Unloved Daughters: Anger, Recognition, and Recovery
Understanding the complex role of anger in reclaiming your life.
Posted Jan 24, 2019
"How do I stop being so angry? Now that I understand what went on in my childhood, I am just so angry. I’m angry at my mother for treating me so cruelly. I’m angry at my father for standing by. I’m angry at my siblings for falling into line and torturing me. I’m angry at my relatives who never spoke up." — Angie, 42
The question of anger often comes up in messages I get from readers of my book Daughter Detox, understandably so, because while anger can play a temporarily positive role as the daughter begins to really see and understand how her childhood affected her, her continuing anger becomes yet another problem for her to tackle. This is something I remember well; I was an incredibly angry young woman in my 20s, heavily armored, quick to retaliate with a sarcastic or biting quip. In hindsight, it was clearly easier for me to be angry in public than it was to show how afraid and insecure I was. I didn’t connect my anger to my childhood experiences at the time, but I certainly do now.
Because I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, the following observations are drawn from research and from interviews and discussions with women who are coming to terms with the effects of their toxic childhoods.
The upside and downside of anger
A daughter’s anger surfaces at a very specific time when she begins, finally, to understand how her mother’s treatment — and her experiences in her family of origin — have affected her. I use the word finally very deliberately, because even though they may recognize young that something is “off” in their family or even that they’re being mistreated, most daughters are unable to act without a significant passage of time. My own work — though not scientific and all anecdotal — has revealed that the ability to recognize and act on the recognition comes very late in life; most women are past 40 and more likely into their 50s or 60s.
Recognition of her treatment is slow, because of the coping mechanisms she learned in childhood and her hopefulness that, somehow, she can solve the problem she has with her mother. Recognition is impeded by normalizing her experiences, dissociating from the pain, rationalizing or denying her mother’s treatment (by ascribing it to her personality or her own childhood abuse, asserting that she must have a reason, or justifying it in some other way), as well as her continued need for her mother’s love and her hope that she can get it. These two opposing impulses — her growing recognition versus her need to win her mother’s love — are what I call the core conflict in my book, Daughter Detox.
When her recognition tips the scales and kick-starts her need to protect and save herself from her mother’s continuing hurtfulness, the chances are good that her initial response will be anger, which is actually a good thing in the moment. Her anger at the unfairness of her treatment helps clarify how and why she’s been in denial, and will provide the fuel for acting on and dealing with her predicament; her anger often effectively sweeps aside her avoidance of confrontation. That’s the positive part; here comes the negative.
What anger is, and how it can get in your way
Human beings are hardwired to get angry; it’s an emotion that’s part of our self-protective gear, also known as the stress response or, more popularly, “fight or flight.” There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know what anger feels like in the body — “seeing red” isn’t just a metaphor in this case — and all of us have experienced the hot flush, the heart-pumping moment that accompanies anger. Our bodily sensations are the external manifestations of a process that’s going on in our brains and disrupts our ability to think, as the work of Sarah N. Garfinkel, Emma Zorab, and others made clear. The researchers wanted to test what priming for anger would do to a specific thought process — in this case, identifying real words from non-words. During the course of the experiments, after priming the participants subliminally either with the words “anger” or “relax,” both blood pressure readings and MRIs were performed to see the primes’ effect on lexical ability. As it happens, the anger prime didn’t just raise blood pressure, but also changed activity within the brain itself; additionally, anger increased the reaction time to lexical cues and interfered with semantic decision-making, a relatively high-level cognitive process. So, if you’re trying to sort things out — as an unloved daughter must — anger isn’t helpful.
Anger can keep you stuck
While some anger on the unloved daughter’s part is necessary to the process of recognition — she should be angry at how she was treated — it quickly becomes a detriment on the emotional level as well. The problem with anger is it ties us to the people we’re angry with; it’s not unusual for daughters to talk about wanting to hurt back, to show their mothers a dose of their own “medicine,” and even wanting revenge of some sort.
"I did want her to hurt the way I hurt and, for a while, that feeling was consuming. I thought about her constantly, in fact — more than I had over the course of 20 years of my adult life. It was as if someone had uncorked a bottle with all this toxic, explosive stuff, and I was the bottle. Finally, my husband confronted me and convinced me to see a therapist. Thank goodness he did. The anger was eating me alive. It was just as destructive as my mother, if in another soul-sucking way." — Lydia, 52
Sadly, this kind of anger only substitutes a new dance which tries to elicit a hurt response for the old dance of trying to wrest our mother’s love from her; this new dance keeps us effectively as trapped and as focused on her as we were when we were busy denying. Anger at those who didn’t protect you from her — usually your father, or perhaps other relatives or close intimates of your family of origin — as well as siblings who may have bullied and marginalized you and followed your mother’s lead, can keep you in the same kind of loop. Sustained anger just puts us on another merry-go-round with different horses and music.
Anger at yourself
Even worse in some ways is the anger the daughter often feels at having played along to get along for years and sometimes even many decades; she may berate herself for being stupid or a chump, ironically reinforcing the internalized self-critical voice that’s often a legacy from a childhood in which she was berated, mocked, marginalized, or even insulted on a constant basis. That was Amanda’s struggle:
“What kills me is that I can’t get the years back, years I could have been working on myself, being happier. My mother died 10 years ago, and it’s only now, at 64, that I am finally seeing the truth of it all. How could I have been so blind? How could I have been co-opted by denial?”
In answer to Amanda, it’s remarkably easy to be co-opted by denial and hopefulness, as many daughters can attest. That said, time can’t be recaptured, of course; what you have is the present. If this is happening to you, and you are beating yourself up, you must address it immediately. It’s holding you back. And no, it’s not weird or strange; in the context of recovery, being angry with yourself isn’t unexpected. Unexpected doesn’t make it good, however.
