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posted: 5/20/2014 5:01 AM

You can be kind even if your mother can't

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Q. I have no bond with my mother, and never have, including as an infant. She is self-centered, probably has narcissistic personality disorder, and makes herself look good by spinning partial truths to make other people look bad. Her usual target over the years has been me (yes, this is relevant).

I belong to an organization that holds an event over Fourth of July weekend in a different city every year. This is the first year I'm able to go because it's in my area of the country. I've had these plans for a year, and have been getting more and more excited to combine my first vacation ever with this event.

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My brother emailed to inform me that my mother's 70th birthday celebration was all figured out July 5 for 25 people at $40 per person and that because he understands my financial difficulties, he and our other brother were prepared to cover the cost.

I'm insulted that I wasn't consulted regarding an event they're suggesting I might "co-host," but I'm trying to let that go. My real issue: Am I now obligated to cancel my only vacation, ever, to attend? If I go, I will be resentful (obviously). If I don't go, it is fodder for family gossip about what a terrible daughter I am. It looks to me like a lose-lose situation.

M.

A. I can see how you'd think that, after a lifetime as the preferred target of a dysfunctional family.

But please trust this: People accustomed to being treated with respect would respond immediately to that email with: "Geez wish you'd run the date by me first! I'll be on a vacation that weekend that I planned a year ago. If you change the date, I'm in."

The only "lose" in that scenario would be the disappointment of having to miss a celebration you care about not the terror of poking wasp nests with a stick.

I suggest you respond to your brother with those words anyway, as if you are a valued equal in a healthy family. Why? Because your mother's problems confer no obligation on you to make them your problems, too. You get to live as any other independent adult does. If that whips Mama into a frenzy, then figure out the radius of her frenzy's reach and step calmly, decisively outside it.

You may still see this as a notch in the loss column. As long as you're prepared to withstand the fallout, though, I actually see it as a win, because it says to your mother and anyone who's still in her sway, "Breaking news: I'm beyond the reach of your powers."

That fallout won't be fun; on the contrary. The first time a controlling person notices that she's losing control, the punishment is usually swift and merciless.

It only works, though, if you keep caring what she says about you. I know, I know it's very hard work to get there. But you know she's a bad egg. It's within your power to upgrade that from intellectual awareness to core, life-guiding conviction.

As you weigh whether you're ready to fight this battle, please consider the alternative: Remaining, alone and underarmed, in the losing battle for your mother's acceptance. Maybe she can't be kind to you, but you can.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

© 2014 The Washington Post

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