Why has my mother become so critical of others as she ages?

I am getting increasingly worried about – and frustrated with – my mother, who wants me to listen while she criticises everyone else in the family and seems offended that I don’t want to join in.

It’s possible that she’s always done this and I’ve only just noticed. Certainly, I was painfully aware in adolescence of her frustrations with my father (whom she loves dearly) and her grievances against other family members, which caused me huge anxiety.

Now that she’s a bit older, a spitefulness has emerged, initially focused on my siblings’ partners as their relationships fell apart. I dread spending time alone with her or having phone calls where she wants me to agree with her criticisms of family and friends.

I have tried ignoring the comments, but she is extremely persistent – and at one point stopped talking to me when I pointed out how she was behaving. I want to be supportive, but it is increasingly difficult to trust her, and I avoid meaningful conversation beyond logistics of grandchildren, towards whom my parents are loving and indulgent.

I realise I’ve made her sound like a monster when in fact she can be kind and generous and loyal. She is very worried about losing my father, who is kind, gentle and energetic but has health issues. She is a clever, creative person, and this makes it even harder to accept that this nastiness is part of her personality rather than something I can help her overcome. I don’t want their happy lives to end in bitterness.

If others think this is a radical change in your mother’s personality, it might be worth getting her checked out by a GP. Your dad would be the right person to ask. But sometimes we get to stages in our lives where we suddenly see our parents anew.

I thought your problem was in some ways very normal – I hear a lot of similar stories anecdotally. I think many people, as they age, become more critical, less tolerant and feel more able to voice these thoughts, however negative.

However, Avi Shmueli, a psychoanalyst (bpc.org.uk), picked up on something else. “In an attempt to understand it [your mother’s behaviour] you’re going back, wondering if it is a personality trait, not something new but something that was always there. Doing so might miss what is probably a more powerful explanation, which is that your mother is terribly angry and bitter as a defence against feeling emotional pain, sadness, disappointment and possibly depression.”

I want to stress that neither Shmueli nor I knows if your mother is depressed, but it’s a possibility. “When you’re angry, you don’t have to feel sad,” explained Shmueli, “you don’t have to feel dependent or powerless. You can just be really angry and criticise others, and it can be all their fault. It’s unconscious, but by doing this your mother avoids feeling sad and vulnerable.”

In other words, when the truth is too painful to hold within us, we project. So I asked Shmueli what he felt was at the core of your mother’s sadness, and his hunch was that the big issue was your dad’s ill health. You mention it at the end, and yet Shmueli felt it was central to your mother’s anguish: there’s the unspoken sadness hinted at in your last line – that your mother and father’s time is limited. He didn’t think it was a coincidence that her focus was on the ex-partners of your siblings, that is, those who have left.

The probable reality is that your mother was always a bit like this, but something is crystallising this aspect of herself. And the catalyst is probably fear of loss and greater dependency. Fear tends to strip away our defences. While your mum is criticising other people, she doesn’t have to look at herself.

Shmueli thought it was interesting that none of your mum’s negativity is aimed at your dad: “He’s the one person who is protected from all of this [from what you’ve told us].” I wondered if she was, on some level, really angry with him but couldn’t let herself be.

Ideally your mum would talk to someone about this, but I asked Shmueli how you should react when your mother starts criticising and tries to enlist you. He suggested saying, “I can see you’re upset, Mum, what are you so unhappy about?” It won’t be easy, because this turns the criticism around and exposes her own vulnerability – but it may be a start in helping her.