I was interviewed on the mother-daughter relationship by the Chief Sub-Editor of CLEO & DOLLY, Ellie McDonald, for her article in CLEO Australia. Here you can find an edited version of our discussion:
Tell me about the importance of a strong mother-daughter relationship and why the daughter needs this as she reaches adulthood…
To achieve and maintain healthy relationships with self and others, we need to have internalised an accepting, unconditionally loving, nurturing and nourishing mother so that we can relate from, and care for ourselves in this way. If we haven’t for whatever reason internalised a nurturing mother, we can get caught in a cycle of searching outside ourselves for others to meet our needs and to affirm our worth in the world.
For most, our relationship with mother is often our first and primary attachment relationship – it is the barometer for all of our future relationships with self, family, friends, colleagues, partners and our children. We are born into her world and this helps shape:
- our sense of self-identity
- our feelings, needs and desires and whether they are acceptable or not
- our self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence
- our experience of our body, femininity, power and sexuality
- our capacity for nourishment and self-care
- our social roles as girls/women and how much space we can take up in the world (e.g. we often use our bodies – fat or thin – to reflect this).
If mother has worked at resolving her own trauma history and identity issues, it is far easier for her to foster the daughter’s separation, autonomy and sense of self. A strong sense of self-identity is essential as we move into young adulthood.
What are the negative effects of a strained mother-daughter relationship for a young woman in her twenties?
We know that strains in the relationship with mother throughout childhood and beyond are major contributing factors to our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health and wellbeing. Symptoms may include addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, poor relationships, a lack of self-worth as well as numerous other concerns (Reference: Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes the Baby’s Brain)
Some of the negative effects that we may experience are:
- Extremely high and unrealistic expectations of ourselves (this may have come from mother’s unlived dreams that she has projected onto us).
- Tyrannized by a harsh inner critic (mothers often think they are protecting, helping or teaching through being controlling or critical – great idea but wrong intervention!).
- A lack of self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-compassion and self-confidence (mother, due to her own trauma history also lacks these and hasn’t for whatever reason been able to mirror these qualities to us).
- We give more than we are able to receive through caretaking, rescuing or pleasing others (we learn this through watching mother act in this way – often as a way of getting her needs met).
- We do too much because we believe this is the only way to get our needs met (mother may be over identified with her masculine qualities, rather than having a healthy balance between masculine and feminine qualities).
- We are increasingly angry because we don’t know how to meet our own needs or how to ask for what we need in relationships. We are unable to express our anger in a healthy and assertive way because as a child, it was safer to squash our anger and turn it inwards rather than risk being abandoned by mother. This becomes a life-long pattern whereby other people’s needs are put before our own (we’ve watched mother disown her anger for the same reasons).
- We believe at the core that we are flawed (not good enough) and search outside ourselves to have our safety, love and worth needs met (think Instagram updates and likes or searching in diets and magazines to find out who we are. This can be a result of narcissistic wounding – not being seen and heard by mother as a separate Divine being).
- We downplay our beauty, intelligence, gifts, light and achievements because we fear betraying mother (who is more than likely repressing her own sublime!).
As a psychotherapist for the last 20 years and a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being, I have witnessed the journey of many young women who enter therapy because of symptoms such as eating disorders or relationship problems. Of course we work on symptom relief but a huge chunk of the therapy is actually spent separating psychologically from mother (and father as well as other internalized imagoes). This can be long-term and painful work as the daughter begins to wonder, ‘who am I, if I am not my mother?’, ‘who am I if I am not who my mother told me I am?’
It is grief work because it means letting go of the false identities we have been living out of as well as coming to the realisation that we cannot change mother into the kind of mother we long for. It means accepting mother as she is. It means growing up and (re) mothering ourselves in a loving and nurturing way. In Jungian psychology, it means getting in touch with – and owning – the feminine aspects of the soul/psyche.
How common is the breakdown of a mother-daughter relationship?
Many women have an extremely complex relationship with mother. It is not uncommon however, for the relationship to breakdown, heal and transform overtime.
What are some of the reasons why this may have happened?
The most problematic mother-daughter relationships are for those who grow up with a mother who suffers with narcissistic wounding and who therefore parents with narcissistic tendencies.
