One of the legacies of a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met is an impaired sense of yourself. Because a child first catches a glimpse of herself in her mother’s eyes, it’s not at all unusual for an unloved daughter’s perception of herself to be utterly distorted. This can be quite literal, especially if she’s been told she’s fat or ugly, but extends into other realms as well.
As one daughter, 33, confided:
I have always had trouble with compliments. I know that sounds really weird because most people love compliments and having their strengths acknowledged. For me, a compliment throws me into a defensive posture because I’d immediately start thinking about why is this person buttering me up and do they want to take advantage of me, and I’d get hostile and angry. It was my boss at work who pointed this out to me and suggested I go into therapy. Then it was my therapist who pointed out that I had absolutely no idea who I was and how other people saw me. I could only see the valueless person my mother saw.”
It’s not just that the daughter is deprived of the support, approval, and love she needs to believe in herself and feel safe enough to extend herself, take chances, and explore the world and find her place in it; it’s what she learns instead.
Children of highly controlling mothers, especially those who use constant criticism as way of keeping their daughters from expressing their own wants and needs, often think of the world as a black and white place, with a “right” way of doing things (their mothers’ views) and a “wrong” one (reflecting their own desires). Repeated often enough, they doubt themselves and, most important, their own thoughts; they are afraid of voicing those thoughts if they run counter to their mothers’ vision. The message sent is always the same: “You can’t do anything on your own. Without me, you are nothing.” If the daughter hasn’t yet recognized the effect of her mother’s behavior, she may become highly judgmental herself in adolescence and beyond which isolates her even more and detaches her even more from her own thoughts and feelings.
Research shows that children internalize as self-criticism both what’s said to them (“You are lazy and sloppy,” “You are stupid and won’t amount to anything,” “You’re an embarrassment to me”) along with the messages conveyed wordlessly by ignoring or dismissing them. Self-criticism is the habit of ascribing any mistake, setback, or failure in life to your own fixed character traits. So, if a relationship with someone fails, your default thinking would be “Who would want to be around me anyway? I have nothing to offer anyone.”
The inability to see any mistake in a meaningful context further hobbles the daughter’s ability to see herself clearly. This happens completely unconsciously and it may be so familiar to an unloved daughter—echoing what she was told over and over again when she was growing up—that she might not even recognize that she’s doing it.
Despite my successes—I was a vice-president of a marketing company, earned a B.S. and an MBA, have a thriving marriage, and launched two kids into adulthood—I still second-guess myself constantly. It’s my mother’s voice in my head, telling me that people will find out the truth about me, that I’m really nothing special, even though I’ve managed to fool them for the moment. Therapy has helped and the voice is somewhat muted but when I’m stressed, it’s loud and clear.
5 baby steps to see yourself more clearly
For most daughters, recovering from their childhood wounds is a process, and a slow one at that. Following are some strategies you can begin to implement as part of your healing.
- Work on seeing yourself through other people’s eyes
You’ll probably want to enlist the help of someone close to you—a friend, a spouse, or a caring relative—to get you started so that you can get to a place where you can see yourself more realistically. Daughters who are well-loved in childhood and beyond are able to see both their strengths and their weaknesses without dissolving into a puddle of self-recrimination. That’s usually for difficult for an unloved daughter, especially if she’s still trying to win her mother’s love and continues to think that if she could somehow change herself into someone her mother would find lovable, the problem would be solved. Alas, that kind of thinking further blinds you to your gifts and strengths while highlighting your flaws.
Listening to someone else’s vision of you is a helpful first step.
- Take a personal inventory
Journaling can be a powerful tool for self-discovery, and writing about the things you and other like about you is one way of gaining clarity. Think and then write about your gifts and strengths in the most wide-ranging way possible from the obvious—your sense of humor, your love of animals, your talent at gardening—to the more subtle such as your knack for making a tasty meal out of whatever’s in the fridge or to how you instinctively know what to say to someone who’s in pain. Make a list of situations you think you handled well or problems you were able to tackle and solve and write about them in detail.
- Think of yourself as a work-in-progress by setting goals
Research by Carol Dweck and others shows that people who think of personality as fixed have much more trouble navigating stressful patches in life than those who think of personality as malleable and changeable. The chances are good that if you’re inclined to self-criticism, you’ve gotten into the habit of thinking of personality as fixed without being aware of it. Counter that way of thinking by setting goals for yourself—and, yes, writing them down on paper. It’s best to set both intermediate goals for yourself (I will work on feeling more confident in social situations I find stressful) as well as long-term goals (Learning how to manage my anxiety in productive and healthy ways).
- Practice self-compassion
According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three prongs. First, you need to suspend your habit of being judgmental and highly critical of yourself and be kind to yourself instead. Second, you need to see yourself as human—no one is perfect—and all that entails. Finally, you need to acknowledge your painful and negative feelings without being hijacked by them. Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity or glossing over your mistakes or flaws; it’s about using reframing and a different context to see yourself with more clarity. Being self-compassionate is actually hard for most unloved daughters so proceed with baby steps in the right direction.
- Talk back to the critical voice
I mean this literally. Take it on and counter it with facts and observations about yourself. Drag it into the open by being conscious of it and fight it.
In time, baby steps become strides.
Photograph by marusya21111999, Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Dweck, Carol S., “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,” Current Directions in Psychology Science (2008), vol.17, no.6, 391-394.
Neff, Kristen D.,” The Development and Validation of A Scale to Measure Self-Compassion,” Self and Identity (2003),2, 223-250.