3 Stages of Healing from a Toxic Relationship with Your Mother
“You were my home, Mother. I had no home but you.” – Janet Fitch
Healing is a journey, not a single strike of willpower. In this article, you’ll learn about three stages of healing so that you can gain clarity about where you are and what you still need to work on in order to complete your journey.
Healing is a path we must travel to live joyful lives aligned with our values — lives of our choice. There’s no quick fix. Rather, it requires commitment, courage, patience, and determination. But where does the journey begin?
At the moment, you may feel like you’re on a shaky boat in the middle of a stormy ocean, alone with your hurtful mother, and no land on the horizon.
She criticizes, blames, and punishes you for every mistake, yours and those of others, including her own. She calls you names and manipulates you to get what she wants. She tells you to smile when you’re sad and need a hug. She demands that you always be nice and not cause any trouble. You must like the same things your mother likes and be friends with the people she approves of. And don’t you dare to have your own opinion — who do you think you are? Your mom knows better, and everything she does is for your good. Your feelings are irrelevant; they may just as well not even exist.
No wonder you feel confused, anxious, and worried, doubting your every step. Hurt, wounded, and out of place. Lonely and not belonging.
You may still blame yourself or your mother for everything that goes wrong in your life. You may feel like you’re at the edge of complete breakdown, slowly melting into nothingness. Or you fearlessly push back, defending your right to be you with anger, blame, and manipulation — your mother’s favorite tools.
Well, you’d better stop now, before you turn into a distorted shadow of your mother. There’s another way — the way of healing. And as long as you have your paddles — courage and determination — you will bring your boat into a safe harbor.
We can’t control the weather, but we’re in control of our actions.
You will heal, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Out of the Fog
Healing from a toxic relationship with your mother may certainly be one of the biggest challenges in our lives.
I have been there, and although my memories no longer force me out of my skin, they’re alive.
I tried to please Mom to avoid conflict, but it seldom helped. Instead, resentment grew inside me like a snowball, growing larger and heavier as it rolled. I fought back, but it frightened me — I didn’t like that version of me, and that was where my journey began. I embarked on a quest to break my family’s generational curse, heal, and pass on healthier relationships for future generations.
The Anatomy of Healing
They are more like clusters of related issues we need to work on. One after the other.
Let’s have a look.
Stage 1 — What’s going on? Learn, recognize, and accept.
“Without understanding our mothers and what their narcissism did to us, it’s impossible to recover.” – Karyl McBride
Understand and define the problem.
Describe your mother’s hurtful behaviors and Google them. Do not try to diagnose her; it’s about understanding, not labelling or blaming. Maybe she has narcissistic personality traits. Whatever the case may be, work to understand what makes your mother behave the way she does and how these behaviors affect you and your life. Try to remember good things, too.
Educate yourself about narcissism or/and other problems you’ve identified so far.
You’ve defined the problem, bringing some clarity to your confusion. Now what?
Read relevant blogs, articles and books about narcissism and narcissistic parents. Find and watch videos on YouTube and join Facebook groups.
Don’t overdo it, though. Stop when you’ve learned the basics; you’re not going to apply for a psychology degree here. Reading too much or spending hours on Facebook will only hold you in the past, and that’s not what you want. Right?
Recognize the roles everyone plays in your family, including your own.
You will discover that narcissists need others to sustain their traits. They need someone to enable them. Perhaps your father plays this role in his futile attempt to keep the peace? They need somebody to promote them as the “amazing people” they want to be seen as by others — their “flying monkeys” do that. And they also need someone they can project their bad feelings onto in order to feel good about themselves. There’s maybe a “golden child” in the family and a scapegoat, too.
Do you know who they are?
Examine your relationships with other people in your life. Be aware of your attraction to narcissists.
It may feel counter-intuitive, but many of us try to run from a narcissistic parent just to be caught in a web of another narcissist. How come?
The brain plays its “trick” on us by choosing a partner that feels familiar and therefore safe. Being aware of this bias helps you to question your “automatic” choices and prevent new abusive relationships in the future.
Exercises to help you through this stage:
You can start by writing down your thoughts about the ideal mother you wish you had, in list format. How would that have been?
Then write about how it was to grow up with your mother and compare the two lists.
The exercise will help you to let off steam and understand the problem you’re facing with your mom. You can read more here.
#2: Become your own historian.
Talk to other family members about your family history to better understand the roots of the problem. Ask them what they know about your ancestors — grandparents, aunts and uncles — and what they remember about your parents growing up. Make notes; you will appreciate it later.
Note of caution: If you have trouble remembering your childhood, it’s safer to explore it together with a therapist.
