When I was little, I hated my mother’s pots and pans. They had copper bottoms and when I was assigned to wash them, they were a prime opportunity for my mother to put me down. They weren’t displayed or hung from a rack but, still, the bottoms had to be perfectly polished to a sheen. Inevitably, one wouldn’t pass muster—she’d pick them up, one by one, to check—and then she’d start: “Can’t you ever do anything right?” “You’re a slob like your father.” “Do I have to do everything myself?” “You think you’re so smart but you can’t even wash dishes properly.” “Why did I end up with a child like you?”
I was probably no older than six.
By the time I was seven or eight, I knew that my mother’s anger had nothing to do with the pots and pans; in fact, even if the bottoms were perfect, she’d find something else to harp on. Her criticisms were never single statements but more of a cascade, delineating each and every one of my flaws as she saw them.
Many years later, I would discover that there is a name for this behavior—kitchensinking—coined by John Gottman to describe the kind of personalized abuse that builds and includes everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.
I thought I was the only child in the world who walked on eggshells, all the while trying to please and curry favor with a mother who couldn’t ever be pleased. Of course, I wasn’t.
Understanding the dynamic
What makes this dynamic so poisonous to the child is that it erodes her sense of self, especially if there are other children in the house and she ends up being the scapegoat for whatever happens to go wrong and her siblings join in the fray to stay in their mother’s good graces.
The overly critical mother is also verbally abusive and studies show the verbal abuse not only changes the structure of the developing brain but gets internalized as self-criticism. Self-criticism is the unconscious mental habit of ascribing setbacks and disappointments not to errors in judgment or circumstances but to basic character flaws within the self. This is how one daughter explained it:
It’s hard for me to see beyond my own flaws when life takes a turn. My mother always told me I was worthless and if I accomplished something that showed that I was actually good at something, she’d make it seem that as though whatever I’d achieved wasn’t really hard or valuable. I know my reaction to criticism, even the constructive kind, has gotten in the way of my relationships and my work. I’m stuck at being ten years old at the age of 38.
What makes the dynamic especially toxic is that the mother feels that her behavior is utterly justified. Hypercriticality can be “explained” in many different ways, such as necessary discipline (“If I don’t take a firm stand with her, she’ll never learn how to do anything right”), deserved (“She’s so full of herself and so prideful that she needs to realize she’s not better than everyone else”), and even supposedly “good” parenting (“She’s lazy and unmotivated by nature and I have to push her hard to do anything.”) A mother may even pride herself on her discipline because she’s “only” using words, rather than physical punishment, to rein her wayward daughter in. If she resorts to physical discipline, she’ll blame in on the child who “pushed” her or who wouldn’t heed her words.
The damage done
A child who’s subjected to a constant barrage of harsh criticism normalizes the treatment because she doesn’t know any better and, besides, her mother is the most powerful person in the little world she inhabits. She needs and wants her mother’s love and approval more than anything, and it’s much easier to think that she’s to blame for her mother’s treatment than to face the much more terrifying prospect that her mother doesn’t love her. Instead, she’ll keep on trying to please her mother, most often into her own adulthood.
I’m fifty-five but I still struggle with low self-esteem. I can’t seem to manage to turn the tape off in my head, my mother’s voice, telling me that no one will ever love me because I’m me. I have a successful marriage, two wonderful children, but deep down, I’m still that wounded kid. It’s demoralizing. I’ve given up on trying to win her over—I’ve been low contact for years—but I can’t seem to evict her voice.
Breaking free of the combat zone
While an adult daughter may still want her mother’s approval, her understanding of her mother’s behavior will, in time, begin to shift. Sometimes, her understanding will grow as a result of therapy but it might equally be the observations of a close friend or a spouse.
I finally got it when my then fiancé went to Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house. I honestly didn’t notice anything unusual but when we left, he turned to me and said, ‘Does your mother always pick on you that way? She had nothing nice to say about you. Not one thing.’ I was stunned. And he was right, of course. I’d heard it so long that I’d basically gone deaf to it.
This moment of revelation is the beginning of a daughter’s journey out of childhood toward healing.
If you were raised by a hypercritical mother, here are five things to remember, write down, and pin to your fridge:
1. It is never okay to make criticism personal
2. Scapegoating is cruel and abusive
3.Verbal abuse is abuse
4. Motherhood doesn’t give anyone a pass on cruel behavior
5. No child deserves to feel unloved
Photograph by Veronika Balasyuk. Copyright free. Unsplash.com