Our parents are our first teachers; the behaviors they model and the words they use provide us with our first inklings of what the larger world might be like. Beginning in infancy, a child draws information from her primary caretaker’s responses, most usually her mother’s. With a loving and attuned mother, she’ll learn that her needs will be taken care of; that she’s paid attention to and cared about, that the world is where laughter and joy are in evidence; and that if she’s sad, scared, or lonely, there is comfort to be had. All of these lessons are the foundation of self-confidence, and roughly 50-60% of us will learn them in our families of origin; they may be more clear-cut, more reliable and consistent, in some households than in others but they leave the child feeling more secure on the planet than not. Yes, this basically describes a child with a secure base or a secure style of attachment. Unconscious processes help float the primary take-aways from these interactions to the top in adulthood, allowing a daughter to navigate life with greater ease, self-reliance, and trust in herself.
An unloved child whose emotional needs aren’t met in childhood learns other lessons, some of which will end up being formidable obstacles to living a happy or reasonably fulfilling life. According to attachment theory, these children demonstrate an insecure style of attachment; during infancy and childhood, they have developed coping mechanisms to deal with their mothers’ treatment, which are largely maladaptive, and operate unconsciously.
Taking a psychological truism into account
It’s not simply that the lessons learned from an unloving mother are negative and dispiriting; it is also that they dominate thought processes and are more accessible as memories than good experiences. Or, as the title of an influential research paper put it, “Bad is Stronger than Good.” Thanks to evolution, bad experiences are stored in a different part of memory than good ones, and are more accessible. This was once a boon to our forebears since remembering danger and perilous situations increased their ability to act fast and make split-second decisions, especially when the threats to survival were largely physical. Our brains still function that way which is a good thing when you react without thinking to your tires’ skidding but not so good when the threat is more psychological.
What this means is that the negative conclusions an unloved child draws about the world and relationships based on her family of origin have greater staying power and influence than the affirming and positive experiences she has later in life.
The 5 (terrible) lessons an unloving mother imparts
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list—there are others, alas—but it’s comprised of the ones that exert the most influence on the unloved daughter’s behaviors in young and later adulthood.
- That the world of relationship isn’t safe
Whether the mother is emotionally unavailable and withheld or combative or dismissive, the child learns that she must, first and foremost, self-protect against hurt. Rather than seeing close connection as something that moors you in life, she’s apt to focus instead on how needing someone makes you vulnerable and how wanting to be loved can hurt. Because she’s hardwired to need and want her mother’s love, she’ll continue to strive to get it, even though it makes her fearful. That feeling of fearfulness usually becomes a constant companion in every adult relationship.
- That no one has her back
In the best of all possible worlds, family cements our sense of belonging; the very opposite is likely to happen to the unloved child who feels both alone and singled out. She learns to approach the world with wariness and unless there is some kind of intervention (therapy or an important relationship with a caring other), she will continue to. She will either see herself as needing no one or constantly vulnerable.
- That she’s damaged or “less than”
This sense of being lacking or somehow worthless is learned both from what her mother (and other family members) say and don’t say, do and don’t do, but is magnified by the child’s need to find a reason for why she’s being ignored, marginalized, or put down, as well as unloved. The chances are good that she will blame herself for her predicament, in part because that position echoes what she’s been told about herself. One study suggested that, especially for small children, admitting that the very people on whom you depend are unreliable is sufficiently terrifying that it’s actually less scary to blame yourself than it is to hold your mother or father accountable. In the adult daughter, the feeling of being “less than” can absolutely co-exist with high achievement.
- That her feelings and thoughts aren’t to be trusted
This is perhaps the most hobbling of all the lessons learned. Many of these unloving mothers either challenge the daughter’s perceptions—telling her that she’s “too sensitive,” “exaggerating,” or “making things up” when she engages in protest behavior—or actively gaslight her as way of asserting control and undercutting her belief in herself. Because verbal abuse gets internalized as “truths” about her character—resulting in a default position of self-criticism—the unloved daughter is very vulnerable to being manipulated in this way. Some find themselves neither trusting their perceptions nor other people—a sad state of affairs.
- That she needs “rescuing” or “saving”
There’s a reason why fairytales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White resonate with lonely children; they reassure the child that things won’t always be the way they are today and that happiness—no matter how elusive it may seem—can be achieved. Alas, with unloved daughters, this can also lead to confusion about what love is and what it isn’t, especially when it comes to romance. Looking for her prince in the fairytale mode—spurred on by the need to be “rescued”—can lead to some pretty disastrous mistakes such as confusing a need to control with strength, a personality high in narcissistic traits as go-getting or resilient, and the like. It’s only when the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need a knight in shining armor and is more than capable of standing on her own two feet that a partnership of equals becomes a possibility.
The bad lessons learned in childhood leave their mark but can be supplanted with new learning. That’s very good news indeed.
Photograph by Joseph Gonzalez. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.