IMG_2159Among the wounds left by an unloving mother is feeling as though you don’t have a reliable inner compass. Unloved daughters often don’t have enough confidence to trust their instincts or thoughts. They worry terribly about making the wrong choices and failing, which would prove their mothers right.

Interestingly—and this is anecdotal, and not derived from a scientific survey—these daughters either become high achievers and performers or they are chronic under-achievers, floundering, unsure of the direction they should take, and bouncing from job to job, relationship to relationship. They often get stuck in life—unhappy but unable to move on—because they lack a basic kind of self-reliance. Some will lose direction at a young age, falling victim to patterns of self-destructive behaviors that can include self-sabotaging, disordered eating, cutting, and risky sexual contacts.

Listening to women talk about their lives, there doesn’t seem to be an in-between; it appears to be either/or when it comes to achievement.

Why is that? It’s easy to see why the marginalized, belittled, or constantly criticized daughter has trouble believing in herself enough to go after major goals to begin with and how she may lack the inner resources to bounce back from the predictable snags and pitfalls life entails. What about those high-achievers, though? This is speculative, of course, but it seems that some of the high achievers—daughters who go on to carve out successful job paths or become professionals—internalized the negative messages their mothers communicated and vowed to prove them wrong. “She told me I was worthless, and took me down a peg every time I got an ‘A’ or achieved something. But I didn’t let it get to me,” one daughter, 39, recounted. Another tells how she became a lawyer, just like her dad, to prove a point: “My mother adored my sister, and treated me like Cinderella. I vowed that I would show her and that I’d never be as dependent on anyone again as I was in childhood. Well, my sister has been divorced twice and she’s back at home, age 44, with her two kids, living with my parents. I live 200 miles away and have a thriving law practice.”

Some daughters become high achievers as a way of trying to get their mothers’ attention or approval which, in the long term, can be as problematic as achieving very little: “ I did well in college and got a series of high-paying jobs, all in the hopes of impressing my mother. She bragged about me to others, of course, but she never stopped belittling me. When I got a big promotion, her only words were these: ‘They picked you? The people who work there must be total losers.’ And, in the end, doing well in the work world didn’t really make me feel better about myself.”

Daughters who have loving, attuned, and supportive mothers feel confident about their inner compass and, should they make a mistake or find a path blocked, they recover reasonably quickly and set new goals for themselves. Even if they are outwardly successful, unloved daughters often don’t feel validated or better about themselves despite their achievements; they continue to feel stymied or unhappy for the following four reasons.

1.The goals they’ve chosen aren’t intrinsic and don’t feed the self

Research has shown that people are happiest when they pursue goals that are intrinsic, that emanate from within and that reflect their innermost needs and best vision of themselves. Unloved daughters often focus on goals that are extrinsic. Extrinsic goals are those chosen in an effort to please someone else, to get someone’s approval, or to impress the world at large along with those that simply have to do with monetary rewards, instead of reflecting inner needs and a personal sense of what is valuable, enjoyable or rewarding. Because the unloved daughter often doesn’t see herself clearly and, worse, doesn’t believe she is worthy, the deep satisfaction in work and other activities that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has characterized as “Flow” often eludes her.

2. Profound-doubt remains

Even high-achieving daughters report that deep wellsprings of self-doubt coexist with outward success, and diminish the growth of healthy self-esteem which achievements should bring them. This may make them feel fraudulent and worried about somehow being “found out.” This was certainly true when I was a young woman and sure that, any minute, someone would pull back the curtain and see the girl my mother saw. For some daughters, the self-doubt is so profound that it stops them from trying to achieve anything meaningful until they have embarked on a path of healing. For others, self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes them lower their sights and encourages them to settle for less than they want or deserve in all areas of life, including relationships.

3. They’re not emotionally flexible and afraid of failure

Insecurely attached daughters have trouble managing negative emotions and they worry about failing; they are more motivated by avoiding bad outcomes than they are inspired to take risks which could potentially yield great outcomes. They are, as the literature has it, avoidance-oriented and so they tend to be more cautious than those motivated by approach. They look at a challenge and see nothing but the possible pitfalls which, again, holds them back.

4. They are too sensitive to benefit from a critique

The damage done to the unloved daughter’s self-esteem by a dismissive, hypercritical, or combative mother makes her highly sensitive to slights, both real and imagined, and while she really may need support and advice in a challenging or difficult venture, she may not seek it out or be unable to listen to it because of her own reactivity. This isolates a daughter even more, and forces her to rely solely on her own judgment which she doesn’t trust to begin with.

The good news is that once conscious awareness is brought to bear on these largely unconscious patterns, the unloved daughter can begin to live differently.


Photograph by the author.

Information about goals drawn from my book Quitting: Why We Fear It—and Why We Shouldn’t—in Life, Love, and Work. 

For more, read Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.