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Passive-Aggressive Example
Caretaker of Passive-aggressive Mother

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The following is an example from website readers of passive-aggressive encounters they have experienced. The suggested responses are not personal advice as a full evaluation of the situation is not available. Also, the suggestions may not work in every situation but are to give you an idea of possible ways to respond. For more, read: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People and 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

Question: My mother has always been difficult, controlling and recognizes no limits. Her interpretation of a mother-daughter relationship is one where the mother is always right and should not be contradicted. The daughter's obligation to respect her mother implies silence and never giving her opinion if different than her mother's. If that's done it is considered a high level of disrespect and lack of consideration.

Now I'm 45 and my mother is 82. I'm the only child and my dad passed away 10 years ago. She's a cancer survivor and stayed by herself after she got over her illness as I used to live in the US. So her life has not been easy at all, I am fully aware of that. Yet, my life has not been easy either and my main concern and dilemma is precisely my mother. So, I am in need--desperate need--of advice as to how to deal with the situation. I'm currently living with her as I moved out of the US to take care of her. She is permanently mad at me. I think her feeling bad physically translates into anger and I'm always the target. She's always putting me down and if I try to make any decision in her house (like what bathroom will I clean first, or what vegetable to buy for today's meal, etc) she gets very angry and doesn't eat.

My approach has been silence and not responding, because I know at this point she will not change and if I want to accomplish what I hope which is to help her and take care of her, antagonizing her will result in her not eating, not letting me help her at all. But, despite my conscious decision to just take and take her attitude and not respond, I'm deeply hurt, severely tired and awfully lonely. How to deal with someone like her, if you could provide a practical example it'd be appreciated. Thank you!!

Response: As you said, no matter what you do she is not going to change at this point. Given that and your determination to care for her you have little leverage in controlling her behavior. However, that doesn't mean there is nothing you can do for yourself.

Not responding can be a good tactic as long as you don't change your behavior based on her criticisms. What I mean is if you don't respond but then clean the bathrooms the way she wants you to she is rewarded for her behavior and you feel worse. Instead, do things the way you want to do no matter what she says. I know you'll say that she'll just criticize more, but how much worse can it be than what you are describing? At least, you are doing something that gives you a greater sense of control. However, including a response might be even better such as a cheery-sweet, "Oh, Mom, you have your ways and I have mine. The important thing is it gets done" and go on your way with what you are doing.

See, the important thing here is you. The more you feel helpless and bite your tongue and stuff your anger, the worse you feel. So when you are responding to her, it is not really about giving her a message but giving yourself one. In the response above you are giving a mental shrug and telling yourself to ignore her criticism and that it is okay to do things your way.

In fact, a good general approach, not because it will change her but it can change you, is to respond to her. But instead of responding to the content of the criticism, respond with identifying emotions. But do this in an upbeat, non-judgmental way. For instance, "I know you're feeling bad and it's hard to let someone take care of you and do things differently than you are used to. We'll just do the best we can." This helps you to recognize, too, that the criticism is not about you but about her emotions. It is also possible that by saying something like this every time she might reduce her criticisms because she doesn't want to be confronted with her emotions. Or--and this is a long shot--maybe she'll talk about how she feels.

Other possible responses:

"Oh, Mom, I know you don't mean that. You're just in a lot of pain."

"Even though that hurts my feelings, I am still here for you like you were there for me."

Or, even, just give her a hug. That really throws a passive-aggressive criticizer off their game!

Also, maybe change the focus of your interactions. Your mother is at the stage of life when the issues are focused on integrity vs. despair (according to Erikson's Stages of Development). If someone is questioning the value of her life (even at a subconscious level) it may lead to greater despair and negativity. You can help your mother change this narrative. For instance, help her work on a life history. What were things like when she was growing up? What has changed? What changes does she like? What are the important lessons she wants to pass down? etc. Try to phrase the questions in a positive way and get her focused on something other than her pain and negativity.

The bottom line, though, is that you need to take care of yourself. Caretakers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves and your situation makes it even worse. By preparing some positive responses to her it allows you to give yourself important messages. Such as "I am not helpless" and "This is not about me" and "I am a good and kind person to take care of my mother."

In addition, you need to do things for yourself. Whether that is taking a walk or joining a group. I don't what country you are in but check to see if there are any caretaker groups to provide emotional support for you. Also, my Loving-kindness and Compassion Meditations as well as mindfulness can be helpful coping tools.

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