Unloved Daughters: Confronting the Slow Path to Healing

How to break old patterns, jumpstart recovery, and move on.

Posted Jan 26, 2021

Photograph by Jeremy Bishop. Copyright Free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Jeremy Bishop. Copyright Free. Unsplash.

One question that comes up again and again is this one, in one variation or another: “Why did it take me so long to see how toxic my family of origin was? Why did I normalize my parent’s abuse for decades?”

While it’s true that some unloved daughters recognize that their mothers’ treatment is not okay—I knew as a young child—few are able to act on that knowledge for decades into adulthood. From my own anecdotal research—I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist so this observation isn’t derived from a scientific study—most daughters are in their forties, fifties, or older when they finally stop doubting their perceptions and take action.

Why is the pace of recognition so slow?

For one thing, most daughters remain hopeful—despite what they know intellectually—that they can somehow turn things around. Sometimes, that hope is fed by the instances your mother actually treats you decently and that gets you thinking that, maybe, you have somehow turned a corner.

At other times, the hope comes out of the same old hunger for your mother’s support, love, and attention and really has no roots except in your hope and denial. (This what I call “the Dance of Denial.”) It’s hard to overstate how recognition of toxic patterns is pitted against the denial we have long used to self-protect against the pain and turmoil of recognition, and the truth is it’s much easier to dodge and weave than face the pain of the truth at hand.

But as scary and frustrating as the journey of recovery is and as difficult as it is to reclaim your true self, both are possible. We need not live in adulthood as we did as children—chased by fear, hungry for love and attention, unable to cope except in ways that don’t serve us. Coming to terms with what frightens each of us most as individuals is part of this leg of the journey because we can only figure out our paths of self-care if we know what we need. This recalls the very beginning of the path, when we couldn’t begin to deal with our wounds until we recognized them.

Questions to ask yourself to raise your awareness

Choose a time to do this exercise when you are relatively calm and feel in control of your feelings and, generally speaking, your life. (Yes, that’s irony. Who is ever totally in control of her life? Not I.) Do it after taking some deep breaths and deciding that you’re in a good psychological place to think about important stuff, and make sure that you’re somewhere comfy. So consider the following questions and answer them in a journal or notebook.

  • What worries me most about this journey? Is it failing to recover or something else?
  • How ashamed am I still at my core? Do I worry that I am unlovable?
  • Can I name my unspoken fears?
  • How much do I worry about being judged by others if I take action? Or if I break my silence?
  • Do I understand where I hurt most?
  • How much do I regret time I’ve wasted trying to fix things?
  • What, if anything, still holds me back from moving forward?
  • Am I still caught up in maladaptive ways of self-soothing such as turning to food, alcohol, overspending, and the like?
  • Can I put what I really want into words?

Consider your answers drafts; you may find it useful to date them so that you can go back to them at a later date. That’s yet another way of charting how far you’ve come.

Remember that recovery and reclaiming your life take real time; you spent many years being shaped and influenced by your family of origin, and the work of unlearning is accomplished in small steps, as is the process of learning new behaviors. Among the things that you will need to learn is to be kind to yourself and understanding of the process that entails separating out the old habit of self-criticism from taking responsibility. They are, in fact, very different.

Focus on how you define “healing” because it matters

Photograph by Sebastian Marty. Copyright free. Pixabay
Source: Photograph by Sebastian Marty. Copyright free. Pixabay

Often, our expectations of what it means to be recovered are unrealistic; that, in turn, will determine how satisfied or unhappy you are with your own healing over time. This is a tender subject emotionally so let’s take it apart and see what we see in the pieces.

Healing means “to make whole,” and unfortunately, our Western attitude toward healing seems to take the definition rather literally; too many of us end up looking for a magic wand that will render us just as “whole” as a woman who was well loved and supported from the beginning. That’s just not going to happen, in truth, so let’s put that aside. But do keep in mind that this observation doesn’t mean we can’t recover.

Our Western culture views damage as something that needs to be hidden; we repair something valuable that’s been broken or marred so that it’s rendered to its previous “perfect” state. It doesn’t matter whether that’s a painting in a museum that’s been slashed or a prized heirloom that’s been chipped or a person who’s been physically or emotionally damaged in some way. I think this definition of healing—the good-as-new thing—not only doesn’t help us but it can also actively hold us back. It makes us dissatisfied and unforgiving when our old behaviors pop up or we’re suddenly buffeted by emotions we’re unable to handle; we may act like our worst taskmasters instead of the compassionate cheerleaders we need to be.

I believe that the Japanese view, expressed in the ancient art of kintsugi, is not only more realistic but ultimately also psychologically healthier. Kintsugi is used primarily to repair precious objects made of ceramic; the breaks are mended by joining the pieces with lacquer mixed with precious metals such as gold, silver, or copper. The breaks are thus immortalized, and while the piece is now “whole,” its history is visible to the eye, creating a different kind of beauty.

I think this is a better way of thinking not just about healing but also about the incorporation of our scars and past experiences into our present and recovered selves. Understanding healing through the lens of kintsugi emphasizes our resilience and triumph while not minimizing the hurt of the past; it permits us to see ourselves as whole without denying our initial brokenness. It encourages us to see the beauty in ourselves as defined not by perfection but by strength, doggedness, and belief in the self.

In my view, understanding healing in this way and abandoning the Western goal of trying to make yourself “as good as new”—whatever that may mean—will aid and abet your ultimate recovery.

This post is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood

 Copyright ©2019, 2020 by Peg Streep

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