“Why is this so damn hard?” one woman messaged me after she read my original post.
She’s 45, a mother herself, and in what she calls a strong marriage. She continues: “I’m smart, disciplined, and intellectually I know how my toxic mother has affected me. But it sometimes feels like the patterns get the better of me, no matter what. Why does it still feel like an emotional war zone in here at times?”
As Judith R. Schore and Alan N. Schore write, science now knows that our early childhood experiences—whether we are securely or insecurely attached to our primary caregivers—are both emotional and neurological events. In their words, “Attachment experiences shape the early organization of the right brain, the neurobiological core of the human unconscious.” Our thought processes change as a result of cues and mental shortcuts that lie beyond our awareness. Similarly, the mental representations or memories stored in the right hemisphere of the brain actively shape both our thinking about emotional events and the feelings they arouse. These representations aren’t conscious or what are called “explicit” memories, and the distinction is important. The brain stores explicit memories—recalling riding on your father’s shoulders when you were little or the way your grandmother looked—much later in a child’s development than the unconscious, “implicit” memories which it stores right after birth or, perhaps, even in utero. (Yes, a sobering thought.)
These implicit memories or mental representations are closely connected to how we think about situations—both our perception and our understanding of them—as well as the emotional responses they evoke. It’s these memories that get in the way of healing, and explain why “it’s so damn hard” to recover from childhood. Jeffrey E. Shurum, MD, JD and Jordan Grafman, Ph.D, suggest that the right and left hemispheres of the brain may have specialized functions; the right hemisphere “may use past experiences (either factual or emotional) and thus would be more adept when reasoning involves familiar scenarios.” They also hypothesize that the right hemisphere “holds representations of the emotional states associated with the events experienced by the individual.”
All of this is well and good if your childhood experiences are those involving reliability, trust, and love, and your implicit memories are those that signify that love and relationship are about caretaking, protection, loyalty, and understanding. But those aren’t the implicit memories an unloved or always criticized or marginalized or fearful daughter has stored up. The problem is that, as Thomas Lewis and his co-authors write in A General Theory of Love, “This mental machinery does not evaluate; it cannot detect whether the larger world runs in accordance with the scheme it has drawn from the emotional microcosm of a family.” Put simply, unloved daughters unconsciously rely on a picture of how relationships work that is warped in important ways.
The science explains why unloved daughters may have trouble “reading” situations that seem “familiar” (they feel the way they did around their mothers) or “misread” a situation because of their implicit memories. In my own case, I know I am acutely reactive when someone refuses to discuss or acknowledge that something untoward has happened between us. Stonewalling is, for me, an instantaneous trigger since my mother’s refusal to discuss and her inclination to deny that she’d said or done anything were the hallmarks of my childhood. Another woman, whose cruel and abusive mother both belittled and manipulated her, connects being overly sensitive to her issues about trust. She writes:
“These two go hand in hand for me. I don’t trust anyone and I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everyone must have an agenda. No one is nice unless they want something. I have taken slights so badly that I have burned (or, in my case, napalmed) several bridges.”
Another reports that she sees her early experiences mirrored most clearly in her relationships with women:
“I judge too much and over-think everything. The waters just get all muddied up with women…I am always the one to be the crowd-pleaser—“please like ME!”—but I find it hard to be friends with women. I misjudge most of them, find them catty, and hard to trust.”
These are just a few examples of how those mental representations shape the way the unloved daughter acts and responds.
But we can visit implicit memories and bring them into the light. We can change old patterns of behavior and earn secure attachment earned through the connection to other people and the love for others. Since I am someone who writes from my own experience and research—and not a therapist—I’ve drawn on my own experiences and those of other women, psychological research, and the advice of therapist and blogger F. Diane Barth. Altogether, we have come up with some general strategies for dealing with and healing from some of those seven common wounds. I’ve changed the order and combined a few because they are interconnected, and saved the more complicated issues for a future post.
