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My friend (I got her consent to ask this question here) is currently dealing with major depression and anxiety issues (she is currently on therapy and medication), which started after a messy breakup - it was one of the contributing factors, but served as a trigger.

Her mother is not aware of the problem, and my friend would like it to stay this way - she believes her mother would press her for all the details (not taking "no" for an answer), talk to other members of family about it, etc., which she probably cannot handle. However, since her not knowing about it raises another problem - she sometimes makes comments that cause my friend much distress, to the point where after such comments, she breaks down and needs to take tranquilizing medication (as per doctor's advice) and her day is pretty much ruined (example - asking "when are you going to finally find a boyfriend?", which by itself is annoying enough, but under the current circumstances is devastating). They don't live together, but have rather frequent contact, which makes those events far too common.

Of course, she does not want to cut her mother off from her life entirely, even for a brief period. And suddenly asking her not to talk about that is most likely just going to result in a series of additional painful questions. This occurred in the past (e.g. recently she needed prepare a good excuse for not drinking in a family gathering - due to antidepressant medication interaction - and, as expected, was thoroughly questioned).

Is there any good way of getting her mother to stop raising those topics in the future without risking an interaction that she might not be able to properly handle in her current vulnerable state?

  • Do they share a household with the mother? Are they of age? – Hermann Jul 1 at 22:57
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    @Hermann "They don't live together, but have rather frequent contact" – Ael Jul 2 at 7:41
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    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! – Ael Jul 2 at 9:47
  • Has she discussed this with her therapist? What did they say? – NotThatGuy Jul 2 at 13:42
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I have, myself, several mental health issues (anxiety, depression and some other stuff).

For me, talking about certain things can be really difficult and, like your friend, I will need to rest after doing so.

What I have found helps is to not talk but to write instead. Whenever I have something "delicate" to say, I do not talk. Instead, I write and then send the message via the internet.

This way, I can write the message when I am well and take all the time I need to write it. I can send the message when I am in a safe place and can read the answer only when I am mentally prepared. Furthermore, I don't have to respond to any message/follow up question right away. I can take my time, take a break from the interaction and only answer when I feel okay with it.


Several months ago, I was in the same position as your friend. My mom kept raising issues (about my health) that I did not want to talk or hear about. I struggled with those conversations for a while (I even wrote a question about it here: How to ask my mother to stop giving me unsolicited (health related) advices?) until I decided to write to her about it.

I told her that I did not want her to talk to me about health anymore. Subjects like food, sport and sleep were off-limit.

She did not took it well (in fact she took it pretty badly).

We had several heated exchanges on the subject. The ones we had by writing weren't that bad since I was able to rest and take my time between each message.

But the next time she called me, she brought up the subject of my health even though I told her not to. So I firmly reminded her of what I had told her in writing and then I hang up. I made it clear that if she were to talk about my health, I would put an end to the conversation. If we were in the phone, I would hang up. And if we were in the same physical space, I would simply walk away into a different room (or put some music on if I'm stuck in a car with her).

It's been several months now and things are a bit better (even if my mother still tends to bring up the subject from time to time). Things aren't perfect but telling here "I won't talk about this" and refusing to engage in those conversations definitively helped.


TL;DR

Your friend needs to write to her mother to tell her that topic X is off-limit.

She then needs to assert her boundaries by refusing to engage in those topics.

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    While I personally appreciate written communication I would think the core of your advice would hold without it: have the friend tell the mother (face to face or in writing) that topic X is off limits and then assert this boundary. – eff Jul 2 at 11:09
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Learn a script

I find a big part of what causes me to fall apart in that situation is being caught off-guard, being forced to figure out a response on the spot. The response you give is never "good enough", it seems to give the other person even more ammunition against you (which is not the best way to think about it; often they are just trying to help; but it's hard not to see it as an attack).

So, try to come up with a script, and stick to it. List the comments that are frequently made, write down appropriate responses, list the predictable follow-ups, and more responses. Memorise, rehearse, make it automatic.

