Reality Check: Sidestep your Traps

Why do I keep doing that? I should know better by now!

That’s the way Sophie beats herself up after conversations with her mother. Why, indeed?

The relationship with her mom was never great. Sophie is warm and outgoing, whereas mom says little. When mom does talk, it’s more critical than supportive. Mom’s philosophy, “Why would I tell you that you’re doing a good job? That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Throughout her life, Sophie has worked hard to prove that she meets mom’s high standards and deserves her approval.

Sophie is about to be interviewed for a big job. Her head is spinning with excitement and possibilities. She stops by to show mom the new outfit that she bought for the interview.

What did Sophie want to hear? “Congratulations, Sophie! You deserve this opportunity and I’m sure that you will do well. And you look so professional and confident in this beautiful outfit that anyone would want to hire you.”

What did mom say?

“That’s an awfully expensive suit to buy for a job that you don’t even have. Who are trying to impress? Are you being interviewed for president? Hard to think you’d ever get a job like that.”

Sophie explained that the suit is an investment in her future. Besides, maybe she could be company president someday if only she’d get a little support from her family!

As she left in tears, it finally dawned on Sophie that she’s been through this scene before.

When Sophie relives the story of her unhappy visit with her friend Martine, she concludes, “Why does this keep happening?”

Martine: “What did you think would happen?”

“All I want is a little support. Some encouragement and recognition. Is that too much to ask of your mother?”

“I know that’s what you want. But what did you think your mother would say when you showed her your new suit and told her about the interview?”

Sophie sighed. What happened wasn’t unexpected; it was completely predictable. She had set a trap for herself and walked right into it.

When Sophie makes herself vulnerable by asking for approval, mom puts her down, seeming to take delight in pointing out Sophie’s flaws and insecurities. Sophie loses confidence and withdraws, thinking, “Why bother? I won’t succeed.”

Sophie has a rigid belief that her mother should support and encourage her. Experience tells her that doesn’t happen. You can make a value judgment if you want (“What a terrible mother,” for example), but it doesn’t change the reality.

Finally, Sophie’s realizing that she doesn’t want to do this anymore. What can she do?

She knows how mom responds. If that’s not the response Sophie wants, then she has the power—the choice—to not invite it.

If Sophie doesn’t want to hear that she’s getting too big for her britches, she needn’t invite it by talking about her dreams. If she feels afraid, she doesn’t have to expose her vulnerabilities to mom. If she knows mom will disapprove of her actions, she doesn’t have to bring them up for discussion.

Sophie has some control—she can choose what topics to discuss and what to avoid.

Sophie knows that she needs support and encouragement from somewhere. It would be nice if it came from mom. But, it doesn’t. Sophie can choose to seek out the support she needs elsewhere: friends, people she works with, or groups who share her interests and values.

We may have a fixed belief about what people “should” do, yet there’s no rule that says mom (or dad or family) will support you.

Do you set traps for yourself? If they result in hurt or dissatisfaction, is it worth trying something different?

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