How do I deal with my mother who says really horrible things about other people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather down because I have to deal with my toxic mother on a daily basis. Sometimes she says really horrible things about other people. And when I try to tell her that it’s not nice to say such things, she gets all defensive and scolds me instead for being rude. I really don’t know how much longer I can take it before I explode. Any advice?

Yes, I can totally feel your frustration!

I think for starters, it’s not helpful to try to fix or correct your mother. It’ll just breed a lot of frustration in you, especially when you approach the situation with the assumption that the problem can be fixed.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the older we get, the more frequent we’ll exercise our bad habits. And sometimes, they get more extreme. And this is especially so if we don’t always pay careful attention to how we behave.

Of course, these bad behaviours stem from somewhere. They don’t just come about with no explanation of their own. It’s probably motivated by some kind of insecurity or need. So rather than trying to make her stop, it would help to understand where she’s coming from when she says such nasty things. Is she putting people down just to make herself feel better because she’s not happy about her own state of existence? If not, what other things might be motivating her to behave this way?

That said, asking, “What’s bothering you?”, won’t normally give you the answer. Parents, especially Asian parents, feel that they shouldn’t burden their children with their problems. So many will just bottle it up without realising that it’s manifesting in other ways. So it takes a lot of time and patience and active listening (i.e. be very engaged in your conversations to try to understand her well) to be able to identify the issue.

Say for example, that the problem you’ve identified is that she doesn’t feel loved or appreciated, and that’s causing her to say such things. Then, if you’re able to fulfil this need of hers, then you might notice her saying less toxic things on a daily basis.

There may be a situation where a person is so toxic it’s beyond saving no matter how much you try. Do know that we can only do the best we can to help others, but at the end of the day, we are not the heroes or saviours of other people, no matter how much we love them. They have to want to save themselves before any real change can happen. They may sometimes feel that they are not in control of their actions (esp. if it’s a habit, it can be hard to control it), so at the very least letting them know that they have someone who loves them even when they don’t love themselves very much is already a huge thing.

(Yes, parents and other older folks still grapple with the same issues of self-esteem and self-love the same way many of us struggle with when young. It doesn’t magically go away when you become a parent or adult.)

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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