Advice From the Trenches

Feeling Guilty: She had a bad relationship with her mom; how should she move on?

Dear C and Dr. B;

I lost my mom as a teen and it’s still bothering me. But it’s not because I miss her so much, or because we had such a good relationship – it’s more because we didn’t. I was really awful when I was a teenager and I feel really crappy about that. Maybe things would have gotten better when I wised up, but I was only 17 when she died. I was even badly behaved at her funeral.

All I can feel when I think of my mom is guilt and remorse. It feels like some kind of shroud I can’t shake off. I’m pretty sure it ruined my last relationship, because I just don’t feel lovable. I feel like I’m a terrible person. I don’t want some doctor to give me pills. Any other suggestions?


Dr. B says: You never got to have an adult-to-adult relationship with your mom. It’s okay to mourn the loss, but you shouldn’t feel guilt for being human. Life is unfair – when parents are the most available and have the most energy, resources and time for their teenaged children, the kids want nothing to do with them. Teens are wired to want only their peers at that stage. Your mom may have been exasperated – all parents are with their teens. But she still loved you and probably understood you were a normal adolescent. I suspect she was the same way with her parents as a teen.  

In the movie The Devil’s Arithmetic, an apathetic teenaged girl gets to switch places in time with her grandmother as a teen – in a concentration camp. The experience gives her deep perspective and teaches her to appreciate the life she has … but this is movie fantasy. In real life, we seldom gain perspective until we have our own kids. It’s time for you to put your relationship with your mom into an adult perspective, wherein you can share your life and successes with her as an equal. Otherwise you are maintaining the same child-to-adult relationship you had with her as a teen. Acting out guilt and self loathing as you are now is really no different than acting out through anger and self righteousness.  

C says: I really understand how you feel, Sadie – our last experiences with people seem to become etched indelibly in our brains. But I don’t think your problem has to do with guilt or remorse over your teen behavior anymore … I think you feel unlovable because you are acting out in a very self-centered and unlovable manner in your current life. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You are blaming it on the past. but you are looking in the wrong direction.

I hate to say it, but you need to get over yourself. We all act like idiots as teens. It has been proven through extensive research that the adolescent brain has not yet developed sufficiently to understand the impact of consequences. I confess that I myself, among other insane acts, ran away from home in the middle of winter when I was 16, with no thought in my head other than the adventure of it all. I’m surprised that my mother, who later succumbed to a heart attack at age 59, didn’t have a fatal episode right then.

You can’t change the past, but if your mom were alive now, and saw you being kind and understanding to the people in your life, and sharing love with family and friends, she would be happy. I believe that if you do those things, you will make peace with your mom. If you are walking around feeling guilty, having low self esteem and beating yourself up for being a jerk so long ago, your mom wouldn’t like it at all – so cut it out! Honor your mom and her memory by being the person you wished you’d been back then. You’ll both be happier.

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