Recovering from an Unloving Mother

As I mentioned in another post, in lieu of writing Preparing to Confront my Mother Wound, I ended up choosing to cease all contact with my mother. I blocked her number and her email address and have not spoken to her since just before my birthday earlier this past Spring. There are several things that prompted this decision:

I realized I don’t feel good in her presence.

This was one of the biggest factors, frankly. Every time I met with my mother I felt bound up, especially in the trunk of my body, like a prey animal who has frozen just before acting in anticipation of danger. I always ignored this feeling and just stayed withdrawn when around her. I told myself that I enjoyed seeing my mother, and certainly there were brief moments here and there that were enjoyable – such as being treated to lunch, or getting to hear the occasional tale of family lore. However, it dawned on me that I don’t feel that kind of tension around my husband or my close friends – that that tension is discomfort. I had to admit to myself that I don’t feel good when I’m around my mother, and as a result I am constantly holding myself back around her.

She doesn’t act interested in me.

My mother seldom asks about my life when we meet. Sometimes she doesn’t even stop to ask “how are you?” before launching into what she would rather talk about: herself. Her life, her struggles and challenges, the things that are on her mind. A long time ago I consciously realized that we were in a transactional relationship – she would treat me to lunch and I would listen to her talk about herself for a couple hours, or sometimes it was gas and groceries. Somehow I did not consciously process the natural conclusion that follows from such a dynamic: that my mother is fundamentally not interested in me, but only what she can get from me. It made sense now why I often encountered this dynamic in previous friendships with other women – which would leave me rightfully angered and often end in me expressing my indignation. I was expressing the feelings I could never express directly to my mother.

She persistently dismisses and invalidates my emotional experience.

This is something that runs deep into my childhood – abundant memories of being teased, called sensitive, or given glib platitudes whenever I expressed any kind of emotional pain to my mother. In adulthood, this looks like being ignored for 9 days straight after asserting a boundary, then being sent an essay-long email about her struggles and why she can’t muster any energy to address my concerns if I tell her I feel dismissed. As my husband pointed out to me, she treats me like my concerns aren’t even real.

She doesn’t support me when I’m being harmed by someone.

I don’t have a single memory of my mother taking my side when I was being harmed by somebody else. When I came to her as a young teenager to tell her I needed her to do something about the emotional and verbal abuse my father was perpetrating against me, she told me “Just pretend he is the child and you’re the parent.” When I needed to sue my landlord who was intimidating me and threatening to illegally withhold my security deposit, she urged me not to destroy my relationship with her. Every time I was in a fight with a friend, I was deterred from cutting ties even when I was clearly being mistreated. She has never once been angry on my behalf when I’ve been harmed.

She has never apologized.

Except for one time, which was prompted by my brother telling her she was acting out of line. She otherwise only offers non-apologies, never for the actual transgression I point out to her. This trait of hers is so pervasive, it was often the chief complaint I heard my father express about her. She never takes accountability for how her actions hurt people, especially the people she supposedly loves.

Being in relationship with her feels like participating in a delusion.

It’s difficult to describe this experience, but I’m sure there are others out there who can relate. My mother is so covert in the way she engages in emotional abuse that I am not sure she is even aware of it; she will leave you feeling like your experience doesn’t exist without ever directly stating such. The only way to approach her and receive a workable response is to act like the history of pain and trauma that exists between us never happened. It is never talked about and any attempts to talk about it are sidelined and slithered out of. My pain simply isn’t allowed to exist.

I just plain don’t want a relationship where these things are regular features and there is no path for repair.

My mother has frequently responded to my expressions of hurt and emotional injury with various excuses: “I am too old to be any different,” “You’re going to have to accept all of me, including the bad,” or “I have to focus all my energy on working and maintaining the lifestyle you’ve all become accustomed to.” I thought things would be different after my father died. I really hoped that she would feel the same sentimental desire to come together as a family and improve our relationships so that we would not have to endure the same complicated pain and grief that my father’s passing provoked. I was wrong.

I put in a big effort to try and open the door for this, pushing myself beyond my typical boundaries and instincts and trying to have an open and honest dialogue with her about how I felt in our relationship. When I told her I felt like our relationship could be better, and that I often felt like I don’t get to experience being the child in our relationship, she defended herself by saying I was so headstrong as a child that there was no way to mother me. I still left that conversation feeling hopeful something could change if only I could push myself to embody perfect empathy and communication with my newfound skills for I-statements. I don’t regret doing that, because it ended up showing me that this was never my responsibility to fix in the first place. I did everything I could and failed – that doesn’t reflect on me. Her response to me was never under my control.

