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Toxic Childhood? 5 Spiritual Exercises to Heal the Soul

How to bolster and support recovery with simple steps.

Photograph by Jessica Arends. Copyright Free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Jessica Arends. Copyright Free. Unsplash

For the last two decades, I’ve turned my attention to the mother-daughter relationships in all of its iterations but with a specific focus on the damage done to a daughter when a mother is unloving, emotionally distant, self-involved, controlling. hypercritical, or dismissive. At a glance, this work looks very different from the spiritual books I wrote before but it actually isn’t as different as you’d think.

Most of these daughters emerge from childhood scarred in places; they have trouble managing and identifying their feelings and, while they are emotionally needy, they either tend to pick partners and friends who treat them as their mothers did or, alternatively, they wall themselves from close connections. (These scenarios reflect different styles of attachment, anxious-preoccupied, fearful-avoidant, and dismissive-avoidant.) They have difficulty recognizing the kind of boundaries that permit relationships to grow and thrive; they lack a true sense of self. These are psychological problems that require recognition of unconscious patterns and behaviors and then a concerted effort to dismantle old ways of reacting and behaving. Finally, recovery is accomplished by learning new behaviors. It is a long journey as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox.

And while the work is largely psychological, it’s important to remember that the word "psychology" is derived from the Greek words psyche (soul or breath) and logos (word or reason). I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist but I have found these spiritual ideas personally useful as have others. Some soul work can support and aid the healing process, and the following are suggestions for exercises you may want to incorporate into your recovery.

5 spiritual exercises to smooth the way

  • Give up your affirmations and ask questions instead

I know how popular and soothing affirmations can be but research shows that they don’t jumpstart the brain the way a question does. You can stand in front of a mirror, repeating “I will love and accept myself today,” and nothing much will happen. But if you ask yourself the question—“Will I love and accept myself today? —your brain will start searching for possible answers to what you can do to love and accept yourself. Does accepting yourself mean shutting off your default setting of self-blame for six hours or maybe a day? Does it mean buying yourself flowers as a treat? Does it mean ordering in so that you can relax instead of cook? Perhaps it means giving yourself permission not to feel guilty about all you didn’t get done.

Part of healing is figuring out how you can feel self-acceptance and love so try more than one.

  • Create a blessing bowl

It’s really easy to feel dragged down by all the inner work and, sometimes, the journey just feels endless. (Uh-huh. It’s the old, “Are we there yet?” Except you’re not in your parents’ car.) While it’s true that playing Pollyanna and just thinking positive thoughts 24/7 won’t push you to be proactive and work on your healing, it’s productive nonetheless to remember all the good things you bring to the table and all the people and opportunities your life affords. Blessings come in all sizes, from teeny ones to game-changers, after all.

Every day, write down something you’d categorize as a blessing on a small piece of paper, fold it up, and place it in a bowl. (Mine is glass, and I use colored paper so it looks pretty.) A blessing can be anything from the absence of something annoying (the train came on time, there was no traffic), a positive change or moment (the compliment you got from your boss, the sweet note your kid wrote you, staying on the treadmill for 10 more minutes) or a moment that lifted your spirits or made you happy (a friend dropped in unexpectedly, you made plans to do something fun, you and your spouse worked through a problem). Do it for a month and, then, on the last day of the month, re-read all you wrote.

You can also start a blessing bowl when you’re anticipating a stressful moment in life that you’ll need to get some help getting through. (This is something I suggest doing before Mother’s Day, for example, or an impending family gathering.)

  • Become a gardener of spirit

Not all of us garden or have a garden or terrace to plant but we can all garden indoors. I’m a great believer in being surrounded by living things like plants. A plant helps us to cement the idea of self-care and nurturing ourselves, and allows us to see ourselves as capable gardeners of our inner selves. If you are a gardener, just skip this part but if you’re a newbie, stay with me.

You can buy a pathos or philodendron and learn patience by waiting for growth (although they are death-defying and tolerate abuse) or you can do my fav, the sweet potato. Yes: You, a sweet potato, and a container of water can make magic together. Use an organic sweet potato, stick four toothpicks into it, and suspend its pointy end in water. Put it in a sunny window, please, or offer it as much light as you have. Yes, it will grow roots and then, voila! A vine will start!

The main thing: You learn to take care and you bolster your faith in transformation.

  • Take a real look at the child you were

This is an exercise I’ve done with readers on my Facebook page and the results were astonishing and heartwarming. One of the hardest aspects of recovery is dismantling the default position of self-criticism, and shutting off the tape in your head replaying what was said about you in your family of origin (that you were lazy or stupid, too sensitive, less than, or anything else). Find a photograph of yourself as a child and look at it as a stranger might. Do you see the person other family members saw? What do you see and think of this little girl? Talk to the little girl and empathize with her sadness and loneliness. Many readers report feeling great self-compassion spending time with their photos.

  • Create a letting go ritual

Counterintuitively, much of the work of healing involves letting go of old baggage we weren’t even aware that we were carrying. These bags are stuffed with behaviors that actually thwart us from getting what we want, emotions that keep us stuck and ruminating, as well as an inability to see ourselves clearly. We may continue in relationships we know make us unhappy, including those with our mothers or other relatives, because hopefulness and denial keep us tethered to the mast of a ship that is always running aground. What makes letting go even harder isn’t just a culture that tells us that perseverance is a key to success and meeting your goals but also that human beings are very conservative and prefer staying put rather than moving on to an unknown future, even if they’re miserable.

Learning to let go is a big deal, and always involves loss even as it promises progress. It does benefit you if you actively incorporate some rituals to celebrate small victories as well as losses, as many studies show.

There’s no rulebook and you can certainly make up your own rituals but I offer up what I have found worked for me as well as others.

  • Writing

You can write an exit letter to either a person or a behavior you are leaving behind; this affords you an opportunity to put down in writing exactly why you are making this decision and will help clarify both your thoughts and feelings. There’s no need to mail it; in fact, if it’s a person you are writing to, actually sending it begs a response and that’s not about leaving or letting go. Many unloved daughters write their mothers letters that remain unmailed and sometimes they simply burn them. The point is writing. (There is ample evidence that writing and journaling heal; if you’re curious, see the work of James Pennebaker.)

  • Fire rituals

Some people find it highly effective to write down what they’re letting go of on a piece of paper and then burning the paper in a fireproof vessel or fireplace; one reader burned photographs which, to her, were emblematic of periods in her life when she lost sight of herself. Lighting candles can also be a way of literally illuminating your space and your vision of yourself.

  • Water rituals

Since ancient times, water has been used ritualistically to cleanse both symbolically and literally and, yes, you can “wash your hands” of thoughts and feelings. (Some lavender soap helps, by the way.) Another exercise involves skipping or tossing stones or pebbles (or trying to skip, in my case) into a pond or body of water, letting go of whatever you need to with the stone itself.

The larger point about ritual is that it allows us to perform symbolic actions and, sometimes, that symbolism is just what we need to let go.

The ideas in this post are drawn from my books, most notably Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and The Daughter Detox Companion Workbook.

Copyright© 2020 by Peg Streep


Senay, Ibrahim, Dolores Albarracín, and Kenji Noguchi, “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior Through Introspective Self-Talk: The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense” Psychological Science (2010), vol.21(4), 499-504.

Norton, Michael I., and Francesca Gino. Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014, vol. 143(1), pp. 266-272.

Pennebaker, James W. and Janel D. Segal, “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, (1999), vol. 55 (10)1243=1254.