I’ve been on the trail of a mystery for the last 10 years trying to figure out why I believed myself to be a strong, independent woman, but would devolve into a needy, insecure, co-dependent, mushy mess when I got into a relationship.
Bit by bit, I’ve tugged away at the threads of this story, growing and liberating myself along the way. Now, I feel like I stand at the gates of the heart of it and I can see what this mystery has always been.
It’s the Mother-Wound.
Or, from a yogic perspective, the karmic knots I carry through the maternal line of my family.
It’s the pain of my mother, embedded in me, through the pain of her mother, and the pain of her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. Down through the generations, consciously or not, this pain has been passed on in the patterns of the psyche.
And now, I have the opportunity to heal it, once and for all.
One of my strongest memories of my mother as a child is her passionate declaration that she would never bring us up the way her mother brought her up.
She grew up with an Angry Mother and coming home from school, she never knew what she would find upon entering the house. My mother described it as walking on egg shells and always being in fear of triggering the anger.
To her credit, my mother kept her word. She didn’t bring us up like she was brought up. Instead, she suppressed her own anger and her own needs and, not knowing what she really felt, she was often emotionally distant.
Now, as a mother myself, I watched myself with my son and notice that I swing between these two parameters. Sometimes I’m emotionally distant and sometimes I’m angry. I understand that as much as my mother didn’t want to turn into her mother, she didn’t have the tools and understanding to fully heal from her own upbringing.
No, she wasn’t the angry mother—she was the flipside of that, the emotionally repressed mother.
And in turn, I too never wanted to turn into my mother because I saw her as a fearful victim—afraid of what other people thought, afraid of life and afraid of having to take care of herself and three children post-divorce.
I prided myself on being strong, confident and independent and most definitely not afraid. Yet I too couldn’t escape the patterning of the psyche. I too was just burying my fear so deep I couldn’t feel it anymore, just as my mother buried her emotions so deep she couldn’t feel them.
I discovered, bit by bit, the buried truth of my being as soon as I got into a romantic relationship–I would turn into my mother, and hate myself for it.
Relationships became the great testing ground for my psyche—the place where my shadow would rise so I could see it in all its (un)glory.
Recently, I broke a pattern within a relationship when I didn’t let my deep desire for intimacy compromise my own needs. For once, I stayed strong and stood up for what I knew I needed. Walking away from that relationship felt empowering, yet there was also intense grief. The insight that floated up in the midst of my grief was:
I’ll never find a man who can meet me in my power!
The flip side of this is a belief that I have to be less-than in order to be loved. Where did this come from, I wondered? Was this why I always turned into this weak, insecure and needy woman in relationships? Because I was afraid no man could handle my powerful self?
Two days later a girlfriend sent me an article written by Bethany Webster entitled “Why it’s crucial for women to heal the mother wound,” in which I read that:
“The mother wound includes the pain of:
- Comparison: not feeling good enough
- Shame: consistent background sense that there is something wrong with you
- Attenuation: Feeling you must remain small in order to be loved
- Persistent sense of guilt for wanting more than you currently have
As a woman, there is a vague but powerful sense that your empowerment will injure your relationships.”
Oh yes, attenuation—feeling like you must remain small in order to be loved. That was my pattern in relationships—I appeased and accommodated and denied my own needs in order to be loved, afraid that if I was who I was, that I wouldn’t be loved.
A light-bulb went on.
This was another thread to follow.
Now I knew where this way of being in a relationship had come from.
But why? What is it about our relationships with our mothers that makes us play ourselves down in order to be loved?
Another memory of childhood. I’m six or seven years old and sitting my first music theory exam through the Royal Trinity College in London. A bright child, I’d skipped Grade 1 and was doing Grade 2. We had two hours to do the exam, but I was done in about 10 minutes. I twiddled my thumbs for a moment, double-checked my answers, handed them in to the teacher and then skipped home—two blocks away.
Instead of celebrating my success and the ease with which I completed the exam, I remember my mother being horrified when I arrived. She told me off for finishing so fast and leaving the exam hall. I was devastated. I thought she’d be as happy as I was. I was vindicated when the results arrived: 98 percent.
It was a small moment, yet my mother’s fear was imprinted on me. Fear of not being good enough, or getting it wrong, or not obeying the rules.
My mother always felt like she wasn’t good enough, and even though consciously I rejected that fear, unconsciously, it still imprinted on me. From Webster’s piece:
“If a daughter internalizes her mother’s unconscious beliefs (which is some subtle form of “I’m not good enough”) then she has her mother’s approval but has in some way betrayed herself and her potential.
However, if she doesn’t internalize her mother’s unconscious beliefs in her own limitations but rather affirms her own power and potential, she is aware that her mother may unconsciously see this as a personal rejection.”
Yet the work we must do as adults to heal our mother wounds is not about shaming our mothers for not being good enough, or wishing that they were different—it’s about coming to terms with the imprinting that we carry and healing it.
Because there will always be imprinting. All of us have mother wounds, to some extent or another. They may negatively affect our lives, or may just be mere shadows we don’t have to deal with.
