12 Signs of Healing from a Toxic Childhood
How to tell if you're actually making progress (and getting healthier).
Posted Aug 09, 2019
Among the questions readers of my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life ask me, two pop up with some regularity.
The first goes to the heart of the matter, the deep worry each unloved daughter harbors about there being no way out and always feeling terrible for so many reasons: “Is it possible to heal from childhood treatment?” The second one is much more counterintuitive unless you have actually had a damaging childhood: “How do you know you’re beginning to heal?”
The answer is to the first is yes, although in this context, healing doesn’t mean made “good as new,” nor does It mean that you will have the same home-court advantages of a well-loved and supported daughter who grew up trusting her emotions and knowing that she was worthy.
Each of us has to earn the secure attachment we lacked growing up. Often, one of the biggest obstacles to our healing from childhood experiences is our own unrealistic vision of what recovery looks and feels like.
What it means to heal from childhood experiences
As I’ve written, Western culture sees healing—it literally means “to make whole”—as restoring something or someone to an undamaged state; when something of value is damaged, such as a painting or other artifact, our practice is always to repair it in such a way that it looks as though the damage never happened.
That tends to be the mindset we bring to our emotional healing from childhood which is, of course, impossible. For that reason, I think it’s far more productive to think of healing using the Japanese art of Kintsugi as the guiding metaphor. When a valuable or cherished ceramic object is broken, the Japanese repair the piece with lacquer mixed with precious metals—gold, silver, or copper—so that the breaks are not only visible but form a pattern of their own, testifying to the object’s history while transforming how it looks. The repaired object remains its old self while becoming an emblem of resilience and newly envisioned beauty.
What it is that you are healing from
Most daughters wrongly believe that they need to heal from the lack of love they experienced but, in truth, that’s really only a very small piece of the pie; far more important is to be able to see how your mother’s treatment shaped you in ways large and small which affect you in your adult life without your being able to see their provenance.
The chances are good that you think that the behaviors that get in the way of your happiness and ability to thrive are inborn traits, but they’re not. Some of them are maladaptive coping skills you learned in childhood such as pushing off from or denying your feelings, trying not to draw attention to yourself, never allowing yourself to speak your mind, trying to figure out how to please people first and foremost, for example.
Still others are skills you weren’t taught in childhood because learning requires an attuned mother who is attentive to her child’s emotional needs, such as calming yourself in times of stress, being able to talk about and identify your feelings, feeling comfortable extending yourself and taking risks, among others.
All unloved daughters focus on the lack of maternal love, believing that’s what they need to heal from, but they are mistaken. The real work involves unlearning the behaviors that stymie and limit us and learning ones that don’t. This is best accomplished by working with a gifted therapist, although self-help can promote recognition and growth as well.
The hole left by feeling unloved begins to fill in, slowly but surely, as you begin to grow, change, and thrive. I don’t believe that the hole ever fully disappears, but it eventually becomes small enough that it’s a minor detail in a larger and richer narrative, filled in with gleaming rivers of new experiences and connections like a piece repaired by kintsugi.
12 signs that you are beginning to heal
There are individual differences, of course, and not every daughter will suffer the same wounds or lack precisely the same skills; these are broad generalizations so pick and choose those that fit. (For a detailed explanation of the variations in maternal treatment and their myriad effects, please consult my book, Daughter Detox.)
Even though it’s not precisely one-size-fits-all, many of us will be able to use the signs to assess our progress. Please keep in mind that healing is a process and that unlearning and relearning do not proceed in a linear fashion; there are steps forward and steps back as you fall into old default patterns which are completely to be expected. Do not judge yourself harshly and keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
1. You’re getting better at naming your feelings.
Deficits in emotional intelligence are very common, especially for those who grew up in environments in which they were mocked or shamed for showing emotion, told what they were feeling didn’t matter, or were told flat-out that they weren’t feeling what they said they were.
Because unloved children don’t learn to manage negative emotions, they also tend to push off from them in conscious ways, making it even harder for them to know with any kind of precision what they’re feeling. Luckily, emotional intelligence is a set of skills that can be cultivated, practiced, and honed.
2. When things go wrong, you don’t automatically blame yourself.
Self-blame and self-criticism—the habit of ascribing mistakes to fixed and unchangeable character traits—tend to be default behaviors for many unloved daughters. Sometimes, self-blame is simply an echo of what the child has been told in her family of origin, especially if scapegoating is part of the dynamic.
But it can also be a way of avoiding speaking your own truth and simply biting the bullet because you fear confrontation. Beginning to be able to look at failures and mistakes in a more complex way—consciously acknowledging the role of others, your own role, as well as other factors—is most definitely a sign of progress.
