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Mother, Look at us Now!

Mother, Look at us Now!

Learning to live with a critical parent

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The author with her mother
The author with her mother

Editor’s Note: This article was written with permission from the author’s mother, for the purpose of helping others . . .

I felt like I was born into enemy territory. I was convinced that you have a daughter to have a slave.

All I wanted was out, out of her way, out of my house, away from the constant barrage of criticism and orders and demands. Since I was too young and too afraid to run away, the only place I could be away from her was in my room. I sat and drew and wrote in my journal, and often cried. My room was the only room in the house where I felt safe. But it wasn’t long before even my room was no longer a safe haven.

I couldn’t understand what I had done wrongI couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. All I had done was be born, born a female with thick curly hair who apparently did not make a splash for cuteness. “You were supposed to be Gary,” I heard several times while growing up. But I wasn’t Gary. I came out a girl, not a boy.

From the first moment I can remember, there was little that was right about me. My hair was too wild, and my nose was too big. Everything about me needed fixing, including my personality.

Something was wrong. I knew something was deeply wrong.

By the end of my sixteenth year, I managed to get out of my house. I graduated early from high school and went away to university. Being 200 miles away and not living subject to constant criticism, I was finally finding joy in life and building my self-confidence. Still, my mother’s attitude did not change, and I was burdened with anger and resentment towards her. I was deeply wounded, and had an incessant fear of intimacy and abandonment. All I wanted was to be loved, but I found myself subconsciously sabotaging relationships, feeling undeserving of long-lasting love. I knew that I needed to resolve my relationship with my mother in order to move on.

In time, and with years of work, I was able to transform our relationship from Mommie Dearest (the Joan Crawford story) to Dear Mom, from hatred to love. After making a short humorous film called My Nose about my mother’s campaign to get me to have a nose job, I learned I was not alone. People would come over to me after the screening and tell me three things: 1. I love your nose; don’t touch it. 2. I don’t like your mother. How can you? 3. Let me tell you my story. I would listen to them carefully and, interestingly, would find myself in a position to help others.

All I wanted was to be loved, but I found myself subconsciously sabotaging relationshipsHow did I do it? How did I learn to accept, and even love, my critical parent?

I identified seven steps, what I call the “Seven Healing Tools,” which enabled me to deal with a difficult person. I apply these tools to my mother, and to any and all difficult people I come in contact with.

Understanding

Where is her negativity coming from? What happened to her in her childhood?

I was able to uncover family secrets, including attempted suicides and financial hardships that my mother suffered as a child. By doing so, I had a better appreciation of why she did some of the things she did.

Create Distance

Lessen the pain of being around someone who is abusive to you by physically removing yourself from his or her location.

I went off to college, creating a distance between myself and the barrage of criticism.

Create a Support System

A support system consisting of friends, family and/or coworkers is invaluable. You can’t choose your family, but you can certainly choose your friends.

I surrounded myself with positive and supportive people. In college, I gravitated towards many like-minded people. I was an art student, and was praised by my teachers and colleagues for my talent and my appearance. They loved my long, thick curly hair. I followed my passions, developed hobbies, joined various groups, went on a spiritual quest, and found a rabbi with whom I connected and joined his congregation. I also found a close friend who became my life coach. I rescued a little dog, who went on to become my canine best friend, therapy dog and healer. We even made a movie together.

Forgive

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. It means unburdening yourself of dead emotional weightForgiving does not mean forgetting. It means unburdening yourself of dead emotional weight. “When you forgive, you love. And when you love, G‑d’s light shines upon you.” (Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild)

After learning about my mother’s childhood tragedies and the burdens she had to bear, I realized that she was doing the best she could. Expecting her to love and nurture me unconditionally at that time was like asking Stevie Wonder to drive a racecar. She was incapable. She was a wounded child. As soon as I changed my expectations of her, I was able to forgive her.

Do not wait for the individual to acknowledge or apologize for what they did to you before you forgive them. In many cases like my own, they won’t do either, and they will deny ever doing anything wrong. Remember, they are a wounded child and are unaware of their own actions.

Change Your Behavior

Armed with understanding, physically removed from the source of conflict and having forgiven the individual for his or her offenses, you are now well positioned to begin to change your behavior—to begin reacting to the world in newer, healthier ways.

In my case, now that I had forgiven my mother and viewed her as a wounded child, I was able to change my responses to her disparaging remarks and actions. If your child said to you, “Mommy, I don’t love you,” you wouldn’t cringe and feel hurt; you would laugh it off. That is what I started doing with my mother. Every time she would say something insulting, instead of getting hurt, angry and defensive, I let it bounce off of me, always remembering the source. Many times, I made light of it. By doing this, I reduced her ability to press my buttons, and in essence rendered her powerless. And I was able to give her the love you would give a child who has hurt him- or herself.

Let It Out

I viewed her as a wounded childThere is no value in keeping it in, tamping down your feelings. You are not alone. Many people have suffered greatly.

In my case, I found confidants, the right people to share with. I was selective about the people with whom I chose to share. I found people who are positive, sympathetic and empathetic, and who in some cases could even offer insight. I shared my pain; I shared secrets, because keeping them in and holding onto them can often make us feel ashamed and like a victim. I learned to live life with openness and honesty.

Spin a Negative into a Positive; Be Creative

This is your life. This is your story. We all have incredible material. No one can steal your story. Use it. My life has been the inspiration for my creative work, whether it’s writing, visual art or film. They always say, “Write what you know best.” You will not only entertain others, but also often help them. And there is no greater satisfaction than giving to others.

