Dear Lauren,

I am a typical teenaged girl who has an even more typical mother. She has certain aspirations for me that are unfeasible. While she was always Head of Play in her high school, I chose to work backstage. While she was Student Council President, I was "only" Head of School Spirit Day. When I recently didn't get into her definition of "a top university" (that she went to, of course), her disappointment was obvious.

I work really hard in school and get really good grades, do lots of community work, and have many friends. You would think a mother would be proud of that kind of daughter. Yet every time my life deviates from hers, we run into issues. All past conflicts come up. She tells me that she’s not disappointed in me, that she’s really proud of me. But she keeps reminding me of past "failures". It ruins my self esteem and self confidence. I chew over her words until I actually feel like a failure. She tells me my school doesn't recognize how awesome I am because they aren't putting me in the limelight... And I point out that they picked me to give a school-wide speech, and I was one of four girls who got an 11th grade honor...

But it doesn't help. Recently, she started a new project: making sure I'm valedictorian. I tell her time and time again not to expect anything. She says “Okay,” but never really gives up. Starting last week, instead of calling me by my name, she calls me “Valedictorian”. This is getting to be too much to bear. I feel I will never be good enough for her.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

First of all, it sounds to me like your mother has different expectations from you and from your life than you do. If you both wanted the things that she wants for you, you wouldn’t have this conflict with her. Second of all, I do think that her expectations for you sound pretty unhealthy, and you might keep that in mind when she makes you feel not good enough, or like a failure. It seems to me that she wants you to be “in the limelight” and in all sorts of situations which give external accolades, probably because she does not feel secure just in being who she is, and she’s transferring those feelings onto you and your life.

The challenge for you will be for you to feel secure enough just in being who you are, and resisting her need for you to receive public honor.

I was thinking about your question over Shabbat, and it occurred to me that the message of Shabbat – which God commands us to keep once a week, every week – is to not need to “do” anything to deserve God’s love. On Shabbat, we are forbidden to do any creative work. We have to just be. The message of Shabbat is that God loves us just because we are. Just because we are us, God loves us and takes care of us.

I think contemplating your immense worth just in being you, without accomplishing or receiving honors, would help you stay centered when your mother’s expectations start to bring you down. An ideal time to really experience your value and worth just by being you would be on Shabbat. If you don’t keep Shabbat yet, maybe it’s time to give it a try, so you can experience the joy of God loving you when you are “just being.” Keeping it every week would give you lots of practice in recognizing your worth just because you are you.

Also, you said you reminded your mother about the times you did receive public honor. I wouldn’t feed her unhealthy need for you to get those accolades. I would, instead, explain to her lovingly: “Mom, I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I don’t feel the need to be on the stage. Being backstage makes me happy. I don’t feel the need to attend the university you did; I’m happy going to the one I chose. Don’t worry about my happiness, because I am happy.” She might be pushing you to accomplish, accomplish, accomplish because that’s the only way she’s ever experienced “happiness” in her life. But if you reassure her that “Ah, no, honey, I’m good” just the way you are, it might help her take the pressure off you.

If she says, “You think you’re happy. But you’ll be so much happier if you try harder, etc., etc…” then I would tell her, lovingly: “Mom, I really like my life and my accomplishments just the way they are. I don’t feel the need to do more than I’m already doing. How can I make you feel better about the choices that I’ve made?” I think if you explain to her that you like your life this way, she might understand your choices and leave you alone. It also might give her pause to consider why she’s demanding so much more from you than you want to give.

Alternatively, you could go to a therapist together to have a third party help you help your mother understand what she’s doing to you, and maybe even get insight into why she’s doing it.

Over Passover, many of my clients were with their families. One particularly gifted woman, who runs a successful business, has many children, and runs her home beautifully, was reduced to tears over the holiday. She makes many holiday and Sabbath meals, and knows how to organize her guests and children and husband to help her set up, clean up, cook the food, serve the food, etc. But this Passover, her father was visiting, and he berated her for her “inefficient” way of cleaning up after the holiday meal. Like I said, she was reduced to tears. In session, when we discussed the incident, she said, “I don’t understand. Does he not see that I’m a capable, mature, successful woman? I run a business! I run a family! Why would he berate me for how I clean up?”

We talked about her shoring herself up, reminding herself how capable she is, so that when her father does that next time, she can think to herself, “Hm. He has an interesting point. Hm. Do I agree with his assessment? Hm.” And dispassionately deciding whether she can learn from his “constructive” criticism, or whether she thinks she’s doing alright the way she is. Her having enough self-confidence to not get all tied up in knots when her father criticizes her is her ticket to a tear-free holiday next time.

It doesn’t sound like your mother has that kind of self-confidence (hence her nervousness for you to get public honor), but because you were insightful enough to ask this question, I think you might have enough self-confidence and enough self-awareness to calmly and rationally consider what your mother has suggested, and decide whether you want to follow the path she is suggesting for you, or whether you’re okay with the path you yourself have chosen.

In my opinion, you’re smart enough and capable enough to shore up your own self-confidence, so you will be able to bear your mother’s unreasonable expectations.