Not long ago, I got this message from someone on Facebook:

I dont see why you tear your mother down in this public way. Its very clear that your mother must have done something right because you turned out fine, didnt you? After all, not everyone gets to be a writer, you know? Grow up, move on, and stop blaming Mom. Your childhood was perfectly fine.

I have heard comments like this so many times that if I had a twenty-dollar bill for each, I could retire tomorrow in luxury. Its interesting, too, how the turned out fine part gets attributed to my mothers efforts; thats a function of the mother myths, of course. Many high-achieving daughters continue to suffer the effects of a toxic childhood, all appearances to the contrary. To make use of a well-worn clich?: You cant tell a book by its cover.

How to deal with people who say things like this or, in a variation, tell you that you need to move on because the past is the past, or simply call you whiny because youre still talking about your childhood was actually one of the questions readers wanted answered in my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. This post is adapted from the book.

Should you respond when someone marginalizes your experience?

Whether you want to answer at all really depends on how connected you are to the person whos making the comment. But it is valuable, I think, to examine why people say these things without understanding that theyre marginalizing your experience as well as your pain; ironically, most of the time, these folks wrongly believe that theyre being helpful.

Be aware that this is common and try not to take it personally.

Have you ever noticed that the culture finds it way easier to accept that a father can be unloving or even downright abusive than a mother? A deadbeat dad is one thing, but an unloving mother is anothereven though that commandment tells us to honor both. I have a personal theoryunproven, of course, as all personal theories arethat our cultural myths make it very hard to accept that a mother can be unloving. We all need to believe in one kind of permanent and inviolable love, and alas, romantic love just doesnt fill the bill. But wait: Theres maternal love, which, according to the mythology, is instinctual and hardwired and, even better, unconditional. People dont want to hear your story or mine because it contradicts a deeply reassuring belief about the nature of maternal love.

Our can do culture, fixated on the Little Engine That Could, often responds to crisis or loss by insisting that theres a time limit on grief, mourning, or recovery. Many people think that taking longer to recover or show that youve bounced back is a sign of weakness or lack of resilience. They apply this standard to the recovery from childhood along with divorce, job loss, and other calamities believing all the while that theyre being helpful.

Healing vs. wallowing

And then theres ignorance about the process of healing. There are those who believe that even thinking about your past and its effects constitutes wallowing and you simply need to move on because what doesnt kill you makes you stronger. The irony is that they believe they are being empathetic when the truth is that theyve just marginalized your pain and your continuing efforts to make sense of your past and its influence on you. Mind you, some of the get over it group will not necessarily be disinterested bystanders; in fact, if you have aired your feelings about your mothers treatment of you or have gone low- or no-contact, you may well find yourself under attack by close family members. Each of them might have different motivationsone sibling might disagree with your assessment of your childhood while another might simply want to keep the peace or be alarmed that dirty laundry is being airedbut their attacks add another layer of pain and loss to a situation that is already full of both.

How to find support in an unsupportive world

Breaking the silence helps, but how to do it without feeling as though youre the crazy one or outlier? Here are a few suggestions.

Consider therapy

Some unloved daughters are highly resistant to the idea of going into therapy because they wrongly see it as a sign of weakness or confirmation that theres something wrong with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Putting your own happiness and ability to deal first is a sign of healthy self-compassion and a commitment to your own well-being.

Choose your confidantes carefully

Recognize the cultural biases and the fact that in a knee-jerk kind of way, people are much more likely to judge you without even thinking about it because of their own assumptions and denial. The taboos are out there; you simply have to be discerning about whom you confide in. I will readily admit that when I was in my twenties, my closest friends both had great, if very enmeshed, relationships with their mothers and did not understand what I was feeling at all.

Dont take it personally

Recognizing why people react as they do rather than falling into old habits of thinking its somehow your fault is very important. The whole subject of the unloving mother is a loaded one, and peoples responses can be very volatile. Ive been called names for assailing the person who gave me life, which, honestly, isnt my problem.

Work on seeing yourself clearly and curbing self-criticism and blame

The most important person you need to convince of your truth is you. You know it happened. It happened to lots of us. Youre not alone.

For self-help strategies, my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, may be of help.

Photograph by Luca Iaconelli. Copyright free.

Copyright 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep