19

(and never will be)

I'm on the autism spectrum and often feel overwhelmingly fatigued and tired. My mother, on the other hand, has a lot of energy and is always doing a million things.

From time to time, my mother will complain that:

You never do anything with me!

(she might also complain that I never do anything in general).

Even if I'm not doing a lot with her, I find her saying I don't do anything with her to be wrong, since I still do some things with her.

I recently spent a week with her and we were going out and doing things together (we did pottery, went for hikes, went zip lining, etc...). I know she wishes I had done more, but with my constant fatigue, this was already a lot.

I find it heartbreaking that she can't see how draining all of this is for me. It makes me feel small, like I'm not enough and just "not fit for life" (nb: I also have depression issues).

Whenever she complains that I don't do enough, I feel like she is downplaying my efforts and "pushing my head under the water".

So, how can I talk about these feelings with my mother so that she will understand my limits and stop belittling the effort I do put in?


I already tried to tell her "this is not true" when she complains about me "not doing anything with her", but it doesn't seem to work.

I also tried to explain how I was already doing a lot given the circumstances (eg: my overwhelming fatigue) but she keeps implying that I should do more.

I have never tried to talk to her about how all of this makes me feel (because we don't really talk about feelings in my family), but I'm open to the idea (I just don't know how).

I don't want to start a conflict over "who hurts the other the most" which is something that often happens in those kinds of "conversations".


Note and clarifications

  • I'm currently living on my own

  • I see my mother a little less than once a month

  • I speak on the phone with my mother several times a week (two or three times). She is almost always the one calling

  • I live about 4 hours away from my mother

  • I feel like the title needs an edit... it says "... I'm not enough" but "enough what"? Good enough? Hard working enough? I think it needs some finishing word or phrase there. – DaveG Nov 13 '19 at 13:42
  • @DaveG I'm not a well functionning human being enough – Ælis Nov 13 '19 at 13:43
  • 1
    Hello network visitors! Please note that IPS is fairly strict about using comments as intended. Comments are only for clarifying and improving the question. Partial answers or general thoughts about the situation may be deleted without notice. If you'd like to write an answer, make sure to check out our posts on How do I write a good answer? and citation expectations first. Thanks! – avazula Nov 14 '19 at 10:45
  • Are you sure your mom isn't ADD or ADHD? That is going to make it even more difficult if she is... – Nelson Nov 15 '19 at 2:48
20
+100

I didn't have this exact issue with my mom, but I have had the need to have difficult conversations with her about certain things she did and how they made me feel that it seemed like she was totally unaware of, just like in your case.

Also I have taken some courses on negotiation and handling difficult conversations.

In my family we don't talk feelings either, but sometimes is important and you would be surprised of the healing factor and how a relationship can grow closer. It is like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders. If handled correctly and with the right people. Your mom obviously loves you, even if she is a bit smothering, but if she didn't I wouldn't bother, because it could be counter-productive.

This is what I did, I didn't write anything in advance, but I kept things in my memory. I would advice you to write everything down, in the heat of the moment you forget things.

Step 1, prepare:

