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Why Recovery from a Toxic Childhood is Hard: Unconscious Patterns

When I think about my childhood, even now all these decades later, it’s the brittle surface that comes to mind first: My mother’s face, disapproving, her lips in a pout; my parents’ constant bickering about money which was the tinderbox for their fights; me, at that various ages, my nose buried in a book, wishing I were elsewhere. Even happy moments—my Sunday mornings with my father when we’d sneak in a visit to the local bakery to eat a sweet without my mother’s hounding, the times I spent riding my bike and playing with friends, the pride I felt when a teacher praised my work—only skim the truth because not one of these memories reflects on what was going on inside me or on how I was adapting to my environment. To do that, I needed to look below the surface.

That’s the problem with discovery: While we may have relatively easy access to how we felt in childhood—alone, scared, unloved, worried— and, if we’re in contact with members of our original family, we certainly know how dealing with them makes us feel in the present, it’s very hard to see how the experience shaped us without help.

In my new book, Daughter Detox, I explain how discovery is the first of seven stages that end in recovery. Of course, to discover something, you must be able to see it first.

Why our vision is so limited when it comes to how we were shaped by experience

The main reason is that the most significant individual adaptations to the emotional environment happen unconsciously. According to attachment theory, these are the internalized mental models or working assumptions about how the world operates, how people connect or don’t, and the basic nature of relationships. Evolution has engineered human infants to survive and part of survival involves reducing stress; if a baby’s emotional needs aren’t being met or are answered unreliably, the brain simply adapts rather than feel the continued stress of deprivation. This adaptation changes how the child thinks, behaves, and interacts with her primary caretakers, most usually her mother. All of this takes place in the first months and years of life, and are carried with the unloved child into adolescence and adulthood. Science deems these children insecurely attached—not having been able to forge a secure and dyadic connection to their primary caretaker—and divides that group into three types.

The anxious-preoccupied style of attachment—developed most usually with a mother who is inconsistently emotionally available—is characterized by extreme sensitivity to rejection, constant fretting over whether a loved one actually is reliable or is about to leave, and emotional volatility.

The fearful- avoidant style applies to those who avoid intimate connections but do so because they are motivated by fear of emotional pain and rejection; they have low self-esteem but a high regard for others. These daughters and sons usually experienced a lot of maternal control in the household, and often competed with siblings for scraps of attention.

A person with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style stays out of the emotional fray entirely, even when in a relationship; they eschew intimate connections, prefer staying on the surface, and tend to relish control. They have a high opinion of themselves and a low one of others, and pride themselves on their independence and resilience.

Of course, seeing yourself from the inside out is a very limited perspective; you’re probably not going to see yourself as reacting in predictable ways if you’re anxious-preoccupied but consider yourself reacting in a reasonable way to other people’s actions. You’re jealous because you saw him take a long look at that woman sitting at the bar; wouldn’t anyone get jealous under those circumstances? Or you picked up his phone and saw that he had a text message from a woman? Wouldn’t anyone jump to the conclusion that he was cheating, even if it turned out that Laura was his new work colleague inquiring about tomorrow’s meeting? That’s the problem with unconscious patterns: You’re apt not to see them. The same goes for the fearful-avoidant who’s more likely to see herself as having made terrible relationship mistakes, choosing the wrong people again and again, without understanding the larger, underlying pattern which is really about her defense mechanisms and fearfulness.

Normalizing experiences makes discovery even harder

We come out of childhood and emerge into adulthood seeing how we connect to members of our family of origin as simple facts—like being tall or short, blonde or brunette, gifted with 20/20 vision or needing corrective lenses. Growing up, most unloved children think—in a kind of vague and unexamined way—that most families are more like ours than not. Granted, I certainly noticed (and envied) other girls’ mothers and paid attention to how they were different than mine but my own need to feel normal and like everyone else certainly trumped my ability to appreciate how toxic the environment was. That may continue long into adulthood for many unloved daughters who keep consciousness at bay by papering over or explaining events— “It’s just the way she is and there’s nothing to be done,” “She might be right about how I’m too sensitive, you know,” “I sure wish I got along with my siblings better but doesn’t everyone? No family is ideal.”

Because humans are tribal creatures—we don’t thrive in isolation, as it happens—the need to belong makes normalizing our experiences much easier than it would be to take a revelatory look at family dynamics and possibly admitting that there’s nothing normal about them. The need to belong, denial, and even shame impede discovery.

Discovery is the first step toward recovery

Some unloved daughters know from a young age that things with their mothers aren’t good or even poisonous; I was one of those daughters but that inkling of discovery didn’t allow me to see myself any more clearly or need her love any less. It took decades for me to see how I had been affected by the relationship, even with therapy. Sometimes, daughters begin the process of discovery because of a crisis—the failure of a marriage, a bout of depression, or some other life-altering events. But often, the discovery stage must wait until the individual is ready to see—most usually in her thirties or forties—when she’s finally determined to tackle why, at core, she remains so deeply unhappy, despite all the good things in her life.

Discovery is the first baby step toward conscious awareness and the possibility of healing our wounds.


This post draws on my new book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Photograph by  Connor McSheffrey. Copyright free.

Why Recovery from a Toxic Childhood is Hard: Unconscious Patterns

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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, . (2017). Why Recovery from a Toxic Childhood is Hard: Unconscious Patterns. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Dec 2017
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