One common theme that emerges from the stories I hear is that of women who leave their childhood homes and families of origin, certain that the past is behind them, only to find that they have managed to recreate their original circumstances. This recognition is usually slow in coming and often happens in intimate relationships when they realize that the person they’ve chosen to be with treats them in ways that are painfully familiar, or they find themselves feeling terrifically insecure and worried that their partners aren’t being truthful or sincere. They find themselves reacting as they did as children—afraid to speak their minds or not trusting their perceptions—and feel as lost and alone as they did in their childhood rooms. Alternatively, they may avoid all emotional intimacy, preferring to live on the surface of life and push off from their feelings; this, too, is an old habit, learned young, with a narcissistic, combative, or controlling parent at the helm.
Why you probably can’t see the bags you’re carrying
As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, seeing how you’ve been shaped by your childhood is a slow process of discovery; most daughters are still hopeful that their relationship to their mothers and others in their family of origin can somehow be changed. That hopefulness is fed by denial and normalizing how they’ve been treated as well. The chances are good, too, that we’ve internalized what has been said to us and about us, and that we assume that the traits described—that we are lazy or not good enough, too sensitive, or anything else—are inborn traits that cannot be changed. We don’t see that that emotional baggage we’re carrying into our adult lives is a function of maladaptive coping skills we learned growing up in order to muddle through or stay afloat.
None of this is helped by the fact that the people in whom we confide are apt to tell us to “move on” or “that the past is the past” or “Your childhood couldn’t have been that bad because you turned out fine.” While often offered up in the spirit of helpfulness, these kind of statements tend to shut us down and encourage us to look away from the carousel piled high with baggage.
Naming the baggage most unloved daughters have in tow
These are generalizations and so you might find that some apply to where you find yourself more than others. Again, you cannot change behavior you can’t see so the first step towards healing is discovery.
- Difficulty managing emotions
There’s a body of research that suggests that the inability to self-soothe in times of stress and deal with negative feelings is the most damaging legacy of an insecure attachment style. Those with an anxious-preoccupied style are easily flooded by emotion and are very volatile, going from anxious to defensive or aggressive in a flash because they are always looking for possible signs of rejection. Those with an avoidant style—whether that’s dismissive or fearful—push off from their feelings and, as a result, have real deficits in emotional intelligence.
- Deep insecurity about herself
Our mothers’ faces are the first mirrors in which we catch a glimpse of ourselves and for the unloved daughter the image is distorted and bears little relationship to reality. This may be both literal and symbolic; told she is fat or ugly, the daughter may look in a literal mirror and be unable to see herself as she really is, while on a symbolic level she sees herself as not good enough and fundamentally unlovable. But even worse is the fact that she doesn’t trust her own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings; that is the steamer trunk she carries with her, sight unseen.
- Issues with trusting others
Whether her mother is controlling, combative, dismissive, hyper-critical, or high in narcissistic traits, this daughter has learned from an early age never to relax or to feel totally safe. Her vigilance may make her anxious or armored, but she never lets her guard down. She may revert to pleasing or erasing herself from view or she may abruptly exit relationships because they threaten her but it all comes down to never being comfortable with true emotional connection. This may also tie into the next suitcase at hand, self-blame and criticism.
- The habit of self-criticism
Self-criticism is the default position of many unloved daughters when faced with a crisis, a setback, or a failure; rather than look objectively at the factors that caused whatever it was to happen, the daughter sees her own fixed character flaws as the sole reason, usually repeating the same criticisms that were leveled at her in childhood as set-in-stone truths. Whether it’s the breakup of a relationship or being passed over for a promotion, not getting invited to a party or feeling left out in some way, the unloved daughter makes it highly personal and has trouble getting over it. Needless to say, this is extremely self-limiting, and has real-world consequences. It may well be why so many unloved daughters are chronic underachievers.
- Vulnerable to familiar manipulations
Until she recognizes the emotional baggage she’s carrying, the unloved daughter is likely to fall into old patterns of relating which will include normalizing abusive behavior that’s familiar to her such as gaslighting, stonewalling, expressing contempt or being dismissive, or name-calling. Additionally, her neediness makes her open to accepting and excusing behaviors that mirror those of her mother and other members in her family of origin; she’s likely to mistake control for steady confidence, extreme criticism for someone trying to help her, and the like. It’s not an accident that daughters of mothers high in control or narcissistic traits often end up with romantic partners and friends who act the same way.
If you are still carrying the emotional baggage from childhood experiences, the best way to learn how to ditch them is working with a gifted therapist, as well as using directed self-help. It can be done.
Photograph by Rene Bohmer. Copyright free. Unsplash.com