6 Ways for Unloved Daughters to Stop Sabotaging Themselves
Seeing how a toxic childhood affected you isn't always straightforward.
Posted Aug 06, 2018
The inability to see how our behaviors — how we act in the present, long after childhood — were shaped by how we were treated in childhood impedes both healing and change, and promotes self-sabotage. Because it’s easier to brush off a toxic childhood and normalize it — that way we can tell ourselves that “the past is the past,” and we can congratulate ourselves for surviving it — than it is to confront it, we hold ourselves back. While it’s the lack of maternal love and support we recognize first, the real damage lies elsewhere. Our inability to thrive, be happy, and to set and meet goals for ourselves can be traced to childhood roots.
Since most or all of these behaviors aren’t consciously perceived until we begin the process of recovering from childhood experiences and begin to look at them with conscious awareness, we may unwittingly become the biggest obstacle to our progress. We may unconsciously sabotage ourselves without ever realizing that we are.
These observations are drawn from my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, as well as the interviews and research done for it. Working with a gifted therapist is the most direct route to healing, but self-help can lend ballast to the work you’re doing.
Seeing the patterns of self-sabotage
“People are always telling me that ‘the past is the past,’ and that I should be ‘moving on.’ They think they’re being helpful, but what I’ve learned in therapy is that the past is part of the present until you understand what happened to you.”
This is a message I got from a reader, and yes, it captures an essential truth. Following are some ways you might be holding yourself back.
1. You’re motivated by the fear of failure.
Psychologists Andrew Elliott and Todd Thrash proposed a theory of personality based on whether you’re largely motivated by approach or avoidance. Let’s use the metaphor of climbing a peak to explain it, but obviously the metaphor is a stand-in for any challenge you might face in life. When you look at the mountain to be scaled, do you immediately start thinking about how you might do it and focus on the preparation and the skills needed? Do you anticipate possible setbacks and come up with alternative, trouble-shooting plans, all the while feeling jazzed about getting to the summit? If that’s you, then you’re approach-oriented. On the other hand, if just thinking about the mountain fills you with a sense of dread and an absolute certainty that you are going to make an utter fool of yourself and that you’re doomed to fail, you’re avoidance-oriented.
It’s not unusual for a daughter of a highly critical or demanding mother to largely skirt challenges, because she’s learned that there’s a price to be paid if you fall on your face; there are studies showing that some parents actually pass on fear of failure to their children. Similarly, the daughter of a mother high in narcissistic traits might fear the shame and scapegoating of failure, even though she knows there are perquisites and attention associated with doing her mother proud.
Setting the bar low is one way of avoiding failure, and many unloved daughters are chronic underachievers.
2. You constantly second-guess yourself.
It’s not precisely surprising that if you were told you weren’t good enough throughout your childhood, you’re going to emerge into adulthood wondering whether or not your mother was right, despite your visible achievements. Second-guessing can throw you into patterns of rumination — those middle-of-the-night, repetitive thoughts that can keep you from making important decisions and choices, as well as stymie progress towards goals you’ve set. Additionally, there’s a good chance that you suffer from what’s called “imposter syndrome,” a persistent feeling that you’re a fraud about to be found out by others, and that whatever you’ve achieved isn’t a reflection of your efforts and talents, but just dumb luck. This can also dovetail into self-criticism, discussed below.
3. You always self-criticize.
When things go south in your life, or you’ve made a mistake, do you always blame your own character flaws and weaknesses rather than seeing a fuller, more nuanced picture of what actually happened? Self-criticism is the habit of ascribing failures or missteps to your supposed imperfections, as in “No wonder he broke up with me. Who would want to be with me anyway?” or “Of course, I didn’t get the job. Why would anyone hire me when they could hire someone appealing and fast on their feet, instead of someone without charm and wits?” Self-criticism ties into the imposter syndrome too, since you veer from blaming yourself for all your failures to not giving yourself credit for your own hard work.
4. You don’t trust your own perceptions.
Many daughters are told repeatedly that they’ve misheard what was said, that they can’t take a joke, or that they’re “too sensitive” or “overly dramatic”; needless to say, if these comments were a staple in your childhood home, the chances are good that you might actually believe them. A daughter who’s actively gaslighted by her mother or father will, at one point or another, question her grasp of reality. (I was seven or so when I realized that there was no middle ground, and that either my mother was crazy or I was. That is a terrifying thought for a child, by the way.) Feeling unsure about your perceptions poisons your sense of self and also feeds all the other self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviors.
5. You don’t use your feelings to inform your thoughts.
This is a deficit of emotional intelligence and ties into doubting your perceptions. What is emotional intelligence? According to John D, Mayer and Peter Salovey (the original researchers), it’s comprised of four interrelated levels:
- Being able to identify your emotions and those of other people, and express your emotional needs
- Being able to use your emotions to prioritize your thinking and managing mood swings
- Being able to label, interpret, and understand emotions, especially blended ones, and be aware of the transitions between and among emotions
- Being able to manage and deal with all your emotions, and being open to both good and bad ones, as well as using emotions to achieve goals or detach from them
Many children in toxic households bury their feelings as a coping mechanism for dealing with verbal abuse; they armor themselves and teach themselves not to respond, because it feels safer. As adults, they may have trouble knowing what they feel — unable to distinguish anger from fear, for example, or shame from pain — or feel nothing at all. Other children are unable to armor in this way and may draw the conclusion that feeling anything is painful. Still others flood with emotion and have no way of coping.