The final lightbulb illuminated my answer for how to proceed with my mother when my therapist asked me to describe what I desire in any relationship: reciprocity, the ability to openly communicate and resolve transgressions, openness. My mother has demonstrated throughout my life that she is not open to this type of relationship. Therefore, our dynamic is unworkable and there is nothing more I can do on my end to change that. When I imagined what it would be like to no longer contact her, I felt like I could relax for the first time. I no longer felt any ambivalence about cutting off all contact from her, because I could see there was only one path that would do right by myself.

Body Messages and Projections

Recently, I finished Alice Miller’s The Body Never Lies which focuses on the unfortunate consequences that occur when children of unloving parents move through life unconscious that their parents were unloving. Alice Miller teaches that the body stores our life experiences and knows our true feelings and will stop at nothing to try and be heard, even when our limited conscious mind cannot fathom the truth of our experience: that we feel unwanted, unloved, and mistreated. This can manifest as various aches and ailments, the only way the body can communicate when other intuitive promptings are snuffed out and ignored. This material is highly compatible with Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body and the teachings of Chinese Medicine’s meridians and their corresponding emotions.

It stands out to me that my biggest shift happened when I concentrated on acknowledging how my body actually feels when I am around my mother – always held back, on guard, and uncomfortable. This information gave me clues to how I actually felt while participating in our relationship, rather than how I think I ought to have felt. We have to consciously allow this type of information a place in our decision-making. However, it is often not so cut-and-dry as “I feel tense around this person – they must not be good for me and need to be cut out of my life.” If I followed this, I would have no one in my life.

Instead, I have come to recognize that these experiences of mine are often evidence that a projection is at hand. When that is the case, I must ask myself, “What part of my being is this person holding for me?” Another great question to ask is, “Who is this person reminding me of right now?” It is important to recognize these projections and separate them from the person who is containing them for us, so that we can act in a way that is appropriately warranted by the present situation. This doesn’t mean giving people a free pass to mistreat you – if this person’s conduct warrants a total cessation of all contact, you can trust that it will be obvious to you often even moreso after the operating projection has been acknowledged and dealt with. Otherwise, this work creates space to approach and repair the often unintentional harm occurring between two normal, imperfect humans. So, how do we deal with projections?

Projections are gifts from the unconscious by which we can become aware of exiled or underdeveloped parts of ourselves that are seeking conscious integration. Therefore, being in relationship with others is the way that we come to know and fully embody our whole being – this includes the parts that we find painful or difficult to acknowledge. I can see now that some of my old relationships with other women were containers for projections about my mother. I often responded to those relationships with the righteous anger and hurt that I could not express towards my mother. Ultimately, these experiences were showing me that I had a lot of unacknowledged and repressed pain and frustration about my mother. Dealing with a projection means recognizing this pattern and allowing yourself to feel the emotions and experiences that are locked up in old memories or being denied from present experiences with that person. By doing this, you allow your true feelings to be a part of your story and conscious awareness. Once you do that, the person containing your projection is free to be themselves – not your mother or your abuser.

Imagine your entire being is a painting, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night. However, imagine that this painting did not contain the sprawling, climbing, dark cypress trees because it was thought that they were too dark and ugly. Would the painting not feel incomplete? This gnarly mass of trees helps balance the composition of the painting, and without it we would not have one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. That is what this type of inner work is about.

My Recovery

Since ceasing contact, much material has come up for me to work through. I often have visceral, emotionally turbulent dreams about my mother. They are charged with intense, raw emotions that consume me like a fever dream. I remember I used to dream this way about my father as well. To me it is a sign that deeply repressed emotions are being allowed to process and resolve somewhat. I am allowing more of my experiences into my conscious awareness, which sometimes feels overwhelming.

I have decided to take the steps to start my divination business. It has brought up a lot of anxiety for me, especially around scarcity and making space for myself in the world. When I explore these things in therapy, things often come back around to my mother and feeling outcast from my family. Yesterday I spent my late afternoon researching business management. Afterwards, I was plagued by an oppressive sensation in my throat – as if my lymph nodes were swollen and I could not get enough breath even with intentional, deep breathing. This sensation has come and gone recently, but yesterday was remarkable. I went to bed and decided to let myself focus on the sensations I was feeling – at that moment, a tightness in my sternum – and spontaneously started thinking about my mother.

