One of the singular challenges of recovering from a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met is identifying the damage. I know that sounds hugely counterintuitive, but it’s true; it’s complicated by the fact that you can’t heal a wound you can’t see. While it’s the lack of maternal love and support we feel most keenly, along with the hurt of aggressive or combative maternal behaviors, the real damage lies elsewhere. Most unloved daughters accept their own behaviors, maladaptive or not, as simply a function of their own personalities or character; additionally, they’re likely to have internalized what their mothers and other family members said about them as specific truths about who they are and were.
"I was the difficult daughter, deemed theatrical and way too sensitive, according to my mother. I was mocked for my reactions, for my emotionality, for how I laughed and how I cried, and I believed all those things to be true about me. I was a self-conscious young adult, always worried that people would reject me, because I was so lacking. At 32, one of my professors in grad school pulled me aside and asked why I was so hard on myself, so unable to accept a compliment, why I tore down my own work. It was as though someone had unplugged a dam. Along with therapy, that was a turning point in my life." —Gerri, age 43
While the experience of each unloved daughter is unique, there are generalizations to be made that can be hugely helpful as each of us struggles to make sense of the past and how our childhood experience shaped us. The unconscious assumptions we draw from our childhood about how the world works and how people in it act animate our adult behaviors without our realizing they are rooted in the past; attachment theory calls these “mental models,” and until we see them clearly, they will continue to mold how we act and react years into adulthood. (These ideas are drawn from and fully explored in my latest book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
Following are some of the assumptions — all of them incorrect — that the unloved daughter is likely to believe until she actively begins to pursue a path of recovery; the quickest route is working with a gifted therapist, but self-help can also produce the conscious awareness that promotes reclaiming your true self.
While all these beliefs derive from how she was treated in her family of origin, especially by her mother, they become the working models for all manner of relationships, from the casual to the intimate, from friends to lovers and romantic attachments. I always liken it to a tipped-over can of stain that permeates every surface completely so that you don’t even notice it.
1. That she’s to blame for her mother’s treatment of her
This is the default position for every unloved child for a variety of reasons, all of them revelatory. First, she believes she’s to blame not just because she’s been told she is — that she’s difficult or obstinate, lacking in appealing qualities or flawed, too sensitive or emotional — but because she believes in the mother myth that all mothers love their children. Who else could be to blame? Second, blaming herself enables the hope that if she can only figure out what would make her mother love her, the problem will go away. This is counterintuitive, but it’s a pattern that can dominate an adult daughter’s behavior for decades, as she tries again and again to become the girl or woman her mother will love. Third, as researchers opined, blaming yourself is a lot less scary than facing the admission that the person who’s supposed to protect and care for you cannot be relied upon. Denial in this sense is both a warm, fuzzy blanket and a fortress against a horrifying truth.
2. That she can fix the relationship — with her mother or anyone else
Daughters with an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment anoint themselves as “fixers,” without necessarily seeing the pattern. Even though the daughter feels powerless most of the time, paradoxically her tendency to blame herself and devolve into self-criticism — the habit of focusing on your character flaws when things go wrong — also makes her feel that if she could only change herself, things will improve. Her tendency to try to bend herself into a shape that will make all disagreements and problems go away permeates all of her adult relationships, often with deleterious results.
Alternatively, those with a dismissive-avoidant style will simply walk the minute anything needs fixing. There’s no ground in-between. She’s too armored to even try.
3. That her essential character is set in stone
Yes, this totally contradicts her belief that she can somehow change herself to get her mother’s love, but even more importantly, it hobbles her in terms of both weathering stress and crises and getting on a path to healing. Research by Carol S. Dweck shows that people who believe that it’s possible to change themselves and their behaviors not only deal with stress more effectively, but are also happier and more apt to thrive in life; the belief that the self is fixed, of course, keeps the unloved child in you alive and well. Combine that with self-criticism, and you have a formula for staying stuck and unhappy.
4. That her feelings are illegitimate (and not to be trusted)
Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to use our feelings to inform our thoughts, and it’s in this realm that the unloved daughter is most hobbled by her childhood experiences. With a combative or emotionally unavailable mother, the daughter may be mocked for her shows of emotion, and learn that feelings are to be ducked, avoided, or hidden. The controlling mother with her tightly defined vision of who her child ought to be may use the same tactics, shaming her. The mother high in narcissistic traits may simply shut her daughter down when she protests, using gaslighting and marginalization as tools of control.
The dismissive-avoidant daughter cuts off from her feelings; the anxious-preoccupied one is at the mercy of them. The inability to emotionally self-regulate, especially in times of stress, is one of the largest tasks at hand when it comes to recovering from childhood.
