I was probably six or seven when I realized that my mother’s version of events and mine were totally different, and that one of us had to be wrong or even “crazy.” I was terrified of being crazy and since I was an only child, there wasn’t anyone to ask which one of us was right. I knew that I hadn’t lost my sweater or my skate keys or whatever it was that I’d done that day on purpose but she insisted that I misbehaved to make her life hard and to make her angry. I was the cause of her every unhappiness, of every mess in our immaculate apartment, the source of every irritation. But that’s not how I saw it or remembered it. I resisted the idea that I was rotten or bad as much as I could. But, still, I wanted her to love me and a piece of me wondered, “Was she right about me?”
Self-doubt is usually the unloved daughter’s default position because her perceptions have been undermined by her mother’s treatment of her. While a loving, attentive, and attuned mother teaches a child that she is capable and that her thoughts and feelings are hers and to be relied on, the unloved daughter learns the opposite. A mother with combative style will challenge her at every turn, using words as weaponry to make her feel small and distrust her reactions. The controlling mother marginalizes the importance of her thoughts and feelings so as to increase the child’s dependence on her and thwart efforts to break away; any effort to voice her own opinions and thoughts will be attacked and marginalized. The dismissive mother ignores her daughter which makes her feel invisible. She’s prone to self-doubt because her thoughts and feelings aren’t important enough to be paid attention to. The mother high in narcissistic traits sees her daughter as an extension of herself and only validates her real-world achievements; she’s not valued for who she is but what she does and that, too, makes her doubt herself, especially if she falls short of her mother’s expectations. The emotionally unavailable mother endows a daughter with a more complicated sense of doubt, as she wrestles with the question of how her mother can be physically present—often running an impeccable house, being admired for her skills—while being so emotionally absent.
Most unloving mothers actively curate their public image which creates more confusion in the child’s mind and feeds self-doubt. Who’s the real Mom, the one she sees or the one the neighbors wave to and praise?
Self-doubt doesn’t disappear just because the daughter reaches adulthood; in fact, it often becomes a major factor as she tries to manage her relationship to her unloving mother. One daughter, in the process of setting boundaries with her mother and getting lots of push-back, posted: “is she right? Am I too sensitive and fragile?” Another, now a mother herself, described her reactions as her mother rebutted her every statement, even posting on Facebook so people could take her side: “She calls me a drama queen and given to fantasy. She denies everything. Every word. Every gesture.”
Unloving mothers often use denial and gaslighting as they defend the status quo. They are protecting their turf, their status as a mother, their control, and their authority.
How to tackle self-doubt
Recognize it as a familiar default position you learned in childhood. Understanding how your mother undercut your thoughts and perceptions then and perhaps even now will give you a better and more realistic perspective.
- See the big picture
Understand that you were taught to doubt your thoughts and perceptions, and told that your narration of events was unreliable. But remember that what was learned can be unlearned. When you find yourself questioning your perceptions, pull back and see it as a third-party might, as if from a distance. What do you see?
- Recognize your mother’s behaviors
Feeling confident enough to label and call-out manipulative or even abusive behavior on your mother’s part is key to recovering yourself. Use journaling to explore not what you felt when she acted as she did but why you felt that way. This is called “cool processing.” Writing can facilitate understanding and will help you to see the active patterns of cause-and-effect that elicited your emotions: “I began to think I had misunderstood because she was actively putting me down, calling me names, telling me I was stupid” or “She kept going back to the failure of my marriage as proof that everyone knew how difficult I was and that was why everyone sided with my ex and I began to panic” or “She co-opted my sister and the two of them attacked, leaving nasty phone messages and texts.”
- Still self-criticism and instill self-compassion
Self-doubt is fed by the habit of self-criticism—attributing setbacks, disagreements, or failures to your own set-in-stone character flaws. This too is a habit of mind learned in childhood. Instead, begin to practice self-compassion, being tolerant of your missteps and less-than-perfect reactions but continuing to work hard on congratulating yourself on your own progress in healing. It’s hard but it can be done.
Shedding that old default position—thinking whatever happened must be your fault—is hard but once you’ve begun to trust your thoughts and perceptions, you’ll find yourself navigating life with considerably less baggage.
The ideas in this post are drawn from my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life which will be available from Amazon soon.
Photograph by Greyerbaby. Copyright free. Pixabay.com