Source: Photograph by Samuel-Schwendener. Copyright free. Unsplash
“Why is this taking so long? Every time I think I’m making progress, something comes up, I become totally undone, and I feel as though I am back at square one. Is this normal? Can you actually use the word ‘normal’ when you’re talking about a toxic childhood?”
I get messages like this all the time from daughters who are picking up the pieces and trying to get to a place of health after growing up in a family where their emotional needs weren’t met. I fully understand their frustration because I lived it; I spent close to twenty years of my adult life trying either to manage my relationship to my mother or to end it, neither with much success. Why is it that healing from childhood wounds seems like the world’s longest car trip, even if you go into therapy?
Understanding the influence of childhood
While we focus on healing from the parts of childhood we consciously remember—the feelings of fear or abandonment, the way we were marginalized or actively made to feel inadequate, how our feelings and thoughts were routinely dismissed, the terrible hunger we felt for love and support—the reality is that it’s the unconscious ways of thinking and reacting that require healing and stand in the way of our living our best lives. Experiences in infancy and babyhood (and later) aren’t consciously remembered but they are stored in our memories and are the impetus for the behaviors we develop, including our style of attachment. It’s hard to overstate the malleability and adaptability of the human infant, in truth; since evolution is focused on survival first and foremost, we adapt in whatever ways we need to.
And, of course, it’s not simply the child’s openness to influence; it’s the length of time involved which makes recovery that much more difficult to achieve, and why setbacks are part of the process of recovery. Unlearning is hard work, and requires you to be patient with yourself, which I totally understand is frustrating and difficult.
Why it takes so long to heal
There’s a metaphor I use in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, and I think it explains a great deal. While you vividly remember certain moments from childhood—they exert weight in your memory, either symbolically or literally, and involve significant emotional pain—there are hundreds, even thousands, of small interactions that you don’t. Each of these is light as a feather but added up, they influence the daughter’s behavioral landscape in literal ways. Like a steady stream of water on soil, these interactions create groves and channels, unconscious and unseen, through which the daily events of adult life—in the here and now—are filtered, interpreted, and reacted to.
Our individual experiences create our individual channels and grooves. Having walked on eggshells or ducked for cover as children, we may approach the world in a defensive crouch, highly sensitive to slights and rejection. Or raised by a combative mother, we may always be looking for an edge, never able to truly be one-on-one with anyone. Or fearful that our inadequacies will show, we might become high achievers without ever really feeling the kind of self-reassurance successful endeavors bring to those who had loving childhoods.
Our recognition of how our emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and how we were wounded prepares us to begin the process of healing; recognition alone doesn’t heal us. It’s only when we begin to work on the maladaptive behaviors we acquired to get through childhood that healing actually begins.
Recognizing the predictable stumbling blocks
Each daughter’s path to heal is unique but there are nonetheless some pretty common obstacles many, if not most, will encounter. By knowing about them, you can anticipate them—and turn those boulders into pebbles. So listen up and be prepared; you so can do this!
1. Lack of acceptance
And by “acceptance,” I mean not just recognizing the dynamics of your mother and your family of origin but understanding that you cannot change those dynamics without their cooperation and that there is no magic wand. In my work, I call this “the core conflict” which I define as the tug-of-war between the daughter’s growing recognition of her wounds (and who wounded her) and her continuing need both for her mother’s love and normalcy. The core conflict, if it is still on-going, feeds into everything that follows.
Until you have found the moment at which the core conflict has finally gone quiet, you simply can’t heal. The human spirit continues to hope and deny, which I’ll return to at the end.
2. Continuing self-doubt
If you’ve always been told that you’re too sensitive, a drama queen, or that you’re just plain wrong about how you see your mother and perhaps the rest of your family, the chances are good that a little voice in your head is going to pipe up with those supposed “truths” at one point or another. When you hear that voice, talk back to it, and recognize that this is just old learned behavior, bubbling up. You will need to become your own best and most loyal cheerleader at these moments. My book, Daughter Detox, has specific strategies for beating down self-doubt.
