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Unloved Daughters and the Cycles of Self-Doubt

1. Separate the present from the past.

Key points

  • You need to distinguish between healthy questioning and analysis of choices you've made and the cycle of worrisome thoughts.
  • Daughters who were constantly criticized, maligned, or marginalized are more likely to be trapped in ruminative loops.
  • The best strategy may be to confront the worry and the worst-case scenario.
 Molnar Balint/Unsplash.
Source: Molnar Balint/Unsplash.

Everyone questions and even worries about the big decisions they have to make and stews about what they might have done better when things go south, but there is a big difference between healthy questioning and being sucked into an endless cycle of rumination or second-guessing. Questioning can take a dive into unhealthy territory, especially for daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and who were subjected to constant criticism, lack of support, or invalidation.

In part, this is a function of what the daughter has internalized as certain supposed “truths” about herself — that she’s incapable or unworthy, lacking in aptitude or ambition, for example — which were said to and about her in her family of origin. Here’s what Kate, 49, had to say:

“My mother’s specialty is criticizing me constantly and publicly. As a kid, no matter how well I did something, my mother would recast my success either as lucky or as the achievement not being that difficult. Whatever choice I made, she would denigrate it and tell me how stupid I was and how anyone else, including my two sisters, would have made the right choice. It was a double whammy. It’s been very hard for me to trust my own judgment all of my life. It takes me forever to make a decision, and I’m always panicked that I’ve made the wrong choice.”

She’s not alone. The default position for many unloved and unsupported daughters is the habit of self-criticism — believing that you have deep and unfixable character flaws that guarantee failure and bad outcomes — and that habit, in turn, leads to rumination and second-guessing.

How to Stop the Merry-Go-Round of Worries and Thoughts

Following are some strategies drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering From an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, and psychological research:

1. Separate the present from the past. Take a deep breath and focus on whether the moment at hand really is worrisome or whether you are just in default mode — either hearing the echo of old put-downs or being triggered by a similar choice or event that didn’t go as well as you wanted it to. Pull back and make sure that the past isn’t infiltrating the present. If you discover that it’s really old business animating the moment, talk back to those voices and use positive self-talk to calm yourself down.

2. Identify your feelings. To manage your emotions, you must be able to identify them first. Is fear of failure driving the ruminative or second-guessing patterns or are you genuinely unsure of which course of action to take? If fear or anxiety is driving the car that’s you, go back to #1 and see where the panic is coming from. If it’s the latter, research shows that the best route is to write down the possible avenues you could take and to make a plan.

 Hans Jurgen Mager/Unsplash
Source: Hans Jurgen Mager/Unsplash

3. Learn to deal with intrusive thoughts, aka rumination. The work of Daniel Wegner shines a light on why, when we’re trying actively to suppress a thought, we can’t stop thinking about it. It actually has a name — ironic processes of mental control — but it all comes down to the brain searching for the very thought you want to banish from the top of your mind. One experiment showed this in stunning detail, especially when you consider that most of us don’t spend very much time thinking about polar bears. When specifically asked not to think about white bears, participants thought about them once a minute! In fact, those who were instructed not to think about them had them come to mind more often than those who were told to think about them. This is one of those situations in which just saying “no” doesn’t work.

Wegner offers us some interesting solutions, the first of which is the one that happens to work best for me.

  • Invite the white bears in. Basically, this means confronting the worst-case scenario or worry that is keeping you on the merry-go-round and sleepless at 3 a.m. What will it look like if the thing you worry about most comes to pass? Coming eye-to-eye with the white bear allows you to think about how you would deal if it did.
  • Assign yourself a worry time. I personally can’t make this work, but I have spoken to a number of people for whom it has, and it is often recommended by therapists. This is a variety of self-care; since you don’t have the power to stop the white bear, you can grant it visiting hours. You decide how much worry time you need and book it for yourself.
  • Use visualizations and breathing techniques to self-calm. This goes back to the first strategy, which involves figuring out whether the past is triggering the ruminative pattern in the present; if it is, finding ways of self-calming that work for you is key. Visualize a person or place that makes you feel safe and secure in as much detail as possible; securely attached people do this unconsciously when they are stressed, but research shows that unloved daughters can do it as well.

It takes time and effort to get off the merry-go-round, but if repetitive thoughts are more the norm for you than not, you can learn to do it.

Copyright © 2021 by Peg Streep

Facebook image: Farknot Architect/Shutterstock


Wegner, D. M. (1994). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts. New York: The Guildford Press.

Wegner, D. M. (1997). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, no. 1: 34–52.

Wegner, D. M. (2011). Setting free the bears: escape from thought suppression. American Psychologist. 66, no. 8: 671–680.