In childhood, the unloved daughter usually believes that it’s her fault that Mommy is cold., unresponsive, or yells at her. She knows that mommies are supposed to be loving and hers isn’t and so someone has to take the blame and that someone is most usually the little girl herself. The chances are good that her mother has said as much, either directly— “It’s your fault I get so angry because you’re always misbehaving” or “You are such a difficult child. Can’t you be more like your sister?”—or indirectly by ignoring her questions or statements or making fun of her. Shaming a child is a form of verbal abuse even though it might be rationalized by a mother as a form of discipline or correction; it is neither.
Feelings of guilt (for being the one who makes Mommy angry and disappoints her) and shame (because she’s so worthless, unlovable, or bad) become as familiar to the unloved daughter as the walls of her childhood room. In fact, they become so familiar that the child may not even recognize their presence or their effect on how she sees herself; they become the foundation for low self-esteem and, sometimes, self-hatred. She has bought into the fake scenario of cause-and-effect her mother has used to disguise what are abusive behaviors.
Long past childhood, these feelings, largely unrecognized. may continue to dog her as she strives to win her mother’s love; they spill over into her other relationships and encounters. She may not even register how guilt and shame motivate her actions because these emotions allow us to lose sight of our own agency and power.
I was afraid that my mother was right about me so the best route seemed to be to pretend that nothing was wrong and that way no one would know. I finally stumbled into therapy at the age of 27 when I literally had trouble getting out of bed in morning. It was only then that I got to see that I wasn’t to blame and that my deep feelings of shame and need to hide were reactions to something else.
Shame, guilt, and the daughter’s recognition of her wounds
At some point in adulthood, either spurred on by continuing failures in other relationships, mounting unhappiness, self-destructive behaviors, or someone’s pointing out how toxic her connection to her mother is, the unloved daughter begins to recognize the effects of her mother’s treatment and begins to puzzle out what to do about it. It’s here that cultural guilt and shame often become active obstacles to the daughter’s ability to deal and heal. Any active steps she may take to set boundaries or, even more drastically, distance herself from her mother’s influence will be countered by people asserting that she has a filial duty to be grateful to her mother for putting her on the planet and raising her. Shame (and guilt) become cultural weapons, keeping the daughter in place, doubting herself, her choices, and even her perceptions. She may have left her childhood home but, in her head, she’s still trapped in her old bedroom, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Understanding the power of guilt and shame
Until she can recognize how shame and guilt are holding her in place, the chances are good that she’ll stay stuck. This can be extremely difficult because the needs to belong and to be like everyone else are powerful drivers of motivation; most of us would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie and avoid confrontation, especially when there’s a cultural onus and taboo involved. It’s a battle every unloved daughter faces on the path to healing.
Here are five steps of recognition that may help you deal with both guilt and shame.
- Realize that you’re not alone
It’s estimated that some forty percent of children, and perhaps more, do not get their emotional needs met in childhood; in many of these households, guilt and blame are used actively in the mother-daughter dynamic. You need not feel shame at being singled out in this way because you did nothing to deserve it and you are not the only one dealing with the problem. No shame there either.
- Understand maternal power
Because people buy into the myths of motherhood—that mothering is instinctual and all mothers love—they are also very uncomfortable acknowledging how much power a mother has over a child. But maternal power is pretty absolute, in fact, and where there’s power, there’s the possibility of the abuse of that power. It’s an unpleasant thought but it’s true.
- See guilt and shame as manipulative tools
Pay attention to how your mother (and other people, for that matter) act in ways that evoke these emotions. Is your mother always reminding you of how much you owe her or how ungrateful you are? Does she personalize her criticisms of you, beginning each sentence with the words “You always” and does she end up generalizing about how flawed you are and how your behaviors are lacking?
- Start looking at how you deal
Really seeing your responses to the use of guilt and shame as techniques of control is an important step. Do you automatically shift into peacemaker mode when you feel guilty? Do the feelings of guilt and shame override all your other perceptions and emotions without your even noticing? Do you tend to fold your tents when you’re guilt-tripped? Becoming consciously aware of your style of coping is the first stage; up next is the ability to react differently and more productively, in a way that reflects your needs and desires.
- Recognize the taboos and try to deal with them
We’re all vulnerable to cultural pressure because we want to belong, and that’s especially true when you’re bumping up against society’s idealization of mothers and general refusal to acknowledge that some mothers are downright cruel. Recognize the cultural stance and how it animates people’s knee-jerk responses. While awareness doesn’t initially take the sting out of someone calling you an ungrateful, lousy daughter, it does give those words a context and robs them of meaning.
If you don’t stand up for you, who will?
Photograph by Marusya21111999. Copyright free. Pixabay.com