Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Turning Passive Into Active

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 5, 2013


Katrina, fifty-five, is tortured, by her account, by her seventy-five year old mother. She feels criticized, judged, and demeaned by every conversation, which occurs daily and Katrina initiates. In turn, Katrina treats her younger sister, Ashley, age fifty, in the same way that her mother treats her. This awareness of turning passive into active gives Katrina unbearable guilt and pain. “I feel worse than when I walked in,” she says, as if I am going to feel guilty about that, in the way that she feels guilty about how she treats Ashley. “Of course, you do,” I say, compassionately understanding that with insight can come pain and self-criticism. “When we don’t think about our behavior, when we deny our impact on others, we avoid guilt,” I say, stating the obvious, yet not obvious in the moment, that self-reflection is not always flattering. The feeling of helplessness and victimization is so paralyzing, that commonly, we, as humans, try to turn the situation around, even if that means we do what we hate is being done to us. The need to be active instead of passive trumps the need to be a compassionate person. Katrina is an empathic person, just not to Ashley, as it has been her pattern, over her lifetime, that to cope with her mother’s dismay, she attacks Ashley. Ashley, in turn, according to Katrina, has low self-esteem, and as such, has “never made much of herself,” leading Katrina feeling responsible for Ashley’s “dismal” existence. Katrina is in a difficult bind. If she accepts her behavior towards Ashley, she “cannot forgive” herself. If she acknowledges the pain her mother causes her, in a way in which she deeply understands her childhood wounds, then she fears resenting her mother, as her mother approaches the end of her life. In response to this dilemma, Katrina lapses into denial and calls her mother daily with the hope that the interaction will be positive, even though it never is. Likewise, she speaks with Ashley, hoping that Ashley will groom herself for a career, but once again, Ashley’s life does not change much. “With understanding can come forgiveness,” I say, reminding her that her bad feelings can be a journey towards repair. “It is too hard,” Katrina says, with a frustrated and unsettled tone. “Yes, it is very hard,” I say, changing the word “too” to “very” with the hope that this important distinction can start her on this challenging climb out of despair.

6 Responses to “Turning Passive Into Active”

  1. Jon said

    There is the old saying that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The next best time to plant a tree is now.

    Katrina is caught in a sad cycle. She is acutely aware that she is not and has not been interacting well with both mother and sister. This is the guilt of not having planted a tree twenty years ago. With luck your changing “too hard” to “very hard” will give her the wherewithal to plant the tree now. Much easier said than done, but much better to do than not to do.

    • At first I laughed at your tree “joke”, but then I thought about it again and it made me feel that like planting trees, there is a sense of regret and hope at the same time. I suppose that mixture of feelings makes it funny. Thanks.

  2. Shelly said

    What if Katrina explains to Ashley that it is very difficult to interact with her mother and sometimes, as a consequence, she takes out these interactions on Ashley and she doesn’t mean to hurt her. However, on the other hand, Katrina loves Ashley very much and worries about her and wishes Ashley would do something to promote her career or living conditions (or whatever is worrying Katrina)? It is unlikely that the interactions between Katrina and her mother, which have been so painful to Katrina for her entire life, will change much before her mother’s life ends, even though Katrina wishes so very much that they will. But does Katrina realize that she is basically recreating this relationship with her own daughter?

    • The problem is that by the time Katrina understands how she has hurt Ashley in the exact same way that she feels hurt by her mother, there has been some damage, according to Katrina. Yes, Katrina could apologize to Ashley, but the issue is that she continues to repeat the pattern of treating Ashley poorly. Katrina is frustrated that she cannot break this cycle, and so we talk about her conscious and unconscious barriers to changing her interactive style with Ashley and her mom. Yes, it is unlikely that change will come from her mom’s end, and so Katrina needs to accept that she can only change herself, and in that, there is hope. Thanks.

  3. Ashana M said

    Forgiveness is such a hard issue–both forgiving oneself as well as forgiving others. Can she forgive herself for her past behavior if she can begin to change her ways? What she has probably learned about forgiveness from her family is probably that misdeeds cannot be forgiven: they can only be punished. So, then there’s an investment in denying responsibility for one’s own actions. How else do you avoid what may be unbearably unpleasant punishment. It takes more than mere understanding to forgive–understanding opens the door to excusing behavior, but not forgiving it. Forgiveness requires new thinking about what it means to err, and what should be done after someone errs. It also requires a willingness to grieve–the resentment she fears having towards her mother is a part of the anger that’s inherent in the grief process. No, her mother has not nurtured her in the way she needed and probably still needs. Instead, she has harmed her. She has taught her to harm other people (her younger sister, but probably also others.) This is not the mother she has believed she had. And so there is a necessity to grieve for the mother that existed only in her imagination.

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