Ken’s crap, but I understood his lack of social ability and respected his painting, so I made an effort. Whenever I was with the guy and he went off too long on one of his rants, I’d just say, “No, Ken. Enough negative stuff. Now we are going to talk about something happy.” If encouraged, he would babble on and on about his painting instead. Self obsessed people always enjoy talking about themselves. It’s up to you to change the subject.

I do also have to confess that I used to drink too much when I hung out with Ken and when I stopped drinking a few years ago, I couldn’t stand being with him for more than 5 minutes. I haven’t spoken to him since January 2021 and I don’t care if I ever see him again.

You aren’t going to change your mom. You may be able to redirect her with a little practice. But if you are doing something like drinking to tolerate her, you really need to take a look at yourself. You may be just as much stuck in your role of, “martyred daughter,” as Mom is in hers of “Help-rejecting Clinger.”

You can visit Dr. B’s blog at drbrilliantcliche.wordpress.com.

As originally published in Motif Magazine.

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