Leave mother out of it
Acknowledging repressed emotions toward your mom lessens the power of those negative feelings
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 02/01/2012
I was raised as an only child by a single mom whose substance abuse problems caused her to be neglectful and hurtful toward me. Today, I’m 29, independent and fairly successful, but twice now I’ve been in serious relationships with young women who have treated me as badly as I was treated by my mother.
I’m currently in a relationship with Ursula, a wonderful woman who is caring, attentive, easy to be around and the kind of girlfriend — maybe even a wife — I’ve looked for my whole life. The problem is that even though she is loving, supportive and fun, there are times I feel very uncomfortable with her for no apparent reason. I go back and forth between feeling loved and respected to feeling intimidated, angry, withdrawn, distrustful and even wondering if she’s just using me. When I’m away from the situation, I see that she has done nothing wrong and that my fears couldn’t be farther from the truth. She’s certainly not perfect, but the truth is she’s been nothing but compassionate and sometimes even selfless. I’m very lucky to be in a relationship with her. I’m also pretty sure I’m reacting to Ursula as if she was my mother, and I don’t want to do that. How can I move on from old history and drama and create a healthy relationship with a good girl? — Jackson
This is a very exciting time in your life as you individuate, become your own person and create a whole new life for yourself, in spite of your childhood history. Unfortunately, as is often the case when people grow and move forward, it’s not done without the awkward weight of emotional baggage. Dating a girl like Ursula is a clear reflection of your desire to heal from past pain, insecurity and trauma so that these issues won’t interfere with your life today.
So far, Ursula sounds like an excellent choice for you. You have already taken the first critical step of recognizing that she is treating you just fine but that you are emotionally reacting as if her behavior were a selfish, neglectful carbon copy of what you previously experienced with your mother and past girlfriends. This is called transference. The more you acknowledge and experience your repressed feelings toward your mother, the less power those historic feelings will be able to exert on what you are doing and feeling in the present. To accomplish this objective and reduce the tendency to transfer your feelings onto others, I would strongly recommend professional counseling.
Find a therapist you trust and feel connected to. Keep in mind, however, that there is a good possibility you will eventually transfer feelings onto your therapist as well. This is often part of the therapeutic process your therapist will guide you through. The goal is for the two of you to create a safe, private space in which you can carefully examine and heal the painful memories. Until then, try this exercise. Write down all of the traits — both good and bad — that characterized your mother. Then, on a separate piece of paper, write down all of the traits that Ursula exhibits. After reviewing both lists, write down the behaviors from your mother’s list that you are currently transferring onto your girlfriend. Look clearly at the difference.
The next step is to choose a negative trait from your mother’s list and remember a specific time she exhibited that trait and you felt mistreated as a result. See the experience in your mind’s eye and feel your anger and hurt. Do that with each negative trait, and you’ll begin to recognize and understand where all of this is rooted. Share this experience with your new therapist. You will surely find that therapeutic work will help you experience improvement in your current relationship with Ursula and perhaps even with your mother, if you are still in contact with her. As you work on healing old memories and feelings, fewer instances of transference will occur and the past will be less and less able to interfere with your new relationship, your new life and other relationships to come.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.