3. You don’t automatically second-guess or ruminate.
Yes, it’s called self-confidence, and it begins as a seedling you keep tending and tending until it actually begins to grow; it’s the antidote to those old habits of running alternative scripts through your head in the middle of night, the ones that challenge your every decision, and make you wonder if you’ll ever do anything right.
4. You’re able to speak up without worrying.
Many daughters are afraid to voice their thoughts and feelings, although for different reasons. Some have learned to duck under the radar and not attract attention to themselves, either because their mothers are hugely combative and ready to pick a fight or their mothers are highly narcissistic; in his book Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin has called this learned trait “echoism.” Other daughters are too focused on pleasing others to voice opinions and needs. For the healing self to thrive, it must have a voice.
5. You’re much less sensitive to rejection or slights.
One of the hallmarks of anxious-preoccupied attachment—and many unloved daughters emerge from their childhoods with this attachment style—is being on high alert 24/7 for signs that someone is about to leave you or reject you. Alas, the consensus is that this tends to be a self-fulfilling prophesy because the kind of emotional response you exhibit when you have this reaction tends to drive people away; there’s too much drama in the relationship for most folks.
Being aware of your triggers and talking yourself down from reading into what you might have considered a slight in the past is a true sign of progress.
6. You recognize, label, and dismantle triggers.
Yes, it’s not just rejection sensitivity but other cues in the environment that have predictably, if unconsciously, set you off in the past that are beginning to show up in conscious awareness. The good news here is that unlike your childhood self, you are finally driving the car that’s you.
7. You respect boundaries and set your own.
While the anxiously-attached wrongly see boundaries as signs of rejection, those with a dismissive attachment style confuse boundaries with walls that keep people out. Your growing ability to recognize healthy boundaries, both those of others and your own, is most definitely a sign of your ability to connect in healthier ways. As you begin to see yourself in fullness, it becomes easier to see others in the same way.
8. You take pride in what you handled well and cope with what you botched.
Your ability to congratulate yourself and celebrate your progress, as well as deal with missteps, mistakes, and failures, is another way to gauge how you far you’ve come. Having self-compassion, especially when you screw up, is a very important marker, although it is usually slow in coming. That old default position of beating yourself up mentally and emotionally takes real time to dismantle.
9. You’ve begun to see yourself wholly.
One of the legacies of a toxic childhood is the inability to see the self with any clarity; the habit of self-criticism magnifies the daughter’s flaws, on the one hand, while blinding her to her gifts and positive attributes, on the other. Seeing yourself can also be taken quite literally as daughters begin to shed some of the negativity they have about their bodies and physical appearance; this too is an arena where hypercritical, dismissive, or controlling mothers make a huge impact which must be dealt with.
10. You are no longer ashamed.
A huge turning point is the daughter’s recognition that her mother’s treatment of her had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with her mother herself. The shame of being unloved, of feeling singled out in this way, and the resulting sense of isolation slowly begin to fade away as the daughter comes into her own, more and more. Understanding that she is not alone and that many others face a similar crisis helps her overcome what was never hers to own to begin with.
11. You are now setting personal goals.
This is actually a very big deal because the unloved daughter often feels a deep sense of powerlessness, especially when it comes to personal growth; the chances are good that she’s internalized what was said to her and about her in childhood and adolescence. These thoughts may not even be consciously articulated but accepted as “truths” about who she is.
Counterintuitively, these self-assessments can absolutely co-exist with being a high-achiever in the real world, leading to what researchers call the “Imposter Syndrome” or feeling as though you’re a fraud who’s about to be found out. Setting personal goals and beginning to achieve them, step by step, is a sign of real progress.
12. You are beginning to manage your emotions with skill.
Whether you were routinely flooded with feeling or became skilled at pushing off from emotions in the past, as you start using techniques to manage your emotions, you’ll notice small but incremental changes. You will see that you’re able to anticipate stressful situations and be able to come up with strategies to deal, and that you’re more proficient at calming yourself down rather than being purely reactive. As always, baby steps add up to strides over time.
Healing is a long and slow process but there are signs of change and growth along the way. Remember to be your own cheerleader and to practice self-compassion when you revert to old habits.
All the ideas in this post are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Copyright© Peg Streep 2019
Facebook image: Nadino/Shutterstock
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Badawy, Rebecca L., Brooke A. Gazdag, Jeffrey R. Bentley, and Robyn L. Brouer, “Are all imposters created equal? Exploring gender differences in the imposter phenomenon-performance link, (2018), Personality and Individual Differences, 131, 156-163.
Rohrmann, Sonja, Myriam N. Bechtoldt, and Monica Leonhardt, “Validation of the Imposter Phenomenon among Managers,” (2016), Frontiers in Psychology 7, 821. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00821