‘As far as my mother was concerned, I was never good enough’
Tell Me About It: ‘Since her death, I’ve revisited incidents and feelings I had as a child’
“I think it’s a strong taboo to talk about anything negative associated with mothers.” Photograph: iStock
Question: My mother, who passed away some years ago, was very demanding and difficult to get on with. I was never good enough. Any problems I shared were turned around and I was accused of hurting her – creating her discomfort and emotional distress. It felt like captivity. As a teenager I had no privacy at any level. My opinions were almost invariably “wrong”. Interrogation or searches of my belongings would lead to hysterics. Approval was limited and always conditional.
I left home after the Leaving Cert and didn’t come back much except for Christmas and family events. Keeping my distance helped me to build my own life and identity, despite the downsides as this limited my contact with siblings and my father.
Since her death, I seem to revisit a lot of incidents and feelings I had in childhood – fear, anxiety and defensiveness. My self-esteem has taken a severe battering, I feel I can’t function fully, and have problems with decision making. I’ve had flashbacks and dreams of painful events in childhood and adolescence, mostly these involve fear of my mother’s disapproval.
Counselling helped with understanding my mother’s behaviour and my response, but where to go now to help myself and regain my self-worth? I don’t like myself in my current state and I’m a bit frightened of reproducing some of my mother’s behaviours.
I think it’s a strong taboo to talk about anything negative associated with mothers.
Answer: The reason that speaking negatively of mothers is frowned upon is that it is considered one of the most fundamental relationships in our lives and the foundation of that is believed to be unconditional love. When we grow up with a mother who does not offer us unconditional love, it can have a life-long effect on us. If you think about the messages you received in your childhood, that you were not the most important person in your mother’s life, you can begin to understand the struggle for meaning, self-esteem and self-regard in your own life. In fact, it is likely that you derived your sense of self from “not being” your mother and now that she has died, your struggle to discover who you really are is taking a new turn.
Growing up in a family where you can expose your most shameful moments, and still be accepted and loved, is the cornerstone of future trust and risk-taking in the world. If you can go out into the world, take all the risks you need to and experience failures but then come home and get cared for and believed in, then you are able to have your faith in yourself renewed and risk further excursions into society. When this is not your experience, you are often left with feelings of despair or fear of not being good enough and this can hamper your future relationships and your faith that you can take risks and be accepted.
You have already taken the first step towards recovery: through counselling you have gained some understanding of why your mother came to be the person she was and also, hopefully, gained some self-compassion.
However, you now have to face the challenge of taking on the fears and anxieties that are hampering your life and the aim is to get freedom from all these fears. The flashbacks are a way of warning you of imminent danger but I wonder if this is because you are now embarking on a desire to connect with and rely on other people? If this is so, then your warning system (panic and flashbacks) are telling you that you have suffered enormously in the past and that you need protection.
However, the aim is to trust and connect with good people so that you do not repeat your mother’s behaviour and now is the time to engage with this process. The only way to get over a fear is to approach it in a safe and determined way, eg if you fear disappointing people, then you begin by taking small (but steady) risks with this, such as being honest when you are too tired to go out with a friend. It works even better if you tell your friends that you are trying to work on this - but of course this in itself is a challenge to your trust in other people.
Choose people in your life whom you admire and think are worth knowing – spending time with these people will influence you and the chances are that you yourself possess at least some of the characteristics you so admire in them. The work is in getting rid of the fear and anxiety that is blocking your natural confidence – every baby is born full of confidence and fearlessness and we spend much of our lives trying to let these qualities shine through us again.
As human beings we develop successfully when we depend on and trust those we spend time with – you have had this trust dented severely in your upbringing so have patience and determination to not make this your whole life story. Share your story with a friend and begin the challenge to the fears that govern your life.