Emotionally intelligent people are able to use emotions to refine their thinking and strategies, especially in moments of stress; they are better at communicating their wants and needs and more skilled at reading and understanding other people’s expressed emotions as well as the visual cues that accompany them. The unloved daughter can’t do this, much to her detriment.
6. You have trouble managing your emotions.
This deficit results from having an unattuned or emotionally distant or unavailable mother, or one who simply isn’t interested in responding to her infant or child consistently; among the lessons an attuned mother teaches is how to self-calm and self-soothe in moments of emotional stress and how to connect to others in those moments. This is, alas, not an unloved daughter’s strong suit, and it’s something she has to learn from scratch. Not being able to deal with negative emotions leads to coping methods that are both counterproductive and feed anxiety.
Strategies to tackle self-sabotage
Once you’ve recognized your behaviors, you can begin to tackle them and countermand them. This is just a sketch of possible strategies; there are many others, some of which are detailed in my book.
1. Cultivate conscious awareness.
Know which of these behaviors are part of your standard repertoire, and start tracking them to their childhood sources. That is step one; you can’t change a behavior you can’t see.
2. Deal with your fear of failure.
Again, know where this comes from, and use self-talk and journaling to start growing your self-confidence. Focus on how you can bolster your ability to bounce back from failure, and keep in mind that sticking to the known and safe won’t get you where you want to go. Think about risk-taking and why it scares you, and then argue back with why it shouldn’t. (Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but it’s a start.) Best of all, talk to an intimate or a counselor about how your avoidance of failure has held you back.
3. Stop rumination and second-guessing in their tracks.
Work on separating out your real concerns from those hamster-on-the-wheel worries that stem from your childhood experiences. Studies show that you’re less likely to be taken over by rumination if you’re deeply involved in a task, and even planning for something you intend to do will provide the necessary amount of absorption. Psychologist Daniel Wegner suggests that rather than distract yourself from your worries (studies show it doesn’t work), invite the worries in and actually look at the worst-case scenario if they were to come true. I personally find this a great strategy when I’m stressed; the worst-case scenario doesn’t look as bad in the light of day as it does either in your imagination or in the middle of the night. He also suggests you assign yourself a worry time — say 20 minutes a week — and focus just on those concerns.
4. Talk back to self-criticism.
When you realize that you’re in a tear-yourself-down mode, simply stop and take a deep breath. Grab a pen and paper, and analyze what went wrong and see if you actually contributed to the failure, rejection, or setback, and in what ways. Let’s go back to the examples I gave above — the relationship gone bad and the failed job interview. Instead of attributing the rejection to your being an unappealing woman, ask yourself what would have made the relationship work? What did that potential partner want and need that you didn’t? Apart from the smart of rejection, ask yourself whether the relationship was right for you. Ditto on the interview: What might you have done that you didn’t that would have argued your case more effectively? Were you actually a good fit for the job? By limiting yourself to the emotional reaction of being rejected, you are depriving yourself of the opportunity to learn from the experiences in both cases. Talk back and analyze.
5. Troubleshoot your doubts.
Write down three reasons why you should doubt your perceptions, and then list three reasons you shouldn’t, giving detailed explanations for each. Ferret out how much of your doubt is founded in what you were told about yourself by members of your family of origin. Analyze what you’ve written objectively, and see which list is the most convincing; the chances are good that you’ll be able to defang this automatic response. Again, these behaviors stop us from achieving our goals and, perhaps more importantly, block us from seeing our needs and our abilities with clarity.
6. Work on your emotional intelligence.
This is a skill set that can be improved with effort. Work on naming what you’re feeling in the moment and distinguishing among and between emotions. My book has specific exercises, as does The Daughter Detox Guided Journal and Workbook.
7. Start dealing with your reactivity.
Again, what was learned can be unlearned with effort. Recognize the situations that evoke strong emotional responses — and triggers in one-on-one situations — and use self-calming techniques. Counter your feeling of inadequacy with plans, especially if what is triggering you is something you think you ought be able to do with ease, such as sitting down with your boss, dealing with a figure of authority at your kid’s school, or going to a gathering where you know no one. Plan it out and figure out how to deal with your learned responses ahead of time. Despite what you think, many people struggle with these issues and learn to deal; so can you.
Be your own advocate, and mother yourself as you deserved to be mothered. And, yes, once dealt with, the past can be tossed on the trash heap of personal history as a tale to be told, or not.
Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash, “Approach and avoidant temperament as basic dimensions of personality,” Journal of Personality (2010), 78 (3), 865-906.
Mayer, John D. and Peter Salovey, “What is Emotional Intelligence,” in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence, edited by Peter Salovey and D.J. Slype (New York: Basic Books, 1997.)
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A., “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice (1978), 15(3), 241-247
Badawy, Rebecca L., Brooke A. Gazdag, Jeffrey R. Bentley, and Robyn L. Brouer, “Are all imposters created equal? Exploring gender differences in the imposter phenomenon-performance link,” (2018), Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 156-163.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression,” American Psychologist, (2011), vo. 66 (8), 671-679.