Her Mother Wasn’t a “Good” Mother

Dear Vicki: I work full time as a corporate accountant, have a houseful of teenagers, a busy husband, and now my widowed mother has moved in with us. On the surface it’s going well, but deep inside I feel a great deal of resentment toward her. She was not a good mother when I was growing up. She wasn’t warm and cuddly. She kept us clean and fed, and she read to us nightly, but beyond that we were on our own while she painted and pursued her career in art. She wasn’t like my friends’ mothers who baked brownies and knit them sweaters. I never felt mothered by her, but now she is expecting me to mother her. I’m having a lot of trouble with that. Signed, No Cuddles

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Dear No Cuddles: Every child needs mothering, and everyone can mother in some way or another, but what that looks like will be very different depending on the elemental personalities involved. To manage all that you’re managing and succeed as a corporate accountant, I suspect you are a primary Metal personality. Metal people are usually very structured, very organized, and find it easy (and often necessary) to stick to schedules. The fact that your mother was an artist who didn’t bake brownies or knit you sweaters while you were growing up suggests that she is probably a primary Water personality. Water people are the artists of the world; they will devote hours to manifesting mind-blowing creations, but usually don’t have the structure (or interest) to run a household.

In the Five Elements model, Earth feeds Metal on the Nurturing Cycle, so an Earthy kind of mothering would have seemed attractive to you. However, as a Water person who prized time alone to create, your mother could have thought she was giving you an incredible gift by allowing you time alone, as well. I suggest you consider the possibility that, while your friends may have had mothers who focused a great deal of attention on them, your Metal personality might have found an abundance of attention pretty suffocating. I’m in no way suggesting that your childhood was perfect, but if you examine it from the perspective of what your elemental personality values, you may find that in some respects it was a good match for you. That said, what matters most is how you relate to your mother now, so let’s find ways you can improve that relationship.

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Retirement Really Changed Her Father

Dear Vicki: When my mother passed away 10 years ago, my father chose to keep the family house and has done just fine living there alone. At least until now. Recently, he’s become a bitter, hopeless, and rather narcissistic old man, which is so not like my father. He was career military; always very logical, rational, kind, and even-keeled. But since he retired three years ago, that part of him has slowly disappeared and now he seems impossible to please. He’s also very sad, more so than he ever was, even when Mom passed. Is he becoming senile? I worry about him all the time, and often take meals over to him, but he hardly asks about me or his grandchildren when I’m there. Instead, he complains and almost seems to resent my presence. It breaks my heart. What can I do to help him? Signed, Worried About Dad

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Dear Worried: It is possible your father is becoming senile, so having him checked out by a competent health care professional would be a good idea. But that might not be what is going on for him at all. What I suspect might be happening is that, with his retirement, your father has moved from the life phase of outward productivity to a phase of slowing down and introspection. His choice of a military career suggests that he is a primary Metal personality, someone who embraces order, hierarchy, and perfection in everything. And while our primary elemental personality is ours for the totality of our life, we do move though different phases as we grow and age. This is a fascinating aspect of the Five Elements model: the idea that each of the elemental personalities can be seen in a specific phase of our life. I think a brief exploration of how this works might help explain what is going on for your father.

In the Five Elements model, regardless of our primary elemental personality, we all move through five distinct phases in life. Birth and early childhood are associated with the wintery time of Water when potential is unlimited. Young adulthood, a time of exuberance and rapid growth, is associated with the intense spring energy of Wood. The process of maturation is associated with the warming summer sun of the Fire element, while the final ripening of our life relates to the fields of late summer and the Earth element. The end of our life cycle – the harvest of all gained from this cycle and storage of what will be used in the next cycle – relates to Metal. However, for many ancient teachings, instead of ending with Metal, our final stop is said to be a return to Water, as seen in the innocence and playfulness of a young child mirrored in the elderly. That’s why many philosophers claim that both birth and death sit in the Water Element.