Gaining confidence and “seeing” yourself as you are
The lack of confidence so many unloved daughters report is a reflection of the internalized maternal voice—the one that tells you that you are lacking in fundamental ways, that you are to blame for everything including your relationship to your mother, that you are unworthy and unlovable. This lack of self-confidence may, paradoxically, coexist with many different kinds of achievement, including becoming a good mother yourself, garnering academic or business success, and succeeding at an intimate relationship. As one highly successful woman, now in her sixties, confides: “That critical voice is always there and takes the glow off my triumphs and makes me second-guess myself even in the wake of success.”
1. Owning Your Story
One way to still that voice is to become the narrator of your own story by writing it. The work of James Pennebaker and others has shown that there are important benefits to writing your own narrative; as they write, generally, the act of telling your story allows you to “organize and remember events in a coherent fashion while integrating thoughts and feelings. In essence, this gives individuals a sense of predictability and control over their lives. Once an experience has structure and meaning, it would follow that the emotional effects are more manageable.” For the adult unloved daughter whose mother dictated her daughter's view of herself and the relationship during childhood and adolescence, writing her own story can be a bold act of reclamation. Becoming the writer of your own life will also help you see yourself through your own eyes, as well as paint a coherent picture of the relationship which will help you manage your emotions.
2. Using Positive Memories
Drawing on explicit memories can also help. I have found that looking through photographs can be a telling experience; I have seen my mother’s coldness captured on film. I’ve also been able to see that the child she called unlovable and, later, “fat” was actually neither. And I’ve seen and remembered the look of pleasure on the faces of those who loved me. Therapist F. Diane Barth suggests:
“You think about the people who love you—a grandparent, aunt or uncle, sibling, or close friend—and think about what they like about you. If you find that inner critical voice shutting you down—telling you that they’re faking it, that they really don’t like you anyway, that you’re fooling yourself—ask yourself why they would do that? What would make them pretend to like you?”
One woman puts this in a real world context, remarking that overcoming the tendency to blame herself has been the hardest: “I always blame myself first…for everything. Even when I know something is out of my control.” Shifting your thoughts at that moment of self-blame to those who love and appreciate you can help steady you.
Becoming as aware as you can be of the “default settings” your childhood experiences have bequeathed is an important strategy, as are taking ownership of your own narrative and deliberately shifting your perspective on emotional events.
Setting Boundaries and Resetting “Sensitivity”
Even though the most discussed topic is usually the damage an unloving mother does to a daughter’s sense of self, boundaries are an enormous issue for most. They are perhaps the key factor in the difficulties the daughters may have forging relationships as adults. Some daughters suffer from a lack of boundaries (“I allowed people to walk all over me because I was so desperate to please” or “I mistook being enmeshed for intimacy and I ended up not having any voice of my own”), while others put up boundaries that are more like the Great Wall of China than not (“I don’t trust anyone except my own children and sometimes my husband. I’m always on the alert for betrayal. It’s exhausting at times, perhaps even more because people don’t recognize how armored I really am underneath that friendly exterior”). Closely allied to the difficulty in managing healthy boundaries—which permit emotional openness while giving you room enough to express your needs and emotions, and be yourself—is the extreme sensitivity to slights or imagined slights many daughters exhibit.
3. Taking An Inventory
You can actively begin to manage your difficulties with boundaries by taking a conscious inventory of the relationships you have which make you feel uncomfortable or make you unhappy. Ask yourself why you’re still in the relationship: do you lack the courage to leave? Is it reminiscent of your relationship to your mother? Are you unable to assert yourself? One daughter tells me about how her issues with boundaries involved being overly sensitive to and responsive to other people’s needs, without ever asking for any reciprocity. Her strategy was to put what was happening in her life into words: “I began writing down what I wanted from my own life. I made a list of what I ‘owed’ and to whom. I started paying attention to my tendency to ‘give’ to anyone in need and questioned why I wanted, needed or felt obliged to do so.” Another recounts the difficulty she had accepting the help other people offered her until, through therapy, she finally understood that her friends were simply being generous because they cared about her—not because they were trying to manipulate her. “I finally stopped thinking every person was my mother,” she admits.
