November 28, 2021 — 11:02 AM
We tend to think of our first love as our childhood crush or high school sweetheart, but it really all begins with our mother. The mother-child relationship is a profoundly important influence that teaches us how we love and find safety in the world.
While mothers are often seen as eternal stewards of consummate guidance and unwavering support, a mother’s identity is always much more complex than that. As women, mothers live in a deeply misogynistic world, and if those toxic messages haven’t been worked out of their belief system, they may inadvertently pass down these burdens to their children. This matrilineal pain is sometimes called the mother wound.
What is the mother wound?
The mother wound is a concept that speaks to the generational pain inherited and passed down between grandmothers, mothers, and daughters caused by living in a patriarchal culture that’s oppressive toward women.
“The cultural atmosphere of female oppression by the Western patriarchy conditions women to think of themselves as ‘less-than, not deserving, and not-worthy,'” psychologist Nadine Macaluso, LMFT, Ph.D., tells mbg. By existing in such a society, women often grow up internalizing and then acting out disempowering messages that aim to socialize them into being a “good girl,” one that plays small, accommodates, tolerates, and is ultimately spiritually disconnected as they neglect and devalue themselves to take care of others first. These pressures can result in them suppressing their full capabilities and natural ways of being to serve the family system.
If not resolved, this trauma then gets passed down to the next generation. Girls raised by mothers who’ve internalized these negative messages also grow up obediently taking on those learned, oppressive standards to connect to their mother and interact with their surroundings.
“The mother wound includes the dysfunctional coping mechanisms of women: sacrificing their needs, denying their power and potential, and abandoning their authenticity,” Macaluso explains. “These strategies hammer home dysfunctional patterns [like] self-sacrifice, self-denial, and self-abandonment, which become highly dysfunctional traits in adulthood.”
The mother wound isn’t an actual mental health diagnosis, according to clinical psychologist Jennifer Wolkin, Ph.D., but she describes it as a form of intergenerational complex trauma. “You are highly impacted by your mother’s own trauma response. In a way, you bond with your mother’s trauma, including her limiting beliefs and coping mechanisms,” she explains.
The mother wound is generally seen as a mother-daughter phenomenon because of patriarchy’s specific impact on women. Licensed mental health counselor Juliann King, LMHC, notes the mother wound may especially affect women from marginalized communities—such as women of color, women from immigrant families, or those living in poverty—since society usually conditions those populations to deny their feelings out of survival, a pressure to be perfect, or a need to appear strong.
That said, King believes the mother wound doesn’t discriminate and can affect individuals across the gender spectrum. Men can also internalize patriarchal thinking and go on to perpetuate them in their lives and romantic relationships later on.
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The mother wound comes from what girls witness from their mothers in their formative years. Women are often taught to prioritize relationships above all else, and seeing their mother conforming to these pressures, they, too, learn to believe that accessing their power will somehow damage their connection with others. This belief creates a psychic limitation on who they want to be.
“Our caregivers’ jobs are to create and foster a safe place for us to learn how to connect with others, to make mistakes, and essentially learn what it means to be human and imperfect and for that to be accepted and OK,” King explains. “When this does not happen, emotional difficulties may arise.”
As children grow up, they may harbor guilt since they feel conflicted between wanting to live out their authentic truth yet fearing they could lose their mother’s love if it’s perceived as a rejection of her teachings. They may unconsciously respond by developing adaptive survival mechanisms to secure their mother’s love and hopefully receive in return care from her and others. However, contorting yourself to please someone else doesn’t address the underlying social programming and instead seeks to only reinforce the pattern of the mother wound. Macaluso points out that by disconnecting from your true self, it creates a fundamental distrust of your own needs, feelings, desires, gut instincts, and perception of reality. The distortion manifests in behaviors such as codependency and people-pleasing.
King adds that impacts of the mother wound can “make you more susceptible to insecure attachment styles, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, difficulty in romantic and platonic relationships, lack of emotional awareness, and difficulties self-soothing.”
