Stuck Family Roles

One Connection Gem Reader writes, "What can I do as a mother if my daughter keeps seeing me in the same old ways?"  You may have a relationship in your family in which you seem to be stuck in old roles. You have done your share of personal work and really changed.  You have made amends for past behavior and committed to behaving differently and you have cultivated new relationship skills. And yet, with all this work on your side, it seems that this family member sees you in a particular role and reacts accordingly.  It's heartbreaking because you long to create a new connection with them and you long to be seen.

There is no one right thing to do to heal that relationship with your daughter or another family member, but there are some basic steps to consider.

First, there is to to surrender your attachment to that family member doing or saying something you think they should.  This is a decision point. It's important to discern for yourself if you want to invest in the relationship even if the other person doesn't make the change you would like them to make.  Taking this step usually means doing your healing work on your own. It's important to get to the point in which you can completely let it go. If you bristle at the idea of letting go of what they did, then you likely need much healing and support, before attempting to reconnect with this family member.

If you are nodding your head that you have already done this step, then you are ready for the next step.  As a part of your healing work, you likely cultivated compassion for this family member and tried to see things from their point of view.  You accessed empathy for their experience whether you communicated this verbally or not.

Now it's time to put that into action. If you have enough rapport, commit to only offering empathy whenever they share about their life. This usually means dropping whatever previous role you had with this person; mother, big sister, little brother, obedient son, etc.  Committing to only offering empathy and listening when the other person shares usually requires a lot of groundedness and resource, especially in the case of a family member. To be successful with this it's important to limit the time and frequency of your conversations so that you can have plenty of groundedness and resources available when you get together.

Giving up your old role and relationship with this person also means setting clear boundaries and offering your honesty.   For example, if in your previous relationship with this family member they criticized you while you listened and sometimes defended or corrected, you will need a new way to respond in those habitual conversations.   In the case of setting a boundary with a family member that you want to be connected to, the boundary is meant to create more connection. Boundaries that are moving towards creating more connection might sound something like this:

  • "It seems like we're starting to have that old kind of conversation. I don't want to do that with you. Can we focus on having fun?"

  • " I want to hear what you have to say, but not at my expense.   Can you tell me what you want rather than what you don't want or don't like about what I've done?"

  • "It's so painful to interact with you this way. I'm wanting to have a different relationship. Can we do something different?"

  • Comments like that don't work for me.  Don't do that.

Obviously these steps require contact.  Sometimes, though, there is a painful separation in which, it seems, the other person responds to the past with continued pain and resentment, leaving no space for the truth of the present.  In this situation, you may find yourself almost paralyzed with grief and the fear of making it worse.

In such a situation, you might keep yourself from communicating what's true for you, even if it is only in a letter.  Whether the other person reads and understands the letter or not, you will likely feel relief when you express what's true for you with vulnerability and responsibility.  This requires incredible courage and discernment. When you are fearful of making it worse, sharing what's most deeply true for you seems like the last thing you want to do.  And, when pain is present it's easy for your "honesty" to slide into subtle judgment of the other person. Writing and sending a letter, like this usually requires the support of someone who won't collude with you, but rather call you forward into standing strong in your vulnerable sharing.

Such a letter is only about you and likely contains the following parts:  

  1. The mistakes you made and how you would do it differently knowing what you know now.

  2. Compassion for the you that made those mistakes.

  3. Regret and caring for all who were impacted by your past behavior.

  4. A commitment to doing it differently.

  5. The transformation process you have gone through and the skills you have learned that makes doing it differently possible.

  6. The current values and responsibilities you choose to organize your life around (your priorities).

  7. Your grief and heartbreak at not having the connection and your desire to connect and create a new relationship with them.

Whether it seems right to send such a letter in your situation or not, the process of writing it can create access to healing and empowerment in your own life.

Lastly, it's important to stand in and communicate your respect for the other person's independence.  While you may not agree with their choices, you can still be committed to caring about them and offering support when it can be received.


If there is a family relationship that you would like to create anew, take a look at the steps below and notice if any of them call to you:

  1. Engage in your own healing work with regards to what has happened in this relationship.

  2. Surrender your attachment to what you think the other person should or shouldn't do.

  3. On your own side, stabilize a sense of empathy and compassion for yourself and for that person.

  4. For a certain amount of time, commit to only offering empathy when the other person shares an experience or aspect of their life.

  5. Set a boundary and choose a different way to interact when old unhelpful relationship dynamics come up.

  6. Communicate what's true for you about past mistakes, regret, caring, transformation, skills, new life choices, your heartbreak at the loss of connection, and your desire to connect in a new way.