Auntie SparkNotes: Meanie Mom
I have problems with my mom. She belittles me in front of others, including my friends, and even says mean stuff about me in front of people she's just met. She always tells me I need to lose weight, and take better care of my appearance. But when I try to go to the gym, she tells me not to because it's unnecessary. She contradicts herself: one day she'll say I eat too much, the next day I don't eat enough.
I'm not the only person she does this to, she does the same thing to my dad. She'll tell him he needs to lose weight, but when he tries to go to the gym she won't let him. She'll get mad at him if she thinks he doesn't eat enough food, or doesn't want a snack, or doesn't want to go out to eat because he's already eaten. She doesn't eat healthily or work out herself, but she'll go out of her way to make us feel bad about ourselves. And on top of it all, she acts likes she's the best thing that ever happened: she always talks about how great she is and how stupid other people are, and how she's so much better than our hairdresser and my friends' parents and just about anyone. My dad sees what I see too, but he never does anything about it. I've tried talking to her, but she just laughs it off. I'm so sick and tired of it all! What can I do?
Unfortunately, Sparkler, there's only one thing you can do—and it's something really, really hard.
Basically, you can get started now on the long, painful process of accepting that your mom is kind of a jerk.
Because your letter, brief as it is, paints a pretty clear picture of your mom as a particular type: a controlling, self-aggrandizing person who builds herself up by putting other people down. Which is why she belittles you in front of other people, why she boasts about her superiority, why she takes other people's expression of free will as a personal affront, and why—of course—she won't admit fault when confronted. Even the contradictory remarks—take better care of yourself... but hey, don't go to the gym! —have nothing to do with the state of your health or your body, and everything to do with your mom getting a kick out of telling you what to do.
Which means that now is a great time to step back, take a deep breath, and quietly delete your mom from the part of your headspace that governs who you are, what you do, and how you live. Lower your expectations. And whatever you do, don't make your sense of self-worth contingent upon her approval.
And from there, come up with a handful of standard responses that turn her comments from the obstacles they are now to the minor bumps in the road that they should be. In some cases, that'll mean simply smiling, nodding, and then doing whatever you'd planned to do anyway. In others, it means defusing the situation by saying, "Thanks, Mom, I'll think about that!" when she tells you you're eating too much, or politely excusing yourself (to the ladies' room, to go "check on something", etc) when she belittles you in public. (Trust me, the third party involved will see her behavior for the meanness that it is). And on the rare occasions that her demands line up with the choice you would've made anyway, put some goodwill in the bank by saying, "That's a wonderful idea, Mom. I'm going to do exactly that!"
What it comes down to: you can't change your mom, but you can change the way you react to her. You can decide how much influence to allow her over your life, knowing that she doesn't have your best interests at heart. And once you've stopped expecting her to be something she's not—humble, self-aware, sympathetic, or generous—you might even be able to build a good relationship using the parts that are actually there.
Got any experience with a boastful, belittling parent? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.