One of the lasting legacies—one which, paradoxically, can outlast the mother-daughter relationship and can co-exist with all manner of external measures of success—is a wellspring of self-doubt. What can be incredibly frustrating to the adult daughter, especially if she finds herself in a good relationship and has moved on in so many ways from the way she felt as a child, is that self-doubt still dogs her. It can show up in large things and small: A woman who feels confident in her work environment where her inner voice reminds her that she is more than capable enough and has the requisite skillset may be utterly undone when someone, anyone, echoes something she heard all the time when she was small.
Mary is a successful lawyer, the mother of two, and age 46: “A friend of mine said she hated how wishy-washy I was. She needed help and she felt I didn’t show up. She wasn’t wrong either. Ask me about the law: I am aces. But any emotional situation throws me off and there’s a kind of inner panic.”
Other women constantly second-guess themselves and their decisions. “If there’s a dominant theme in my life, it’s how I stew and obsess over everything,” Lydia, 40, says. “It drives my husband crazy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m picking a paint color for the bathroom or deciding whether I should switch jobs. I can’t make a single choice without worrying whether it’s the right one and it exhausts me and everyone around me.”
Insecurity affects nearly every behavior
Children who have an attuned and consistently caring mother learn to trust their instincts and to listen to their own inner voices. They have confidence in their ability to handle situations but they also know that if they make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. They don’t see challenges as personal threats.
None of that is true for the unloved daughter who has internalized the critical or marginalizing voice or voices she heard throughout childhood. That voice is triggered by stress and until she becomes fully aware of its existence, it shapes her behaviors and reactions.
Here are five ways in which the unloved daughter’s behavior may be shaped.
1. Fear of being left or rejected
Social insecurity—with colleagues, friends, and even lovers—is often an enormous problem for the unloved daughter who approaches connection with anxiety. The real problem is that she’s always on the defensive, scanning the horizon for clues that someone really doesn’t like or love her after all. She’s overly sensitive to potential slights—the phone call that isn’t returned, the outing she’s not invited to, the failure of her lover or spouse to do something he promised to do—and that, in turn, makes her volatile.
2. Unclear about boundaries
Needing someone triggers feelings of anxiety for this daughter and one way of dealing with that is to push off and build a wall. (This is the avoidant stance.) These daughters who learned in childhood that need is potentially hurtful isolate themselves emotionally; while they may be in relationships, they nonetheless see themselves as self-sufficient and avoid true intimacy which is too risky. The anxious daughter clings instead, not understanding that in a healthy relationship, people remain separate but connected. This is one of the most persistent problems daughters report—not understanding what constitutes a healthy connection.
3. Difficulty identifying her own needs and wants
Because she was ignored, constantly criticized or marginalized by her mother (and perhaps others in the family too), this daughter often feels a profound disconnection within, especially if she learned to ignore her own needs in order to get along in the day to day. Or she may have dealt with the lack of support by becoming an expert people pleaser, putting her own needs on hold while she does what she can to glean affection from others. “I think I’ve recovered from childhood in many ways but my friendships remain a mess, “Christi, age 55, emails. “I end up with friends who take advantage of my inability to say ‘no’ and I know it and I do it anyway. And then I feel like they’re using me. It always ends badly.” Knowing what she is wants is also made harder by her lack of emotional clarity.
4. Lack of emotional clarity
Even though the anxiously attached daughter is often, as science shows, adept at reading other people’s emotions, her own reactivity undercuts her ability to exercise her own emotional intelligence. Unloved daughters often exhibit real deficits in emotional intelligence, including the diminished ability to label what they’re feeling, to manage negative emotions in the wake of stressful events, to use emotion to prioritize thinking, and to be able to identify moods and triggers, among them. That’s the bad news; the good news is that emotional intelligence is a skillset and can be improved with conscious effort.
5. Lack of confidence
Yes, that nagging feeling that she’ll never be good enough or that there is something essentially flawed about her—the chorus of messages she received in childhood—still echo in adulthood, despite her accomplishments. This too can be defanged by recognizing it for what it is: An echo.
You know, the person you need to celebrate and buy flowers for is none other than you…
Photo by Ian Schneider. Copyright free. Unsplash.com