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3 Signs You Have a Mother Wound and How to Heal From It

Experts explain the mother wound, its causes, and its impact on your life, as well as how to heal from it.


What exactly is the mother wound? And how do you know if you have one? Therapists explain what the mother wound is, how it may manifest in your life and relationships, and most importantly, how to heal from it.


While plenty of attention has been paid to the complexes that may result from an absent or non-involved father (having “daddy issues,” for example), the impact of a mother’s absence or neglect has been less explored, at least up until about a decade ago. That’s when the term “mother wound” began popping up.

A mother’s disengagement in a child’s life brings about damaging impacts. But rest assured: Healing from it is possible. Read on to learn more about what the “mother wound” is, what causes it, signs a person may have it, and — above all — how to heal from it.


What Is the Mother Wound?

The mother wound is a term used to describe the lasting scars a person may carry from a childhood where their mother was absent or disengaged.

“The mother wound is a feeling of detachment a child gets from their mother,” Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD, a licensed psychologist and author of Perseverance: How Young People Turn Fear into Hope and How They Can Teach Us to Do the Same, tells DailyOM. “This occurs because the child feels unloved, abandoned, or fearful of expressing emotions, which often leaves the child feeling hurt and confused.”


While the father is typically seen as the protector of the family, the mother is traditionally the nurturer. A mother’s role is pivotal in children’s development, giving them a sense of love and acceptance, explains Jacob Brown, a psychotherapist in San Francisco who specializes in attachment-based theory, whom DailyOM spoke with for this story. When this isn’t the case, there are mental and emotional implications that often extend beyond childhood. 

“Attachment science has taught us how the quality of the attachment bond between a parent or caregiver and the child has a direct impact on the child’s future mental health and emotional stability,” explains Brown. “When the development of a secure attachment is short-circuited [between the mother and child], the child suffers a mother wound. These wounds may have a lasting impact on the child’s development of a positive self-image and on their ability to form deep and lasting relationships.”


With therapy, the effects of the mother wound can be recognized and healed. If not dealt with, the feelings of abandonment or the fear of expressing emotions can materialize into emotional unavailability and unresolved trauma well into adulthood.

“The first people who are supposed to love and take care of us are our parents — most traditionally our mothers. So it can be mentally challenging to navigate when this isn’t the case,” says Dr. Rubenstein.



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Causes of a Mother Wound


Some factors that may prevent a mother from fully bonding with her child, which would bring about a mother wound, could be circumstantial, notes Brown. These include the death or serious illness of a mother, living in poverty, battling substance abuse, or living in a chaotic or abusive home where they are not able to protect themselves or their children.


Secure attachment bonds are broken when a child isn’t provided with a stable and reliable sense that they are loved and a valued part of the family, explains Brown. Or a child could have their basic needs provided for, but bonds will be broken if the child’s emotional needs go unmet and if the home environment does not allow a child to express anger or unhappy feelings.

“Children get a sense of self in how they are received in relation to their parents.


If a mother is not reflecting back emotions accurately or is overwhelming their child with their own emotions, the mother wound can occur,” Kate O’Brien, a psychotherapist in New York who specializes in helping clients who had emotionally immature parents, tells DailyOM.

O’Brien says that characteristics of an emotionally immature parent could include: reacting negatively to a child’s feelings; showing a lack of empathy and emotional awareness; being inconsistent in how they care for their child (sometimes being emotionally present and then other times being emotionally absent); or using their child as a confidant rather than being the safe adult their child should confide in. In many cases, the mother wound is the result of past generations’ trauma that have been passed down instead of being properly recognized and healed.

 

By healing yourself, the mother wound stops with you. You have the power to prevent it from harming your future relationships and even future generations.

 

“When parents are emotionally immature, it often leaves them unable to hear, reflect, and understand the feelings of their child. This can often lead directly to the mother wound,” explains O’Brien. “Parents who are emotionally immature often did not get the parenting that they needed.”


Signs You Have the Mother Wound

As an adult, the effects of the mother wound can manifest in your self-worth as well as in your relationships. Here are signs you may have an unhealed mother wound.


1. You Feel Like You’re Never Enough

Many times, the mother wound surfaces as a feeling you can’t quite describe, says O’Brien — the feeling like you’re never good enough, like your emotions are too much for others, that you are too “needy,” or that the needs of others are more important than your own.

“When a parent is not able to sit with you in your feelings, it can lead to the internalized narrative that you are unlovable, not good enough, and that there is something inherently wrong with you,” says O’Brien. “Many times it’s hard to label what exactly feels wrong; it just lives there as a feeling.”


2. You Struggle With Intense Self-Doubt

Another way the mother wound can carry over into adulthood is through self-doubt. While many experience self-doubt as a lack of confidence in oneself (like before a first date) or feeling uncertain of one’s abilities to perform well (like before taking an exam), the self-doubt that comes from a mother wound is more challenging to overcome. Rather than being able to take a deep breath and push forward, this type of self-doubt can feel debilitating because you weren’t given the tools to overcome it at an early age.


“Self-doubt would likely manifest more intensely due to the more insecure foundation caused by the mother wound,” says Rubenstein. “Someone with a more stable upbringing may not be rocked by hits to their self-esteem or imperfections because they have coping mechanisms that are more automatic to them.”


