Three Skills to Change Messy Relationships Forever

My mother passed away this past week. It has been a challenging time, naturally, but there have been many lessons that I have learned from my relationship with her that I am very grateful for.

You see, I love my mom very much, but we had what I call a messy relationship. She left when I was very small, and wasn’t around for the majority of my very painful childhood. We began again when I was a young adult, with me seeking her approval and feeling that I failed time and again. She disapproved of many things – my choice of spouse, the way I dressed, wore my hair, my interests, the fact that I like to listen to music while I drive, and the way I raised my children.

Her approval was sunny and generous, filled with laughter and the feeling that I was special. Her disapproval was a tightening of her mouth, a colder tone to her voice, a stiffening in her shoulders that would reawaken the ever-present fear that she would disapprove of me so completely that she would disappear from my life again. It worked really well – for her – because I would adjust my behavior to fit the parameters she set for me, but it didn’t work well for me.

Then came age and infirmity, resulting in me caring for her – more years than she had ever cared for me. Illness brought more challenges. The difficult personality got even more difficult, the negative personality even more so as the social constraints she had practiced for so many years faded into obscurity in her mind.


The first couple of years I cared for her I was really angry. How dare she expect me to care for her when she didn’t care for me?


The first couple of years I cared for her I was really angry. How dare she expect me to care for her when she didn’t care for me? She didn’t even appreciate it. I felt it was an odious obligation, but I was the only one who stepped up to do it.

But one day I had a change of heart, and everything else changed with it.

I was talking with my mentor, Jack Canfield, and told him how much I resented having to care for my mother. He took me through an exercise that changed my entire life. I use the same process in many aspects of my own life, as well as those of my clients.

I had been looking at my experience of caring for my mother as though I had no choice, as though I had been saddled with this responsibility. Jack guided me to make a list of my other options. When I insisted there were none, he helped me come up with some. And that’s when I got it. I HAD options – there really were other things I could do other than care for her – it’s just that the options were not acceptable to me. Things shifted when I realized that it was my CHOICE to take care of my mother, because I didn’t like the other options.


Things shifted when I realized that it was my CHOICE to take care of my mother, because I didn’t like the other options.


1. Accept 100% responsibility for your responses to whatever is going on. Nobody can make you feel or do anything. In every circumstance, you have an opportunity to make a choice how you will feel or behave. It may be a split second, but you still get to make a choice. Even in life-threatening situations, you have the barest, briefest moment to choose how you will respond. And that’s where you find your power. You choose how you will respond. Not react. You choose your response, and then hold yourself accountable for whatever choice you made.

If someone yells at you, do you yell right back? If someone pulls out in front of you while you’re driving, do you flip them off and swear a blue streak? Do you react with anger when you discover the dog pooped in the middle of your clean floor?

In my case, when I accepted that I wanted to care for my mother rather than go with the options, and then held myself accountable (which means no griping, whining, or complaining) my life got much easier.

2. Realize how many people are in the conversation. There are never just 2 people in any conversation. There’s you, the person you are talking with, the voices and influences of whoever raised you and the voices and influences of whoever raised the person you are interacting with. That can get to be quite a crowd, especially if one or both of you had several iterations of stepparents or a parent who was in revolving romantic relationships.

When you are a child, any adult who helped to raise you became one of your “authorities” and their voices are always in your head, nudging and prodding you, trying to get you to behave in a certain way. Unless you have learned how to silence them, or give them another job to do, they will continue to interfere with your daily life.

When I understood that I was not only talking with my mother, but was also relating to the voices of her authorities (because I knew her history, I knew some of them were not very nice), I was able to be a bit more understanding and then referred back to step #1 to choose how to respond toward her.

If you approach others with an understanding heart, no matter what your history with them is, things will get better.

3. Accept that everybody is doing the best they can at any given moment given the tools and knowledge they have. No one knows what another person is feeling, unless they tell us. We cannot know why a person makes the choice they do, unless they explain it to us. Deciding that we know how a person is feeling about us, or how they are going to respond in any situation before they do it is a disservice to everyone involved. We are all trying to make our way through life the best we can while getting our needs met. Give them as much slack as you would like to have them give you. This is better known as the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Accept that everybody is doing the best they can at any given moment given the tools and knowledge they have.


These three skills can make any relationship less messy.

The neatest thing about being human is that we can change. Toward the end of my mother’s life, she was unable to make conscious changes in her behaviors or interactions with other people. Dementia does that to a person. However, I (thank goodness) still have the capacity to grow and make changes in the way I interact and respond to people, and I am a little more conscious of the way I function in my relationships.

I am grateful for the things my mother taught me. Even up to the end when it was so difficult to watch her journey, she was teaching me. Hopefully I am a better person because of the life lessons she gave me.

I love you, Momma. Until we meet again.

About the Author

Michelle Nagel

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Michelle Nagel is the founder and president of Soul Shift, Inc and the author of Out of the Darkness, Into the Light. Michelle travels widely, sharing her profound insights about moving beyond the invisible thoughts that keep us stuck.