It was only a few years ago, when I was gearing up to write Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Yourself, and began interviewing women again and asking different questions than I had when I wrote my first book, that it struck me: The sense of being singled out, of thinking she’s the only unloved child on the planet, is almost as damaging as the lack of maternal love, attention, and attunement. I can’t quantify the word “almost” in any real sense but the following observations, drawn from interviews and discussions, will illuminate what I mean.
This special kind of loneliness
Being lonely in her family of origin—feeling as though she’s unacceptable or unaccepted, not good enough to belong or lacking the lovability that appears to be a quid pro quo for belonging, feeling the burden of shame at being singled out in this way—is a profound experience for a child or young person. It erodes her belief in herself and undercuts whatever foundation of self-esteem or feeling worthy she has. Even though she may read stories that make her feel better—fairy tales likes Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or, later, novels about other other outsiders—she’s likely to believe that she belongs nowhere in the world. This belief is fed by the mythology the culture holds dear—that all mothers are loving, that women and girls are nurturing by nature, that mothering is instinctual. This increases her shame but also makes her feel that her outlier status in the family will continue in the larger world and guess what? Her belief makes it happen.
One of the remarkable—and incredibly frustrating—things about childhood experiences and beliefs is their staying power. These largely unconscious mental models about how the world of relationships works as well beliefs about the self—extrapolated from how you were treated in childhood, internalized versions of things said to you again and again, conclusions about yourself that you drew from interactions you no longer remember—become set in stone. For many, chief among them is that sense that they belong nowhere.
I’m never completely at my ease, even with close friends. My comfort zone is a narrow box because I always feel vulnerable. My therapist thinks that’s why I haven’t been able to form close, intimate relationships. I’m too focused on the exit. Running to safety.
But the sense of not belonging can hover like an unwelcome guest in an unloved daughter’s life even if she has managed to forge close connections and has built a family of her own that functions very differently from her family of origin. It can be a shadowy presence, showing up at times of stress such as the holidays or her birthday, or when there are major life-changes afoot.
I have my own family, and a loving husband of twenty years. But Christmas is hard because I feel marked somehow—the only person I know who doesn’t see her parents or siblings—and Mother’s Day is a nightmare. I am working hard at not feeling bereft, at seeing all the blessings in my life. But, still, the thorn in my side is still there. That unloved girl is still in here.
Small steps towards healing
There are things you can do to adjust your perspective which, over time, will help you recognize the sources of that pervasive feeling, allow you to bring it to consciousness, and deal with it; part of its power lies in your not recognizing it for what it is. Working with a skilled therapist is the best route, of course, but self-help is important too because doing for yourself allows you to feel that you’re not powerless.
- Recognize that you’re not alone
It’s estimated that some forty to fifty percent of us have insecure styles of attachment, meaning that our emotional needs weren’t adequately met in childhood. All of us—myself included—believed that we were the only unloved daughters on the planet when we were young but the moment has come to shake off that mythology, even if you don’t know anyone who had a similar experience at the moment. Once you get comfortable talking, you will find others. Really.
- Move away from thinking the relationship is your fault
Children blame themselves for their mothers’ treatment of them for a variety of reasons which, of course, also makes them responsible for not belonging. Sometimes, they’re just internalizing the reasons given to them: “I wouldn’t have to punish you if you ever listened,” “I yell at you because you don’t pay attention and act the way your sister does,” “Why do you always make messes? Your brother doesn’t.”
But other children who don’t get criticized in this way—children whose mothers largely ignore and dismiss them as well the children of emotionally unavailable mothers—may see self-blame as opening the door to a possible solution. This seems highly counterintuitive but hear me out: By blaming yourself and some flaws or flaws, there’s the possibility that by fixing them, you can belong! This is a familiar track for many.
But the mother has all the power and it was never about you to begin with. It was about her. One brilliant research study suggest that self-blame is less terrifying for a child than the truth that the very person or people charged with taking care of you won’t.
Bottom line: It was never about you.
- See your lovability and work on self-compassion
Getting back to that child and girl you were is key to escaping the maze of well-worn but unproductive thoughts about what happened. Walk over to a playground or anywhere else children congregate and see if you can pick out the ones who are undeserving of love. Or just look at photos on the Internet: Can you distinguish the bad kid from the good one? You can’t because we are born into the world naked and open; it’s what happens next that matters.
This is a self-compassion exercise adapted from my book which I have conducted on Facebook and had hundreds of readers share baby or childhood photos. If you have one, look at it as a stranger might. What do you see? Feel compassion for that little girl, would you?
I have yet to have a reader write to tell me she saw her inner “badness.”
- Focus on what your mother (and others) missed out on
This is a totally theoretical perspective that lots of people initially resist because their mothers will never be focused on what they missed knowing about their daughters. DUH. But caring about yourself enough to appreciate what she lost (and others) opens the door to other kinds of thinking. Seeing your gifts and talents as well as your accomplishments shifts your gaze from your losses to what a remarkable person you are in many ways. Too bad they missed out.
More than half the battle in reclaiming your life is recognizing that your mother’s vision of you was simply wrong. Seeing yourself clearly is the best antidote. These observations are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life,
Photograph by Greekfood-Tamystika. Copyright free. Pixabay.com