Why am I so angry when I’m with my mother?

<span>‘Quite a few adults feel themselves regressing into sulky teenagers in the presence of their parents.’</span><span>Photograph: Sky Melody/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
‘Quite a few adults feel themselves regressing into sulky teenagers in the presence of their parents.’Photograph: Sky Melody/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The question I am angry towards my mother. I can’t remember when it started to become the norm for me to feel this way, but more and more I feel irritated, sceptical, let down and detached in her presence. I am in my early 30s and she is in her 60s.

My mother is a brilliant person. She would do anything for me or for her family. But when I’m with her I find myself numb to her issues. On the days I’m with her (I live some distance away), I feel angry and then later I feel awful, like there must be something bad about me. Growing up I was a confidante of sorts, listening to her anxieties about her relationship with Dad and how useless he is, about colleagues at work being awful to her, about her weight, about her awful childhood. Mum and Dad are still together, and I am trying to make some sort of connection with Dad now that I’m an adult.

Growing up I felt extremely protective of Mum and angry at the world for her awful treatment. As I grow older, I realise everybody has their own story and perhaps Mum’s story isn’t uniquely horrendous. With a little more life experience behind me, I have come to realise she is quite a negative person, as well as being depressed. Her anxious outlook on the world makes me feel heartbroken at times. At other times I feel angry about it. I sometimes feel guilty for being happy.

I try to keep a healthy distance to avoid these feelings, but my world view has been so shaped by hers that I struggle to maintain it or resist the urge to seek validation from her on what’s going on in my life.

Philippa’s answer You may be trying to psychologically separate from your mother. You have probably already separated from your father and now you are getting to know him, adult-to-adult, but I don’t think you’ve quite reached the stage of being two equal adults with your mother yet. You know you are an adult and yet your mother still has such an influence over you that you can feel like a child when you are with her, and you may resent that. You want to be a full adult, to think and feel for yourself without your mother’s influence, and the only way, so far, that your body has found to do this is by feeling angry. This is how teenagers do it. It’s a rite of passage.

The way our bodies usually find to separate from our parents (whom we really love), so that we can find our own tribes and beliefs, is by being angry with them. It’s a healthy separation process. The advantage of your late-onset teenage rebellion is that you have the maturity to become more aware of your process as you find your own beliefs and ways of operating in the world that differ from hers. You need your anger to achieve it, but you can lessen the acting out of your anger as you become more aware of what’s happening. Believe me, you are not alone in this – quite a few adults feel themselves regressing into sulky teenagers in the presence of their parents. It’s because we can be so close to our parents and yet also have a need for independence.

You empathise with her and so you feel her pain; you recognise that some of this pain is of her own making, so that’s frustrating for you. But when you eventually experience her as a fully separate person from you, this will feel easier. You don’t have to argue with her. And you don’t have to tell her that clinging to the victim position is tiresome and that other people aren’t so awful. And neither do you have to tell her that perhaps she indulges in a little bit of projecting her shadow side on to the world. It’s good to notice things like that because you don’t want to do those things. But they are her quirks and coping mechanisms – and as well as doing stuff like this, she is a brilliant person. We all have quirks we unknowingly pass on to our children and it is our children’s job to feel sufficiently angry about them that they can separate themselves from us.

The way she has shared her issues with you over the years may have made you feel you had to look after her, rather than it being the other way around. This role burdened you with her emotional baggage. You may have enjoyed some aspects of being her confidante, but it’s not surprising if you also feel resentful at having played that role too.

Yes, your sense of yourself is still partly tied to her approval, even though you recognise your need for independence and emotional boundaries. You feel this. You don’t want to feel it. When you have an inconvenient feeling, don’t be that feeling, but just observe it. When you talk to yourself, replace “I want her approval” to “I notice I’m wanting her approval.” It’s a very small change, but it can make a difference.

Feeling anger at parents is part of being a child, even when the child is an adult. It is a process: be kind to yourself as you go through it.

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions