Before unloved daughters can begin to heal, they need not only to be able to recognize that they are wounded but also to see how the wounds shape their behaviors. It may seem counterintuitive but this is a process that can take years, not a single epiphany.
As one daughter, 39, told me: “ My relationships have been a disaster. Lovers and friends alike complain that I’m too needy, too clingy, and they feel smothered. When they pull back, I cling even more. My therapist pointed out that this is the pattern I have with my mother whose criticism is non-stop. I have spent my life trying to please her. I had no idea.”
Why does it take so long to see something that, with the benefit of hindsight, is so clear? Here are some of the more important reasons.
- The world in which the child grows up is a very small one, and she has nothing to compare it to. It’s not just that her mother’s interactions from infancy forward form her mental representations of how relationships in the world work but that she accepts the way her connection to her mother works as normal. Until her world expands—by going to school, forming friendships and visiting other families—she’s likely to believe that all families are just like hers. In some cases, a nurturing relationship with someone else—an aunt or grandmother, neighbor or teacher—gives a daughter a first glimpse of another world.
- A daughter needs and wants her mother’s love more than anything else, and that need crowds out whatever perceptions she may have about the relationship. When a mother is hypercritical, dismissive, or absent, the daughter simply works harder at trying to get her approval, please her, or get her attention. Her working assumption—which is usually reinforced by what her mother says—is that if something is wrong, it’s her fault.
- A daughter internalizes the messages she receives from her mother and those, in turn, shape both her behaviors and understanding. She’s not likely to see cause and effect until she reaches adulthood and her behaviors cause her even more emotional pain. She may recognize herself as fearful, clingy, distant in relationships or wary of close emotional connections but until she connects the dots, she won’t know why. She won’t be capable of forging the kind of connections she needs until she understands why she acts and reacts as she does.
- The unloved daughter doesn’t trust her feelings and thoughts. A loving and attuned mother teaches a daughter that she is worthy, lovable, and capable; the unloving mother instills doubt in her child and makes her believe that “something is wrong with me.” The internalized voice in her head tells her she’s lacking and that impedes her understanding that she’s done nothing to deserve her mother’s treatment. If a daughter has been scapegoated in the family—and putting her down has become a team sport—that recognition may be even harder.
Recognizing the wound is the first important step toward healing.
Copyright© 2016 Peg Streep
Illustration copyright Claudia Karabaic Sargent 2016
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