Ask Sahaj: I live with my parents and generational trauma ‘runs the house’

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Q: I’m currently living with my Dominican parents and generational trauma practically runs the house. My mom denies ever doing anything wrong, while my dad shuts down all conversations when trying to resolve an issue. Instead of fighting with my mother, who refuses to admit her faults, how can I set a boundary whenever she tries to blame me for her mistakes or issues? If so, what boundary can be placed?

– Tired of Denial

A: Instead of trying to find ways to have the same conversation with your mom, one that involves “fighting,” what if you chose something different? What if you try healing from this inherited trauma without needing your parents to accept their role in passing it down? A boundary is not about controlling someone else’s behavior. Rather, it’s about getting clarity on what you aren’t willing to tolerate and protecting your own mental health through things you can control.

You may consider verbal boundaries, like, “I feel hurt when you blame me. I can’t have this conversation if you’re going to keep saying this.” Or, “I am happy to listen but not when you blame me.” Or you may consider redirecting the conversation altogether. If verbal boundaries don’t feel culturally apt, consider setting behavioral boundaries, like stepping away, leaving the room/house or going to sleep early to remove yourself from the situation.

I will be honest, though. Parents who revert to blame, avoidance or shame often lack emotional tools to manage their internal experience and feelings. So they may double down when you try to set a boundary. You have to be radically honest about what you can expect. You can hold a mirror up to someone you love but you cannot force them to look. You want your mom to own her “wrongdoing” but unfortunately, if she doesn’t want to, she won’t, and you can’t make her.

Because you are living at home, creating emotional distance between your parents’ behaviors and your behaviors will be important. Learn how to integrate regulation strategies to manage your distress, frustration and defensiveness. This may be finding a professional to work with or having a friend – someone you feel safe and calm with – you can turn to help you co-regulate. Create and maintain routines – around sleep, exercise, nutrition, creative outlets – to take care of yourself.

Focusing on how you can show up differently in the relationship won’t stop your parents from behaving the way they do. But it can make the interactions more manageable – at least until you figure out whether there’s a bigger decision that needs to be made, like moving out. Good luck!

Q: I have a friend who lives on the other side of the country. We have long conversations two to three times a week. We have been close friends since college. I found out that she didn’t tell me about her daughter’s wedding a year ago. I was shocked and felt betrayed.

She said it was because the wedding was small and she couldn’t invite me. I care less about the invite than not being informed and her not sharing the good news. She also said it was because she was “secretive” (we share everything, or so I thought). I want to forgive her, but I am so hurt and confused. What are your thoughts, please?

– Hurt

A: You sound concerned about whether you and your friend are on the same page about your friendship. Are there other things in the friendship that feel off, unbalanced or even indicate differences in how you show up as friends? This can indicate a bigger pattern you may want to reflect on and address.

If not, there’s a lot unknown here that can make it easy for your brain to draw its own conclusions. It’s possible that the small wedding didn’t seem like that big of a deal to your friend; or it was something she didn’t want to talk about; or she didn’t want to make you feel bad. There are so many possibilities for where she was coming from and a lot of them don’t point to her actively trying to hide her life from you. That is your own speculation.

I wonder if you have explicitly shared with your friend how you actually feel, or if you are trying not to make it a big thing to avoid conflict? If you haven’t, be honest to get this out in the open in a kind, curious and vulnerable manner. Here’s a formula that may work:

First, name what you feel. This may sound like, “I want to talk to you about something, and I’m a bit nervous to bring it up.” Second, affirm the friendship. “I care about you and really value our friendship.” Then, share what you are feeling. “I totally understand your daughter wanting to have a small wedding, and I’m not upset about not being invited. However, I feel hurt that you didn’t even mention it, especially because we talk so often.” Finally, consider asking a question, or inviting your friend into the conversation: “I’d like to hear more on where you were coming from.” Or, “I guess I’m worried now that you aren’t sharing other things with me, too.”

You want to share your feelings while also letting your friend respond. You don’t want to make the assumption that because she didn’t tell you, she doesn’t care about you. This is a good opportunity to reconnect and learn more about each other’s perspectives to continue to care for each other in ways you both need.



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