When I was little, I hated my mothers pots and pans. They had copper bottoms and when I was assigned to wash them, they were a prime opportunity for my mother to put me down. They werent displayed or hung from a rack but, still, the bottoms had to be perfectly polished to a sheen. Inevitably, one wouldnt pass mustershed pick them up, one by one, to checkand then shed start: Cant you ever do anything right? Youre a slob like your father. Do I have to do everything myself? You think youre so smart but you cant even wash dishes properly. Why did I end up with a child like you?
I was probably no older than six.
By the time I was seven or eight, I knew that my mothers anger had nothing to do with the pots and pans; in fact, even if the bottoms were perfect, shed find something else to harp on. Her criticisms were never single statements but more of a cascade, delineating each and every one of my flaws as she saw them.
Many years later, I would discover that there isa name for this behaviorkitchensinkingcoined by John Gottman to describe the kind of personalized abuse that builds and includes everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.
I thought I was the only child in the world who walked on eggshells, all the while trying to please and curry favor with a mother who couldnt ever be pleased. Of course, I wasnt.
Understanding the dynamic
What makes this dynamic so poisonous to the child is that it erodes her sense of self, especially if there are other children in the house and she ends up being the scapegoat for whatever happens to go wrong and her siblings join in the fray to stay intheir mothers good graces.
The overly critical mother is also verbally abusive and studies show the verbal abuse not only changes the structure of the developing brain but gets internalized as self-criticism. Self-criticism is the unconscious mental habit of ascribing setbacks and disappointments not to errors in judgment or circumstances but to basic character flaws within the self. This is how one daughter explained it:
Its hard for me to see beyond my own flaws when life takes a turn. My mother always told me I was worthless and if I accomplished something that showed that I was actually good at something, shed make it seem that as though whatever Id achieved wasnt really hard or valuable. I know my reaction to criticism, even the constructive kind, has gotten in the way of my relationships and my work. Im stuck at being ten years old at the age of 38.
What makes the dynamic especially toxic is that the mother feels that her behavior is utterly justified. Hypercriticality can be explained in many different ways, such as necessary discipline (If I dont take a firm stand with her, shell never learn how to do anything right), deserved (Shes so full of herself and so prideful that she needs to realize shes not better than everyone else), and even supposedly good parenting (Shes lazy and unmotivated by nature and I have to push her hard to do anything.) A mothermay even pride herself on her discipline because shes only using words, rather than physical punishment, to rein her wayward daughter in. If she resorts to physical discipline, shell blame in on the child who pushed her or who wouldnt heed her words.
The damage done
A child whos subjected to a constant barrage of harsh criticism normalizes the treatment because she doesnt know any better and, besides, her mother is the most powerful person in the little world she inhabits. She needs and wants her mothers love and approval more than anything, and its much easier to think that shes to blame for her mothers treatment than to face the much more terrifying prospect that her mother doesnt love her. Instead, shell keep on trying to please her mother, most often into her own adulthood.
Im fifty-five but I still struggle with low self-esteem. I cant seem to manage to turn the tape off in my head, my mothers voice, telling me that no one will ever love me because Im me. I have a successful marriage, two wonderful children, but deep down, Im still that wounded kid. Its demoralizing. Ive given up on trying to win her overIve been low contact for yearsbut I cant seem to evict her voice.
Breaking free of the combat zone
While an adult daughter may still want her mothers approval, her understanding of her mothers behavior will, in time, begin to shift. Sometimes, her understanding will grow as a result of therapy but it might equally be the observations of a close friend or a spouse.
I finally got it when my then fianc went to Thanksgiving dinner at my parents house. I honestly didnt notice anything unusual but when we left, he turned to me and said, Does your mother always pick on you that way? She had nothing nice to say about you. Not one thing. I was stunned. And he was right, of course. Id heard it so long that Id basically gone deaf to it.
This moment of revelation is the beginning of a daughters journey out of childhood toward healing.
If you were raised by a hypercritical mother, here are five things to remember, write down, and pin to your fridge:
1. It is never okay to make criticism personal
2. Scapegoating is cruel and abusive
3.Verbal abuse is abuse
4. Motherhood doesnt give anyone a pass on cruel behavior
5. No child deserves to feel unloved
Photograph by Veronika Balasyuk. Copyright free. Unsplash.com