  • First remember your mom loves you. Sometimes it may be hard to see, and she may not show it as she should, but she is human, and she is not perfect. It helps thinking that if she just would understand what she is doing to you, she would probably stop, because she loves you. Also it helps you feel less hurt and mad. Think of the things that she does for you, and how she always wants to be in contact and how she calls you, etc.
  • Second, list things you did with her and write them down. Just to have proof. Like you spent a week with her doing all those things, etc.
  • Understand yourself. Like why do you feel this tired? Because of the Autism, or because you are an introvert, or just because she has so much energy. I know you know, but it helps knowing in a more generic way that doesn't only apply to you. For example if it is because you are introvert you can read articles like this. If it is because your autism you can read articles like this or this. You can probably find better ones. From there gather facts, and statistics, try to remember research and possible consequences if things get worse (like Autistic burnout).
  • Understand your mom. Now this may seem counter-intuitive, but as I said, first you need to remember that she loves you, that way there is no anger when you are doing this. Anger clouds our judgment. But you also need to understand her in general. Someone may read a ton of articles about autism, and know a lot of people with the syndrome, but if you don't have autism, you will truly never understand how it is like. She probably feels that she is helping you by pushing you. Because she knows how tired you get, and probably understands about the depression too. Most likely, her reasoning is something like "if I let my child alone they will get worse and worse, I have to help her". So she drives you to the breaking point, pushing and pushing. Make a list of things that you think she is doing for you. Also even if she is saying "you don't never do anything with me" is a form of emotional blackmail to try to get you do things, she probably sees that as a white lie.
  • You said that basically you never call her, she does the calling. Why don't you call her? Is it because each time she talks to you she does this guilt trip? Or are there some other reason? This point probably goes along the previous one, but I wanted to detail it more. Try to imagine how she feels, it is like you do things with your mom just when she asks. You may be even in bad mood when you are doing those things. This is deeply hurtful, it is like you are doing it just to make her stop annoying you, not because you love and care for her. Is that how you want to make her feel? Often you don't need to say anything to hurt someone, actions speak louder than words. In this case you are telling her you can't stand her. Just a quick note, I exaggerated a bit on the way that I phrased this, I did it to get the point home, however she probably feels neglected and like she bothers you. I think you can relate to those feelings. Take note that I am not attacking you, or blaming you.
  • Define what you exactly want out of this conversation. First, You want her to understand you, to know that you love her and that you actually like doing things with her. Second you want her to understand that you just can't do so many because of the problems you have. And Third, once she understand you, you want her to shift her behavior.
  • Don't project, what she says, is not what you do, it is a reflection of the way she thinks, so don't take things personally. It is obvious that she loves you, you are enough for her, that is why she wants to be with you. I bet she doesn't even have so much energy as it seems, she is pushing herself for you, because in her way of thinking pushing herself is a way to show she loves, and since you don't do the same, she feels like you don't love her, and that is why she says all those things to you. You need to make her see how you love.
  • List what things you do for her and with her without her prompting you?. If you do nothing. She has a bit of a point, but probably you do nothing because she pushes you so much, that there is no room for you to do things by yourself, she always asks first. If you have managed to do something with her or for her, before she said anything, list it.
  • Pick a situation where you felt tired, that she made you go. And try to analyze why you got tired. Lets say you went to pottery class. Remember the whole interaction, and write it down, and all the points where you had undue stress or anxiety, all the doubts you had that probably someone without autism wouldn't have and how you got progressively tired. Write everything down.
  • List things that are very draining for you. Like going to a class with a lot of people
  • List things that are not so draining for you. Like staying home watching a movie together.

Step 2, study and plan:

It seems silly to have to study, but this is a difficult conversation. You have gathered up to here a lot of information, you need to know it by heart, it is better if you talk, showing her the list could actually be hurtful to her.

Prepare specific sentences you are going to tell her. It is important not to be antagonizing, not to blame her, everyone is to blame, to some degree, in a long lasting relationship with problems. You could have stopped her before, she could be more understanding, etc. So why blame anyone? Blame makes people act defensive.

Try hard, really hard to not use any sentence in the form of "you did this/i love you/some positive thing, but, you do this/you make me feel this/some negative thing". Saying things in that form automatically cancels anything good you said before and makes it seem fake, if you say positive things say them, don't "but/however" them afterwards. I know this is hard, that is why you need to plan your conversation.

Don't say sentences in the form "you make me feel/do/etc". In reality short of putting a gun in your head, no one can make you do or feel anything. Plus that is a way of blaming her, which in turn will make her defensive. You do things because you feel obligated, and you feel hurt because you accept her words instead of understanding they are a projection of the way she things, not a reflection or your actions. Of course this is easier said than done, and I understand why you feel the way you do when she says those things, but in the middle of an important conversation like this, you cannot use that language.

Prepare to be blamed, most people, don't actually follow any of these advices when arguing, and even people that know these things, sometimes forget. Because it is hard, in the heat of the moment we just convey our raw feelings, later regretting what we did.

After all these preparations you have done, you probably know what she is going to blame you for and why. So you will be prepared, you need to use your empathy and understanding. How would you feel if someone did to you what she perceives you do to her. Like you never call her (yes, because she always beats you to the punch, but never the less you don't call her). List the things you think she is going to blame you for and see how you would feel if someone did those things to you, then think what would you want that person said to you. Is important that you don't blame yourself, we know that this is not black and white, you don't call not because you are evil, but because she calls first, nevertheless the final result is that you don't call, so, as you love her, you feel bad, you don't want to hurt her, you apologize and make a commitment to fix that.

The PLAN

The problem you are having with her is that she is prompty all the interactions because she has waaaay more energy than you and she always beats you to the punch and it makes it seem like you do things with her ONLY because she pushes you.