4. Using the Pause Button
Years ago, a therapist had these words of wisdom for me: Stop. Look. Listen. What he meant was that I had to focus and pay conscious attention to situations that made me feel the way I did around my mother. Instead of allowing myself to go on autopilot—becoming defensive or reactive—I had to learn to step back and process not only what I was feeling but why. Was I reacting to something in the present or had the present moment dredged up something out of my past? Was I seeing the situation clearly? Was I listening to the intention behind the words, not just the words themselves? Giving yourself a wide enough berth to be able to examine both the source and nature of your feelings is particularly important for those of us who grew up looking through the wrong end of the binoculars.
5. Adopt a New Perspective
Specific strategies can help when you reflect on negative situations and the emotions they evoke. One study by Ethan Kross, Ozlem Ayduk, and Walter Mischel focused specifically on the ways people processed negative events and the emotions they aroused. I cite this study often because it makes so much sense, and I have found the strategy personally useful. Think for a moment: When you recall an emotional incident, do you immerse yourself in it—and re-experience the same flood of emotions you did in the moment—or do you view it as if you were seeing it from a distanced point of view, as if it had happened to someone else? What questions do you ask yourself as you recall the moment: Do you ask yourself what happened or do you ask yourself why it happened? Kross and his colleagues found that the distanced point of view combined with the “why” perspective worked to help participants process their negative emotions, and permitted them to steer clear of a ruminative loop.
The “why” perspective will also allow you to focus on other people’s motivations, as well as your own. Part of becoming the author of your own story entails seeing why and how you act and react, and taking responsibility for all that you do, while holding others responsible for their actions and reactions.
6. Managing in the War Zone
Perhaps the hardest task of all is for an unloved daughter to set healthy boundaries with her mother. Children don’t have the power or authority to set boundaries but adult daughters must do so if they stay in contact with their unloving mothers, as many decide to do. How difficult it is to set boundaries may also depend on the reasons a daughter has continued contact—among them, wanting to stay connected with brothers, sisters, or fathers; deciding that giving your children a grandmother outweighs your own discomfort; feeling that going "no contact" is too drastic a step; or concerns about cultural disapproval or neglect of filial duty.
For one daughter, now in her forties and a mother of two, the issue of boundaries continues:
“First of all, my mother denies everything she does so getting her cooperation is impossible. But, second, I end up violating my own rules when my own neediness gets in the way. I fall back into old patterns, wanting to please her, doing things I know she ultimately won’t appreciate and then I end up hurt all over again.”
Another woman says simply:
“It’s my own hopefulness that gets in the way. I get all hopeful that my mother will suddenly change and treat me well and, even though I know that’s nothing more than wishful thinking, I get sucked in anyway. I end up feeling as devastated at 35 as I did at the age of 15.”
You have to be as articulate as you can be about the boundaries you need. Writing them down may be useful, as would making a list of the behaviors you consider unacceptable. Be as clear as you can be.
7. Giving Up on Wishful Thinking
Acknowledging how difficult it will be to establish new boundaries is a necessary first step, especially if your mother doesn’t see the need for new rules or is unlikely to cooperate. You need to take a thorough inventory of your reasons for the boundaries as well as your expectations. Be realistic, and accept the possibility that you might be hurt. Ask yourself if this effort is important enough to you to allow yourself to be hurt.
Finally, as therapist F. Diane Barth suggests, you have to commit to a reversal of the roles you and your mother played earlier in your life: “The trick is to try to be firm and gentle at the same time, to try to be ‘the grown-up' in the relationship, and try to make it clear what you expect from your mother and yourself.” It’s worth noting that she adds parenthetically: “Much easier said than done.”
As I’ve written before, it’s the daughter who’s always on trial in the court of public opinion because of taboos against criticizing our mothers and the belief in the automatic and instinctual nature of mother love. Try to keep in mind that only you can decide whether and how you can continue to relate to your mother, and believe in your own judgment. Sometimes, accepting failure is a part of the journey.
Many of the stories I’ve heard (and told) testify to the fact that daughters can come out the other side. They may not be “whole” in the conventional sense, but whole enough to live their lives on their own terms, surrounded by people who love them—which is what they deserved in the first place.
In the hope that these strategies are of use, let’s toast to all of us as works in progress!
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