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I hope you are all well.

I have been studying Buddhism for a few months and I am very grateful for the teachings. I've visited this website frequently for similar questions and this is the first time I am reaching out to this community.

Since bringing Buddhist practices into my life, my relationships have improved, especially with my mother. However, I am finding it difficult to navigate what would be the most helpful or skilful actions for myself and my mother during the suffering she is experiencing at the moment. A bit of background on my mother: she has narcissistic tendencies and since my childhood, has leaned on my siblings and I for her emotional needs especially in times of suffering.

I am now 20 years old and the relationship we share I feel is much healthier than even a year ago, as I struggled to understand my own suffering and suffering of others before I began studying Buddhism. My mother is in the midst of a break up with her ex-fiancé and I am the only one she has shared this with in our family unit (I live with her and my younger sibling who is 17 years old). While sharing with me her feelings about this and having my shoulder to lean on, she began sharing things she dislikes about my father and his family (ex-fiancé and my father are different people).

I understand the importance of boundaries and I am not sure how to lend a compassionate ear for her during this time while communicating that I cannot be a therapist for her. I recognise that everyone is in care of their own suffering and that it is not your responsibility to alleviate the suffering of someone else, only they can do that. I would like to share compassion with her in a healthy way for both of us as our past had no boundaries, and I had felt that her emotions were my responsibility.

In other words, I want to do what I can to support her during her suffering in the most healthy and skilful way for both of us. How would one go about this? I appreciate all comments and advice and I'm happy to go into more detail if you would like. Thanks for reading.

  • Unless you only want answers informed by Buddhism, you might ask this question at Parenting.SE – ChrisW Apr 11 at 10:11
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There is affective empathy - feeling what the another is going through, and cognitive empathy - understanding what another is going through.

The former weighs you down and offers solace but no solutions, the latter is (a sometimes seemingly cold) 'What happened? Where are you now and do you want to be there? How do you move from here (if you want to)'.

If your mother can answer those questions with respect to her problems, herself, then she has everything she needs to, to get out of those problems. (she may want more than that from you, but that is in short, craving, and won't help her towards her goals)

If she doesn't, she needs to find those answers, by herself or with the help of others.

I think the Buddhist way to say it is have compassion - feel for, but not with the other. Offer your notion of solutions, but don't carry her burden.

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    Thank you for your comment. I found that really helpful. – brocollizip Apr 10 at 5:28
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I cannot be a therapist for her.

Why not? A professional secular therapist is trained to be client-centred. It is mostly about: (i) listening; (ii) acknowledging; (iii) when the time is right, asking the client about how they feel and what might possibly be their reasons for feeling that way; & (iv), when the time is right, asking the client what options or solutions they have considered to resolve their situation.

If fact, my sister just phoned me now about our mother, who we consider also has narcissistic tendencies, thus is very difficult to help. With our mother, she has so much pride, stubbornness & 'saving face'. I was saying how I wish our mother could communicate with me better. To be able to communicate more intimately with our mothers I think is a good thing. (My mother is 82 years old).

But you are 20 years old thus this could be more challenging for you. When I was 20 years old, I personally was 'clueless'. However, I am much older now and I have counselled or carried a few ladies through their dark times. I am confident in doing this because i have some experience.

I recognise that everyone is in care of their own suffering and that you cannot alleviate the suffering of someone else, only they can do that.

The Buddha never taught all individuals will be able to alleviate suffering. Most people rely on the companionship of others. These people, the Buddha called "puthujjana' or 'ordinary people' and 'householders'.

I would like to give compassion to her but I'm not sure how to go about that in a healthy way for both of us as our past had no boundaries, and I had felt that her emotions were my responsibility.

Her emotions are not your responsibility however you can offer to listen to her and to support her. While you are only 20 years old and may feel burdened by such a situation & responsibility, your mother probably sacrificed much for you; thus your time to support her may have come too early for you. But the Buddha taught, as children, we must support our parents, when they are in need, as they supported us, when we were children in need of love & care.

While sharing with me her feelings about this and having my shoulder to lean on, I recognised the suffering she is experiencing is tied with a struggle with her identity and past relationships (my father).

The above is to be expected. When a woman has a husband with whom she has children with, often this family unit is a strong source of identity. Keep in mind, mother carried each child for nine months in her womb & then birthed them. If a mother did not have such identity, she could neglect the welfare of her children/offspring. Thus, in Buddhism, it is right view to understand there exists 'mother & father' for the maintenance of human life. This is why divorce causes confusion & suffering for many.

My mother is in the midst of a break up with her ex-fiancé

As I inferred above, often, it can be difficult for a woman/wife/mother to feel comfortable marrying again. Often, they attempt to marry again due to loneliness & insecurity, which is not really the right reason to get married. Therefore, if your mother feels insecure in her aloneness, knowing you will be there for her to support her can make her feel more comfortable.

As said, we should not really have the expectation she can be like a Buddhist nun and get enlightened. Generally, certain individuals are born with a capacity for self-reliance and it is only these fewer individuals who can walk the Buddha's Path.

I am not sure how to lend a compassionate ear for her during this time

It is difficult & frustrating to listen to people's problems if you don't understand any solutions to such problems. In this situation, the listener can also feel lost & particularly burdened.

The Buddha taught about marriage and the mutual qualities two people should ideally share for a lasting marriage. If your mother feels insecure, desperate or humiliated (lacking in self-image; self-esteem) due to not being married, it can be helpful to understand what the Buddha taught about finding a suitable partner. Having such knowledge can overcome the feeling of being burdened when listening to the suffering & confusion of another. If the listener can remain unconfused, then the listener can also feel unburdened.

Such advice about marriage can be found in the following teachings:

Understanding/comprehending the above teachings can not only help a person find a suitable compatible marriage partner but can also help a person understand the reasons why their (past) unsuccessful marriage went wrong.

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    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your perspective. – brocollizip Apr 10 at 4:51
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I want to do what I can to support her during her suffering in the most healthy and skilful way for both of us. How would one go about this?

Obviously there's no quick and easy answer for this. But notice the advice the Buddha gave so that you have a direction toward whatever approach you choose to help with the situation:

"I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother & father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder & your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, & rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate & urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. If you were to establish your mother & father in absolute sovereignty over this great earth, abounding in the seven treasures, you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. Why is that? Mother & father do much for their children. They care for them, they nourish them, they introduce them to this world. But anyone who rouses his unbelieving mother & father, settles & establishes them in conviction; rouses his unvirtuous mother & father, settles & establishes them in virtue; rouses his stingy mother & father, settles & establishes them in generosity; rouses his foolish mother & father, settles & establishes them in discernment: To this extent one pays & repays one's mother & father." ~~ AN 2.31 ~~

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