It’s ironic but one of the most common obstacles to a daughter’s healing from a toxic childhood is her continuing effort to understand and make sense of her mother’s behavior. It’s counterintuitive but, in this case, trying to understand—which is normally a path to resolution and action—is actually part of the unloved daughter’s quest to find a way to get her mother to love her. This isn’t happening consciously—on the conscious level, the daughter believes that, if she can understand her mother, she can figure out a productive way of dealing with her—but is part of what I call “the core conflict” which operates largely unconsciously.
Understanding the core conflict
Because all children normalize their experiences growing up—thinking that everyone’s Mommy is pretty much like yours and that what goes on at your house goes on everywhere—the daughter’s recognition that how her mother treats isn’t how all mothers act may take many years, sometimes even decades into adult life. Since many of these mothers are openly hostile and denigrating of their daughters, this seems very counterintuitive; is it possible not to see you’re being mistreated by someone who tells you that you’re lacking or stupid, ugly and lazy, and basically unlovable? The answer is yes, and the culprit is the core conflict.
The core conflict is the tug of war between the daughter’s growing recognition of her wounds (and who wounded her) pitted against her continuing need for her mother’s love and support as well as her need to be at home in her family of origin. Deprived of a sense of belonging, that need continues to bubble up to the top.
It’s impossible to overstate the energy and strength of the need for maternal love which is hardwired into our species, or the degree to which the daughter is motivated to do whatever she can to somehow get the love and attunement she needs from her mother.
All of this absolutely coexists with her growing recognition of how her mother hurt and failed her.
The fallout from the core conflict
Keep in mind that the way the unloved child makes sense of what’s going on doesn’t include blaming her mother; she is much more likely to attribute how she’s being treated to her own flawed nature. If she’s not loved, it’s because she’s unlovable. There are a number of reasons. First, she’s a child and it’s her parents who are seen as having superior knowledge about truth and how the world works. As Deborah Tannen noted, a parent has the power not just to create the world a child lives in but to dictate how it’s to be interpreted. Second, the mother is more than likely to articulate reasons for her treatment— “I wouldn’t need to punish you if you weren’t bad,” “If you weren’t so lazy, I’d be prouder of you,” “If you were more like your sister, my life would be easier”—and those “truths” become part and parcel of how a daughter sees herself. Finally, research by Rachel Goldsmith and Jennifer Freyd showed that self-blame might be less frightening to a child than admitting that the person entrusted with caring for you can’t be trusted. If it’s your fault, there’s hope that you can fix whatever flaw is stopping her from loving you.
For many adult daughters, finding reasons for her behavior—or rationalizations—often coexists with self-blame. Explanations such as “she didn’t know any better because her own mother was abusive” or “she didn’t realize how much her undercutting me hurt” are part of what I call “the dance of denial” in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. These rationalizations effectively keep the core conflict going by muting the daughter’s recognition and keeping the focus on her mother, not the daughter’s own needs. They also effectively excuse the mother’s behavior.
Identity, compassion, and emotional confusion
As the daughter’s recognition grows, one of her main goals will be to distinguish her behaviors from her mother’s. This is a worthy path but one that can be pitted with emotional potholes, among them having compassion for her mother’s history. Can compassion be an obstacle to healing? Absolutely, because it keeps the focus on her mother (and thus dims recognition) instead of her own needs. Trying to be compassionate can easily become another way of excusing abusive behavior.
In order to heal, the daughter must stop making excuses and, most important, stop asking the question “Why didn’t she love me?” Instead, to reclaim her life and heal from her experiences, she needs to ask the question, “How did her treatment affect me and my behaviors, and how does it continue to affect me today?”
The journey out of a toxic childhood is long and fraught with obstacles. Some of them are of our own making.
Photograph by Ivana Calina. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Goldsmith, Rachel K. and Jennifer J. Freyd,” Effects of Emotional Abuse in Family and Work Environments: Awareness for Emotional Abuse,” Journal of Emotional Abuse (2005), vol. 5 (1), 95-123.