The feeling that I’m lacking still dogs me on the daily. I’m fifty, and even the slightest hint of criticism sends me into a tailspin. My mother always made it clear that nothing I did was ever right or acceptable when I was young. That feeling lies just below the surface, waiting to be fed on the daily. It makes me miserable.
More than fifty-five years ago, an experiment called “the Visual Cliff” demonstrated that infants look to their mothers not just to learn about the world but about themselves. And the word “look” is used quite literally: A mother’s face is the mirror in which a child first catches a glimpse of herself. The experiment, conducted by Eleanor Gibson and her colleagues, grew out of Gibson’s experience on vacation with her three small children at the Grand Canyon; concerned, she wondered when depth perception in infants kicked in. The experimenters constructed a visual cliff—a piece of see-through Plexiglas which had a checkered cloth underneath it. While it was flush against the surface at the beginning, the cloth then sloped four feet down, looking like a steep drop-off even when there was none. Not surprisingly, babies started to crawl, registered the drop, and either stopped or crawled back; their knees, against the solid plastic, told them one thing but their eyes another and they went with the visual information.
But James Sorce and others took the experiment a step further. They placed mothers at the far end of the Plexiglas and had them gesture to their babies. A smiling Mommy’s face was enough to entice 74% of the infants to cross the “cliff”—trusting Mommy over what their senses told them—while a frowning face stopped each and every baby in his or her tracks.
Is it any wonder that an unloving mother can make you feel like nothing?
The internalized sense of self
Our first selves, then, are reflections: We know who we are because our mothers’ expressions, emotions, gestures, and actions draw our portraits. A baby with an attuned and loving mother learns that she is worthy of attention, lovable, and safe to explore herself and the world around her. She has a safe haven in her mother, can be soothed when she needs it and will learn how to self-soothe by bringing her mother’s face and caring to mind. She knows she is separate from her mother— “I am me”—but closely connected.
The daughter of an unloving mother has a different portrait painted for her. What she learns about herself—the details—depend on her mother’s behaviors. Not every mother is unloving in the same way.
I spent my childhood tiptoeing, terrified of my mother’s anger and criticality. She berated me loudly and often—even her voice scared me—if I made a mistake. That could be anything: not putting my dish in the sink, getting a spot on my sweater, forgetting to close a drawer. If I lost something, I became frantic. I tried hard to stay out of her line of vision. Even setting the table was torture. It sounds crazy but, according to her, I couldn’t even do that right.
While some daughters suffer from lack of attention and feel invisible, others feel trapped by the unwelcome glare of the critical spotlight and feel unworthy and small. Others lose sight of themselves and are cut off from their true voices and feelings because there’s no air to breathe and no room to move because they’re utterly controlled. Others don’t know where their mothers end and they begin.
I was the only girl and while my brothers could do whatever they wanted, I was my mother’s DIY project. She never acknowledged that I was a person in my own right with thoughts and feelings and today, even though I am 45, she still doesn’t. She believes she knows me better than I do and that was once true because I had no idea who I was. During my childhood, she controlled every inch of my life. I could only be friends with girls she approved of, usually because she liked or admired their mothers. She decided blue was my favorite color—it wasn’t—so I had a blue room and blue clothes. Short hair ‘suited’ me or so she said so I always had a pixie cut which I hated and when I grew it out in high school, she never stopped telling me how ugly I looked. I didn’t even know what I liked to eat and today, I am still looking for the rest of me.
Some mothers high in narcissistic traits see their daughters as nothing more than extensions of themselves, held to a high standard. Even if the daughter succeeds in winning her mother’s approval, she’s blocked from seeing herself authentically and through her own eyes. If she fails her mother’s test, she is on the other road to feeling like nothing.
4 different routes to feeling like nothing
What makes a daughter lose sight of herself and get cut off from her feelings and thoughts? Maternal behaviors and messages—implicit and explicit—can and do. Here are observations of both kinds—stated and unstated—drawn from my own experience and those of other women shared with me over the last decade and more.
1.Drowned in a tsunami of criticism
Unloved daughters internalize the negative things they hear just as loved daughters internalize the positive reinforcement they get from their mothers. Among the most damaging maternal behaviors is the habit of personalizing criticism. In this script, mistakes, failures, and mishaps aren’t attributed to circumstances (“You broke the plate because your hands were wet and the plate was soapy and slippery”) but to character flaws (“You broke the plate because you’re careless and stupid”). These mothers begin almost every sentence with the words “You always” and they mean to belittle and disparage their children, although they usually rationalize their intention as discipline or correction.
This is actually verbal abuse, although rarely acknowledged as such. It is highly damaging and changes the brain and thought patterns of young children.
2.Marginalized and made invisible
When a mother dismisses a daughter’s expression of self, either by not listening or acknowledging what she has to say or by mocking or belittling her, she effectively tells her child that her thoughts and feelings have no legitimacy or that they’re wrong or stupid. Since the mother holds the power and the authority, the child is left wondering about whether she has any place in the world at all and whether her thoughts and feelings can be trusted. She often feels unworthy of attention and love as a result.
3. Blamed and scapegoated
In some households, the unloved daughter becomes the rallying point for siblings who are trying to curry their mothers’ favor; the daughter loses sight of herself as she becomes the familial scapegoat, the one who is mocked or bullied. Seeing herself clearly is a near impossibility because, at the same time that she is trying to rebut the blame, she also wants her mother’s and her family’s acceptance.
Of all the abuses of maternal power, this is the most deliberate and distasteful—making a daughter doubt her own perceptions of reality by insisting that some things were never said or done, or that she’s simply “making things up.” Young children have no way of fighting this, of course, and it induces terrific fear. All these decades later (more than six, to be exact), I still remember the terror I felt, worrying that I might be “crazy” because who would ever love me if I were? I didn’t know, of course, that there was a word for what my mother was doing. Manipulative to the max, gaslighting is the most deliberate and calculating way of making a child feel like nothing and worse.
But these roads can, in time, become detours as a daughter begins to reclaim her self from her mother’s grasp and starts the work of re-drawing her own self-portrait. It takes time but, yes, it can be done.
Photograph by Steven Estes. Copyright free. Unsplash.com