Stage 2 – Processing Your Feelings
“To change your future you’ve to put past behind you.” – Timon and Pumbaa, The Lion King
Validate and process your emotions.
To let go of the past, we must validate and process emotions that are linked to our history. These are the feelings that we were not allowed to feel growing up, together with those that arise when we examine our lives. Anger, fear, shame, sadness, resentment and grief are among them.
Yes, we must grieve the loss of the ideal mother we never had and are never going to have.
Grief has its own stages. You will need time to recognize and accept your mother’s limited capacity to show love because something was broken inside her a long time ago. There’s nothing you can do to change it, so grieve and let go. Use your energy to heal yourself.
Examine your limiting beliefs.
We all have them, and they’re holding us back. I’m not good enough, unlovable, stupid, clumsy, a bad daughter, etc. … the list can be long. What are your limiting beliefs?
Identify and write down your limiting believes, and then examine them together with emotions attached. Use this list of emotions to help identify your feelings. You will have to process them, too, to get control over the negative self-talk that might be preventing you from achieving your full potential.
This exercise may help you to do that by changing negative self-messages to positive or neutral:
“If only I did/said/didn’t do…” (represents a negative self-message).
“Next time, I will say/do/…” (turns negativity into positivity).
Reconnect with your inner child.
Find out what she needs and start nurturing her.
Maybe you still have your favorite doll? If not, you may buy one to represent your inner child — this was helpful for me.
In this stage, we allow ourselves to feel, and we stay with our feelings, no matter how painful they may be. This stage is demanding for most of us, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it on your own. Find a therapist, a coach, or a mentor to help you with your feelings.
A note on forgiveness: Some would insist that, without forgiveness, we can’t heal. Others may disagree. To me, an absence of forgiveness means that we cannot let go of the anger that still burns inside. Forgiveness can’t be forced; it can only grow from the inside like a flower through the asphalt. And it can only happen when you’re ready, so don’t make it your priority.
Stage 3: Finding your true self — from weakness to strength
“You are an adult and can withstand your discomfort for the purpose of becoming your own person.” – Susan Forward
Have you reached this stage? It’s time to rebuild your identity. To stop doing what other people want you to do and to stop defining yourself by other’s opinions. It’s time to discover who you truly are and how you want to live the rest of your life.
Develop a new relationship with yourself.
Learn to notice your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Understand your wants and needs and respect them. Learn how to trust yourself.
Make self-care a priority.
Pray regularly and write a diary or gratitude journal to help you see all the great stuff you already have in your life. Read, draw, sing, dance — do whatever brings you joy. Become your own coach, not a critic.
Learn new ways of dealing with your mother.
This includes learning new communication skills together with building and protecting healthy boundaries.
To heal, you need to disconnect emotionally and possibly physically from your hurtful mother. Decide how much contact with her you will have.
Build meaningful connections with others.
Did you know that loneliness and isolation destroy not only your mental health but your body, too?
Humans are social creatures, meaning we need other people in our lives to feel happy. And I’m not talking about online friends. It’s face-to-face communication we need — to be with people, shake their hands, give and receive hugs while hearing their hearts beat in unison with ours. It’s not an easy task for someone who has been betrayed by her own mother, but trust can be (re)learned.
Forgive yourself for previous and future mistakes, for weaknesses and shortcomings. We all have them. You can read more here.
Find the direction in which you want your life to develop.
Maybe you always wanted to be a medical doctor or had a passion for art and design, but you still work at McDonald’s. Your insecurity and doubts are keeping you from living your dreams.
It’s time to plan your future and move on. Find online groups of people with similar interests and ask for advice. Then ask yourself: “How much will I enjoy doing [name of the job] for a long time?” If the thought alone fills you with joy, you may have found your answer. If not, keep looking.
Providing for yourself helps to build independence through financial security, and it’s a part of self-growth.
Last Words of Advice
Healing from a toxic relationship with your mother can be a difficult journey. To avoid overwhelm on your path to healing, no matter which of the three stages you find yourself in, take one little step at a time. Don’t push yourself; this work can only be accomplished through mindfulness and being present. Give yourself the time you need to process your past and your feelings.
And remember to live the life best you can, starting now. There’s no need to wait until your healing is complete — that’s one of the limiting beliefs many of us have. There are plenty of good things in your life already, and you can bring more joy into it by actively seeking out fun and activities that will cheer you up.
What helps you to light up and relax deeply right away?
Bengtson, I. (2019). 3 Stages of Healing from a Toxic Relationship with Your Mother . Psych Central. Retrieved on April 9, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/3-stages-of-healing-from-a-toxic-relationship-with-your-mother/