I know you’re balking at the headline—what’s the point of focusing on the negative, right? Shouldn’t you be making lemonade out of those lemons, finding the silver lining in that cloud, and assuring yourself that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger? After all, isn’t everyone always telling you that you’ve got to move on from the past and leave it behind?
The truth is that if you were marginalized, unloved, castigated, or ignored in childhood and your emotional needs weren’t met, the last thing you should be doing is reaching for those rose-colored glasses. This kind of childhood experience has taught you to mistrust your perceptions, on the one hand, and forced you to adopt unhealthy strategies to deal with the day-to-day stresses, on the other.
Recognizing not just how you’ve been damaged but the self-damaging behaviors you adopted cannot happen if you’re looking at the past positively. Those platitudes and positive thinking itself will keep you stuck and will effectively silence your authentic self. I use the female pronoun but feel free to switch up.
Oh, and positive thinking can get in the way of your healing generally too. From a disappointment. From a breakup or divorce. Or a great loss.
Why positive thinking is another boulder in the path
One big reason is that positive thinking bolsters the cultural taboos about criticizing how we were mothered; when most daughters try to confide their experiences, they’re usually met by either disbelief or comments which marginalize their pain (“It couldn’t have been so bad because you turned out just fine,” “Shouldn’t you just move on and make your own life at this point?,” “Nobody has perfect parents so quit complaining”) and putting a positive spin on what happened just adds another layer to the papering-over-the-past effect.
Following are five other reasons you need to look at that lemon childhood handed you, appreciate the darkness of that cloud, and come to terms with the ways you’re not stronger.
- You already normalize hurtful behavior
As small children, each of us believes that what goes on at our house goes on everywhere. A child’s perspective is shaped by the little world she lives in; additionally, how the events and interactions in that world are to be understood is dictated by her mother and father. In that way, abusive language—telling a child she’s worthless, personalizing criticism, and the like—are explained away by references to discipline or the need to “toughen” a child up.
The chances are good that you’ve already internalized what was said to you as self-criticism—the habit of mind that understands setbacks or failures as the result of essential and unchangeable character flaws—and framing them as either character-building or “not a big deal” just keeps you stuck in your childhood room.
- You’re already comfortable looking away (and denying)
The unloved child wants nothing more than to be normal and like everyone else; she also wants her mother’s love and support more than anything. These two deep needs—one of them hardwired into our species—keep her hoping that, somehow, she’ll be able to turn things around and get her mother to love her. This is what I call the dance of denial in my writing and it’s a specific kind of magical thinking that the answer to getting her love is just hidden out of sight at the moment. Positive thinking is the cherry on top of that denial.
- You’re already used to pushing off from feelings
Children learn to manage negative emotions and productive ways of self-soothing in times of stress from an attuned mother; securely attached children are more resilient, able to deal with setbacks and other events than children who don’t learn these essential skills. Even worse, in a household where tears are seen as a sign of weakness or an invitation to criticize, children learn to hide their emotions. Because small children don’t have developed defensive mechanisms, they’re more likely to push off from their feelings or bury them deep inside. Positive thinking has you look away from the very things you need to deal with and work through, especially your feelings of pain and hurt.
- You already question your thoughts and perceptions
And positive thinking will only encourage you to practice even more self-doubt. You have to be able to still the voice or voices that told you that you were wrong or making stuff up and that won’t happen until you actually confront the truth.
- You already believe there’s no way out
Positive thinking – “The past is the past and I just have to look forward”—only underscores the idea that there’s nothing to be done about the effects the past had on you. That’s just not true. Therapy, as well as self-help, can change things for the better.
Sometimes, a dose of realism is actually what we need to make real changes in our lives. Drink up!
The ideas in this post are explored fully in my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Alexas_Fotos. Copyright free. Pixabay.com