Why Daughters of Unloving Mothers Struggle With Shame
Taking a close look at the elephant hidden in plain sight.
Posted Jun 23, 2017
In the court of public opinion, when the mother-daughter relationship is damaged beyond repair, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial. The cultural myths about motherhood—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, not learned, and that all mothers love their children unconditionally—both shape and inform people’s responses to the daughter who either cuts her mother out of her life entirely or maintains so little contact that her position is clear to both intimates and strangers alike. The culture sides with the parent—a view bolstered by the authority of a Biblical commandment—regardless of the circumstances.
Most tellingly, when a parent cuts a child off, there’s a sympathetic murmur, an acknowledgement that parenting is hard and that adult children can be difficult. When a parent initiates estrangement, she’s assumed to have pursued every possible solution and, more important, to have tried her hardest and done her best. The culture raises a glass to the parent who tried but failed and lends a supportive shoulder.
In contrast, the unloved daughter never gets the benefit of the doubt. Instead, the culture goes on the attack and labels her as ungrateful, impetuous, narcissistic, and more. She is reminded again and again that she was fed, clothed, and had a roof over head as if having her emotional needs met in childhood were a throw-away extra and that if love and support weren’t extended to her, she has no one but herself to blame. Or that she’s exaggerating or being dramatic since, on the surface, it seems that she turned out just fine. The culture finishes up the job of marginalizing and criticizing her that her mother and perhaps other family members began, and tries to shame her in the process.
As a daughter who cut her mother out of her life (and writes about unloving mothers), I have personally experienced all of these responses. They are the rule, not the exception.
Cultural shaming: The elephant in the room
Cultural disapproval often impedes a daughter’s road to both recovery and reclaiming her life by creating another kind of inner conflict, as one daughter wrote:
“How do I explain exactly how toxic my mother’s behavior is without sounding whiny and ungrateful? Every time I broach the subject, even with close friends, I see nothing but disapproval. But is filial duty supposed to be painful? Am I supposed to see her when she’s actively out to get me?”
Stories of unloved daughters are the ones no one wants to hear.
Unloved daughters already feel as though they don’t belong because of how they were treated in their family of origin; adding another, more public layer of not belonging by severing or limiting their relationship to their mother is, for many, terrifically daunting. But sometimes it is the only way to heal.
Shame and the code of silence
Unloved daughters rarely tell anyone about what goes on in the household during childhood, in part because they assume that what goes on there goes on everywhere. Normalizing how she is treated—even if she actively hurts from being ignored, marginalized, put down, or harshly criticized, or is frightened—is one reason. As she gets older, comes into contact with other households, and begins to see that perhaps what goes on at her house is different, silence may be compelled by the shame and worry that, in fact, she’s to blame for how she’s treated. Since unloving mothers often justify their hypercriticality and verbal abuse by shifting the blame onto their children—saying things like “I wouldn’t have to punish you if you weren’t so clumsy or careless,” “You ask nothing but stupid questions and I have better things to do than to deal with stupid people,” “If you were a better child, I wouldn’t need to yell”—feeling ashamed often becomes the daughter’s default response. That becomes another potent reason to maintain her silence since the last thing she wants to do is broadcast her supposed deficiencies to the world at large.
In adolescence and young adulthood, the need to fit in and be like everyone else, along with continued shame and worry, usually prevent the daughter from getting help and support from her peer group by confiding the truth. While keeping the secret safe, it has the unwanted effect of isolating her even further. After my book Mean Mothers was published, I heard from my roommate from my sophomore year in college; it had been 40 years since we’d spoken. Even though we’d shared a room the size of a shoebox for an entire year, neither of us even hinted at the way our respective mothers had mistreated us. She wistfully commented on how we might have been able to help each other by breaking the silence; I could not have agreed with her more. But how we handled it all those years ago is typical, as I have learned from hundreds and hundreds of interviews.
Shame as a weapon in an unloving mother’s arsenal
Studies indicate that both abusive behaviors and harsh parenting of children make individuals more prone to feeling shame throughout their lifetimes; some of this doubtless has to do with the fact that sometimes maternal behavior includes actions that are either deliberately meant to shame the child into behaving differently or better, or are the result of the parent’s own inability to manage her own emotions. But being “shame-prone,” as the researchers put it, explains another aspect of how shame plays a role both in a daughter’s wounding and her attempts at recovery.
In their brilliant book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., discuss what they call a toxic rupture in the parent-child relationship and how it relates to parental shame as well as inducing shame in the child. (Yes, we are pivoting here to show a possible pattern.) They define a toxic rupture as one that actively harms a child’s sense of self, often a result of a parent losing control of her emotions and threatening, screaming, or calling a child names. (Yes, that’s emotional and verbal abuse.) The child’s feeling of shame produces physical effects such as a stomach ache, a tightness or feeling of a lump in the chest or throat, or an impulse to avoid eye contact. The child internalizes the shame and begins thinking of herself as “bad” or “worthless.” Siegel and Hartzell note that it’s often the parent’s own shame—a result of her own treatment in childhood—that produces the unconscious hijacking of her emotions and facilitates her losing sight of her child in these moments. Instead, she may only be focused on her own powerlessness and incompetence. It’s a horrible cycle that can only be stopped by the parent’s conscious awareness and concerted efforts at repairing the rupture. That doesn’t always happen, alas, as the experiences of unloved daughters attest.
Psychologists distinguish between shame and guilt, although both are considered “self-conscious emotions.” Infants are born feeling neither; it’s thought that children begin to experience both in the toddler years. Of the two, shame is more toxic and has a different kind of staying power; while guilt emanates from a specific behavior, shame involves the core self. Interestingly, according to research studies, while guilt can facilitate empathy, shame disrupts the ability to empathize. Why might that be? June Price Tangney and her colleagues opine:
“Shame’s inherently egocentric focus on the ‘bad self’ (as opposed to the bad behavior) derails the empathic process. Individuals in the throes of shame turn tightly inward, and are thus less able to focus cognitive and emotional resources on the harmed other.”
While the impulse to deny or hide it is extremely strong, shame nonetheless bubbles to the surface unconsciously in other forms. Research shows that shame-prone individuals experience intense anger, express that anger in volatile and destructive ways, and do what they can to externalize the blame. Needless to say, their ability to hold on to relationships is profoundly affected. The lengths to which people will go to avoid feeling shame testifies to the intensity of the pain.
Shame and shaming play significant roles in the lives of many unloved daughters, though they are rarely addressed. Bringing shame and shaming into the light and seeing their provenance with conscious awareness are important steps on the road to recovery.
Siegel, Daniel and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from The Inside Out. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003.
Tangney, June Price, Jeff Stuewig, and Debra J. Mashek, “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior,”Annual Review of Psychology (2007), 58, 345-372.