Behaviors learned in childhood are hard to unlearn, especially if they’re largely unconscious defense mechanisms formed in response to a toxic environment. This is a problem all unloved daughters struggle with and one measure of how far you’ve come on the road is healing is how well or badly you do in situations which vividly recall the past. Yes, we are talking what people refer to as triggers.
The problem is that these old default positions pop up during stressful situations and put you in the unenviable position of responding to things in the present as if you’re still stuck in the past. Alas, you’re very likely to overreact to whatever’s going on in the now because of all the emotions connected to that moment in the past. What to do?
The following strategies are drawn from Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and are part of a larger vision of healing.
- Use Stop, Look. Listen
I learned this from a therapist decades ago but have defined it and given it a name. Basically, when you find yourself in over your head—you’re in an argument with someone or you feel horribly slighted or anything else—you simply give yourself a mental time-out. Yes, you pull back and take a deep breath; if necessary, actually excuse yourself and go to another room if you’re in a situation in which physical withdrawal won’t cause things to escalate. Now, take an objective look at what was going on, asking yourself the following questions: Am I reacting to what’s being said in the moment or am I responding to old echoes? Am I responding to the person’s intentions or words? Listen to your answers and reassess, and reboot your behaviors. Remind yourself you’re not a robot and that conscious awareness is your strongest ally.
- Take a situational inventory
Understanding the situations that are likely to set you off is an enormous plus and will allow you to prepare yourself emotionally and psychologically. Don’t think about these situations in a self-critical way, reprimanding yourself for being a wuss or impaired; instead, think about what’s upcoming in a deliberate and detached way and figure out what, exactly, is worrying you. Let’s say you’re attending a business convention or going somewhere you won’t know anyone; what’s really bothering you? Is it that you dislike making small talk or is that you automatically assume people will judge you and that makes you squirm?
Paying close attention to what is likely to set you off and writing about it in a journal will also help you discern patterns. As one reader wrote me:
“I hadn’t understood how rejection sensitive I am until I started keeping a list. Some of the stuff was pretty understandable—being uncomfortable when someone didn’t answer my text or my email—but others were huge over-reactions. This is a sore point—my mother always said I was too sensitive as a way of deflecting her meanness—but the truth is that I absolutely am too sensitive some of the time.”
Once you’ve identified the general situations that are hard for you—being in a crowd, public speaking, dealing with pushy people, or anything else—work on identifying how you’re most likely to react and think about how you can change that behavior. The good news is that what we have learned can be unlearned; it just takes effort and persistence. Even now, all these years later, it’s stonewalling that still gets to me, acting like a time machine transporting me back to my childhood. It takes me every bit of conscious effort not to react like the little girl I was when my mother would stonewall and to remind myself that I’m an adult and that the person stonewalling me is not the Big Bad Wolf. One deep breath later and I’m able to call the person out for being manipulative.
- Prime yourself for the next stressful moment
Yes, get into training to work on making your best self show up. Let’s say you are in a tizzy about having to give a presentation at work or the interview you’ve got for a new job is prompting your inner tape of self-criticism to play 24/7 and you’re aware that you are fast becoming your own worst obstacle but you don’t know what to do; the truth is that there’s lots to be done to head off these automatic responses. First, think about the situational triggers and what you’ll do to deflect them; spend some time analyzing what makes you anxious or scared and come up with conscious strategies to defang the anxiety or fear. Work on putting what’s worrying you in perspective by using cognitive reframing; come up with a plan. Second, work on your ability to use visualization to self-calm; studies show that visualizing a place where you feel safe and relaxed or a person who makes you feel secure and grounded can help you manage your emotions and reactivity.
- Draw a line in the sand
Be clear about what constitutes verbally abusive behavior. Many unloved daughters grew up surrounded by verbal abuse—being endlessly mocked, gaslighted, or called names—and sometimes have difficulty pinpointing where constructive criticism ends and abuse begins. It is never okay to allow dialogue to become personal; sentences that begin with “You always” or “You never” are not constructive criticism but are meant to make you feel small and worthless. Expressions of contempt are also never okay, nor are taunts about your looks, intelligence, or other characteristics. Stonewalling—refusing to answer you or pretending that you’ve said nothing—is abusive, plain and simple. Do not feel compelled to be polite or tolerate anyone speaking to you in this manner; this is one situation where reacting strongly is perfectly okay.
I have a mantra: Keep it simple. Abuse is abuse.
Photograph by Remy Loz. Copyright free. Unsplash.com