Not often addressed is the deep shame a daughter feels at having little or no relationship to her mother; if she actually confides in someone about her experiences, whether those of childhood or adulthood, she’s likely to feel as though she’s being judged and judged harshly. The mythologies pertaining to mothering and motherhood—that women are instinctually nurturing and that all mothers love unconditionally and well—lead many otherwise compassionate people to conclude without thinking that if something has gone wrong in the relationship, it must have to do with the daughter herself. As I have written many times, in the court of public opinion, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial.
Understanding what feeds the daughter’s feeling of shame
Pushing off from shame is a reflexive action, as is looking away from moments during which you’ve felt ashamed, so it’s not surprising that shame often becomes the daughter’s elephant in the living room. I didn’t confide in a single person about my relationship to my mother until I was in my twenties, in therapy, and went no contact with her for the first time; I was afraid both of people thinking less of me and, perhaps more important, feeling sorry for me. I wanted people to think I was strong and capable, not pitiable. I know that I certainly wasn’t alone in having that worry.
The unloved daughter wants desperately to be like everyone else. She wants a “normal” relationship with her mother. She wants to fit in.
Shame is fed by many streams. Here are a number which may resonate if this has been your experience.
Thinking that she’s the only one
Almost every single unloved daughter believes this in childhood—I certainly did—and many continue to in adulthood. In fact, the most common response I get from readers who discover my work is admitting to relief that they’re not the only ones whose mothers didn’t love them. Feeling like an outlier or outcast in this way damages your own sense of self, of course, and feeds directly into the next source of shame.
Believing that she’s to blame for how her mother treats her
This is at the dead-center of shame for reasons that are both simple and complicated because self-blame is the unloved daughter’s default position. From the simplest to the more complex, here is why the daughter resorts to blaming herself:
- Because it echoes what she’s been told by her mother and others
At the simplest level, self-blame grows from the criticisms and put-downs she’s heard growing up—that she’s difficult or too sensitive, lazy or non-conformist or anything else negative and marginalizing that gets repeated again and again. A parent or parents playing favorites among the children—and, yes, it’s common even in loving and healthy families—may also reinforce the idea that her character flaws or failings are the cause of her predicament.
- Because it’s less scary to blame yourself than to blame your parent or parents
What the daughter wants is her mother’s love and support, and believing that it’s something she’s done to deserve her mother’s treatment makes it possible for her to hope that she can change herself to make herself worthy of love and the problem will magically disappear. If she blames her mother, there’s no solution in sight. Additionally, as researchers point out, it is just terrifying to admit that the person charged with keeping you safe might not so it’s basically less frightening to blame yourself.
Because she’s afraid no one will love her if she tells the truth
Again, if the person who’s supposed to love you—yes, your mother—doesn’t, then who possibly will? Once upon a time, before the Grimm Brothers cleaned up the old folk tales, it was an unloving mother who went after Snow White while another banished Hansel and Gretel in a time of famine but then the pious storytelling team changed those mothers to step-mothers to keep the Mother myths vibrant. The daughter’s continuing worry that her mother might be right about her—that she is fundamentally unlovable—keeps her silent and filled with shame. We all push off from shame and make efforts to hide what we think is the cause of our shame; irrationally, the daughter may feel that confiding in someone may tip that person off to her true nature. None of this is logical—shame stains our thought-processes with negative emotion—but is driven by fear.
What she can do to stop shame in its tracks
In order to heal, the daughter must move away from self-blame and criticism, and stop seeing herself as unworthy. This is a process, and a long one at that, as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, but there are some things she can do about shame.
- Take ownership of her own experiences and nothing more
Recognizing that you did nothing to deserve your mother’s treatment is the absolute first step, as is beginning to see yourself clearly separate from your mother’s vision of you. It takes time and effort to start separating out your mother’s projections from who you actually were but it can be done.
- Begin to see her mother’s agenda and behaviors—and how it affected her development
Shifting her attention to how she was affected focuses her attention on herself, not on her mother. That is a key step forward.
- Stop rationalizing and normalizing her mother’s behavior
Another way to tackle self-blame and to stop the cycle of hopefulness— “She’ll love me if I become the daughter she wants”—is to realize that her mother is choosing to act the way she does, and not driven by some force she cannot help. Daughters need to stop telling themselves that their mothers’ behavior is a function of personality or even experiences; accountability is part of life.
- Recognize the cultural bias and refute the shame
The shame the culture heaps on the daughter because of her supposed lack of filial gratitude needs to be tackled consciously and forcefully. Recognize it for what it is and don’t make it yours because it isn’t.
Opening the cupboard where taboo subjects are kept lets in the light and shame only flourishes in dark places.
Photograph by Maia Habegger. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.