So you need to make a plan that you will offer her so she stops feeling this way and you also feel more comfortable with.

  • Calls per week: I think that you don't call her because you don't want her to push you to do things. So if she stops doing that, you will feel more inclined to call. Tell her that you will call her once a week, when you feel like it, but that she shouldn't call you more than twice. And that if she calls to tell you you don't do enough you won't call her back because it really makes you feel sad. Chose the number of calls, you know what you feel comfortable with. You can not tell her to stop calling or just to call once a week, or a month. But she needs to understand that due to your autism and such if she calls you a lot you will feel less inclined to call back, because you don't feel you have much to say. Btw you can call someone just to tell her "I love you". "How are you feeling?". Don't over think it. Also, it would be a good idea to do that, that way you shift the weight of the interaction to her. Just ask her to tell you things, you don't have to tell her much.
  • Activities per month: Use the list you wrote before to lay a plan of things you can do with her that won't drain you so much and mix in a couple of things that are more draining. You know how much you can do. This plan doesn't have to be set on stone. If she comes up with something she really wants to do, she should feel comfortable telling you, but she needs to understand you will then do less of the other things, maybe.

If your relationship with her improves, you will actually feel more inclined to do more things with her, so chances are you may do way more things with her than now.

Step 3, the conversation.

First you need to have this conversation without a bunch of people bothering you, so invite her to your house to have tea or something you guys like, non-alcoholic. Ask her to come, that you want to discuss some things with her over tea and biscuits, or something nice like that. She needs to perceive you are serious, but also that you are being nice. Simply put, you don't give cookies to someone you want to punch in the face.

Second, when she comes act normal. Say something like:

hey mom, how are you doing? how was the ride? how are you feeling?

Whatever is natural for you and your mom and lead her to your living room or comfortable place you decided you will have the conversation in.

Third, sit facing her, it is better if there are no objects between the two of you, so you can reach your hand and touch her if it appropriate. You need to look at her in the eye, and you need her to look at you.

Set the tone, here it is important that she doesn't run away or starts interrupting you while you talk, so you tell her something like, you could hold her hand while you say this, but make sure to look at her in the eyes:

Mom, I need to tell you something important. I have been thinking a lot about this and I need you to hear me out. I need you to hear me till the end, and then we can discuss, but hear me without interrupting me because this is really hard for me.

She should agree, and you now have to start.

Tell her you love her and like spending time with her and doing things with her.

Mom, I love you, and I like doing things with you, I really do. I don't know how you have so much energy, it is like you never tire. I wish I could have so much energy like you and we could do more things together.

She may try to interrupt, saying like "she does get tired". Or such, I actually want you to say that specific thing, because she probably tires, and making her acknowledge that will set her in your realm, she understands tiredness.

It is killing me to think that you feel that I don't care for you, that I don't want to spend time with you and do more things in general. It makes me really sad, and I have cried many a day because of this.

Also if you didn't cry about this, don't say that, say you have been worrying endlessly, or whatever fits better. It is OK if you cry, don't hide, at this moment it is important that she sees what her actions are doing, if you hide, she won't see.

Mom, I need you to understand me. I have autism/I am an introvert, this causes me to get tired more easily than others. If you don't believe me, there are plenty of studies that show why this happens.

I don't know if you are an introvert, but if you are it helps to mention it, besides the autism. You can explain more about the studies here, but I wouldn't, just yet.

But if you don't believe me, let me tell you how it feels sometimes for me something that for you seem so fun. Now in the first part, the prepare part, I told you to pick a situation, like the pottery class, and detail everything that happened that made you feel tired, or stressed our anxious. This is the moment to tell her.

For example, the other time we went to pottery class, I really enjoyed that, I like learning things, and I liked the things we did. Do you remember how tired I was afterwards? Well let me tell you why....

Here you detail exactly everything. When the teacher did this, I thought this, when X person said this I felt this. The more detail you can gather the more she will understand.

Afterwards I was exhausted, I need a couple of hours alone to recharge, at the very least. I can't expose myself to those situations so frequently, that is why I don't do so many things with you or in general.

Well you may need more than a couple of hours, detail what you actually need to recover. Here you can mention, how you have read about this, and things you can do about it. But like basically, in the case of introverts they just need to be alone. If it is just the autism, I assume you need time without all the extra stimuli.

If I push myself too many times, I get so drained that it gets me really down. That is why I don't always accept. Otherwise it becomes a vicious cycle.

I think up to there you would have exposed the situation pretty well. Now drive the point home.

