The hardest part of recovering from a toxic childhood isn’t just coping with the fact that your emotional needs weren’t met or that you were actively neglected or even marginalized, dismissed, or made to feel less than. It’s coming to terms with the lessons about life and relationship you internalized and the maladaptive coping mechanisms you developed.
Why seeing the effect of the wounds is so hard
While recognizing the damage done to you — by the very person the culture holds to be the one who will always love and support you — is hard enough, seeing how you’ve been affected by the treatment you received in childhood can be maddeningly elusive. There are a number of reasons this process is so hard, chief among them being:
- You’ve been told that your character is fixed
Children subject to constant criticism or who are belittled or ignored are often told that they were born with their flaws in place. Parents have a unique and powerful authority in the little world a child inhabits and what they say about the child is simply absorbed as truth. Told that she is lazy, too sensitive, stupid, or unlovable, the child simply incorporates those words into her vision of self. It’s little wonder that many daughters come of age feeling that change or growth is hopeless or impossible and continue to feel that way long into adulthood.
- You’ve normalized or rationalized how you are treated
Most children live the first decade of childhood (and often longer) believing that what goes on in their house goes on in houses everywhere. This might vary depending on how much or little the child is exposed to other households, of course, but it’s only as the child becomes more independent that she’s likely to see that her assumption isn’t quite right. She’ll watch other mothers interact with their children and begin to notice telling differences. But since her need to belong — and, more important, to be loved by her mother — trumps all, it’s likely she’ll continue to excuse her mother’s behavior nonetheless. After all, her main motivation is to get her mother’s love. Her rationalizations may unwittingly echo what her mother (or father) has said as well: She doesn’t mean what she says, She yells at me because I don’t listen, If I did better, she wouldn’t have to hound me, She’s right that I’m not good enough, Maybe I am a crybaby.
- You don’t want to believe your mother has hurt you
In my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, I call this the Dance of Denial. It’s fed by hopefulness that the problem will go away and that she will love you if you just come up with the right way of acting as well as rationalizing and normalizing her behavior. It usually goes on for decades, even if the daughter has already begun to recognize the pattern of toxicity. It’s a way of avoiding a most painful truth. Nothing makes you feel more like a leper and outlier than fessing up to the fact that your mother didn’t love you; the shame is intense, if totally unwarranted.
The 10 lessons you need to unlearn
As you read these, keep in mind that attachment theory proposes that there are three styles which result from inadequate caretaking of an infant and child. They are different, and opposed to secure attachment which results from a child being heard and seen and given space to be herself and to explore. The secure child (and, later, adult) knows that she is loved and valued for who she is, not what she does. The three styles of insecure attachment are anxious-preoccupied (wants relationships but is anxious and anticipates rejection); fearful-avoidant (wants relationships but is too afraid to connect and has low self-esteem); and dismissive-avoidant (has no need for intimacy, thinks well of self and poorly of others, and feels avoiding connection is a sign of strength).
- That love is earned (and always conditional)
The lesson learned is that love is never freely given and always comes with strings attached. Daughters whose mothers are high in control, combative, or display narcissistic traits are likely to internalize this lesson, as are those whose mothers are emotionally unavailable or dismissive.
- That all social standing is all that matters
Many unloving mothers (not just those high in narcissistic traits) curate their public selves carefully and see their children as extensions of themselves and ambassadors testifying to their success. The inner self doesn’t count; it’s only accolades that get attention.
- That you must hide your true self
The main source is a mother’s constant criticism, dismissal, or belittling; a child who’s been told that she’s too lazy, stupid, or anything else begins to quash her own thoughts and feelings and starts acting in ways that she believes will make her mother love her, thus creating a false self. Of course, the conundrum is that whatever praise she does mete out isn’t really yours, is it? No, it’s the fake you who earned it.
- That allegiances are temporary and not to be relied on
This isn’t just tied to her mothers treatment (needing to earn love and support, and seeing that there are always strings attached), but what she learns from her siblings, especially if everyone is working hard either to garner Mom’s favor or stay off her radar if she’s hypercritical or combative. If she always has to pay attention to the quicksand in her family of origin, she will do the same thing in adulthood when it comes to friends, acquaintances, as well as others. Trust is often an ongoing issue.
- That feelings should be hidden
Many unloving mothers mock daughters for their supposed sensitivity, calling them crybabies or telling them they are just too dramatic, and daughters often react protectively by learning how to distance themselves from their emotions. Alas, this has the effect of weakening their emotional intelligence skillset even more since management of emotions (and the ability to know what you are feeling) are hallmarks. This is especially true of those with the two types of avoidant attachment styles; the anxious-preoccupied style is characterized by emotional flooding, which is no better.
- That control is a part of every relationship
With an unloving mother, connection is never truly dyadic. The quid pro quos imposed on the daughter — which include all the lessons already mentioned — make her believe that every emotional connection has one powerful person and one weak one. This particular lesson is a recipe for future disasters.
- That who you are isnt good enough
Lack of validation and support, along with dismissal and hypercriticality, will do that every time.
- That you deserved your treatment
While this thought is bolstered by normalization of your mother’s behavior and the Dance of Denial, researchers point out that, for a child, it is far less scary to blame yourself than it is to admit that the person or people who are supposed to keep you safe in the world won’t. Additionally, if you’re at fault, that leaves open the possibility that you can somehow change yourself and the treatment of you will change. Self-blame serves many purposes.
- That you must please and appease in life
For those who are anxious and need more than anything to belong, pleasing and going along to get along become a fixed habit in adulthood, much to their own detriment.
- That emotional connection is too costly
This is a fixed position of those who have an avoidant style of attachment; it’s a logical enough conclusion drawn from interactions in her family of origin.
What was learned, though, can be unlearned, most easily with a good therapist and dedicated self-help. For specific strategies and techniques , see my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Enrique Meseguer. Copyright free. Pixabay.com