That’s the question most of my readers ask, especially when—predictably enough—they’ve suffered a setback in their efforts to heal or find themselves still stuck in old patterns. Triggers—such as the thought of the upcoming holiday season, a random story told by a friend about how incredibly helpful her mother was, or a life crisis which underscores how alone the daughter feels—can bring up painful memories as well as conflicted feelings. Healing, it should be said, is a long and drawn-out process in part because unconscious behaviors are hard to see and even harder to dislodge; then, too, there is what the unloved daughter herself brings to the party because of how her experiences have shaped her. Therapy with a gifted counselor is the best route but, still, many unloved daughters report that even therapy doesn’t always address the real issues they continue to face. My just-published book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, tackles why healing can be so elusive and offers concrete strategies to cope with setbacks and frustrations.
Understanding the “Core Conflict”
It’s counterintuitive but many daughters fail to recognize the toxic nature of the maternal relationship for years and sometimes decades; that’s because they accept their mother’s behavior as normal and labeling it otherwise fills them with guilt or shame. Even when they do recognize that they’re being wounded by their mothers, they are usually stymied by what to do about it. Efforts to discuss the problem with their mothers yield no results; most mothers will shift the blame onto their daughters, telling them that they’re making it up (gaslighting) or that they’re too sensitive or thin-skinned. Those responses—and the failure of fruitful discussion—fuel what I call the “Core Conflict.”
I define the conflict as the push-pull between two basically irreconcilable thoughts and plans of action: The daughter’s recognition of how she’s been hurt by her mother’s treatment and continues to be, on the one hand, and her hardwired need for her mother’s love and support. The intensity of the need to be loved by your mother is hard to overstate; not getting that love is an enormous loss in life, one which actually requires a process of mourning for healing to take place. Women describe finally giving up on getting that love as “the death of hope.”
What stands in the way of healing?
In the years I spent researching and listening to women’s stories, I’ve been able to identify some of the most common obstacles to healing. Because they’re usually not consciously recognized by the daughter, simply seeing them in black-and-white can provide a step in the right direction. During the two decades I wrestled with the core conflict myself—from age twenty to thirty-eight—I honestly thought I was acting, not reacting. I went no-contact at least three times and then, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time, ended up re-initiating contact. I kept getting off the merry-go-round only to get back on. I now know, as I didn’t then, that it was the core conflict shifting and tilting one way or the other. It’s clear that my inner voice alternated between“Run! She doesn’t love you” and “But she has to love me; she’s my mother.”
These observations are a part of what keeps healing at bay.
- Thinking you’re to blame
The default position of virtually every unloved child is that she’s at fault, and that there’s something about her that renders her unlovable. This terrifying thought may be buttressed by what her mother tells her about herself— “I wouldn’t get angry if you behaved better,” “It’s your messes I am always cleaning up after,” “My life would be happier if I didn’t have such a difficult, disobedient child”—but, as some researchers suggested, it may be easier to blame yourself than to face the very scary thought that your parent is unreliable. Self-blame sets the daughter on a quest to change things about herself that would, in theory, make her mother love her. This quest can last for decades into adulthood, with the daughter still looking for the magic key that will unlock her mother’s heart.
The truth is that this was never about you or anything you did.
- Making excuses and rationalizing your mother’s behavior
This impulse is fed by many streams, one of which is the daughter’s effort to make sense of a situation that makes no sense and to pin a reason on why she treats you as she does; that makes it easier not to blame yourself (and makes you feel slightly better) and also staves off having to make a decision about how to manage the relationship. Daughters also feel comfortable doing this because they see it as an act of compassion (“She doesn’t know any better because her own mother was unloving,” “She did the best she could under the circumstances,” “It’s just the way she is so it’s really not her fault”) without seeing that it also marginalizes their own feelings and minimizes the damage done to them. Feeling sorry for your mother and letting her off the hook leave a daughter stuck,
This is not to be confused with the objective kind of understanding of family patterns after you’ve healed.
- Wanting to belong
Oh, the power of that need and the wish to be like everyone else. The unloved daughter just wants to be “normal”—one of those daughters she glimpses in a café, having coffee or a glass of wine with her mom, laughing and talking. The hopefulness in her—that she can somehow magically become one of those women—gives the merry-go-round another spin and makes true healing all the more elusive.
- Feeling deep shame
The shame is both personal and cultural. Self-doubt, her worry that she’s to blame, and her lack of trust in her own perception simply add weight to the cultural shame she already feels. The culture’s promotion of the pastel-tinted portrait of motherhood—a combination of a Renaissance Madonna and a Hallmark card—wrongly asserts that mothering is instinctual and that all women are, by definition, nurturing, and the daughter either believes it or wants to. Once again, that shifts the blame to her and who she is, and feeds her shame. Young children feel this shame keenly but so do adults and that leads us to paper over the truth at all costs. That too is an obstacle to healing.
Unknotting the snarled and tangled ties between the unloved daughter and her mother is difficult and requires hard work, time, and patience. As elusive it may seem, healing is possible. Really.
The observations in this post have been drawn from my new book, Daughter Detox, which is available at Amazon.com.