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They Don’t Need Another Mother

Dear Vicki: I am writing regarding a family problem in the wake of my mother’s passing one year ago. Mary, my mom’s younger sister, was incredibly close to mom and often acted like she resented that mom had three children and a husband to attend to. Mom adored us all, but our family’s relationship with Mary was often quite difficult. Since mom died, even though the three of us are adults with our own children, Mary seems to think she has to play the role of our mom now. She gets very annoyed if we don’t call her or get in touch. She always wants to know what we’re doing and has strong opinions about whatever it is. My sister and I can find a place to connect with her because we’re both artists, but my younger brother Frank feels very frustrated by her constant questioning of his life and the choices he’s made. He’s actually quite angry with her and just recently snapped at me, “We already had a mother; we don’t need another one!” If it helps, Mary lives the artist’s life nearby and doesn’t need work beyond that because she parlayed an excellent investment into a permanent income stream for herself. None of us really enjoy Mary, but she is the only member of my mom’s family left and families should get along, right? Do you have any suggestions for how we can get on better with her? Signed: Pretty Fed Up

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Dear Pretty Fed Up: Ah, the joy of family interactions, so often fraught with misunderstanding and tension! Please remember that even though you are all from the same family, that in no way guarantees that getting along will somehow be easier. In truth, the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt often applies to families. The more acquainted we become with a person, the more we know their shortcomings, making it easier to dislike them. But it doesn’t change the issue that Mary is family, and as you have discovered, there is rarely an easy answer regarding how to shift unwanted behaviors. However, we do have our trusty Five Elements model to help make sense of the relationship, so let’s see what we can work out to help you change what is going on with your Aunt Mary.

As a full time artist, Mary likely has a primary Water personality. Creativity and imagination sit in Water, as does a tendency to have poor boundaries. In nature, water conforms to any container offered, but lacking a container, it flows all over the place. Mary clearly has never had good boundaries regarding her relationship with your family. Our culture generally gives priority to marriages and the families they produce, but while your mother was alive, Mary apparently felt her sibling relationship with your mother should be the top priority.

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What Kind of Boundaries Do You Have?

Dear Readers: Today we offer yet another opportunity to better understand yourself and the people in your life. Or at least a chance to better understand your elemental personalities. As I have mentioned here numerous times, at a very deep level the energy of the Five Elements (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal) helps shape our personalities. That’s because the energy of these five elements is stacked up in our personal energy fields and the order of this stacking determines which of the five affects us most. This dominant or primary element is called our elemental personality and the more we know about it, the more we know about ourselves. Even better, the more we know about the primary elemental personalities of the people in our lives, the better we can understand them. And best of all, because the Five Elements interact in predictable ways based on the ancient Five Elements model, we can use this model to predict the highs and the lows of every relationship we have.

This means that an important key to good relationships is the ability to determine the primary elemental personalities for ourselves and the people in our lives. And I believe that the best way to do that is to recognize yourself (and your friends and family) in basic descriptions of the elements and their behaviors. As I have suggested before, your primary personality is like being born into a secret club. All members of the Wood club will have similar tendencies, as will all members of the Metal, Water, Earth or Fire clubs. How members of these different clubs get along in relationships has been the primary focus of this blog for years, but it’s just as important, if not more so, to know yourself and what matters to you. When you do, your relationships will automatically start making sense, too.

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Alone Time and Relationship

Dear Vicki: My husband of 15 years and I divorced two years ago. It was his choice and very difficult for me; I crawled into a hole for quite some time. Recently, I’ve started dating a nice fellow I’ll call Tom, but I’m having trouble figuring him out. Sometimes he’s sensitive and caring, and sometimes he’s aloof and distant. When he’s in his caring place, we get along great. But when he’s off on his own, I tend to drift away, too, which I don’t think speaks well for a future together. I do love time alone – I’m an art therapist so enjoy my painting – and Tom is an attorney who spends a great deal of time at work. Do you think we have a chance of making it work? Signed, Can This Work

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Dear Can This Work: First, let me say that I pretty much believe any relationship can “make it” if both parties understand the dynamics of their connection and are willing to work with them. There will be ups and downs, of course, but these can be predicted based on your elemental personalities. Knowing what your personal tendencies are in a relationship will always help build on the ups and smooth over the downs.

It sounds to me like you may have a primary Water personality given your love for art and an appreciation of time alone to paint. Creativity of all kinds sits in the Water element. But the fact that you use your talent to work as a therapist suggests that you also have a strong amount of Earth energy in your personality, too. Earth people love helping others, and they also value home and family. Your concern about being able to “make it work” with Tom speaks to a desire for a long-term relationship, which is also very important to Earth people.

As an attorney, it’s very likely that Tom has a primary Metal personality because it takes an appreciation of detail and hierarchy to practice law. Metal people also require time alone to work, which would explain his tendency to distance himself from you at times. And when Metal people become overworked or tired, they can come off as aloof, so I think it’s a pretty good guess that Tom is a primary Metal personality. However, his sensitivity and caring with you suggests a good amount of Earth energy in his personality, too.  Bottom line: In your relationship with Tom he brings Metal and Earth personality tendencies and you bring Water and Earth personality tendencies.

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