I remembered times when I used to make decisions in the hopes of establishing some kind of kinship with her – I remembered when I applied for colleges in Boston hoping that she would be proud of me and I could be like her somehow by going to school in her hometown. I thought about all the times my mother would tell me that I reminded her of a mix of her two sisters and I remembered that I used to wish she would say the things about herself she would see in me, but never did. I even asked her once how I reminded her of herself but she didn’t really have an answer. It dawned on me that those experiences left me feeling like my mother barely recognized me as her daughter and that I very much wished that she would. She praised her sisters to me, but she also often spoke ill of them to me too – how she could never move back East because she would not be able to stand being around them – and yet, I reminded her of them. I became acutely aware in that moment just how deeply disowned I have felt by my mother and experienced the deep grief that accompanied that feeling. I cried, hard.

I don’t think I cried to completion, because I became scared of how big the emotion was and I wanted to go to sleep. Now that I am aware though, I can consciously go there and complete the expression when I am ready. It’s okay to titrate. I am proud of myself for being able to access and acknowledge this part of my experience that had been previously blocked from my conscious awareness. Recovering repressed/suppressed experiences is difficult to describe, but in my experience it is not as if I had no knowledge that I felt or wanted those things, they were just significantly minimized and never fully conceptualized in language like they were in that particular moment last night. Their recovery into my conscious awareness felt more like, “oh yeah, that was there too.” Similar to when you are on the go and you feel hungry but you are just so focused on getting to that next step in your task list that the sensation of hunger just becomes quiet or subdued – but once you have a moment to settle down, you feel that hunger come roaring back. That is what suppression is like: the hunger never ceased, you just ceased to be aware of it.

There are other things this experience has connected together for me too. For instance, in my adult life I have often remarked to others that I felt like my mother projected her unlived life onto me and tried to urge me into making decisions she wished she could have made for herself but were wholly inappropriate and incorrect for me. She would often tell me she wished she had a career like the one I had in human services – helping people. When my marriage became challenged by financial insecurity, she suggested I separate from my husband. When I left my job, she chided me for not taking advantage of an opportunity for my husband and I to be putting away money while we had no children. These are all things that she did not get to do for herself. Frankly, I’ve often felt that my mother wished she had not married my father and had children only for him to become disabled and her feeling bound to a soul-sucking job in programming for 20+ years. It was recently that I realized what this meant: that I felt unwanted. Whether or not my assumptions about my mother’s feelings and motivations are true, it is true that I felt unwanted. That was the point that Alice Miller was trying to drive home in The Body Never Lies.

With that being said, I see how these feelings are connected to the insecurity I feel towards starting my own business – what if people do not want what I have to offer? Not to mention, my mother explicitly derided my decision to quit working and allow my husband to support us both completely. A lot of the decisions I made in my previous career – to go to college, get a stable job working 9-5, have a 401k, etc – were driven by a desire to be like my mom. However, now that I have conscious awareness of this dynamic, I can work on releasing these old ideas and taking a compassionate perspective towards my child self who was made to feel unwanted and unloved.


When I think about the kind of child I was, it becomes absurd that my mother could ever be so unappreciative of my unique and big personality. I encourage others who struggle with being the child of an unloving mother to do the same thing: think about what kind of child you were. Then, imagine if you encountered a child like that; they can be anyone’s child. Wouldn’t you like them just like any other child, and delight in their uniqueness? If you feel nothing but disgust or even hatred towards the thought of children, perhaps that is something that is worth exploring (and falls outside the scope of what I am able to presently address within this article).

Generally though, being able to delight in your own child self’s essence is part of the task of reparenting oneself. Reparenting is essentially the process of replacing the internalized image of your parents that lives on within your psyche with a different, healthier parental figure that loves you unconditionally. This parental figure can be supplied in a therapeutic relationship with a licensed therapist, and it can also be practiced by yourself in the way that you respond to yourself internally. This can look like imagining yourself receiving love and acceptance when you feel sad, or restructuring your self-talk to be more compassionate, among other things. It takes commitment, so don’t be deterred if you try it one or two times and still feel the same. It took me a good 2 years of consistently reinforcing new kinds of thinking patterns before I saw a lasting change in my personality and how I feel.

I still have a lot of work to do in this area, but I am making progress. I will continue to be open to receiving new insights into what I can do to release and heal this deep wound I’ve experienced. I hope that by sharing my experience I can help others who are in similar positions to find choices that feel right to them.

6 thoughts on “Recovering from an Unloving Mother”

  1. I love what you write about treating our child self with love, who I was was also never acceptable to my mother, so I treated myself that way until therapy showed me the pain of continuing to do that. Our inner child and true self, is, after all, completely lovable.

    1. Absolutely, it took me a long time to be able to view my child self objectively and feel compassion for her, but once I experienced that shift in perspective it became so much easier to apply that to other situations. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

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