Stoic advice: My mother abused me, should I reach out to her?

Massimo Pigliucci
Mar 16 · 4 min read

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L. writes: How should a Stoic go about reconnecting with a loved one who has abused them (in my case emotionally) or cut them off? I’m currently 26. My mother was wonderful most of my life but started emotionally abusing me at the age of 17, culminating when I was 21. She gave me the silent treatment for a year over an imagined slight. Since I’ve moved out, my mother pretends I don’t exist and hasn’t contacted me for four years (despite a few tentative attempts on my part). I now learned she’s planning to move to another country and I might never see her again, ever. I want to be the better person and reach out to her, in case maybe I can reconcile with her, but at the same time I don’t want to be hurt again. Should I do it, and if so, any advice as to how?

The Stoic path here is clear: reach out to your mother, but with no expectations of succeeding. And remember that if her rejection hurts you it is because you allow it. This may sound harsh — especially the latter part — but you are a practicing Stoic, so I’m responding to you as if we were in Epictetus’ school. This isn’t the sort of advice one would necessarily give to people who have not embraced the Stoic approach.

Your case falls into the “everything has two handles” class, and here is what Epictetus says in this regard:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43)

The advice is based, of course, on the dichotomy of control, but also on the notion that it is virtuous not to lower yourself to the level of whoever is behaving improperly. The dichotomy of control tells you that the only things truly up to you are you own judgments and decisions to act or not to act. Not other people’s. So you are in a position to decide whether to contact your mother or not, but you are not in a position to dictate her response. As for taking the high moral ground, the idea is that your mother’s behavior is a stain on her character. But that doesn’t mean you should actively stain yours in retaliation:

“‘My brother ought not to have behaved so to me.’ No, but it is his business to look to that; however he may behave, I will deal with him as I ought.” (Discourses, III.10)

In your letter you do not say much about what sort of emotional abuse your mother perpetrated on you, nor what might have triggered her apparently sudden change of attitude toward you. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter, but these are issues you may wish to reflect upon for your own sake. Not in order to blame yourself, nor because you can somehow change the past — that is definitely outside of your control! But so that you can learn from what happened, which may help you move forward:

“Souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXXIV.34)

If you decide to reach out to your mother, as I think you should, make sure you don’t do it half-heartedly, or “tentatively” as you put it in your letter. You need to do it as if you really mean it, or it will be obvious to her that you don’t, and the attempt will be doomed to failure from the get go. Don’t do something halfway just because you wish to feel better. Do it because it is important, and do it right.

Finally, it may be helpful for you to engage in a premeditatio malorum before you contact your mother again. You need to prepare yourself mentally for the (likely?) outcome that she will rebuff your overture, and that you may not see her again for the rest of your life. That is her decision, and not a reflection of your worth as a person. Should that happen, you will survive, and in fact thrive, if you keep focusing on what truly “belongs to you,” as Epictetus puts it. My best wishes for your attempt.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Massimo Pigliucci

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Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

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