Mom when you say I never do anything with you, I feel I am not good enough for you. I try so hard, and I get so tired, I feel so useless. I am sorry I am like this, I didn't chose to have autism, and it is hard, I don't want you to feel I don't love you. Because I DO, and I like doing things with you and I don't want you to feel neglected by me.

Now, I don't think you should feel useless, or sorry that you are the way you are. That doesn't mean you don't feel that way. I don't know exactly what negative feelings you have from these interactions, but you said you feel like you are not enough. You need to tell her exactly what you feel. Feelings are not rational, you know you are doing the best you can, and that you are not useless, it doesn't mean you don't feel like you are indeed useless or so.

Next you offer a solution to all these sadness.

Mom I know that you do what you do because you want to help me, and I really appreciate that and I want you to feel that I love you and care for you too. That is why I want you to help me with this plan.

Up to here you have been telling her all bad things, she probably feels like you think she is the worst mom in the world. She is not, you don't feel that, but she is probably thinking that, she may get defensive. If she gets defensive and interrupt like for example saying.

But I call you because you are always alone and I want you to have company

or

But If I don't invite you to do things you never do anything with me.

I am making those up, but doesn't matter what she says. It will be something like "I do this for you" or "I do this because otherwise you don't do it". So you tell her.

Mom, I know you do it for me and because you want to spend time with me. And I really appreciate it. That is why I don't want you to continue feeling like if you don't call me I won't call you or we do things only because you force. I want you to help me with this plan I made.

Now the plan, you will tell her the plan you made. The plan shouldn't be set in stone, but she should see that you want her to do things with her, and you want to call her first too, and you want to propose activities too. But she always beats you to it, so you want her to let you propose things. As I said the plan should be something you feel comfortable with.

Mom, I don't want you to feel neglected by me anymore, I want to show you that I want to spend time with you too. And I don't want to feel bad either. So, I > need you to stop telling me how I don't do things with you, because that makes it hard > for me to call you. I am afraid you are going to tell me I don't call you enough, and it makes me feel sad because I do want to talk to you, you are my mom. I don't want you to tell me anymore that I don't do things with you either, because I > like doing things with you. Please understand me, it is hard for me. I promise you I will call you more, and I will invite you to do things. And you can invite me to do things too.

Here you lay down the plan you made. You tell her what activities make you feel less tired and what activities make you feel super tired. And you tell her to wait for you too call, you promise you will call. She has to understand that if she calls you 4 times in a week, you don't feel you have so much to share so you may not call her back that week. Remember though, that you can call her to just ask what is she doing.

Also tell her to understand you when you don't have anything to share. It is the way you are, you are not trying to be mean to her.

Then you finish the explanation saying something.

Well mom, this is what I wanted to tell you. I love you, I don't want you to feel I don't. I like spending time with you and talking to you. Please, I know it is hard to understand I get extremely tired in certain situations, know that I don't do it to avoid you. Please stop telling me that I don't do anything with you, I want to feel I am enough for you. I want to feel you understand me and know that I love you. What do you think of my plan? Will you help me with it?

If she interrupts you while you tell her these things, remind her she promised to hear you out. Once you have finished, she may act defensive, just repeat the things and techniques I laid out. It is important that you both agree to a plan that makes you feel comfortable and makes her feel like you care. The fact that you made a plan will probably already make her feel that.

She may need a moment to think, take some air, don't take it personal.

Once this is done, she will probably agree. So in the future you will be implementing your plan, it will not be perfect, she will forget sometimes, you will forget sometimes. If she falls back to tell you those bad things remind her of what you talked about and the plan. Try to stick to the plan. It is important, in the long term, that you call her too, and that you propose things to do too. That is why you designed the plan, so she would back off a bit so you have room to propose things to do too. But if you don't stick to the plan she will feel neglected again. It is OK if you forget to call or to propose activities time to time, we are human, if you forget, when you remember you make amends "sorry mom I forgot, lets do this.." etc.

Situations with other human beings, can't be handled like ultimatums, you want to keep your relationship with her, that is why you need to understand where she is comming from and you want to understand you too. Basically, adjust some things, so she adjusts others. If she calls you less, it gives you more chances of you being the caller, etc.. Compromise is key. Empathy, understanding and avoiding the blaming game.


Update

I was requested some additional data in the comments. I will add it here.

