One thing I hear consistently from those who are trying to deal with the effects of a toxic childhood or an unloving mother is how hard it is to find people who will listen to them without being judgmental or somehow marginalizing their experiences. As I discuss in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, it’s true enough that the cultural mores and mythologies actively discourage daughters and sons from criticizing or appearing to disparage their mothers; that’s aided and abetted by the force of a Biblical commandment that tells us we must honor our mothers and fathers, along with other proscriptions. Breaking the silence and no longer feeling ashamed are key to a daughter’s recovery but how to speak your truth if the people who are supposedly listening don’t hear you?
My own theory is that sometimes, people are actually trying to be helpful when they say things that are, in fact, hurtful; they simply may not identify with the idea that a mother could be unloving or, even worse, downright hostile and cruel because it’s so foreign to their personal experience. I’ve had people who knew me when I was an adolescent and young adult (and knew my mother in her public and curated persona) ask me point-blank whether I was exaggerating or whether I was “too sensitive” as my mother always claimed I was. I also think that, sometimes, people feel threatened by these stories of unloving mothers; they want to believe that all mothers love completely and unconditionally and the story being told belies what they want to think is an absolute truth.
The following list is both for listeners and those sharing their stories; with some luck, it will be of use to both.
6 things you should never say
There are other sayings, of course, but these are the ones that really get under my skin and do the most damage to those who are already struggling and need support. The reality is that listening and, if your relationship is close enough, simply taking the person’s hand will do more than any words you might utter. When someone confides something she is struggling with, breaking the silence—and being heard with empathy—are really all that matters. Hearing a confidence doesn’t require you to turn into an advice guru or a cheerleading team either. If, after listening, you want to say something, keep it simple as in “How can I help?” The chances are good that by listening with intent you have already helped.
So, in no particular order, here they are.
- It’s time for you to move on
You may think this is a way of cheerleading but suffering and grieving do not come with an expiration date like a carton of eggs and there is no one-size-fits- all schedule for healing and recovery. Each person reclaims her life and happiness at her own pace, and deals with her pain in her own way, and this statement is downright judgmental. You can’t shame anyone into recovering more quickly and that’s what these words try to do.
- What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
If this horrible trope were true, then no one would ever suffer the effects of trauma or have PTSD. While science does show that experiencing a small amount of adversity in your life does teach you how to deal with negative emotions and harness your energy to start over, there’s no proof at all that devastating events or experiences make for strength of character or actually build your ability to manage emotions. If you feel these words bubbling up toward your mouth, please reach for the duct tape.
If someone says this about themselves, recognize that this is one way of reassuring yourself that you will make it out the other side. We all use rationalizations to assuage our wounds and that’ s perfectly fine. But if you’re in the listener role, the operative word is never.
- It’s really not as bad as you think (or it could always be worse)
Yes, objectively, this is a true statement but it is also incredibly marginalizing and diminishes the person’s pain by evoking a false comparison. Yes, experiencing a hurricane is worse than a thunderstorm, and the loss of a house is very different from the loss of a loved one, but is that the point? Suffering is not a game of comparison, and we’re not playing “my childhood was more toxic than yours” even though that sometimes happens. (I had to shut down a private Facebook group because there were a few people who were intent on claiming the title of “most abused and unloved.”)
You may think that putting a positive spin on what’s happened to someone else is uplifting but it’s not your job to present what you think is a silver lining when he or she is enveloped in a black cloud.
- Time heals all wounds
Says who? This platitude belies what science knows about the process of mourning and recovery, and to suggest that someone should just be patient and let the passage of time work its magic is unhelpful as well as untrue. If you find this reassuring, then feel free to paste it up on your fridge or embroider it on a pillow but please don’t share it with others.
- I know exactly what you are feeling
This statement may be intended to express solidarity but the chances are good that you will unintentionally undercut the unique nature of the speaker’s experience which is exactly what she’s trying to articulate; the reality is that we never know what someone else is feeling with exactitude, even when we’ve had similar experiences. Additionally, it’s pretty rare for someone to say this phrase as a stand-alone; what usually follows is the listener’s own story, offered up as a comparison. But the truth is that when you are opening up your heart about something painful or traumatic, you really don’t want to hear other people’s stories at this very moment; you want to tell yours. This actually became a huge issue for me during my horrible divorce some years ago with a friend who insisted on reliving her experience and kept telling me that hers had been worse. Perhaps it had—she divorced the father of a then minor child—but that wasn’t what I needed to hear. In fact, I needed room to speak and to be listened to.
Listening requires that we momentarily put our own need to share on mute; that is empathy in action. This isn’t to say that it isn’t valuable for someone who is confiding in you to hear your experiences; it might very well be. But wait for her prompt, would you? There’s a time for everything.
- Everything happens for a reason
If you actually believe this and it’s helpful to you, good for you but please do not visit it upon others who may share neither your optimism nor your beliefs. Similarly, if you believe in God, that’s just great but please do not tell someone grieving or struggling about what you understand is God’s plan. Again, people say these things in a spirit of helpfulness but, honestly, it’s not helpful to everyone.
Some tips on cultivating the art of listening
First of all, take the role of the listener seriously and recognize that you are being honored by someone’s confidences; it takes trust to share deeply personal suffering. Demonstrate empathy, not judgment. Second, unless the person sharing specifically asks for your advice, please don’t offer it at this point. Culturally, we wrongly believe that we should say something when someone is in pain but the truth is that, often, wordless eye contact is more than enough. Take your role as a listener seriously and be present in the moment. Third, and finally, do recognize that people in pain often feel isolated as well as singled out; just by being there and allowing her to be heard, you are helping.
Photograph by Charnee May. Copyright free. Unsplash.com