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Daughters of Unloving Mothers: 7 Common Wounds

by Peg Streep in Tech Support.

Article from www.psychologytoday.com

Taking stock is often the first step in healing.

In the years since I researched and wrote Mean Mothers, I’ve talked to women about our shared experiences. Every woman’s story is different, of course; perhaps the greatest commonality is the discovery that each of us is not alone, that we are not the only girls or women on the planet to have had mothers who can’t or won’t love them. The taboos about “dissing” our mothers and the myths of motherhood which portray all mothers as loving isolate unloved daughters, and that discovery lifts part of the hurt and the burden but not at all of it. This catalogue of what can happen to a daughter who grows up without a mother’s love and support is derived from anecdote, not a scientific survey; it’s not meant to be inclusive either. And again, I write not as a psychologist or therapist, but as a fellow traveler.

Why these wounds are common is amply explained by attachmenttheory, first proposed by Mary Ainsworth but expanded by the work of Mary Main and many others.

In infancy and childhood, a daughter catches the first glimpse of herself in the mirror that is her mother’s face. If her mother is loving and attuned, the baby is securely attached; she learns both that she is loved and loveable. That sense of being loveable —worthy of affection and attention, of being seen and heard —becomes the bedrock on which her earliest sense of self is built, and provides the energy for its growth.

The daughter of an unloving mother —one who is emotionally distant, withholding, or inconsistent, or even hypercritical or cruel—learns different lessons about the world and herself. The underlying problem, of course, is how dependent a human infant is on her mother for nurturance and survival, and the circumscribed nature of her world. What results is insecure attachment, characterized as either “ambivalent” (the child doesn’t know whether the good mommy or the bad one will show up) or “avoidant” (the daughter wants her mother’s love but is afraid of the consequences of seeking it). Ambivalent attachment teaches a child that the world of relationship is unreliable; avoidant attachment sets up a terrible conflict between the child’s needs both for her mother’s love andfor protection against her mother’s emotional or physical abuse.

Early attachments form the internal templates or mental representations we have about how relationships work in the world. Without therapy or intervention, these mental representations tend to be relatively stable.

The key thing here is that the daughter’s need for her mother’s love is primal and a driving force, and that need isn’t diminished by its unavailability. That need coexists with the terrible and damaging understanding that the one person who is supposed to love you without condition doesn’t. The struggle to heal and cope is a mighty one, affecting many, if not all parts, of the self, but especially in the area of relationship.

The work of Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver (and, later, others) showed that early childhood attachments were highly predictive of adult romantic relationships, as well as friendships. It won’t surprise you that the most common wounds are those to the self and the area of emotional connection.

The point of looking at these wounds isn’t to bemoan them or throw up our hands in despair at the mother-love cards we were dealt but to become conscious and aware of them. Consciousness is the first step in an unloved daughter’s healing. All too often, we simply accept these behaviors in ourselves without knowing their point of origin.

1. Lack of confidence

The unloved daughter doesn’t know that she is loveable or worthy of attention; she may have grown up feeling ignored or unheard or criticized at every turn. The voice in her head is that of her mother’s, telling her what she isn’t (smart, beautiful, kind, loving, worthy). Her accomplishments and talents will continue to be undermined by that internalized maternal voice, unless there is some kind of intervention. Daughters sometimes talk about feeling that they are “fooling people” and express fear that they’ll be “found out” when they enjoy success in the world.

2. Lack of trust

“I always wonder,” one woman confides, “why someone wants to be my friend. I can’t help myself from thinking whether there’s some kind of hidden agenda, you know, and I’ve learned in therapy that that has everything to do with my mother.” These trust issues emanate from that sense that relationships are fundamentally unreliable, and flow over into both friendships and romantic relationships. As reported by Hazan and Shaver in their work, the ambivalently attached daughter needs constant validation that trust is warranted and, in their words, these people “experienced love as involving obsession, a desire for reciprocation and union, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction andjealousy.” Trust and the inability to set boundaries are, as it happens, closely connected.

3. Difficulty setting boundaries

Many daughters, caught between their need for their mother’s attention and its absence, report that they become “pleasers” in adult relationships or are unable to set other boundaries which make for healthy and emotionally sustaining relationships. A number of unloved daughters report problems with maintaining close female friendships, which are complicated by issues of trust (“How do I know she’s really my friend?”), not being able to say ‘no’ (“Somehow, I always end up being a doormat, doing too much, and I get used or disappointed in the end”), or wanting a relationship so intense that the other person backs off. Insecurely attached daughters often end up creating scenarios that are more like the “Goldilocks and Three Bears” story than not —never quite right but, somehow, either too “hot” or too “cold.”

This is often true in romantic relationships as well. Kim Bartholomew’s work helpfully further divides those who are avoidantly attached into two categories— “fearful” and “dismissive.” Both share the same avoidance of intimacy but for different reasons. The “fearful” actively seek close relationships but are afraid of intimacy on all levels; they are intensely vulnerable, and tend to be clingy and dependent. The “dismissives” are armored and detached, perhaps defensively; their avoidance is more straightforward. Alas, both types aren’t able to get the kind of emotional connection that could move them closer to healing.

Read more here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201304/daughters-unloving-mothers-7-common-wounds

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