The problem with emotional baggage left over from a toxic childhood is that some of the heaviest stuff is what you can’t see; you look at the metaphorical luggage carousel, and some things are bright pops of color. The way you get anxious when someone criticizes you. Your self-consciousness when attention is drawn to you and your inner self is squirming. The familiar knot in your chest or stomach or the headache that creeps from your eyes to your temples when you’re thrust into an unfamiliar situation, like a new job or a function where you know no one. The deep pain when someone rejects you. The way you feel lousy before the holidays and unhappy about interactions with your family of origin. But then there are other, heavier pieces of luggage you can’t see. This post is about those.
Recognition: horrible pain and the new dawning
The fact that your emotional needs weren’t met by your mother or father or both is the proverbial elephant in the room; this is a recognition that usually takes real time to absorb and understand. Admitting that the person charged with loving you doesn’t is absolutely excruciating, and it’s not surprising that getting to recognition is a battle for many. Among the many reasons are the normalization of childhood experiences, the innate adaptability of children to survive where they find themselves, the long dependence of human children on their caretakers, the mammalian hardwired need for love and attunement, the slow growth of defense mechanisms in children, and, of course, denial.
This is the first big piece of baggage. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on it, which keeps us distracted from the real stuff we’re carrying around. Unless and until we can come to a place where we both recognize that we have been wounded and know who has wounded us, and we are ready to act on it, we remain stuck. This piece of baggage can be a shape-shifter over time and years; we may confront it and then double back and go back to denial.
What I call the core conflict in my book, Daughter Detox, is what keeps this steamer trunk in plain sight at one moment and hidden from view the next. The thing is that there doesn’t appear to be an expiration date on wanting or needing your mother’s love; women feel the need long after their mothers have died, when they are deep into old age themselves. I define the core conflict as the battle between that continuing need for maternal love and the recognition that it was withheld.
Recognition and pushback
She’s long known that things aren’t okay with her mother, but everyone tells her that the past is the past, that she needs to move on, that no family is perfect, and—here’s the kicker— “She’s the only mother you have.” The cultural echo of these observations is loud and pervasive. Whether these messages are delivered with some subtlety or with sledgehammer directness matters less than the consistency of the delivery.
It takes an extreme level of discomfort and unhappiness for a daughter to begin to see how her childhood treatment has insinuated itself into all areas of her life. I liken this to a can of stain that has covered everything so completely that you don’t even notice. When all of life gets poured through an old filter inherited from childhood, joy comes out muddied and may even disappear. Only full recognition can move that steamer trunk out of the way.
The smaller but heavy bags we carry, sight unseen
Recognition of the dynamics in our family of origin is just the first step; once we’ve seen the steamer trunk, we have to focus on our own behaviors and all the other paraphernalia we’re still schlepping along with us. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route to dealing with these behaviors, but you can also help yourself through increased self-awareness.
This is the expandable one with enough room to pack a lifetime of doom and gloom, unless you begin the work of emptying it; it even has wheels, because it’s with you every day and every night, acting as a filter on how you view the world. The big problem here is that not only don’t you trust other people to be kind and true to you, but you don’t trust your own perceptions and thoughts either. The combination of the two keeps you spinning like a top emotionally and without a sense of inner direction. Relationships are often fraught affairs, marked by deep insecurity on your part and, sometimes, an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability. All of this stems from childhood experiences in your family of origin, when the people you were supposed to be able to trust to care for you didn’t, and your own perceptions were actively undermined or ignored. Deep down inside, you’re afraid no one will ever be in your court. Your response to that will be to take it as a given and put on a full suit of emotional armor or become anxious and preoccupied with what you think is inevitable pain and rejection.
Difficulty managing emotions
A number of theorists believe that an insecure style of attachment is actually a failure of the emotional regulatory system; the three adult insecure styles are anxious-preoccupied, fearful-avoidant, and dismissive-avoidant. A loving and attuned mother teaches the infant and child how to regulate emotion and self-soothe in times of stress; the unloved child doesn’t learn that and resorts to cobbled-together and largely maladaptive coping skills instead. She either learns to dissociate from emotions and put on a suit of emotional armor (the avoidant styles) or uses clumsy efforts to deal by being emotionally volatile, aggressive, and panicked by turns (anxious-preoccupied).
On an emotional level, this traps her in her childhood room for life until she is ready to tackle and change the behaviors she learned and can finally unlock the door.
Inability to see herself clearly
A mother’s face, as I always write, is the first mirror in which a daughter catches a glimpse of herself, and when that mother is hypercritical, dismissive, or ignoring, the reflection is completely distorted. Infants and children learn who they are by interacting with their primary caretakers, and it’s little wonder that the ignored, marginalized, or invalidated daughter has little sense of who she really is. She’s internalized what’s been said to her—that’s she’s lacking in some fundamental way, unlovable, or difficult—and what’s been communicated by her treatment. That tape plays in her head despite what’s being said to her and about her in the present, and it will continue until she begins to actively countermand it. Many daughters suffer from feeling fraudulent despite their achievements—it actually is called “imposter syndrome”—which is a result of that running tape continuing to undermine self-esteem. This piece of baggage is like an invisible backpack until you actively take it off.
Feeling isolated and separate
That sense that you’re the only person on the planet whose mother doesn’t love her begins young; it’s fed and watered by the cultural mythologies that insist that all women are nurturers and all mothers love. What the child believes is that it’s all her fault, and that thought fills her with shame and fear. That fear can cast a shadow long into a woman’s adult life, even when she has achieved real connections with others who love her and has people she loves. As a result, I’ve come to feel that initial feeling of being singled out and set apart is as formative and damaging as the lack of maternal love itself; a sense of truly belonging can elude a woman for decades of adult life. This is a heavy bag which can rob joy from the sweetest moments, and until the daughter fully accepts that her mother’s treatment was never about her, but always about her mother, that shadow won’t fully disappear.
Seeing the bags is the first step. Healing is about letting go of them and walking into the future with no luggage in hand. Therapy with someone gifted is the best route, supported by self-care and help.
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