3. Lack of imagination
This might be a function of battle fatigue or stress but if you find yourself thinking that you will never feel any better about yourself, you’re just lacking in imagination at the moment, unable to envision a future with a happier and more content you. Visualizations at times like this can help; this one is drawn from The Daughter Detox Guided Workbook and Journal.
Make time to do this visualization (yes, turn off your phone) and choose a place to sit or lie down where you feel calm. Relax before you start, releasing the tension in your body by taking deep, calming breaths.
Visualize a situation that would have formerly pushed all your buttons. It could be an argument with someone, the moment after someone has put you down or mocked you, going into a room full of strangers, or any other situation you would find stressful. See yourself defusing all of your automatic responses—feeling as if you’re always wrong, unworthy, or defensive—and acting in full consciousness. Imagine yourself behaving as your very best self, demonstrating your newfound ability to articulate what you’re feeling and being able to act as you wish. Imagine having the best version of yourself show up.
Do this visualization as often as you need to.
4. Trouble identifying and managing emotions
Second-guessing yourself—yes, that’s continuing self-doubt—is often energized and magnified by the many emotions daughters feel as they begin to unravel their knotted childhood history of relationships. These feelings can be surprising at times, complex, and even contradictory; a daughter may be intensely angry when she begins to appreciate the depth of the abuse or neglect she was subjected to as well as guilty or disloyal for calling her mother out on it. She may feel empowered and ashamed by turns, or feel utterly lost. Knowing that this may happen—especially since managing emotions is not the unloved daughter’s strong suit—can help you deal with what may feel like an emotional onslaught at times.
There are things you can do proactively when you find yourself in one of these tailspins. First, use the Stop. Look. Listen. technique I describe in Daughter Detox which is primarily meant to deal with interactions with other people but can also be used to troubleshoot your own thoughts and behavior. “Stop “means just what it sounds like; take a time out. Go quiet and preferably go sit somewhere you are comfortable. Take deep breaths. Now, “Look” at those thoughts and feelings calmly, quietly, and objectively, as if you were seeing a stranger experience them. Why is this person reacting this way? What does objectivity allow you to see what you wouldn’t otherwise? Now do the “Listen” part which requires you to ask yourself questions and to listen to your body. Ask yourself where your feelings are coming from, and what they are connected to; are you primarily afraid or anxious, and if so, of what? Is your own lack of confidence in your perceptions driving your fear? You will become a better manager of your emotions by listening.
Journaling may also help you navigate these waters, and help you sort out your emotions, especially if you work at labeling your emotions with some precision.
5. Managing pain
Understanding will heal your pain in the long-run, especially when you fully mourn the mother you deserve, but recognition can be painful and can impede your progress; this too is predictable. All living creatures, from amoebas to you and me, avoid pain and so it’s not exactly a surprise that when it comes to untangling this grand mess, some of us just feel like crawling under the covers and wishing it all away. Understand that impulse for what it is and keep your eyes on the prize: You being you. Surround yourself with friendship, love, and beauty; make the pain of loss manageable.
Practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that every child—including you—is deserving of love, support, and an environment in which she can thrive.
6. Hopefulness and denial
We circle back to the core conflict here because it is so much a part of this journey. Humans are hardwired to need to belong and if there is a single thing that stands in a daughter’s way, it is her need to belong, to be like everyone else—yes, those loved daughters she so envies—and to be accepted. The hope that there could be an epiphany of sorts—a magic wand that could turn her mother into the mother she’s always wanted and needed—dies very hard, as I can personally testify.
Be vigilant about false hopefulness. When you find yourself making excuses for your mother’s treatment, recognize the denial and use Stop. Look. Listen. The carousel can be stopped by your own growing conscious awareness.
Healing is hard work as is undoing years and years of learned behavior. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route but self-help can also support your efforts. Healing may seem elusive but it can be achieved. Really.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2018