How to stand up to your dominant mother this Christmas

Our award-winning coach, Kim Morgan, speaks to a woman who’s battling to tell her dominant mother that she doesn’t want to spend the festive season together


How to stand up to your dominant mother this Christmas

5 minute read

Session one: “As soon as my siblings and I are back in the family dynamic, we lose our power”

Jilly* was a regular coaching client – a marketing director of an online retail company, whose firm paid for her to have coaching with me. She was dynamic, ambitious and likeable. She had free rein to discuss anything in her coaching sessions – it didn’t have to be about work. Until now, she had never used the sessions to discuss personal matters.

As soon as Jilly arrived, I could tell this time was going to be different. She squirmed in her chair, a bit like a child, as she said: ‘I know this is really stupid, but I need you to help me be brave.’

I was surprised. I had never seen Jilly lack courage before. I urged her to tell me more.

‘I don’t want to go home to my parents for Christmas and I am scared to tell them,’ she said. She told me that her mother ‘insists’ that she and her siblings go every year, but Jilly had grown to hate it. ‘When we are all together, we fall back into the same roles and the same manipulative, psychological games,’ she said. This year, she wanted to go to Thailand on a yoga retreat instead.

She told me that her mother was a demanding woman who tried to control the lives of everyone around her. ‘My siblings and I are all successful, strong individuals, but as soon as we step back into the family dynamic, we seem to lose all our power.’

I shared with Jilly how surprised I was to experience her behaving so differently to the powerful woman I had come to know.

*Name changed

Session two: Understanding childlike tendencies

Jilly wanted to talk about her family dynamics and to understand why she reverted to behaving like a child whenever she walked back into the parental home. ‘It’s as though I enter a psychological force field that exerts an invisible pressure on me to return to behaviour which I thought I had left behind,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it helps that I sleep in my old bedroom, which is still decorated as it was when I left home at 18! It takes me straight back to how things were then.’

I asked Jilly to tell me what that felt like. ‘I was the youngest child, who was considered irrelevant by everyone else in the family; not as clever as the rest of them and teased for being chubby. I was totally controlled by my mother and not allowed to think for myself.’ Jilly shook her head again. ‘I’ve worked so hard to shake all this off, but when it comes to saying “no” to my mother, I still can’t do it!’

I told Jilly to stop giving herself such a hard time and explained that the ways she responds at home can happen unconsciously. However, she was now bringing her behaviour into conscious awareness, and that is an important step in making changes. I reminded her that we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.

Session three: Rehearsing assertive conversations

I helped Jilly to develop some strategies for thinking, feeling and behaving like an adult whenever she interacted with her family. These included her noticing when she was having childlike reactions and having some ‘escape routes’ for herself, such as going for a walk if things got tough. Jilly also decided to take her work handbag with her when she visited her family, to help her to remember to be Jilly the executive – strong and decisive.

Jilly accepted that she could not make her family change their attitudes or behaviour, but she could change hers. She rehearsed having assertive conversations, with me pretending to be her mum, in which she told her that she was not coming home for Christmas.

In the end, Jilly didn’t get to go to Thailand. Her mother feigned illness at the thought of her not spending Christmas with them and her father begged her: ‘Please come home to keep the peace.’ But Jilly was clear that it had been her decision to ‘do it this time’ and that her eyes were ‘wide open’. She told me she’d already booked a trip to Thailand for next Christmas. ‘There is no way I’ll be driving home this year!’ she said.

Coaching exercises

Practising ways to stand up for yourself

Assertiveness is about the right to be treated with equal respect. It’s about working out what you want and then deciding if it is appropriate and fair. Learning to be assertive means trusting your initial gut feeling and developing the habit of listening to your inner voice. It can be difficult when you are dealing with a manipulative person because you can be made to feel that you are the one being selfi sh or unfair.

When you have something difficult to say to someone, it’s a good idea to write a script and to ask a good friend if you can rehearse the conversation, with your friend playing the part of the other person. You can even ask your friend to be deliberately difficult to test your responses to a negative reaction. Ask them to let you know whether your posture, tone of voice and facial expression match your assertive message. Begin the conversation with: ‘I want to speak to you about something. It may be a difficult conversation for us, but I’d like you to listen fi rst and then I will listen to you.’

A few assertiveness tips to remember:

● Use ‘I’ statements to take ownership of your opinions.

● Be prepared to repeat what you are saying.

● Use non-judgemental words and stick to facts.

● Don’t apologise or justify yourself excessively.

● Consider what it says about the other person if they start bullying you or persuading you to change your mind.

Survival strategies

Sometimes, we choose to spend time with people who have a negative effect on us. When you know a difficult meeting is coming up, develop some survival strategies.

Take the stress and disappointment out of encounters by reminding yourself that they’re exactly what they appear to be. Always hoping that ‘perhaps this time will be different’ leads to frustration and hurt. Learn to expect that you’ll find those people behaving as they always do. Giving up hope of others changing their behaviour can be a useful survival strategy for you and your emotional wellbeing.

Have some escape routes planned for yourself:

● Go for a walk on your own, sit and read a book for a while, help out with chores or play with children.

● Be clear about how long you are going to be at the event and ensure you leave on time.

● Have a ‘reward’ scheduled for yourself afterwards – a day doing something that you love.

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Image: Getty