Unloved Daughters and the Problem of Unmet Goals

How underachievement may reflect childhood experiences.

Posted Oct 17, 2019

Source: best_nj/Shutterstock

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 often fail to see how the past insinuates itself into the present. There’s a large body of research that informs the understanding of why some people find it relatively easy to set and meet goals, while others are utterly stymied.

Our inability to thrive, be happy, and to set and meet goals for ourselves can often 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, we may unwittingly become the biggest obstacle to our progress. We may unconsciously sabotage ourselves without even realizing that we are.

While I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I have spent more than a decade researching the effects on daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood, primarily by their mothers. While my evidence is anecdotal and not scientific, I’ve found that these daughters either end up high-achievers or chronic under-achievers; there appears to be little middle ground. It’s an observation worth keeping in mind as you think about where you fit in.

The following are some ways you might be holding yourself back, and why you have trouble setting or achieving goals.

You’re motivated by 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 mountain to explain it, but, obviously, the metaphor is a stand-in for any challenge you might face in life. When you look at the incline, 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 an 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 skirt challenges, because she’s learned that there’s a price to be paid for falling on her 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 method if she fails, 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. In fact, anecdotally, at least, there seems to be no middle ground—just high-achievers and their opposites.

Think about whether you are largely motivated by approach or avoidance and why. Is this stance working for you? Answering that question honestly will move you forward.

You constantly second-guess yourself

It’s not precisely surprising that if you were told that 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 the “Imposter Phenomenon,” 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.

Second-guessing yourself is very different from a critical and objective review of your progress on achieving your goal; the first is very personal and focuses on your flaws, while the second is analytical and impersonal. Start distinguishing between the negative habit and the positive review; write your goals down, break them down into steps with deadlines, and review your progress as you might that of a third party.

Second-guessing is the result of insecure attachment; find ways of outsmarting your worries. There are exercises in both of my books, Daughter Detox and The Daughter Detox Guided Journal and Workbook, to help you.

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 Phenomenon, too, since you veer from blaming yourself for all your failures to not giving yourself credit for your own hard work.

Again, critiquing the steps taken or not, the mistakes and missteps, or the way one approach might have been better than another is not self-criticism. Talk back when you lapse into self-criticism and recognize it as an old, default position that will help no one.

You don’t trust your perceptions

Many daughters are told that they’ve misheard what was said, that they can’t take a joke, or that they’re “too sensitive” or “overly dramatic”; if these comments were a staple in your childhood home, the chances are good that you might actually believe them. Doubting your own self-worth as well as your grasp on experience will absolutely stop you from trying anything new or extending your reach.

Double-check your perception by asking whether the goal you’ve set is attainable, whether you have the necessary skills to achieve it, and whether your plans are adequate; if you answer any of these questions negatively, sit down and either reset the goal realistically or come up with different ways to achieve it.

Again, recognize where this old, default setting comes from.

You don’t use your feelings to inform your thoughts

Part of effective goal setting and achievement depends on being emotionally and intellectually resilient when things don’t pan out the way you expected, or you outright fail. Emotionally intelligent people are able to use emotions to refine their thinking and strategies, especially in moments of stress; this is learned behavior which you too can learn with effort.

Of course, to have your gut feelings inform your thinking, you need to manage them first. The next statement continues the discussion.

You have trouble managing your emotions

People who are successful at achieving their goals aren’t just good at motivating themselves and planning; they also know how to manage their feelings when there’s a setback, a glitch, or an outright failure. Unloved daughters tend to go down for the count when something goes wrong because the setback confirms their worst thoughts about themselves; they may be flooded with emotions they can’t handle.

Learning to self-calm in these moments so that your rational mind doesn’t get hijacked by negativity is central to achievement; you can use visualization, for example, when you begin to feel overwhelmed. High-achievers are resilient when things go south; they are capable of regrouping, coming up with a Plan B, and renewing their efforts. You, too, can learn to do this once you begin to manage your emotions with greater success.

You’re an echoist

This terminology has been popularized by and explored in Dr. Craig Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissism, and it adds a valuable perspective to the discussion, especially if you were raised by a parent or parents high in narcissistic traits. Dr. Malkin reminds us that narcissism is a spectrum—think of it as a line that stretches from left to right—and in the middle is healthy self-regard. While we’re all familiar with the narcissist who’s at the far right end—full of him or herself, grandiose, deficient in empathy, and who sees others in terms of possible self-aggrandizement—many of us aren’t familiar with the echoist who’s at the spectrum’s far left end. This person lacks even a hint of healthy narcissism and hides in plain sight.

Not every unloved daughter will become an echoist; her behaviors are developed in response to her mother’s treatment of her, and some patterns of maternal behavior are more likely to produce an echoist. Mothers who are high in narcissistic traits, and who teach their children that their job is to stay in Mom’s orbit, act as they want you to act or pay the consequences, and that pleasing someone else is more important than voicing your own needs and wants, provide the perfect environment for raising an echoist.

This daughter has learned that the path to success with her mother is remaining voiceless. Daughters who have mothers who are combative or controlling also learn that to speak out has a high price, and some will detach from their own feelings and thoughts to go along to get along; they have absorbed the lesson that staying under the radar is a safe place to be and that unconscious assumption follows them into adult life.

Mothers high in control with an authoritarian style of parenting, who often believe that criticizing a child or undermining her achievement prevents her from “getting a swelled head,” being self-centered, prideful, or thinking “too highly of herself,” also produce echoists. Similarly, shaming a child for “being too sensitive” or crying or showing her feelings muzzles the child emotionally, and echoism becomes a way of protecting herself. Using the full spectrum of narcissism can give us special insight into the unloved daughter’s difficulties in achievement and setting goals.

The underachiever is usually understood in terms of her lack of self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and how she’s been taught to avoid failure, but adding the perspective of echoism builds another layer of nuance into the mix. According to Dr. Malkin, the extreme echoist doesn’t want to be noticed; she’s much more comfortable hiding in the shadows where it’s safe, and what better way to do that than to underachieve?

Review this list and see how many of these are your default positions and tackle them one by one. Your rebuilt and reclaimed self-esteem, along with modifications to your behaviors, will be the sturdy foundation on which you can build your future.

This post is drawn and adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.  

All rights reserved. © Copyright 2019 by Peg Streep


Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash. Approach and avoidant temperament as basic dimensions of personality. Journal of Personality,2010, vol. 78 (3), pp. 865-906.

Elliott, Andrew and Todd Thrash. The Intergenerational Transmission of Fear of Failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2004, vol. 30(8), pp.957-971.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.  Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 1978, vol. 15(3), pp. 241-247

Langford, Joe and P.R, Clance. The Imposter Phenomenon: Recent Research Findings Regrading Dynamics, Personality and Family Patterns and Their Implications for Treatment. Psychotherapy, 1993, vol. 30 (3), pp. 495-501.

Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.