5. That the peace is always worth keeping
One daughter explained it succinctly: “The yelling at our house never stopped. My mother shouted at my father, my father yelled at us, and then my mother joined in. I shut down the minute anyone raises their voice and will do just about anything to avoid a confrontation. I am working on it, but it’s a hard habit to break.”
Pleasing and appeasing tend to be default behaviors for many unloved daughters, which, alas, leaves them voiceless; they fail to understand that you can disagree with someone civilly and respectfully, because no one has ever modeled what that looks like.
6. That it’s normal for people to act hurtfully or use hurtful words
As children, we all believe that the little world of the family we grow up in is like families everywhere, and we tend to accept the interactions as indicative of how the larger world works; that’s especially true if you grow up around lots of arguing and anger. We grow inured to how people treat us, especially if the language and tone are abusive, and we carry that mental model of behavior into adulthood with us. Daughters who grew up with put-downs and stinging criticism are much more likely to turn a deaf ear to someone who treats them the same way in adulthood than someone who’s grown up with mutual respect and caring.
7. That independence and interdependence are mutually exclusive
The emotional confusion that many daughters feel about whether they should depend on anyone is often deep and complex, especially if there were no truly trustworthy and caring adults in their childhoods; they may wrongly conclude, as those with a dismissive-avoidant style attachment do, that total independence and needing no one are key to thriving. Those with an anxious-preoccupied style wrongly equate any kind of independence on the part of friends and lovers as a sign of rejection; their constant need for reassurance that they are loved, especially if a close other does something on his or her own or needs time alone, can be wearing and, ironically, often drives people away.
As research by Brooke Feeney makes clear, for a securely attached person, knowing that you can depend on someone else and rely on their support actually makes her or him more independent and empowered. As foreign as it may seem to the unloved daughter, this is an important lesson to be consciously learned.
8. That boundaries are like walls
Infants and children learn about healthy boundaries from a mother who is attuned and caring; the unloved daughter is often hopelessly confused about what healthy boundaries look like and flounders when they need to be set or maintained. All insecurely attached daughters think of boundaries as walls; for the anxiously attached, they are potential barriers to intimacy and to those who are avoidantly attached, they are protective fortifications. Of course, both points of view miss the point entirely.
9. That someone always has to be in control
This belief in the omnipresence of power is closely tied to both the confusion about independence and boundaries. It stems from the simple truth that regardless of the unloving mother’s pattern of toxic behavior, not one allows the daughter to be herself; she is always a marionette whose strings are being pulled by her mother. Dismissive and combative mothers, those high in control and narcissistic traits, as well as those who are emotionally unavailable or enmeshed all exert control over their daughters, limiting their emotional growth and ability to both know their own wants and needs and to express them. Emerging from childhood, many have internalized the lesson that all relationships involve control; they are likely to choose controlling partners because their treatment is so familiar. Unlearning this toxic lesson is key to growth.
10. That people aren’t to be trusted (especially women)
It’s not surprising that if the unloved daughter feels unsupported and perhaps even betrayed by the very person on the planet who’s supposed to love her, she has difficulty trusting; again, she wrongly generalizes about the world from the specifics of her experience. Most unloved daughters have trouble making female friendships work for this reason; they’re simply too armored, defensive, or wary. None of this is helped by the fact that her shame at not being loved by her mother robs her of the ability to talk about why she acts and reacts as she does.
11. That love is a transaction
Perhaps the hardest thing to unlearn from the experience of a toxic childhood is coming to a different vision of what love is and isn’t. These daughters have learned that love is conditional, that it must always be earned and that it might be summarily taken away, that it involves a quid pro quo, and that loving is a liability.
12. That she can’t be healed
This idea is not just aided and abetted by the belief in a fixed self which is damaged, but complicated by a misunderstanding of what it means to heal. In my view, too many daughters are looking for a solution that would render them good as new in some way, as if the past didn’t happen, and as if a wave of a magic wand could disappear their scars. Truthfully, that’s not going to happen. But if healing is understood as unlearning the behaviors which get in your way and altering your unconscious models of how people and relationships work, then you can absolutely recover. And the hole in your heart gets smaller and smaller as it is crowded out by new experiences and joy; eventually, the hole is small enough that it’s just a reminder that you’ve earned all that you have, and you have reason to be proud.
The way out of a toxic childhood isn’t easy, but it is a path that can be followed. This much I know for sure.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2018
Dweck, Carol S., “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,” Current Directions in Psychology Science (2008), vol. 7(6), 391-394.
Fenney, Brooke C. “The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (200&), vol.92 (2), 268-285.