There are many sites where you can find how to manage difficult conversations or how to show more empathy, but in general they deal with a bussiness settings. That is why initially I didn't share any link of that sort and instead selected 2 techniques that I believe are really important to apply in most tough conversations.

  • Avoid using but/however: it produces an antagonizing effect, since "but" is interpreted as basically cancelling everything that was said before. It feels like the other person is discounting, almost denying what you are saying. I found this article listing "but" and similar words or phrases that produce said effect. It is easy to understand if you imagine a loved one saying "I love you but....".
  • Avoid the blame game: whenever you say "you make me feel"/"you make me do", you are attacking the other person, since the other person probably didn't feel like she was making you do anything, they just asked. We don't control what other people think or feel, but we can control ourselves, so it is better to always talk in terms of "when you do X y feel Z". That way there is a correlation, but you are not blaming the other person, you are just taking charge of your feelings and communicating them to the other person. Then this person can discuss with you why you feel that way, or even consider changing what they are doing to help you stop feeling that way.

I also mentioned in comments that it is important to accept that the other person is going to make mistakes, as we will too. Everyone makes mistakes. We are trained to almost feel like we are the worst if we make mistakes; through tests in school, assesments at work, and in the general way modern culture seems to work. Even, if you think about it, making a mistake in nature, as a general rule, can have catastrophic consecuenquences. That is why, whenever someone points our mistakes to us, we feel so attacked. Making mistakes doesn't make us bad people. The problem is when we don't care if we repeat said mistakes, and we don't try to rectify them and their consequences. It is important to have this mindset in any difficult conversation.

Additional Links and resources:

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6

There are two questions here really. One is how to get your mother to stop making these exaggerated complaints that leave you feeling completely unappreciated, and the other is how to choose what things you do with your mother that give her the most benefit for your effort. I think you can pursue both of these goals by (and I know this may be surprising) agreeing with your mother's complaint.

You see, when she says

You never do anything with me!

She means

It feels like you never do anything with me!

You can't disprove this or get her to retract it. Spend no effort rebutting this complaint with a list of what you have done with her. Do not ask her to "take it back" and agree that you do things with her. Do not even tell her that it hurts you to hear the things you have done do not count.

Instead, meet her where she is. Sigh a little. Say something like "I wish I had the energy to do more with you than I do now." or "I wish I had the energy for a hike." Then in a positive and happy way, and not saying "but", go on to focus on the positive, and to ask her for ideas:

Is there something we can do together (now/today/soon) that I am up to doing?

If she makes no suggestion, or puts it back on you ("well what do you think you are up to?") recall something you enjoyed doing with her, and specifically mention the enjoyment as well as the activity:

Last week when we [thing] I had a good time. Can we do something like that again?

Mentioning things you've done together like this is not defensive, it isn't part of an argument to prove you do things, so she's less likely to push back and say that it isn't enough or doesn't count. It also reminds you that you are capable of many things. And it may lead to you and your mother doing more things together instead of arguing.

I had someone in my life who was never satisfied with what my partner and I did for her and with her. She defined her worth by what others were willing to give her, give up for her, thank her for, and so on. We could not make her happier by dancing to her tune. We could learn to enjoy the things we did with her and to turn her complaints into opportunities for her to phrase her requests more positively. We didn't engage with the complaints or try to get her to agree they were wrong. This had the pleasant effect of spending less time with these inaccurate and unfair sentences (like "you never visit".) And by giving her some control, asking her what she would like to do, we did actually improve her happiness with the things we did.

Finally, after you do something with her and enjoy it, make sure you emphasize both the enjoyment and the real work you have put into it:

Wow, what a day! I'm completely exhausted. I will need extra rest tomorrow, but this was worth it. Thanks for (bringing me, asking me, doing this with me, finding this thing to do.) I hope you've had a great day too.

Marking this moments that you do things together, pointing out your investment and effort in them, and praising her are all likely to counteract the "never do anything" story not only to her, but to yourself. You went hiking and ziplining? People without fatigue issues might not even have done that! So as you point out your successes to her (with a smile) you are also pointing them out to yourself.

Also, when you're talking to her on the phone, try to mention if you can some restrictions in your life that are not related to her. For example, if she asks what you did today,

Well [friend] wanted me to go shopping but I didn't have the energy so I stayed home and read.

or

I was going to [thing] but my joints hurt so I had to cut it short.

People who feel unappreciated often think that things are about them (you're perfectly willing to go shopping, just not with her) so reminding her that these limitations affect what you do with others as well may make her feel a little better about the times you can't do things with her.

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