Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Choose to step around, not in, the traps mother always lays
Washington, D.C.: My mother seems to delight in upsetting me. She thinks I am dramatic (which I agree with sometimes), and she will bring up topics she knows will upset me and cause a fight, but then claim she had no idea, that I am overreacting.
I would argue she did know it would upset me, but thinks that because I'm overreacting, she should not apologize for hurting my feelings. Which makes me feel like my choices are either to apologize for the fighting, or come off as sulky for avoiding her, or mean for fighting in the first place.
I can't stop talking to her and she doesn't seem to understand how much this upsets me.
Carolyn: Then stop getting upset. It really is your decision to make.
You don't have absolute proof of all elements of the dynamic, but you have a reasonable belief that:
(1) Talking to your mother is unavoidable;
(2) When you talk, she will raise topics that normally upset you . . .
(3) . . . and that she knows they upset you but raises them anyway, possibly on purpose;
(4) She disapproves, vocally, of your typical reaction to upsetting topics;
(5) She will deny responsibility for any friction/fight that ensues;
(6) Talking to her about this is not enough to change the pattern.
So when I lay this all out for you, what do you see?
I see that you can't control what your mom says to you. I see that you can control whether you talk to her, but have decided that's not something you're willing to change.
I see that these leave you one choice if you really want to fix this problem: to control the way you react. Right now, you're choosing to fight her or to sulk. Other choices include to change the subject — smoothly, theatrically ("How about those Steelers?"), absurdly, whatever works; to state without drama that you're not interested in talking about this subject (ideally followed up by changing the subject); to walk away from the conversation without rancor ("Okay, Mom, I guess we're done here — I'll give you a call tomorrow").
All of these draw clear boundaries in a way that doesn't open you to a charge of overreacting. And if she levels that charge anyway, just shrug and say "Maybe so," and then move the conversation on to something else.
In other words, your mom alone isn't creating this drama, and your contribution is just as much a choice as hers.
A common objection here is that you can't just decide not to get upset, which is true. And this is your mother after all — it's painful and difficult to do everything I'm suggesting.
But you can trace the drama to its beginnings, looking for things you can and do decide: You choose, for example, to go into these conversations expecting or just hoping that this time, Mom will "understand how much this upsets me."
Which is, well, understandable — but it's not happening. You've tried, you've argued, you've apologized. Now, decide to be realistic, and expect her to push your buttons. It's as much a grieving process as it is a decision, accepting Mom as she is. The difference is, you grieve once, vs. fighting her every time.