Maybe She Did the Best She Could Do

Kathy Ewing

"Maybe it’s healthier to assume that she did the best she could, rather than to stoke my resentment that she could have done better."

I made the connection in a single moment. One day, while helping my friend “Nancy,” who had a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, I realized my mother (who died in 1995) exhibited many of the same symptoms that Nancy did: fear of abandonment, black-and-white thinking, dysphoria, mood swings, anger, and so on.

I had an epiphany. I think that's how it is for many of us. Suddenly, we realize . . .

In Augusten Burroughs’ memoir about his father, A Wolf at the Table, he said, "Something in my head clicked. It was a mechanical sensation, like one gear fitting into another. And then it was as if a small amount of pressure were relieved. . . "

I had never associated my mom’s behavior with mental illness. The disorder gave me a handle on our difficult relationship. The more I read about BPD, the more it seemed my mother was finally being explained to me. Learning about a real mental illness—a chaotic and unpredictable one—helped me, at last, explain my mom’s irrational and wounding behavior. My memories started to coalesce around symptoms. Finally, my life had a context. I’m now better able to accept that my mom didn't know how to be any different.

I’ve realized it’s healthier to assume she did the best she could than to stoke my resentment that she could have done better.

I’ve realized it doesn’t matter whether a harsh judgment was true, because its result was resentment and criticism. In contrast, a “she-did-the-best-she-could” attitude makes for a kinder, gentler life, for me.

No one reaches this level of acceptance in a moment, however. And you can’t do it all the time. It’s a mindset that has to be nurtured. Along the way, I’ve learned some skills and better ways of thinking. They’ve come too late for me and my mom, but they have helped me deal with other challenging friends and family members.

  1. I try to rely on the S.E.T. (support, empathy, truth) technique. When listening to my friend Nancy’s worries and complaints, I would often blurt out my own, corrective truth. "You’re always so negative," I’d say. "Can’t you look at the positive side?" This tough-love approach never worked. It only shut Nancy down and made her feel unheard. I began forcing myself (and at first it was a forced, unnatural reaction) to respond supportively and empathetically. I now try to say, “This must be so hard for you. You’re really struggling with this.” Only then do I offer a little nugget of my truth, like, “Can we look at this from a different perspective? Maybe you’re repeating a self-destructive pattern here.” When I slow down and think S.E.T., our conversations go more smoothly.
  1. I don’t work so hard at forgiving my mother, instead, I consider myself to be on a path that's more about the process than the end goal. I’m not so intent on arriving at some happy place of total acceptance. "Problems aren’t solved", says Dr. Phil, "they’re managed". Marsha Linehan speaks of radical acceptance and the importance of "accepting reality for what it is and not how we think it should be".
  1. I’m more forgiving of myself. I didn’t cause my mom’s problems or Nancy’s, and I’m working hard at managing my own. If I get upset and say the wrong thing and lose some sleep, that’s a stumble on the path I’m on. I try to learn from missteps and keep going.

I’ll always bear some scars from my childhood: a nagging distrust of others, shame, regrets. But now I realize I'm not that helpless child anymore. I'm an adult now, just like my mother was. I need to understand that in the end, we were equals, as Nancy and I are. I don’t have to understand my mother, exactly. I don’t have to keep debating whether I was right or she was right.

I do need to understand that Borderline Personality Disorder is an illness that made her seem cold, invalidating, unkind, desperate, and blank. I need to understand that she couldn’t fully help herself. My mother, though sometimes superficially cheerful, was deeply wounded and unhappy.

I have realized that holding onto resentments may make me the same way.

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Kathy Ewing is the author of "Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother" (ISBN-13: 978-0996871723), a memoir. Ewing was born and raised in Northeast Ohio. She currently teaches Latin at Cleveland State University and writing at Case Western Reserve University. She has two grown children and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband John Ewing.

The photo in the article is a stock photo, not the author.

Last modified: 
January 04, 2021