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, 2020 at 10:11

7 Answers 7


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.

  • 1
    Thank you for your comment. I found that really helpful. Apr 10, 2020 at 5:28

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.

  • 1
    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your perspective. Apr 10, 2020 at 4:51

It's good, good householder to make services, help, support... ones parents, based on deep respect and gratitude a child owes toward them. It's on the other side not good to take on an equal or even higher position in an relation as child as often children take on parents role which is fatal. It's a matter of respect to listen and lend ear, at least outwardly, but your mothers issues with her relations are her, not good householders. Good if one has possibilities to encourage toward increase of virtue, generosity,... wisdom, but in ways of a child and not that of a parent or teacher at the right occasion. In no way it's good to play a role as active mediator between mother and her relations, even in regard of ones father. That's all their business at least, not ones own. One just takes care of fulfilling duties of each personal relation one has. The sets of duties as well as other detail are already linked to the source of goodness in other answers, as far as seen.

Compassion, real one, not desire and attachment by making others ones own, is something that needs to be learned, trained, as well the increase of the understanding that beings are heirs of there own deeds and not under ones control at all.

It's a perfect training btw. to serve one parents in good or perfect way, plenty field for insight an satipatthana after steady impoving Virtue, Generosity, conncentration by straighten ones view to right as well as go for right resolve.

Importand is, as it isn't a duty to help here but goes toward generosity if desiring so, that what ever generosity should never put higher as Virtue and also duties and serving in a relation, assistance, is actually already at the level of virtue.

[Note that this isn't dedicated for stacks, exchange, what ever world-binding trades but for escape from it's bonds]


A little personal background: my mom is Filipino, and my dad is Sinhalese (he professes to be Buddhist but is verbally, physically, and psychologically abusive). My mom is not a Buddhist but her life insights have enriched my Dhamma practice.

I see toxic people as bottles of poison or pesticide: you know they’re harmful if in contact with but you don’t have any hatred or animosity. Because that’s just what they are: bottles of poison, nothing to hate there. You just avoid any contact with it. Same approach with toxic parents: I don’t interact with them. Occasionally I get angry when I recall dad did but I counter that by:

  1. Calming myself and acknowledging that the thought of hatred arose. I know aversion (dosa/dvesha) has arisen and that I shouldn’t act on it. A mind engulfed in raga, dosa/dvesha, and moha is like a murky glass of water stirred with dust: you can only see the water clearly when the dust has settled.

  2. Acknowledging the thought is impermanent. I don’t reject the thought as it arises because it adds to the stress. I merely observe it BUT don’t act on it. The thought arose, sustains, and will eventually die.

  3. Radiate metta (friendliness, not necessarily compassion) to the person because they:

(a) have unresolved issues and are victims of previous abuse and weren’t aware of that when they did those same things to me;

(b) there is no person as such to ‘hate’ because the so-called person is a constantly-changing entity composed of constantly-changing matter (rupa) and non-matter (vedana, sanna, sankhara, vinnana). There is nothing to like or dislike in something that is constantly changing. The hatred doesn’t go overnight but if you practice, it will erode over time.

So if at first I was hateful of the toxic parent, now I acknowledge they’re toxic but with less aversion. Its not good to harbor thoughts of hatred because they harm you, in the short and long run. I can acknowledge that a person is abusive but at the same time have metta for them because they’re harming themselves. And it also does not mean I have to embrace them again, unless they’ve genuinely changed; and if they haven’t changed, they’ll just hurt/harm you again and you become an enabler for their bad actions. “Loving the tiger from a distance”

Forgiving toxic people does not mean rekindling a relationship with them: it’s about you healing from the past and rewiring how you perceive them and what they did. Knowing they’re toxic doesn’t mean you’re hating them: you’re just acknowledging they’re toxic and that they aren’t helpful to you. Bottles of poison

Dosa/dvesa (aversion) doesn’t go away overnight and takes diligent practice. Its not easy to practice these but its not impossible (if Buddhas and Arahats uprooted their aversion, why not I too). As much as possible, I don’t intellectualize my practice because it hinders the practice. Over time I understand the deeper meanings of some Pali terms because of my practice, so I know I’ll be fine as long as I keep steadfast on this Dhamma path. The point of Dhamma practice is to avoid and uproot raga, dosa/dvesha, moha. The Buddha laid out the path/practice but everyone treads it according to their own capacity.

Hope this helps, fellow wayfarers

  • Excellent answer. Clear and concise.
    – user17652
    Feb 25, 2021 at 20:55
  • Thank you NeuroMax 🙏🏾 Feb 27, 2021 at 3:07

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 ~~


This is such a difficult situation. It's good that you know you need boundaries. It's great to show compassion, but it can be difficult not to let these interactions harm you. I would recommend practicing some loving-kindness (metta) meditation for your mother, then after you've done that for some time, try talking to her about how YOU feel when listening to her problems.


As you grow gradually, there are many things yet to learn. And inculcate into your practices. There is also the matter of culture to take into considération. It is not easy for a Westerner to understand advice from an Easterner and vice versa - our ways of life are very different.

Buddhism is a path to discover the self. You can not change others, only yourself.. In discovering your self, you light one more candle in the darkness of the world. In other words, you bring light to the darkness around you.

This involves many things.

First, your mother is who she is, and you cannot change her. A seed grows into a tree, and not the other way around. Your mother is a tree, she can not be un-grown, just because you would want her to change. This means, you will have to accept her. Without hating her or using labels on her. Where there is anger or hatred or judgement of others, or calling others names (like narcissist), Buddhism teaches us to look at the source of that anger - within ourselves.

While you hate (or dislike) someone, you can not love them or have compassion for them, and it will tear you apart to be kind to them.

A buddhist practice to learn then, is how do we deal with our anger? Our hatred? How do we deal with our need to judge others??? How do we let go of our hurt? Do we want to...?

2.) Suffering. Buddha teaches us that to live is to suffer. Life is suffering. In other words, you can not take away anyone's suffering. Not even yours.

But you can help others. Not with pride or hatred or drawing boundaries out of self preservation, but with humility and service.

A good first step is to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness for her, and forgiveness for you. When you achieve this she will not be able to hurt you anymore. In any way. And then the door of compassion and kindness will open...

Another good step is to banish hurtful words from your vocabulary. Like "narcissistic". Thoughts are very powerful things. And our words are a product of our thoughts. Cleaning up our words/language has a profound effect on the inner us...

While you have not forgiven her (or yourself), while you feel she is a narcissist, while you can not yet stoop low in humility (service), letting go of pride and hurt, you can not really alleviate her suffering in any meaningful way.

In setting foot upon the path of Buddhism, one is supposedly setting foot on the path of releasing the vices, and embracing virtues.

Setting boundaries is a quick-fix bandaid.. Yes, the wall will keep unwanted influences out, but it will also keep all the nasty things in, and perhaps push them in deeper into our psyche. Buddhists believe in reincarnation... Why build a wall and build the shit up, life after life...?

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