There is a question that comes up frequently when the discussion turns to how your adult life is is shaped by the experiences of a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met. This question is deceptively simple and complex at once: “How do you acquire a sense of belonging and inclusion when you never belonged to begin with?”
I know this particular feeling from the inside because there was a time in my life when I, too, felt as if I were on the outside looking in, my nose pressed to the window of the world, while everyone else congregated inside, big smiles on their faces. That feeling co-existed with friendships, romances, and worldly success. When I was compiling the question list for my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book (from which this post is adapted), it was submitted by a large number of readers.
Women report that this feeling absolutely persists despite their having built adult lives that include meaningful and deep relationships. They have lovers, partners, or spouses; close friends, colleagues, and a circle of acquaintances; work and activities that keep them busy and engaged; and, often, children of their own. And yet they feel a sense of exile, of being different from other people in meaningful ways, shut out, or perhaps adrift. What they felt in their families of origin—rejected, marginalized, ignored, unheard, inadequate, or unlovable—dogs them. It’s like a giant can of stain that spills out onto their world and colors it.
What the feeling of not belonging can teach you
Again, I am neither a therapist nor a psychologist, but I know this terrain, and I think it’s nothing more than an accurate snapshot of where you are on the highway to healing and reclaiming yourself. Your focus is still on what you didn’t get and missed, both in childhood and adulthood, and you still actively feel the sting and pain of being unloved as vivid, pulsing, and raw. Despite all that has happened in your adult life, you still return to that primary role of daughter as your mainstay, despite all the other roles you play. This is what I call “the core conflict” in my book, Daughter Detox; it’s the battle between your recognition of maternal wounding and a continuing hope that there’s a magic wand somewhere that will turn your mother into the mother you need and deserve.
Even if you have taken steps to manage your relationship to your mother and your family of origin—by setting boundaries, limiting contact in meaningful ways, or perhaps deciding on full estrangement—your focus still remains on her.
Tackling the questions that can help you heal
So, if you’re still feeling as if you don’t belong and find yourself fumbling for the key that will get you out of your childhood room, ask and answer the following questions to get yourself where you need to be:
- Why are you still focused on your childhood treatment when your life offers you so much validation?
Again, the core conflict is a bear that has to be wrestled to the ground and you need to let go of the hope that keeps you stuck. That hope is driven by denial and self-doubt (“Maybe she’s not so bad,” “Maybe she doesn’t mean it,” “Maybe it’s all in my head”). You need to let go of that hope as well as denial and move to acceptance and mourning. You will regain your power by admitting you are powerless to change her.
- Why can’t you let go of the old pain?
If you haven’t tried therapy, now is the time; working with a gifted therapist can be a game-changer. If you have tried therapy in the past but found it didn’t help, please consider that you may not have had the right counselor or you may not have been ready to deal with the issue at hand. While my evidence is all anecdotal, all of the interviews I conducted for Daughter Detox along with ongoing conversations with readers on Facebook make it clear that the ability to recognize and deal with the effects of childhood often comes late; most daughters are in their mid-forties and fifties, and some are even older.
- Are you keeping yourself on the carousel by asking questions that can’t be answered?
If you are still focused on wondering why your mother doesn’t love you, asking what you can possibly do to make her love you, or thinking that it’s all your fault, you are keeping yourself stuck and feeding that sense of not belonging. You must stop asking and work on letting go.
- Has staying focused on your childhood become a default adult position?
This is a tough question to answer, and it’s not about victim-blaming either. Do you feel your childhood explains or excuses some of your adult behavior? It’s really important that we distinguish between “explain” and “excuse” on the path to healing. And as a believer in free will, I think that even explanations have a limited shelf life when you bring behaviors into consciousness. Yes, tough talk, but necessary.
You actually do belong, but you won’t feel it fully until you are able to let go and move on the path of healing.
Copyright © 2020 by Peg Streep
This post is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019 by Peg Streep.
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