And no, venting doesn’t always help
One reader wrote to say, “At least I’m venting. That’s good, right? That’s a way of letting go of anger, right?" She raised an important question I hadn’t thought to ask. It’s a cultural trope that letting off steam — a.k.a. venting — and engaging in some physical activity (running it off, punching a pillow, etc.) is a good way of letting go of anger, but did you know that’s actually not true?
That’s exactly what a study by Brad Bushman found 17 years ago — yes, cultural myths die hard — when he challenged the idea of anger and catharsis in a series of experiments. In his handy introduction to the subject, he traces the idea of catharsis back to its Freudian roots — Freud believed deeply that repression was the source of many of our psychological maladies — and lists research studies, one after the other, that failed to validate the claim that venting decreases anger. To put the icing on the proverbial cake, Bushman conducted a series of experiments to either prove the truth of the assumption or expose its falsity with over 600 participants. Anger was primed by a supposedly critical review of a paper by a peer; angered participants were told to think about the person who angered them while hitting a punching bag (rumination group) or told to think about getting physically fit by punching (distraction group). There was also a control group who were just left to chill out. After completing the punching part, they were offered the chance to administer loud bursts of noise to the people who’d angered them. Well, guess what? The people in the rumination group not only stayed angry, but were the most aggressive, followed by those who just punched the bag. The least angry? The ones who just vented and chilled.
So, is venting necessarily a good thing? No, the chances are good it’ll just make you angrier, unless you vent and let go. Easier said than done, especially when it comes to your mother and childhood. This is especially true for those among us who tend to ruminate.
Understanding anger and mourning
Anger does have a place in recovery, and that is in the context of mourning the mother you rightly deserved. My view of things is drawn from the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, but not her most famous one; it is a book she wrote with David Kessler called On Grief and Grieving. I have found that the argument, understanding, and advice contained in this book applies almost directly to the process of recovering from childhood as I understand it. This vision of things will be familiar to those who have read Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, but new to others. They delineate the five stages of loss — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — though in this book they make it clear that the stages may not come in order, that some people will skip entire stages, and that the stages themselves may scramble and fade into each other. I think that’s important to remember, since your anger may fade in and out — coming out with more velocity and then retreating — as you move through the phases of grief and mourning.
What does it mean to mourn the mother you deserved
Exactly what it sounds like — to grieve for love and support you didn’t get in childhood and adulthood. The mourning process includes all the interactions missed — the laughter and the sharing of experience, the loving touch, the attuned support of a mother who sees you and listens to you — as well as a cool-processed recollection of the interactions that hurt and marginalized you. Mourning not only allows us to feel compassion for the child and the girl we once were — oh, the raw need and longing! — and the woman we are now, but allows us to see that anger may be the emotion most available to us, as Kübler-Ross and Kessler point out, but isn’t the only one we feel.
Grieving allows us to feel. It lets us parse our thoughts and emotions, seeing that feelings of loss lie just below the surface, crippling shame right beneath that, paralyzing fear that no one will ever truly love us, and — beneath that — the deep howl of great anguish. Mourning the mothering you deserved — and yes, permitting yourself to weep, scream, and keen — puts you in touch with all of your feelings, including those you learned to wall off, dissociate from, or deny as part of your coping mechanisms in childhood. The best place to do this is in the office of a gifted therapist, but if you can’t afford it, working on mourning and pushing through to letting go and getting to acceptance on your own beats staying stuck. Again, here, my book Daughter Detox may be of help, along with this post which sketches out the process.
Do make the process of grieving literal
Yes, I know no one has died (although you may be doing this after your mother has died), but true mourning requires ritual. It’s not like sitting down, grabbing your tea or coffee, and saying, “Okay, this is like Marie Kondo. I just have to ask myself to either love it or let it go.” Nope, nope, nope. Research consistently shows that ritual helps the process of grieving and also allows us to feel more in control, because acting reinforces a sense of agency. In their study of people who used ritual after experiencing loss, Michael Norton and Francesca Gino also found that the type of ritual was less important than the fact of performing one.
The following suggestions are adapted from Daughter Detox, but feel free to come up with your own.
- Rituals for letting go — These are aimed at letting go of your anger and your painful childhood experiences. Many daughters find it freeing to write a detailed letter to their mothers, one they have no intention of sending. Others have written down their deepest emotions on slips of paper and then burned or buried them. Many years ago, I burned photographs that symbolized my childhood and then tossed the ashes to the wind.
- Rituals for mourning the mother you deserved — Write about what it would have been like having a mother who understood you and listened; be as expansive in detail as you can be, and describe how you would have felt in her company. Think about things you might have done together — going on a walk, talking about a book you’d both read, and anything else that would symbolize the closeness a mother and her daughter can enjoy. Alternatively, collect quotations about love which describe the kind of support and understanding you should have received as a daughter; then, write about them and what it would have meant to have a mother like this in your life.
Working through mourning to acceptance and ending the core conflict
The progress of grieving is also one of letting go — of anger, disappointment, pain — and moving toward acceptance of the fact that the relationship with your mother can’t be salvaged or changed. As one of my readers noted, this moment is positive, but it also marks the death of your hope that things can change, and that too is difficult and often painful. But letting go of hope effectively ends the core conflict and focuses your attention on dealing with your wounds and healing. It’s at that moment that true growth begins.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2019
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Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth, M.D. and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving. New York: Scribner, 2005.
Bushman, Brad J. “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2002)28 (6), 724-731.
Garfinkel, Sarah N., Emma Zorab, et al.,” Anger in brain and body: the neural and physiological perturbation of decision-making by emotion,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2016), 150-158.
Norton, Michael and Francesca Gino, "Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries," Journal of Experimental Psychology (2014), 143(1), 266-272.