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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mom won’t stop talking about brother in rehab

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn:

My adult brother is in rehab for the second time in two years. My mother is understandably upset and wants to talk about it every day. She is in her 70s and hasn’t told many of her friends.

I have encouraged her to go to Al-Anon or talk to a counselor, but she keeps putting it off. We don’t live in the same city but we have talked almost every day for the last two weeks, plus my dad wants to talk about it every other day or so. Every time I talk to my mom she is crying and wants to hash out all of the details again and again.

I am tired of talking about it and it must be showing. Mom got upset with me yesterday because she doesn’t feel like I am being supportive and can’t talk as often as she would like. I work, have two elementary school-age children, and my husband’s parents are having some medical challenges … so I don’t feel like I have any more time to give.

How do I explain this to my very needy mom without sounding so cold? I know it is her son and she is really sad but so am I. Ahhh … feeling overwhelmed.

– Struggling With Mom Who Is Struggling

I suggest you to go to Al-Anon, talk to a counselor or read up on adult children of alcoholics, and here’s why.

Your mom is upset with you because, to her mind, you’re keeping her from talking “as often as she would like.” That is codependency: She sees it as your job to serve her need.

How much your mom wants to talk is her responsibility, and she’s making it yours, and so far you’re letting her: You’re listing reasons to justify not talking to her more often when in fact it’s your time, your judgment, your emotions, and you owe no one justification for your choices. “I don’t want to talk about this” is enough. A kinder version for Mom: “You’re right, Mom, I can’t/won’t talk as much as you’d like. That’s why I suggest therapy or Al-Anon. I’ll gladly help you get started.”

Then: no negotiating, no discussions beyond your limits, no guilt.

While it’s your brother who is in rehab, your family as a whole bears hallmarks of boundary problems and codependency, which aren’t just eye-roll-trigger words for skeptics of mental-health care and its vocabulary. They’re also struggles commonly found alongside addiction. To better help your brother, mother and yourself, start by understanding the emotional dynamics better with the help of a qualified guide.

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Dear Carolyn:

Is there a way to stop unsolicited advice from a particular friend? If I say, “I’m going shopping for ‘Brand A’ bird seed,” she’ll say, “You should get Brand X, that’s what attracts the most cardinals.” I reply, “Well, I plan to get Brand A, that’s what I got last time and that’s what I’m getting this time.” But I don’t want to have to defend my choices.

This does, truly, happen all the time. Even if I mention that I made a good omelet, I’m told I should’ve added this, that or the other and it would’ve been better.

In my mind, I’m being criticized, and she’s saying her way is better, and my way is not good enough. I do try to tell myself she’s just eager to share what works for her, but it still bugs me. I wasn’t asking for her input, I was just sharing. Since it irritates me so much, what can I do or say?

– Doesn’t Want Advice

Don’ts first: Don’t bother with the mental calisthenics required to view her advice as an act of generosity. She is saying her way is better – or, more accurately, she’s satisfying her own need to feel useful and important. Who tries to improve an omelet after it has been eaten?

And you don’t “have to defend” your choices. Unsolicited advice can be annoying, pushy, presumptuous, well-meaning, accidentally useful, and many other things, but it is never an obligation.

You’re not even obligated to respond. Try it sometime. She says, “Your omelet would be even better with Brand X birdseed in it,” and then you say, “.”

It takes steelier nerves than you might think, but I bet it would make for an interesting exercise, especially given that your reflex is to defend, defend, defend.

In that reflex, by the way, lies your solution – to your own need to justify yourself, of which the pushy-friend problem is only a symptom. You see such unasked-for advice as a comment about you, but it’s really about the adviser herself – which you’ll see as soon as you override the impulse to justify yourself to her.

Instead, respond to unwelcome suggestions with a bright, “Interesting, thanks!” – and with no intention of changing your ways. Defending yourself completes your friend’s ego-boosting transaction; kindly brushing her off, even if she pushes back, stops it cold.

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