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Toxic Childhood? 6 Signs that You’re Beginning to Heal

Of all the questions I get from readers, there’s one I get nearly every day: “Why is this taking so long? Is healing even possible?” and other variations on the theme. The frustration is understandable but some of it has to do with our own unrealistic expectations and old habits of mind we learned in childhood as ways of coping with the dynamics in our families of origin. Before we look at the positive signs of progress, let’s examine the misunderstandings that help fuel our impatience and actually get in the way of reclaiming our lives. The ideas in this post are all drawn from my books, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Out of a Toxic Childhood.

Misconceptions about healing and its progression

Let’s begin with the word “heal” which means “to make whole;” in our Western culture, we deal with damage by repairing in such a way that it looks as though the object was never broken to begin with. Many daughters wrongly believe that this is what healing from childhood looks like too; it does not. The metaphor I use for healing is drawn from the Japanese art of Kintsugi because it captures the healing we can expect much more accurately. When a delicate object such as a porcelain bowl is broken, it is repaired using lacquer and the dust of precious metals such as gold and silver; the result is an object that has been restored but which testifies to its history and, thus, becomes a testament to transformation and survival. This is, I would argue, a much better way of thinking about what it means to heal from childhood.

Additionally, there are other misconceptions as well:

  • That there is a timetable for healing

No, healing and recovery aren’t trains that can be run on a schedule; it will take you as long as it takes you, and everyone is different. Keep in mind that your mother’s influence over you—as well as the dynamics of your family—lasted for many years, including the most formative ones, and that healing takes real time.

  • That healing is about putting the past to rest

This is an echo of what well-intentioned but clueless people often say to unloved daughters and, no, healing doesn’t entail putting the past under lock and key; denial and rationalization have made that the status quo for years. Your recovery begins when you begin to recognize the maladaptive behaviors you learned in childhood and you start to unlearn them. Your healing is complete when your past experiences no longer shape your thoughts, feelings, and actions in the present.

  • That healing has an upward arc

Our popular models of success all point upward but that is simply not how unlearning unconscious behaviors—aka healing from a toxic childhood—works. I always use the metaphor of a garden and the unwelcome invasive plant to explain how healing actually proceeds. Once you see the invader plant that is threatening others, your first impulse is to grab it or perhaps to lop the top off which is satisfying but ineffectual since it will come right back if you don’t dig it out by the roots. The same thing is true of these old behaviors, and the pull and lop techniques don’t work here either; the truth is that the process of digging them out by the roots is hard work, best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist along with dedicated self-help. Then, there is the work of learning new behaviors.

So we’re not talking an upward arc but a pace that is more two steps forward and one step back until, finally, you’re there. That is why the photograph I chose doesn’t have her on the summit.

6 signs of process in healing

There are lots of different signs, some more nuanced than others and I’m not including all of them, but the point of the list is to make you feel better about your progress. If you feel as if you are falling short in some areas, redouble your efforts.

Write this down and tape it up somewhere: The journey of healing from childhood is a marathon, not a sprint.

  1. You are managing your emotions more skillfully

Knowing what you’re feeling and being able to distinguish emotions (anger from shame, anxiety from fear, etc.) are hallmarks of emotional intelligence. Being able to deal with negative emotions without either being overwhelmed by them or walling yourself off from them is an important measure of progress.

  1. You are seeing yourself with greater clarity

Most unloved daughters have internalized what was said to and about them in childhood and wrongly believe that these are truths about themselves. Seeing the true self—not the one described as too difficult, sensitive, lazy, unlovable or anything else—is a key moment and needs to be celebrated, even if it’s not as consistent as you’d like.

  1. You are controlling your reactivity

This is another important milestone as you give up becoming defensive or armored the minute you feel uncomfortable or you start tamping down your anxiety when things don’t go as planned.  Additionally, if your attachment is anxious-preoccupied, being able to talk yourself down from scouring the horizon for signs of betrayal is an important step.

  1. You are voicing your opinions and thoughts

This is important for those daughters whose mothers were hypercritical, combative, controlling, or high in narcissistic traits and who managed by ducking under the radar, becoming echoists in the process. Beginning to trust your own thoughts and feelings is also central to every unloved daughter’s reclaiming herself.

  1. You are learning not to self-blame and criticize

There’s research that shows the blaming yourself for the dynamics in your family of origin—believing that you are responsible or that, if you only tried harder or were different, you would get your mother’s love and support—is far less frightening to a child or adolescent than the scarier alternative which is to face the fact that the person who is supposed to keep you safe won’t. Self-criticism—the habit of mind that attributes failures and setbacks to your own fixed flaws in character—is a default position for most daughters, and unlearning it is true progress.

  1. You are more open to possibility

As you begin to break free of the hold of the past and its influence, you’ll notice subtle as well as obvious changes in how you move into the future. You may feel more emboldened to take risks if you’ve always been motivated by fear of failure, for example, or your newfound trust in yourself may lead you to explore new opportunities in all areas of your life. Again, this isn’t likely to happen all at once but will happen over time. Once again, think marathon, not sprint.



Photograph by Jimmy Conover. Copyright free.

Image of Kintsugi sake cup, copyright Lakeside Pottery; works made by Morty Bachar.

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Toxic Childhood? 6 Signs that You’re Beginning to Heal

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2020). Toxic Childhood? 6 Signs that You’re Beginning to Heal. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Jun 2020
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