As my life progressed along with my career, I, like all of us, have been and continue to be faced with difficult people. I have always managed to apply the tools I developed to deal with my mother to situations with others.

Judaism teaches us the concept that every descent is for the sake of an ascent. Difficult people present us with an opportunity to grow. I live life with gratitude. If it weren’t for my emotionally challenging childhood, I probably would not have learned what I know today, or be in a position to help guide others. I wake up every day and thank the Creator for giving me all that I have. I thank Him for showing me that when I am faced with an obstacle, it is no accident, and there is a lesson for me to learn from it.

Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy-winning filmmaker, personality and speaker. Called “the Nora Ephron of documentaries,” Gayle has turned the camera on herself. In her humorous film, My Nose, we follow her mother’s relentless campaign to get her to have a nose job. She created and executive produced several “little people” shows for TLC and Discovery Health. Gayle is currently in post-production on a feature documentary called Look at Us Now, Mother! where she explores the highly charged mother/daughter relationship through her own story.
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Anonymous MS October 8, 2015

Wow, all points spot on! Thank you so much for writing this article, Gayle! Reply

Yansa M.Toussaint Oakland December 17, 2012

Right On Time!!! This article was right on time as my mother has always been 'ego deflating'. I am now 52 and my mother is 72 so I finally had to 'grow up' and accept the fact that it is what it is. I often wished I had a mother more like my therapist - comforting and encouraging. My mother's Mom died in 2010 at the age of 93 and my mother told me that she accepted the fact years ago that her mother had an undiagnosed mental illness that wouldn't allow her to form close attachments to people. I see now that my mother is a victim too of an unloving,uncaring mother. I have renewed my faith as I truly want to forgive my mom and try to let her hurtful comments roll off my back like water. I know with my mother it's no use in confronting her with her behavior because she's never going to take responsibility and I'm learning to accept that truth. It's comforting to know that other women have suffered with critical unloving mothers and went on to live positive lives. Reply

Anonymous December 2, 2012

Thank you for this article. I, too, have found peace in learning to understand, forgive and consequently love my mother. While growing up, I believed all her critics and thought myself a worthless person. Once I moved out of home and discovered other people who actually liked me and respected me, I got angry and started fighting back. After I married a person who loves me unconditionally, I learned to ignore the critical comments and refuse to argue. Finally, I reached the point where I learned to understand, accept and even appreciate the love that lay hidden behind those comments. It's still not always easy, but the relationship we now enjoy is certainly worth the effort. Reply

shterna g n.y. November 29, 2012

wow! Your courage to share your painful challenges, proves how you have grown from them and turned a seemingly negative into a positive. Many will be inspired as I am. May you continue growing and succeeding to touch others to grow as well! Reply

Anonymous Sydney.Australia November 28, 2012

Mothers & Daughters Thank you Gayle for helping me ,get re-focased with regard to my Mother ,who is suffering from Altzheimers...I have been grimly hanging on to her, instead of letting go.I did as a child treat the insults like ,as my Mother put it "water off a Ducks back" but somewhere along the way, I let the insults get to me again, till I was unable to "see the forest for the trees"....I sought help from my doctor & had councilling..but still clung to her,wanting her love.She could'nt give it & never has been able to,instead saying unkind things to make" us "go away [I have a brother & sister also very affected by her behaviour they do not contact her any longer ,which I find such a pity }.She is now in a nursing home & I help in every small way that I can...but still craved what she could'nt give me. Thank you again for helping me to clarify my Mothers reactions toward me. I have known for a long while that she can'not give openly the love I know she does have for all of her children. Reply

Keila Lucy Lemos M.B.Silva Brasilia, F,Brazil November 28, 2012

Wow!!! This Is A True Therapy!!! Thank you, dear Gayle!!! I faced that same fight in my life because my weight. But today I learned almost same things than you own! G-d Is Great to us! I'm so grateful by HIS mercy and care with me. Today I could understood my parent's (yeah, both of them!) and theirs hard criticism to me. G-d's love filled my heart and emotions with light and comprehension! Thank you for share your story with us! G-d Almighty bless you and all your family! Greetings from Brasilia, Brazil. Reply

Anonymous Israel November 28, 2012

My Mother, Myself I read this post with great difficulty. I was unable to forgive my mom for the things I saw as damaging. "You'd be so beautiful if only you lost weight", " the boys would like you if only you lost some weight", and so on. It was a life of 'if only-ies' that lasted until she was too ill to say it. She died 12 years ago, with only a few apologetic words between us, at the end. My mother was a holocaust survivor who lost her parents, brothers and sisters and even a child. How could I have known what to do? I so wanted her love but when I couldn't get it, I looked elsewhere, not often the right places. My life could have been so different but it was not to be. Today I am paying the price of that search for love. I wish I could have changed it when she was still alive. But its too late and today it is I who is disagreeable, hard to get along with, critical, and hard to love. So I became exactly what my mother predicted. She'd feel vindicated to know I am now a skinny 62. Luv u ma. Reply

Anonymous Roswell November 27, 2012

welcome to my life Thank you for writing this article. It sounds exactly like my life growing up. Sadly my mother is still the highly critical person she always was. Reply

Ruth Silverdale November 27, 2012

Great Article Thank you so much for posting this article. It helped me a lot in dealing with past negativity in my life. I was the oldest of 6 and was supposed to be a son also. It hurt my relationships for years after moving away from home. Reply

norma November 27, 2012

This is so true The person in my life is a sister. I have distance is the best medince. Reply

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