While repetitive conditioning from society formed the core wound in our mothers and grandmothers, Wolkin says the inheritance of this wound can theoretically start as early as the womb. “According to epigenetics, the trauma endured by our ancestors affects DNA in a way that it’s passed down from generation to generation. One might conceptualize them as molecular wounds,” she explains. “So in theory, in our life, if we notice something alarming or unsettling us but [we] can’t really pinpoint it to our own lived experience, they can be experiences embodied from previous generations.”
Signs of harm from the mother wound.
Here are some examples that you’re likely living with the mother wound, according to Macaluso and other experts:
- Feeling pressure to adhere to strict expectations of womanhood
- Caretaking others to the point of resentment and exhaustion
- Never actualizing your full potential in case it threatens others
- Never actualizing your full potential out of fear of failure or disapproval
- Persistent, vague sense that there’s something shameful and wrong with you
- Feeling pressured to live out the unlived dreams of your mother, even if it means not being true to yourself
- Resentment and bitterness at your own children
- Unconsciously waiting for your mother’s permission or approval of your life choices
- Unrealistic expectations in a relationship and feeling relentlessly needy with others
- Feeling unsafe to take up space and express yourself, and instead wanting to play small
- Weak boundaries, an unclear sense of self, and/or feelings of low self-worth
- Inability to practice foundational self-care and ask for and receive support
- Allowing and accepting poor or abusive treatment from others
- Never feeling good enough no matter what you seem to do
- Other learned coping mechanisms related to fear of experiencing gender-based violence or hatred
How to heal from the mother wound.
To heal the mother wound, you must create a new relationship with yourself—one that isn’t based on what society expects from women or what your mother expects from her daughter.
“Healing the mother wound consists of re-mothering yourself, which is the act of meeting your adult emotional, physical, and practical needs in ways that an imperfect yet ‘good enough mother’ might have done for you when you were younger,” Macaluso says. “This means addressing the places within you that feel hurt or stuck, and giving yourself the love that you did not receive.” She recommends working with a therapist and potentially finding community with other women to connect to your divine feminine in a positive context.
After validating your needs, take it one step further and engage your inner child to grieve the pain together. Through that, Wolkin says you can regulate your present-day adult nervous system and build the capacity to meet all of your feelings without shame. But take it slow: It won’t be a linear process nurturing those neglected parts.
“When you are triggered or reactive, what’s really happening is that your younger self is searching for a felt sense of safety. What is most needed in that moment is to soothe the little you. See if you can first and foremost practice holding compassion for the part of you that [needed] to be showered with unconditional love, presence, and safety by your primary attachment figure,” she says. She recommends communicating to your inner child through visualization exercises, mindfulness, letter writing, or affirmations.
You may find yourself wanting to blame your mother, but Wolkin recommends trying to witness those complicated feelings with empathy when you can. Instead, she points out, it’s more useful to parse through the origins of the wound—which are almost always systemic and societal in nature—to recognize patterns to break the cycle. You can’t change your mother’s marginalized identity, but you can choose your reaction to it and hold space for her. Offering your family and yourself forgiveness will help with the healing and release the rage.
“A crucial element in healing is separating yourself from your mother by reminding yourself that they are not you,” Wolkin explains. If needed, set boundaries around the relationship and take space from her while you’re healing.
Lauren Eden, a poet, once wrote, When you are not fed love on a silver spoon, you learn to lick it off knives.
That line aptly sums up the unique pain of this societal wound. Mothers are expected to be perfect, and they did the best they could, even if it wasn’t exactly all you needed. By taking away the archetype of the selfless mother who can do it all, it will humanize her and help you see the impossible conditioning she had to endure. King offers a gentle reminder to go through the process with kid gloves and a healthy dose of compassion as you work through the trauma.
Healing your mother wound is an opportunity to alchemize your past traumas and recreate a safe relationship with yourself that no longer holds you back. While it can be painful to acknowledge the generational impact of the mother wound, know it’s not your fault.
“You did nothing wrong, and [now] you can choose better for yourself and for the generations to come in your family,” King says. “Trauma can be intergenerational, but so can healing.”