The year is coming to an end, and winter invites us all to engage in contemplation. The holiday season is especially trying for those who had a difficult childhood and who have ongoing relationships with their mothers and other family members that remain conflicted or toxic in nature and continue not to meet their emotional needs. Those who have cut or limited contact with their families of origin may feel as though healing is well-nigh impossible. All of us look to the New Year as a time to reset and recalibrate but the daughter who is still struggling with the effects of her childhood experiences on her adult life may feel special poignancy when it comes to setting goals for the future.
While each daughter’s experience is different, there are broad commonalities
It’s common for daughters who grow up without maternal love, support, and attunement to have issues trusting and depending on other people; they unconsciously generalize from their specific experiences and tend to see the world at large and the people in it through a lens colored by childhood experiences. They often lack self-love—which, in this context, isn’t a flaw but a basic part of feeling good about the person you are—as well as true self-esteem; even daughters who are high-achieving are often dogged by feeling like a fraud or a fake. (This is common enough that it actually has a name: The Imposter Syndrome.) They’ve usually internalized all the criticisms leveled at them by their mothers—that they’re lazy, not good enough, unlovable or anything else—and are prone to the habit of self-criticism which attributes every setback or failure to fixed flaws in their character.
As an unloved daughter, I remember how uncomfortable I was being me when I was young. Looking back, it’s clear to me that the degree to which I felt excluded was aided and abetted by my own defensiveness; I was bitingly funny and used sarcasm as my weapon of choice both to armor myself and put others in their place if I felt threatened. I also remember that all of my achievements—good grades, accolades from teachers—only served as a bulwark against the world, not as a true foundation for loving myself. That girl and young woman are long gone, thank heavens, but it’s not hard to summon up what it was like being her. While on the outside, I may have seemed the object of envy to some—popular with boys, good at school, and all of that—it’s hard to overstate how abjectly miserable I was. Not being loved by the one person who’s supposed to love you tears you down in the most awful ways.
The one wish that must be given up in order to heal
First and foremost, the unloved daughter wishes to be loved by her mother; as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox, this can remain the driver of many of her maladaptive behaviors for decades of adult life. Behind the wish lurks the all-important question, “Why doesn’t my mother love me? And, as long as she’s intent on answering the question, she can’t progress. It’s pretty impossible to overstate the hardwired need for your mother’s love, attention, and support, and the daughter who’s still trying to wrest that love from her mother—by trying to become someone she could love, by making excuses for her mother’s behavior, or denying that her mother is hurting and undermining her—stays on the merry-go-round ever hopeful.
There isn’t an answer, of course, to the question, “Why doesn’t my mother love me?” The chances are good that even if she were able to admit to herself—which is unlikely—she wouldn’t be able to answer it. More importantly, as long as you keep asking the question, you remain focused on your mother and remain in her orbit. The only person you can change is you.
Wishes and dreams (and some strategies and advice)
As children, we draw general conclusions about how people act and react and what relationships are like from the specifics of our childhood homes; this process—the building of what are called mental models in attachment theory—is unconscious and continues to inform and shape our thoughts, our ability to manage our emotions, and our reactivity in adulthood. All of the strategies mentioned are drawn from Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life which explains them fully.
1. Feeling secure about decisions
Being undercut by your parent or parents in childhood or being told that your opinions and thoughts are of no value or stupid leads to not just a fear of failure but a habit of second-guessing yourself in adulthood. Research, including a meta-analysis by Daniel P. Johnson and Mark A. Whisman, shows that women are more inclined to ruminate— experience repetitive patterns of negative thoughts and worries—than men are. Unloved daughters are especially hard-hit.
Strategy: Shutting down rumination
As the work of Daniel Wegner makes clear, suppressing your worries doesn’t work; in fact, consciously telling yourself not to think about something will, in fact, make you think about it even more. Yes, thought suppression leads to those horrible middle-of-the-night-can’t-sleep moments filled with anxiety.
One possibility Dr. Wegner suggests is assigning yourself a worry time. Frankly, this doesn’t work for me—my worries tend to spill over into the day anyway—but it works for lots of people. Give yourself twenty minutes or whatever time you allot to doing nothing but the work of fretting and coming up with strategies to deal once a week. You can write your worries down to make them more concrete and then come up with solutions to deal with them. Writing the solutions down is the icing on the cake.
I personally find that confronting the worst case scenario is the best way of defanging rumination. It’s that worst case that you’ve been unconsciously avoiding and hauling it out into the open and figuring out how you’ll deal with it should it come to pass can be very empowering and liberating. Do your confronting when you’ve got good energy and feel up to the task; there’s no point in taking on the scary stuff at 2 a.m.
2. Being able to act rather than react
Being able to see that your reactions are triggered by cues you barely register—feeling excluded when two friends have lunch but don’t invite you along, being very sensitive to criticism no matter how constructive it is, dodging confrontation even to your own detriment—is part of the long process of unlearning and healing. In addition to using the STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. strategy mentioned in #5, you can also actively work on other techniques that will put you in control of your behaviors.
