I always thought that how I acted was just a function of my personality—that I was born defensive, quick to anger, prickly. I didn’t occur to me until recently that it had to do with my mother’s treatment. Imagine that? A revelation at 39.
I always knew my mother didn’t love me; I was really little when I understood that what she said and did wasn’t loving and that the way she treated my younger brother was really different. She lit up when she saw him, you know? But I also thought that the problem was me. That the ways in which I was different from my brother were bad and that she was probably right not to love me. I mean, why would she? I was 38 when I heard myself actually say that to my husband and the look on his face was like a bright light going off in the darkness. And then he said,’ Wait. You believed she was right not to love you?’ Bells went off in my head.
All children normalize their experiences in their families of origin, believing that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere until they grow up and perhaps begin to see that there are, in truth, meaningful differences. Note the word perhaps in that sentence because, as the opening quotations make clear, this isn’t precisely a foregone conclusion. Even when a daughter recognizes that she’s been wounded by her mother’s treatment, she’s unlikely to see how she’s affected without therapy or a great deal of guided self-reflection.
It’s the lack of maternal love we feel but the real damage lies elsewhere
As I explain in my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, discovering and understanding the power your mother had over you is the first step toward the light. With that information in hand, we can begin the process of discernment—seeing the relational patterns in our family of origin, including those with our fathers and siblings. Next, we move on to really seeing how we were shaped and how we adapted, often to the detriment of our own happiness, by distinguishing those behaviors we exhibit in the present that are a direct result of the past.
4 exercises for self-help
Therapy with someone attuned and who really understands the long-term effects of a toxic childhood is, without question, the best route for healing. But being able to help ourselves in the day-to-day—working to dismantle the behaviors that no longer serve us—can make us feel more in control of our destinies and can actually move us closer to healing if we incorporate them into our daily routines. All of these exercises are adapted from Daughter Detox and the just-released companion volume, The Daughter Detox Guided Journal and Workbook, where they are explained fully.
Using Stop. Look. Listen
Perhaps one of the hardest tasks at hand is dismantling our reactivity to certain situations that trigger us. Studies show that those of us who are rejection sensitive tend to scour the horizon for signs of imminent rejection; this kind of hypervigilance can lead to misreading people’s cues and statements and frankly makes for the kind of drama that’s hard to be around on the daily.
This technique was suggested by my own therapist many years ago and I can attest to the fact that once you’ve done it for a long time, it becomes pretty automatic and a handy way of managing your reactivity productively. Basically, it entails giving yourself a mental time-out when you’re in a stressful situation or in the heat of an argument: You simply stop and pull back for a moment. At the beginning, you may have to literally remove yourself physically to be able to have enough space to think clearly. Once you stop, you look and ask yourself the following questions: “Am I reacting to what’s being said or am I hearing echoes from the past?” “Am I behaving reasonably or am I over-reacting?” Then, you must listen to your own words and those of the other person, asking “Am I actually listening or am I reading in?” “Are my own words emotionally fueled or am I telling the other person what I see?”
Using visualization for self-calming
Securely attached people automatically self-calm under stress by reminding themselves of loving and supportive others in their lives, bringing up a situation when they were really tense and things worked out anyway, or imagining themselves in a calming environment. Research experiments show that insecurely attached people—those whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood—can also self-calm by visualizing a supportive person or bringing to mind a place where they feel calm and safe.
Practice visualizing when you are relatively unstressed at first. You can use photographs or other visual aids—a photograph of a beach, of flowing water, or a flower or anything else that makes you feel happy and calm, or of someone you love. Pay attention to the changes in your body as you begin to relax; understanding where you store your tension in your body will be an aid to self-calming in the future.
Working on self-compassion
One way to fight both denial of how you were hurt and the loop of self-blame so many unloved daughters get caught up in is to develop compassion for the child and girl you once were, who longed for her mother’s love and couldn’t get it. One exercise I developed which many of my readers have done involves getting a photograph of yourself when you were small and seeing it as a stranger might. Writing down what you see can make this exercise even more powerful, especially when you contrast the words to the things your mother said to you and about you. As one reader remarked:
I see a wide-eyed child with a bit of sadness and hesitation. She seems afraid to smile for the camera. But do I see the obstinate and difficult little girl my mother saw? Absolutely not.
Beefing up your emotional intelligence
One of the primary deficits of not being loved and supported is difficulty managing emotions, a key aspect of emotional intelligence. Many daughters have trouble distinguishing one emotion from another or even naming what they’re feeling. Using Stop, Look, Listen, focus on what you are feeling at a time of stress. Actively work on naming your emotions, distinguishing fear from anger, shame from anxiety, and the like. More advanced emotional intelligence exercises are contained in both Daughter Detox books.
The road out from a toxic childhood is long but it’s a journey that can and must be taken.
Photograph by Engin_Akyurt. Copyright free. Pixabay.com