If the mother has herself not been seen or heard and her own dependency, safety, love, worth, self-actualisation/realisation needs have not been met, she might:
- be neglectful of the daughter’s needs
- lack empathy and feel resentful, anger or rage at having to meet the needs of the daughter
- have unrealistic expectations of her daughter
- be controlling rather than supportive
- over compensate by parenting in a smothering way
- show her daughter off like a pretty doll to gain attention and praise from others
- use the daughter to emotionally dump on/ to be her confidant
- seek validation through her daughter’s successes
- be jealous and envious of her daughter’s youth and beauty
In the few examples given above, it is more about the mother’s needs than the daughter’s – this can be highly toxic to the daughter’s sense of self. Child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes,
“The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at her mother’s face and finds herself therein…provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not herself in her mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of her life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”
We all long for our mother to meet us emotionally, but the mother who suffers with narcissism is incapable of doing so. We learn at an early age, adaptive and creative ways of getting our needs met; though pleasing, rebelling, academic achievements, becoming the sick child and so on. These patterns of being and behaviour often follow through into adulthood.
What are your top tips to help heal from a difficult mother-daughter relationship?
Healing the Mother/Daughter Relationship:
- Like all relationships, both parties have a responsibility to work on themselves individually as well as on the relationship.
- If the relationship is strained and both wish to continue to have a relationship with each other, choose to spend time doing something you both enjoy and set boundaries around rehashing old stuff – build a new relationship with each other. This becomes easier when we accept the other for who they are.
- If the relationship is highly toxic for mother or daughter, I recommend seeing a very experienced family or couples’ therapist – at very least, a mediator to help you move forward. If one or the other isn’t willing to participate in therapy, it is not uncommon for there to be a period of estrangement. This usually allows the daughter to separate and individuate and whilst sometimes necessary, it can be a very painful process for both mother and daughter.
Healing for Mother:
- When you are concerned for your daughter, show vulnerability, concern and empathy rather than criticism. This builds connection rather than disconnection.
- If your daughter is in therapy and wants to discuss your relationship – don’t be defensive, this deepens her wounds. Practice listening and ask her what she needs from you.
- Value and encourage your daughter’s independence, autonomy and sense of self…always!
- Work on (re)mothering yourself, building your own sense of self-worth and learn how to meet your needs in a healthy way, rather than relying on your daughter to meet your needs.
Healing for Daughter:
- Take as much time as you need to get to know yourself fully. Who are you separate from your mother?
- Find a good psychotherapist to help you explore your complex trauma history – you will internalise the loving, accepting and compassionate therapeutic relationship – this can help you heal
- What are the positive aspects that you have inherited from your mother? Practise a sense of gratitude for these (and towards your mother too)
- What are the negative messages you have received from your mother? Practise empathy and compassion for yourself (and towards your mother too as she has also suffered)
- Remember that your mother is a daughter too; she has struggled/is struggling just like you
- Work on being assertive and learn how to set boundaries with your mother
- Release any anger that has been turned inwards or outwards. Underlying anger is almost always pain. Listen to that quiet voice inside and practise self-compassion.
- Your search for wholeness and happiness must begin inside. It is a cliché but healing happens when we learn to love and accept ourselves unconditionally. To keep returning to mother (or anyone else) for acceptance, approval, compassion, kindness or love when mother has proven to be emotionally unavailable – will only set you up for more disappointment and this often deepens the wound
- And finally… ageing and becoming a mother often helps to heal old wounds. When you become a mother, it is common to get in touch with a huge sense of empathy as you realise just how tough mothering can be!
NB: it is important that we don’t get caught in blaming or demonizing mothers; there are just as many complexities within father/daughter relationships. Notice that I don’t use the term ‘narcissistic mother’ – the reason for this is because at the core, mother is a human being, whole and unbroken – she herself has more than likely suffered with trauma and narcissistic wounding. The ‘narcissistic mother’ is only part of who she is. In saying all this, as mothers, we do need to recognise the profound impact that our wounding and parenting style have on our daughter’s sense of self and her ongoing somatic, relational, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual health and well-being.