Coach Kim, I am in a very difficult family situation. My mother and her sister have a bad relationship, and my mom feels her sister is toxic and avoids her at family gatherings. I completely respect my mother’s decision; however, she expects me to also not have any relationship with my aunt. She says if I was loyal and loved her, then I wouldn’t have anything to do with my aunt either. This puts me in a hard spot because my aunt has always been kind to me. I don’t like confrontation and I don’t want to ignore her at family gatherings. It’s hard being caught in the middle, and no matter what I do no one wins. Thank you for any advice you can give.
The real question behind your question is: When forced to choose between doing what feels right to you and pleasing someone else (sacrificing yourself to make another person happy), what should you do?
This is a situation we all find ourselves in on a regular basis. It is the reason we need boundaries, or rules to protect us from our tendency to over give.
I’d like to give you a simple procedure to break these situations down and help you make the right choice. If there is another person involved in this situation, take a minute to answer the following questions:
Write down as many possible options as you can think of, then write an ego/fear-driven way to carry out each option and a trust/love way to do each option. Finally, cross out all the ego/fear-driven options.
I will take you through this process in your specific situation.
The fears in play
I think your mom has both fears in play. She is likely having a fear of loss issue because she is trying to protect herself from further mistreatment. She could also have fear of failure in play, which is saying she has to be right about her sister being the bad guy or she will feel inadequate or flawed. These fears cause her ego to step up to protect her.
Whenever we feel hurt or offended, our ego’s job is to create stories that make us feel safer. It often suggests stories that cast the other person as the villain so we can see ourselves as the victim.
Understanding the other person’s behavior as fear-driven will bring compassion into the picture. They aren’t messed up, broken or bad; they are just scared.
Ego tells us to hold onto our anger toward the other person or we won’t be safe; it keeps us in a defensive position and stubbornly insists on staying there to make us feel safe.
Understanding the other person’s behavior as fear-driven will bring compassion into the picture. They aren’t messed up, broken or bad; they are just scared. This is easy to see, too, because all bad behavior is driven by fear. (If you haven’t seen the truth around this yet, keep looking. It’s there)
When you see your mom is scared of failure and loss, you will also see what she needs: validation and reassurance. Your mom is afraid of mistreatment and afraid of being wrong. Her ego needs you to justify she is right in her anger because that would make her feel safer. If you can reassure her that she is loved, valued and safe in the world, that would help her.
It sounds like you have some fear of loss in play, as well. You don’t want to lose your relationship with your aunt and you don’t want to lose your relationship with your mom, either. You also don’t want to lose your agency and the right to choose behavior that is best for you. This is why the situation is causing you so much angst. You will feel better if you trust the universe will use this situation to bless and grow you, no matter what happens.
You also have every right to choose who you have relationships with, and your mom should honor that, but her fear and ego would feel safer if you would join her in anger. This isn’t fair, but you can understand why it happens. A sense of safety is our most foundational need as human beings. When we don’t feel safe, we are incapable of caring about others. Your mom is struggling to see your needs because fear keeps her overly focused on her own.
Ways to respond
As far as your options in this situation, I can see three (but notice that each option can be done two different ways, so really there are six):
Cross out options 1, 3, and 5 because they are fear-motivated and you shouldn’t make any decision for a fear reason.
Look over the love-motivated options and choose the one you feel the most capable to do or the one that feels right to you. Personally, I think option 2 or 6 are the best.
Executing your response
When you are ready to talk to your mom about this, start by asking her questions about how she is feeling about your aunt. Give her room to make her case and vent all her pain and fear. Do not agree or disagree, just validate her right to be where she is and feel how she feels. Tell her you can understand why she feels this way.
After she feels fully heard, ask if she would be willing to let you explain your decision on your own behavior. Ask her if she would honor your right to feel what you feel too.
Using mostly “I” statements, not “you” statements, explain to your mother that you must honor your truth and choose a love-motivated response to this situation. Explain that you love her, but you can’t reject or give a cold shoulder to other people. Having said that, you would never judge or condemn her for feeling what she is feeling. You honor and respect her right to be where she is, and you hope she can give you the same back.
Then, after you have spoken your truth and honored your own boundary, what she says, does, or thinks about you and your decision is not your problem. If she chooses to be mad at you, keep being loving toward her anyway. Do not let anyone else’s bad behavior stop you from being loving toward them. Stay consistently kind to everyone and, in the end, though her ego might be mad, she will respect your strength and maturity.
You can do this.
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.