Strategy: Self-calming and reframing
In times of stress, people who have a secure style of attachment stemming from a childhood during which they felt heard, understood, loved, and supported unconsciously bring up images or reminders of loved ones as well as memories of situations that seemed bleak but ultimately worked out. Research shows that people with an insecure style of attachment can do much the same thing by using conscious visualization at times of stress. This will take some practice and getting used to; you need to visualize either a person or place that makes you feel calm. Feel free to use a photograph as a prompt as you learn this technique, and recognize that it will take time to master.
The other strategy you should embark on is figuring out how you usually frame events and situations and working on reframing. Do you tend to frame possible setbacks or complications as challenges to be faced and overcome? (This is called an approach-orientation.) Or, alternatively, do you see setbacks as opportunities for you to fail miserably and make a fool of yourself, proof-positive of your worthlessness, and that you’re doomed to failure? (This is called an avoidance-orientation.) This isn’t about being optimistic or pessimistic but how you generally see complex or nuanced situations. How do you frame these situations and how does your framing affect both your understanding of the situation and your ability to deal with it? Needless to say, framing can also affect your emotional reactivity.
Once you have a handle on how you tend to frame things, you can work on reframing. This doesn’t mean reaching for rose-colored glasses or thinking that everything will be hunky-dory but being objective in terms of seeing what you can and can’t do, and making sure you’re not making the problem larger than it is.
3. Being able to accept herself, perfectly imperfect
Unloved daughters emerge from childhood with a skewed vision of themselves; this is mostly a product of having internalized what was said about her by her mother and other family members as truths that can’t be denied. Controlling, dismissive, and combative mothers, as well as those high in narcissistic traits, mete out criticism on the daily, especially if the daughter rebels or refuses to play the game; she may be labeled difficult or fractious, too sensitive or weak, or any number of other tags that are repeated again and again. Feelings of shame and low self-esteem paradoxically can co-exist with real achievements in the outside world.
Strategy: Stilling the negative voice and replacing the script
One daughter plaintively emailed me, asking, “Is there an off-button somewhere? My mother’s voice is stuck in my head.” Yes, there is an off-button and you can learn how to use it by talking back to the voice, literally. (Do this in private, and not in the office or in a public place, for reasons that are clear.) Argue with voice, pointing out your strengths and good qualities. If you’re having trouble coming up with arguments, talk to a trusted other and ask him or her to describe you objectively.
4. Being able to manage her emotions
While we often talk about the effects of insecure attachment on relationships, the reality is that insecure attachment can also be seen as a deficit in emotional regulation; absent the maternal attunement that permits a child to identify and cope with negative emotions, these daughters either are flooded by and at the mercy of their feelings (anxious-preoccupied style) or wall off and dissociate from emotion (dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant). Learning both how to weather the occasional emotion storm builds resilience and allows the daughter to use her feelings as well as her thoughts to navigate life.
Strategy: Honing her emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a skill set and, yes, you can work on improving it. You begin at the very basic and first level which is naming your emotions and knowing what you’re feeling in the moment. Do you have difficulty pinpointing whether you’re angry or sad? Is it hard for you to express what you’re feeling? Learning to identify your feelings is the first step; additional exercises and strategies are covered in my book, Daughter Detox.
5. Feeling free of the past
I honestly believe that some of the struggle daughters experience is rooted in a misunderstanding of what it means to heal; many unloved daughters mistakenly look for a magic wand that will somehow make them “as good as new,” as if their childhood experiences never happened. That’s impossible, of course. But a shift in thinking and understanding will change your relationship to your past and its influence on you.
Strategy: Understanding and connecting the dots
Looking at your own behaviors clearly and objectively and tracing their roots back to childhood experiences can be incredibly liberating and permits you not just to take stock of your actions and reactions but allows you to work on changing behaviors that are automatic.
Let’s use defensiveness as an example but you can substitute any behavior that’s getting in your way. Begin by using what I call STOP. LOOK. LISTEN, As you feel yourself begin to react—and do pay attention to the physical responses like the flush of anger, increased tension in your hands or shoulders, or even a tightening of your face as you begin to frown—stop yourself for a moment and take a look at whether you are responding in the moment or reacting to an echo of the past. Listen to what the other person is saying and ask yourself whether your response is appropriate.
Research by James Pennebaker makes it clear that writing about your experiences can be an effective tool for owning your past and seeing how it connects to your present. Make sure, though, that you are using what’s called “cool processing” when you journal since recalling what you felt can actually make you relive a painful moment in an unhelpful way; instead, focus on why you felt as you did in the moment. If you have trouble facing down the blank page of a journal as many people do, you may want to look at the workbook I developed to go with Daughter Detox.
Goal setting is an important part of recovering from childhood and with patience and work, wishes can come true.
Johnson, Daniel P. and Mark A. Whisman,” Gender Differences in Rumination: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Individual Differences (2013), vol. 55 (4), 367-374.
Pennebaker, James W. and Janel D. Segal, “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 55 (10), 1243-1254 (1999)
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,” Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.
Wegner, Daniel M. “Setting Free the Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression,” American Psychologist (November, 2011): 671-670.