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I grew up watching “One Day at a Time”, a quintessential tale of mothering that follows the foibles and growth of a divorced mom raising two quirky daughters.
What always struck me about the show was that despite the challenges the family of three went through each week, the love and caring among them shone through, which served as both an attraction and a source of irritation to me.
At that time, I didn’t have that kind of relationship with my own mother figure. While it’s gotten better through the years—and through my own therapy—I have only recently accepted that the wound I am healing is actually a mother wound.
When you think of mothers, what are your associations?
It’s a question I often ask my own clients in therapy, where we locate where our wounds or strengths are.
For me, “mothering” connects to nurturing and unconditional love, to protecting, and to teaching about life’s challenges.
What do you think of when you think “mother”?
Mother wounds connect to areas of misalignment between mother and child. For example, a daughter may experience a lack of feeling nurtured or protected. She may come from a family in which she felt unloved or was discouraged from being independent. There are many variations of the mother wound, but the commonality is a yearning that is never filled—except perhaps through substances such as alcohol or food.
Mother wounding can occur for many reasons. I have clients whose mothers were absent due to their own addictions, or physical or mental illnesses, or who were not able to actively protect them from a father’s objectification or abuse.
My birth mother died when I was very young, and my well-meaning grandparents fed me to soothe my sorrow. It started a habit of self-soothing by eating, and at that time convenience foods and sugary sweets were abundant in my blended household. While “The Brady Bunch” eventually normalized blended families, I did not know anyone else who had this kind of structure. While my substance of choice was food, the clients I work with today have many ways to soothe emptiness—food, alcohol, shopping, or overworking. It’s less about the substance, and more about its function.
Are you addicted to something? What need does it fill?
I’ve learned through my own therapy that the importance of listening to and reparenting the wounded inner child is the most important part of recovery. You, too, can learn to do that.
Understand the Wound and Validate Your Pain.
The hard work of stopping and acknowledging past wounding is a step we cannot miss. It’s okay to acknowledge that our mothers were not perfect, or in some cases (like my own) that they could not even control their absence. Part of this is accepting that uncomfortable feelings will come up. We can step past the loyalty dynamics, and proclaim, “this is my truth.” This self-validation is crucial to healing.
Recognize your Inner Child.
While many of us exile our younger parts and conscript that part of us to a place deep inside, the challenge of keeping that part underground fuels addictive behaviors. When we recognize the “ouch”, or a situation in which we feel unloved, and can acknowledge the pain, we can ask our younger self what she needs. Is it a friend’s listening ear? A partner’s hug? What does she need?
Learn How to Soothe and Care for Yourself.
As children, our mothers are the primary people who sooth us. When children are not soothed by holding, touching, and empathy, they discover other ways to soothe. One of the biggest problems with substances is that they are so darn effective. They are immediate soothers, and it’s hard to learn to soothe differently. We need to ask ourselves, what do we find calming, enjoyable, and sustainable?These are clues to how to soothe ourselves now as a healthy adult.
Set Good Boundaries.
Boundaries are both internal and external limits. This may include limiting or eliminating things that you do not find healthy. For example, if our tendency is to over give to others because we have people pleasing tendencies, we need to take a hard look, and make changes that support us.)It may also mean setting limits around food or drinking, or accepting that we can’t have too much. Only you know how much (if any) is okay, and have a right to limit what may be too much. If we have the opposite problem of self-denial, this is another area we need to work on.
When we grow up with mothers who are absent or harshly critical, there can be a tendency to project those thoughts on others. If we were told we are “too sensitive,” we need to examine thisespecially if this feedback is coming from someone we trust. While there is no such thing as too sensitive, it may mean we keep viewing others through the same lens we view our parent.Sometimes others’ comments are simply direct, or misconstrued through the lens of having been hurt or shamed in the past.
Know that Others Can’t Fill Us.
While we can all benefit from supportive relationships, it is important not to expect others to heal our wounds. Healthy partnerships are built on love and reciprocity, not neediness or the drive to heal our wounds by mothering someone else. The most important relationship we have is the one with ourselves.
Reparent Yourself with Self-Love.
Reparenting includes all of the things we just discussed: we are re-working our templates for growth. Most importantly it includes self-love and self-compassion. Remember, these strategies—and you—are a work in progress. Check that tendency to be self-critical and treat yourself with love and compassion.