Dear Dr. Norquist:
I’m trying so hard to be able to deal with my mother in a positive way. I was dealing with it by just staying away for the past few years. But now she is ill and needs help, and I’m her only child. My dad is there, but he can’t do it all. The problem is that I don’t know how to be around her without getting upset. She is very difficult to be around, and I know after all this time that she is just not going to change. I’d like to think that now that I am in my 40s, I’m mature enough to overlook her ways and do what I have to do to help her. But I still get so aggravated when I’m around her that I can’t even think straight. It makes me want to scream. What can I do to be able to be around her without being so aggravated?
Dr. Norquist responds:
The quickest way to cope with feeling aggravated is to learn how to settle your nervous system. This requires body awareness. When you focus your awareness on your body, one result is you are no longer caught in the whirlwind of the thoughts that are feeding your aggravation.
Focusing on body sensations also brings you into the present moment and brings you into an observer mentality. As the observer of your physiological sensations you are no longer caught in the maelstrom of the experience. In this way you can shift from feeling overwhelmed by and caught up in the aggravation and again feel your feet under you.
This “grounding” experience will give you a means of managing your aggravation. Focus on sensing how the floor beneath you is supporting you. You can even imagine that your energy can extend through the floor and into the earth, providing you much strength and stability – stability that allows you to sense that you cannot be knocked off balance by your emotions.
Another way to do this is to sense the energy coming up from the earth through your feet into your chest.
An alternative tried-and-true technique for calming yourself is to focus on your breathing. Try this first when you are alone and practice it until you can comfortably use it when around others. Start by noting your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Notice how your body feels as your chest expands and then contracts. If thoughts arise, name what your mind is doing (thinking), then return your attention to the sensations associated with breathing. Over time this practice will help you to create a state of inner calm.
You can also use your hands to help your body settle. Try resting your left hand on your chest by your heart, and your right hand on either your belly or your forehead – whichever seems the most tense. Sense the support this supplies your body, allowing it to move into a more relaxed place. Many also find it helpful to place their right hand under the left armpit, by the heart and then place the left hand over the right upper arm and shoulder.
I invite you to try out these suggestions and see which is most helpful to you. In this way you can start to build a box of tools that you can use to manage your feelings when you are around your mother. Please let me know how this works for you.
Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services