It's hard to come up with good responses that don't antagonise; it's hard not to get stuck in a loop, you'll have to plan for that. And there are plenty of things that she wouldn't be able to say in practice. But for resolute (mind made up) rather than dismissive, ducking, or

- Why are you always so gloomy?
- It's not something I'm going to discuss
- What do you mean "It's not something I'm going to discuss"?
- I mean it's not something I'm going to discuss
- You should get a boyfriend, it'll cheer you up
- I appreciate your intentions but could we please not discuss this?
- But you're beautiful, you won't have any trouble
- Please could you respect my wishes?
- You don't trust your own mother?
- Mum, no matter how many questions you ask me, I'm not going to discuss it.
- Next time you bring this up I will say the same thing. I need to go clear my head now.

I would suggest avoiding saying something like "this topic upsets me" because that suggests that she is avoiding the problem rather than going through the pain of solving it (and it's obvious that there is a problem; you can't pretend there isn't). Some family members have an instinct to help someone in the long term although it hurts in the short term, though sometimes they just mess it up more. The more it seems like you are avoiding the problem, the harder they will push. If you can somehow acknowledge the problem and indicate you are serious about addressing it without revealing details, then that could help.

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This is my experience from the perspective of the mother:

It would probably help a lot if she told her mother that she has a hard time right now.

Wanting to keep this a secret is understandable, but might be making the situation only worse. For us "normal" people there's no reason to avoid the topic of relationships. On the contrary, it's actually a rather common smalltalk topic among family and friends.

Step 1: Tell them to avoid a topic

If you need someone to avoid an otherwise common topic, you at least need to tell them to avoid it. I have several people in my family and circle of friends that are or were dealing with times of depression, anxiety, burnout and other physical and medical conditions. I saw them change and struggle sometimes, but since I wasn't affected by the same problems, I kept on living my life as usual. I didn't know how to properly help and support them and my few attempts at well-meant advice didn't help at all or backfired.

It took some honest conversations, that were sometimes emotionally draining for both of us, to change my behavior in a way that they felt more comfortable and supported by me. Without these conversations, I francly had no chance of finding the "right" behavior on my own, because I simply cannot understand how something insignificant to me affects them so much. To this day, more than 10 years after the first diagnosis in my family, some of these rules feel artificial and outright ridicilous to me. I can remember, accept and follow them, but I will never be able to truely understand them because I cannot read the thoughts of the affected person and don't feel what they feel.

The mother of your friend cannot understand why your friend doesn't want to talk about relationships. The only chance to make her avoid the topic is to outright tell her, in no uncertain terms, to avoid it.

Step 2: Tell them why

I assume this is a big problem for your friend.

Her mother is not aware of the problem, and my friend would like it to stay this way - she believes her mother would press her for all the details (not taking "no" for an answer), talk to other members of family about it, etc.

When she tells her mother to not talk about a certain topic, the mother will certainly ask "why?". I see 2 possible ways to deal with it:

  1. Give her a vague answer and refuse any detailed information
  2. Be honest and tell her about the severity of her condition

Solution 1 could probably best be achieved by preparing one answer utilizing an I-message, like:

I need you to not talk to me about boyfriends and relationships because it hurts me too much to talk about it.

If the mother digs for more information, repeat the same answer over and over

Why?
Because I'm having a really hard time right now and talking about it hurts too much.
But why?
It just hurts. I don't want to talk about it.

In my experience, solution 2 might be better in the long run. Being in medical treatment is more severe than "a little heartbreak" and an objective proof that there is something wrong that's outside her control.

If your friend stubbed her toe and dind't want to walk, her mother would probably tell her to stop making a fuss. If her foot were in a cast because the toe was broken, the mother probably wouldn't be so insensitive. The attending doctor is something of an outside authority - they wouldn't be treating a stubbed toe or a "little heartbreak", so the fact that they are treating your friend means that her condition is severe enough to warrant professional attention.

In my family we were mostly open and supportive when discussing mental health problems and I feel like admitting and discussing their own issues actually helped affected people comming to terms with those issues. Of course, your friend knows her mother best and whether or not she would be supportive or rather gossip.