For example, being able to “roll with the punches” from a setback or from making a mistake might not come as naturally to someone with the mother wound. In addition to intense self-doubt, [someone with the mother wound] may also struggle with perfectionism and unworthiness from being conditioned in childhood that it was undesirable for them to make mistakes.

This can make it difficult to trust yourself and can lead to harmful inner dialogue, explains Rubenstein. It can also lead to fears of future life decisions, causing you to self-sabotage relationships or fear becoming a parent.


3. You Either Want Full Control or Full Chaos

Since the mother wound harms the first sense of attachment you experience as a child, it can have a very strong impact on your relationships, notes Brown. You may frequently feel as though you are unimportant to your partner or that your partner’s emotions are overwhelming to you, adds Brown. And you may find yourself either craving to control a relationship or unable to form a lasting relationship due to emotional unavailability.


“Kids who grow up in chaotic households often develop into adults with a strong need to control their environment and the people in their life. This desire to control often results in an angry person when people refuse to do what they want them to do,” says Brown. “Or they can fall the other way, and continue creating a chaotic world, because that’s what they are used to.”



How to Heal From the Mother Wound

The mother wound is the result of emotional trauma. Simply acknowledging this can be a powerful step forward.

“The first step to healing from trauma and overcoming emotional damage is acknowledging your feelings. Understand that it’s not your fault, and it’s okay to feel the way you do,” says Rubenstein.


The guidance of a therapist can be especially beneficial as you sift through past and present emotions — providing yourself with a safe space and a safe person to confide in that you likely didn’t have as a child.

“Giving space to your feelings is vital,” says O’Brien. “Sometimes we feel like it is not okay to be angry or sad toward our parents. The feeling of anger is often the part of you that is fighting for yourself. And it is normal to feel grief that your parents weren’t able to give you what you needed.”


Another normal feeling when processing the mother wound? Feeling guilty for having a difficult relationship with your mother who worked hard to provide food, clothing, and shelter for you. “But it’s important to remember that being met and held in your emotions is a core need. Your [mother] may have given you a lot, but still not have met your needs,” says O’Brien.


After you are able to acknowledge and accept your emotions, finding forgiveness is the next step toward healing. “Although forgiveness can be challenging, it’s essential to healing and letting go of built-up resentment,” says Rubenstein. “Most importantly, provide yourself with compassion for the emotions you’re navigating and turn toward yourself like you would a close friend.”

Rubenstein suggests journaling as an effective ritual to incorporate into your healing process, especially as you try to find forgiveness for your mother and others in your family who may have contributed to the mother wound.


Something that may help the forgiveness process is recognizing that your mother was suffering from her own mother wound without knowing it.

“Another piece of healing can be through understanding that your parents are most likely hurt in their own way, which is why they are acting in this manner toward you. If they never learned what it feels like to have someone emotionally present for them, it becomes much more challenging to be emotionally present for others,” says O’Brien.


Does that mean you have to forgive right away — or ever? Not necessarily, says O’Brien. That is ultimately your decision, when and if you’re ready.

If you’re not able to forgive your mother, another step toward healing is through reparenting yourself and accepting that you may have to meet your unmet needs for the child within yourself. Don’t be alarmed if big emotions surface for this one.


“It feels unfair, and I won’t claim otherwise,” says O’Brien. “But taking care of that child within you is often a key to moving forward.” This can include conversations with your younger self, journaling, meditations, creating art, or other outlets that help you feel connected to your inner child and the part of yourself that was neglected, she says.


With journaling in particular, Brown advises not to focus on your mother and what she did to you (or didn’t do). Instead, focus on your own feelings and your own journey for healing. Note in which part of your body you feel the feelings you’re experiencing, says Brown. What story are you telling yourself about these feelings and what does that story make you feel about yourself?


If you are in a relationship, involve your partner as you heal your childhood’s broken attachment style. Together you can create “earned attachment” with the guidance of a therapist — a process where a couple (or an individual) with insecure or avoidant attachment styles can work through past trauma or anxiety in order to build their own secure attachment bond together, explains Brown.


Go into your healing process knowing that it likely won’t happen right away and that it might require a lot of perseverance. When it gets tough, remind yourself who you are doing this for. Remember that by healing yourself, the mother wound stops with you. You have the power to prevent it from harming your future relationships and even future generations.

“By working to address and heal these wounds, you are working to undo generational pain,” says O’Brien. “While at times very challenging, [healing the mother wound] can alter your life and relationships with others, thereby ending cycles of hurt.”


By, Paige Jarvie Brettingen

Paige Jarvie Brettingen is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has been published in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Refinery29, 5280 Magazine and Mom.com, among others. A graduate of Northwestern University and USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, she performed in musicals and commercials in Chicago and Los Angeles and was also a teacher and musical theater director before making a career change to journalism and motherhood (her all-time favorite role). These days, when she isn’t writing or researching her next project, she enjoys going skiing, swimming and hiking or anywhere in the mountains with her husband, 6 year old and 4-year-old twins. She also loves helping moms live a more fulfilled motherhood with her health and wellness coaching program “The Nourished Mama Project.”



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