One of the lasting effects of a childhood during which you felt marginalized, ignored, or actively picked on is a sense of isolation; most daughters grow up believing that they are the only girls on the planet whose mothers don’t love them and it’s par for the course for them to feel a deep sense of shame. Research shows that they’re more likely to blame their own failings for their mothers’ lack of love; it’s a maladaptive coping mechanism that’s less frightening than other alternatives. Shame keeps them from talking about their experiences, as does the need to belong and be “like everyone else.” Yet, for them to heal, it’s important that they not only share their stories with trusted others but that they do so without shame. (This point is fully explored in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
Why it’s hard to break the code of silence
Alas, many people find it hard to listen to these deeply painful stories of childhood because they run counter to some of the culture’s most cherished and deeply-held beliefs: That all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that a mother’s love is unconditional. It’s true enough that most of us have experienced the downside of romantic love—of being spurned or hurt by someone we thought loved us—so it becomes even more urgent to believe in one kind of love that is unwavering and unchangeable. Maternal love is the best candidate we’ve got. (Notably, we’re much more comfortable culturally with believing in the existence of the angry, detached, or deadbeat Dad and those stories are treated differently.)
This is the back-drop but then there are the things people actually murmur, thinking that, somehow, they’re being helpful. Before we look at them, let’s be direct: No matter what you may think, these are not productive or helpful things to say. Ever. In fact, from the unloved daughter’s point of view, they can be immensely hurtful and, yes, marginalizing, even if they’re offered up with good intentions.
I will admit that I have a dog in this race, having grown up in a family that never thought a problem was too big to shove under a rug, always felt that it was way better to let sleeping dogs lie, was expert at ignoring the elephant parked dead-center in the living room, and embraced every platitude as certain truth. I come by my loathing of platitudes honestly as well as my penchant for straight talk.
Here are seven of my least favorites and ones that everyone should avoid.
- What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Usually attributed to Fredrich Nietzche, this saying has spawned countless magnets, plaques, and gewgaws but that doesn’t, alas, make it any more true. If this positive spin on bad stuff floats your boat, that’s fine by me but could you possibly keep it to yourself? Trying to get through a difficult childhood doesn’t make you more resilient necessarily; it usually results in all sorts of maladaptive behaviors such as dissociating from your emotions, being either highly reactive or not reactive enough, and generally desperate for the love and attention you need and desire. That said, there is a relatively recent lab study which seemed to show that a moderate amount of adversity did prepare you to be more resilient than a total lack of adversity in your life; a toxic childhood doesn’t qualify as a “moderate” amount of adversity.
- The past is the past; you need to move on.
This statement is meant to be inspiring but, in fact, it relies the idea that pain or grief has an expiration date which just isn’t true as well as the assumption that considering the past is just “wallowing.” Believe it or not, I have readers who have been told this by their therapists! The reality for the unloved daughter is that unless and until she confronts and sees how her childhood treatment shaped her behaviors, she will continue to carry the effect of the past into the present and the future. There’s nothing right about this sentiment and everything wrong about it.
- I know exactly how you feel.
Yes, I know it sounds like empathy but the reality is that you don’t exactly know how she feels, even if you are an unloved daughter yourself and especially if you aren’t. It’s way better just to listen to someone’s story, saying little or nothing, than it is to say something that can potentially minimize or marginalize a person’s unique experience. On the other hand, if you have had this experience, sharing what you’ve found helpful on the road to recovery is something else entirely.
- It couldn’t have been so bad; you turned out fine.
I honestly lost track of how many times this has been said to me years ago; I still hear it via message and email from naysayers who seem to lay whatever I’ve accomplished at my mother’s feet. This is supposed to be a form of cheerleading but it doesn’t feel that way to the recipient; it marginalizes pain and hurt. Of course, additionally, it all depends on how you define “fine” as well. There are many high-achieving, outwardly successful women (and sons, for that matter) who still suffer from low self-esteem, difficulties managing emotions, and being happy. Yes, the old saw about the book and its cover applies.
- Everything happens for a reason.
If you honestly feel this way, that’s fine but please don’t visit it on others who might not share your outlook. I have been studying mother-daughter relationships for twenty years and have spent more than a decade looking at toxic connections, in addition to living it myself for forty years. I can’t name a single reason which would make the experience any less damaging or painful than it was.
- Time heals all wounds.
Actually, there’s pretty solid evidence that whatever truth this saying holds in other circumstances, it doesn’t apply to a toxic childhood or the experience of having the person who’s supposed to love, support, and protect you fail you or actively undermine you instead. The only thing that heals this particular wound is addressing your behaviors, mourning the mother you deserved, working on building up your ability to use your emotional intelligence, and creating a secure base for yourself. Time alone doesn’t cut it.
- Happiness is a choice.
I have saved the worst for last. If this is your idea of cheerleading and telling someone to wake up and smell the roses, you need to retire your pom-poms pronto. Basically, you are telling the daughter that it’s her fault that she’s hurting; seen that way, it’s not much of a cheer, is it? As to its truth, let’s look at the science. According to the theory set forth by Sonja Lyubomirsky and others, we only control a relatively small part of what makes us happy or not. There are three factors which determine individual happiness: your happiness set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity. Your happiness set point accounts for roughly half of your happiness, and is determined by heredity and personality; it’s relatively stable over time. Life circumstances—which account for as much as 15 percent of happiness—include factors like the quality of your childhood experiences, your relationship status, job satisfaction, and income. So, please note that your negative childhood experiences which affect both personality and life circumstances are in the mix for 60-65 percent of happiness. That leaves some 35-40 percent which is determined by your intentional activity which includes setting goals, managing negative emotions and stress, and nurturing close relationships. Please note that unloved daughters typically have difficulty with all of these areas of intentional activity.
So quit it, would you? She’s telling you her story so she can begin to own it and learn to exercise more self-compassion and stop feeling isolated and at fault. The steps to healing are described fully in Daughter Detox.
Of course, learning not to say these things to other people—those who are bereft or depressed—will be helpful too. Better to say nothing than to shut someone down, even inadvertently. Just listening with empathy and compassion is more than enough.
Photograph by Jon Ly. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.
Seery, Mark D, Raphael J. Leo, Shannon P. Lupien Cheryl L. Kondrak, and Jessica L. Almonte,“An Upside to Adversity? Moderate Cumulative Lifetime Adversity Is Associated With Resilient Responses in the Face of Controlled Stressors,” Psychological Science (2013), vol. 24(7) 1181–1189,
Sheldon, Kennon and Sonja Lyubomirsky, “Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change your Actions, not your Circumstances,” Journal of Happiness Studies (2008), 7, 55-86.