Being a mother is one of the most difficult things a person can do—the only role that may be just as difficult is that of a father. No matter how great we are as mothers, we will always wound our children in some way. That’s just how it works.
As adults, it’s up to us to face into our psychic imprinting, uncover those limiting beliefs, and heal them. This is what it means to mature. From Webster’s article:
The cost of not healing the mother wound is living your life indefinitely with:
- A vague, persistent sense that, “There’s something wrong with me.”
- Never actualizing your potential out of fear of failure or disapproval
- Having weak boundaries and an unclear sense of who you are
- Not feeling worthy or capable of creating what you truly desire
- Not feeling safe enough to take up space and voice your truth
- Arranging your life around “not rocking the boat”
- Self-sabotage when you get close to a breakthrough
- Unconsciously waiting for mother’s permission or approval before claiming your own life.
A few years ago I deliberately chose to go and live with my mother, partly because I wanted to better understand our relationship.
I’d always said that she was a “good mother,” and we’d had a “great relationship.” Yet this wasn’t the whole story. There was far more complexity to our relationship than just easy mother-daughter love, and I discovered this during the three months we lived together.
I’d spent the last 10 years—since I’d had two psychotic episodes in 2004—learning how to feel my emotions. I discovered that my mother still doesn’t know what she’s feeling, when she’s feeling it. Yet conversely, I could feel what she wasn’t feeling. This meant she’d often deny her own needs and seek to caretake others simply because she didn’t even know what she really felt and she wanted to feel loved.
It also meant that the atmosphere in the house was often thick with unfelt, and unsaid emotions and thoughts. It made me feel claustraphobic and frustrated. That frustration often led to anger. I was shocked to realise that I recognised this state of being—this is what I had been lived with constantly as a teenager, but I’d had no idea!
I discovered, with even more shock, that I was really angry at my mother.
Of course, because emotions were not acceptable in our household growing up—and particularly anger. Now I felt guilty and ashamed for feeling this anger. And even more guilty and ashamed because I felt it toward my mother—she who had sacrificed herself for me.
Now, almost two years on, I’m only just beginning to get to the stage where I can tell my mother I feel angry without fear that she won’t love me anymore.
It feels like a huge step toward healing the mother wound and coming into full empowerment within myself.
After all, if you can’t communicate honestly with your mother without fear that the truth of your feelings will break the relationship, how on earth can you have an emotionally honest relationship with anyone?
You’ll always be afraid that being emotionally authentic will break the relationship—that the emotionally authentic you isn’t lovable.
And there’s the key right there to understanding how the mother wound impacts romantic relationships.
The relationship we have with our mothers as children often dictates our romantic relationships when we’re older—whether we realise it or not. And that’s why, if you’re struggling with romantic relationships, it’s so valuable to take the time to understand your relationship with your mother.
It’s important too to realise as you look at at your own mother wound that healing this has nothing to do with your mother. It’s not about whether she was good or bad, or how she failed you. It’s not about blaming her, or holding her accountable or wanting her to be different.
It’s about understanding the dynamic between you and accepting that she did the best she could at the time, and it’s up to you to care for your own needs now.
This work allows you to embrace yourself as you are without shame—and therefore offer your gifts to the world. Healing the mother wound is ultimately about stepping fully into your power as a adult.
As a result of the work I’ve done on myself and the mother-wound in the last 10 years, I have:
- Learned how to feel and handle my emotions
- Discovered that my emotions and feelings are a source of wisdom and information
- I’ve learned how to develop healthy boundaries. I know where I end and the Other begins, and I know which emotions are mine and which belong to the other.
- I’ve learned that it’s okay to put my needs first—that I matter too!
There’s aspects though that I’m still working on. In particular:
- I still need to learn to have compassion for myself and by extension other people. I’m still learning how to love myself more.
- I need to learn how to take myself less seriously—how to play and have fun!
I’ve discovered that feeling anger towards our mother because she did not meet our needs is natural, yet I also see how not coming to peace with this anger prevents me from moving into my full power as woman.
I still need to accept my mother for who she is—both limitations and gifts, so that I can freely claim my own inner gifts and learn how to better love my mother. This is the work I’m doing now.
My son, four years old now, will have mother wounds of his own. Yet I also know that the more I’m able to heal and own my own mother wounds, the less his wounding will be.
This is how the karmic patterns are broken. In every generation, there is an opportunity for greater awareness, for greater acceptance, and for healing and release.
I am a strong, confident, powerful woman. I always have been. Yet I have also been weak, insecure and needy. All of these character traits have defined me. My denial and rejection of those parts of me I didn’t like—mirroring my denial and rejection of the parts of my mother which I didn’t like—paradoxically allowed those parts to flourish.
It was only when I finally had the courage to turn and look at all of me that I could begin to finally heal those parts of me, and also my relationship with my mother.
In all of my long-term relationships to date (the last ended over three years ago) I was more weak, needy and insecure than I was strong, confident and powerful. I downplayed myself in order to receive the love I so desperately craved.
Now, this has changed.
Now, I recognise I am my own source of Love, and it is my responsibility to meet my own needs.
The mystery has been solved and I am becoming the woman I always believed myself to be.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Costin Fetic/Pixoto