The question I’m asked most often is this: “Why does healing from your mother’s treatment take so long?” That’s often followed by an observation and then a question: “I’ve been in therapy on and off for years but, somehow, I’m still not fixed. What can I do to help myself recover?” Even though I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, I am an unloved daughter myself and have been researching and writing about the mother-daughter for just short of twenty years. Writing my soon-to-be published book forced me to tackle this issue head-on and following are some thoughts that may be of use to all who are working the path of recovery.
Sometimes we’re the obstacles..
No, I’m not victim-blaming here but the truth is that what we learned in childhood—how we copes with sadness and other intense feelings, how we armored ourselves against hurt, what we did to stay afloat—dogs us in the form of unconscious behaviors and can actively subvert our ability to move forward emotionally. Many daughters—and I include my younger self in that number—confirm that while they understand intellectually that the relationship can’t be fixed without their mothers’ cooperation and desire, they have trouble processing it emotionally. Here’s what Elaine, 43, told me:
“I keep going around in circles. I set clear boundaries, am firm about what I won’t accept from her, and then my sister tells me she really misses seeing me or my mom sends me a plaintive text and bam! I go back in and guess what? It becomes the same thing and then I set boundaries again.. well, you know the rest.”
Actually, I do and I even have a phrase for it: “Going back the well.” Intellectually, you know the well is dry but, emotionally, you’re hoping it isn’t. I did this on and off for close to twenty years of my younger adult life.
Recognizing the obstacle course
Many of these are unconscious behaviors so in order to stop getting in your own way, you’ll have to do some self-examination, take a close look at your behaviors and reactions, and decide which of these you’re participating in so you can drag the default behavior into conscious awareness. This isn’t meant to be an opportunity for you to beat yourself up about what you’re not doing or failing at; it’s meant to help move you along so do it without self-blaming.
- Still hoping for a magic wand
Unloved children, even as adults, want to be “like everyone else” and “normal”—meaning that they want a family that behaves within boundaries, a mother who is kind and attentive enough, and not the mess they have. Many adults are still looking and hoping for a magic wand or one of those epiphanies you see in the movies—that moment when Mom comes to her senses and realizes you’re just wonderful. Alas, that’s not usually the script and there’s no magic wand.
- Unrealistic view of healing
This links to the magic wand and the desire to be “normal” but many daughters grow understandably impatient about the pace of their recovery. The truth is that the behaviors the unloved daughter adopted, both conscious and unconscious, in response to maternal treatment took place over many years, and encompass thousands of interactions, large and small, some remembered and many forgotten but still etched in behavior. Unlearning takes lots of time, sustained effort, and, yes, there’s backsliding too.
- Swayed by intermittent reinforcement
This, too, is tied to the human propensity for looking at the bright side (studies show that we’re inclined generally to optimism) and, as the work of B.F. Skinner showed, we’re more inclined to stick around if we get what we want some of the time. You may have come across this in an intro to Psychology course. Skinner put three hungry rat in separate cages, each of which had a lever for the rat to push. In one cage, pushing the lever always delivered food; once the rat knew that, he forgot about the lever until he was hungry. The second rat had a lever that never delivered any food and he too forgot about the lever. It was the third rat who got hooked on the lever because it delivered some of the time. People do this too, it turns out, both at slot machines and in relationships.
How it works is easy. You’ve anticipated either radio silence or a blistering reaction to something you sent your mother but, instead, the response you get seems reasonable, even affectionate. All of your hopefulness kicks in and you start thinking that maybe you’ve turned a corner… Without realizing it, you’ve signed up to stay stuck. Yes, you’re that rat.
- Guilt and shame
These are what I call the “default settings” bequeathed by childhood and under stress, many of us are flooded with these feelings that are so familiar that we may not even be aware that they’re really not appropriate. Feeling that we are responsible for our mothers’ treatment of us—something many unloved children feel in childhood, especially if they’ve been told that by their self-justifying parent—can become an enormous barrier to recovering.
One of the lasting legacies of an unloving mother is the lack of validation for the young developing self. A loving mother’s attuned responses tells a child that she’s fine as she is, that she is loved, and that she is worthy; her mother’s support helps her to manage her emotions and to trust in herself. This simply doesn’t happen when a child is unloved and it’s common for these daughters to doubt their own perceptions and thoughts. Adult daughters second-guess and ruminate about decisions, ever anxious that, somehow, their mother’s vision of them—that they are unlovable, not smart or capable enough, unable to make good choices on their own—is true. It’s very difficult to heal in any real sense if a part of you wonders whether it was all in your head and the problem was never with your mother but with you.
Healing is hard work but so is recognizing the obstacles that get in your way, and you just might be supplying them… Take a close look and see.
Photograph by Stocksnap. Copyright free. Pixabay.com