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    It should be noted that answering "why?" is talking about the subject, which you just said you don't want to do. You do not need to answer "why?" A skilled manipulator will just use your answer to ask more questions. – Gabriel Luci Jul 3 at 14:46
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I have two strategies for dealing with such unwanted questions from people I am not willing to "cut-off" (NB: I do not have the vulnerabilities to which the OP's friend is subject, so these strategies may need adaptation).

Plan A: treat the inappropriate question as a joke

Act as though the inappropriate question had not been posed in earnest, and reply either by laughing loudly (without actually giving an answer) or giving a manifestly sarcastic/nonsensical reply. If the questioner persists in asking, persist in acting as though it were a joke.

Advantages: can be good at defusing tension in a nonconfrontational manner, and allows everybody to "save face" in situations where the questioner asked in good faith, without appreciating the inappropriateness of the question

Disadvantages: if the questioner does not "take the hint" and back down, persisting in this jocular manner can be exhausting intellectually and emotionally (especially if the question involves something traumatic or triggering)... it could even make the questioner more persistent if he/she enjoys the jocular reaction (my family certainly enjoy asking me certain questions because they find my reaction funny)

Recommendation: use this strategy to handle:

  • people asking an inappropriate question in good faith for the first time;
  • people from a cultural background where the question would not have been considered inappropriate;
  • inappropriate questions from clients, customers, employers, and other persons where the relationship is professional in nature;
  • inappropriate questions posed in a professional/workplace context (e.g.: job interview; business meeting); and
  • inappropriate questions posed in large gatherings of people (not many of those at the moment, of course).

Plan B: go berserk (i.e.: get very offended and very angry)

Act as though the questioner had said/done something utterly horrific (e.g.: used a taboo word or threatened you with a knife), and reply with unrestrained anger. If the questioner persists in asking, keep shouting and screaming without restraint until a third party (or several third parties!) intervenes forcefully.

Advantages: demonstrates without ambiguity that "a red line has been crossed", giving even the most insensitive person no excuse for not realising how upsetting the inappropriate question is -- moreover, the prospect of future tantrums is usually enough to deter the inappropriate question being repeated

Disadvantages: ultimately, this can cause severe embarrassment to both sides and often leads to gossip behind the subject's back, so this strategy requires some imperviousness to feeling embarrassed -- moreover, getting angry is usually a "bad look", so the person asking the inappropriate question may try and pin the blame on the person getting angry, accusing him/her of being oversensitive or crazy

Recommendation: use this strategy to handle:

  • people who are impervious to the subtlety of Plan A;
  • people who are easily upset by shouting;
  • contexts where there is not a big audience; and
  • people who persist in asking inappropriate questions after multiple failed attempts at diplomatic strategies or Plan A.
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    Upvoted for plan B, quite effective in asserting non-violable boundaries – Vijay Jul 2 at 13:04
  • Doesn't laughing at someone or giving them a non-serious answer to a serious question usually cause them offence? Is offending people really a good idea in a professional setting? – NotThatGuy Jul 2 at 13:48
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    Downvoted for plan B. How would you expect others to respect you if you don't respect them? Would you (or the friend of the OP) like if the close relatives would break out in a fit of anger for seemingly no apparent reason? – vsz Jul 3 at 4:19
  • Hey there anon, welcome to IPS! Could you tell us about one time you used each of those plan and how the other person reacted? – Ael Jul 3 at 7:21
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    This might achieve the goal of not talking about that subject, but it will not achieve the goal of having a healthy relationship. Plan A should only be used for acquaintances - people you make small talk with but who you don't care if you ever see again. Plan B should frankly never be used. You'll just be labelled a nut job and you can easily burn bridges depending on who you do it to, who sees you do it, and who hears about it later. Ael's answer - making it clear that a subject is off limits and ending the conversation if they persist - is respectable and allows for a healthy relationship. – Gabriel Luci Jul 3 at 14:58

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