Oh man, where do I start with this one? The Mother Wound. It’s a biggie isn’t it? Part of me feels like I should just throw this out there to all you therapy bloggers and we could do one of those exercises where we each write a single line on the paper, fold it, and then pass it on to the next person and by the end we’d have collected a story about the Mother Wound. The paper part would be tricky but maybe we could do it in the comments box?
I’m referring to a ‘Mother Wound’ here, but essentially what I am talking about is the damage inflicted on a child by the lack of one, or more, caregiver’s reliable care, emotional holding and containment. It could be a deficit in care or sometimes abuse/neglect by mum/dad/grandparent/other guardian or the entire family (I guess). It’s the damage that is caused by lack of safety- either emotional, or physical, or both. It’s attachment/relational trauma.
Even though everyone’s life experiences are different, and their relationships with their mothers/primary caregivers unique, from what I can work out there are quite a few of us battling very similar demons caused by this early emotional injury. I can only talk accurately about my own experiences and causes of my particular Mother Wound but I will also try and bring in some of my observations from hearing/reading the stories of others too.
The effects produced by the mother wound on an individual seem fairly standard on first inspection: at times intense feelings of anxiety and/or depression, a fragile sense of self, difficulty with trust in relationships (attachment issues), fear of rejection and/or abandonment, low self-esteem, an over-developed self-critic which often has led to the development of one or more negative coping strategies: eating disorders, self-harm, alcohol abuse, drug dependency to name but a few things. And sometimes it gets really very dark and the thought of suicide or even possible attempts at suicide become part of the fabric of life. Oh, and the shame. I can’t forget that! A deep deep sense of shame around the expression of feelings and emotion.
I understand that it’s not the case for everyone and not all elements I’ve listed above are relevant to all people and, of course, there are more issues that I haven’t mentioned. I, for one, don’t drink alcohol or do drugs anymore but this is largely because I think I have quite an addictive personality and would probably end up in real trouble if I did now. I think it is quite telling that I am so controlled where drugs and alcohol are concerned. I think people must think I am quite boring but actually I just know what I can manage and remember what I was like in my early twenties. The idea of a hangover is enough to put me off!
We are all different but when I read these blogs the one thing that stands out is that that there is so much vulnerability and longing out there. There is so much emotional pain. People, fundamentally, just want to be loved, and to love, and yet the pursuit of this ‘love’ is anything but straightforward because of what has happened in the past. The lens through which we view intimacy is faulty and distorts everything. Our perspective is tainted, even as adults, and it negatively impacts on our ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. I find all that information both comforting and utterly devastating.
I have no problem whatsoever with forming friendships but I struggle to really let people in. I am that reliable person that others turn to in a crisis, the level-headed one, the grounded and sensible one, the one that throws a good party but is also the person that sits listening to heartbreak on the phone at midnight. I am a good friend to others but I can count on one hand the people who ‘know’ me and I have let close to me.
I am not interested in making hundreds of acquaintances. I can be life and soul of the party (when I can be bothered) but more often than not must seem aloof or stand-offish in social settings. I just really don’t like big crowds and small talk. I just don’t see the point in it. I’d rather be on my own.
Since I started blogging in the summer, for the first time I feel as though I am not completely alone in my feelings and as though I finally have a space where I can express exactly what feels so wrong with me/in me. Not only that, that what I have to say is accepted and met without judgement but actually, more often than not, a huge amount of empathy and compassion. That’s massive.
To be able to finally start getting the words out after all these years and say how it feels is, in itself, enormous but for other people to go, ‘yep, it’s really tough, and I get it. You are not alone’ is life-changing, because frankly sometimes these feelings feel terribly frightening and unsettling and isolating. I really want to be able to talk stuff through with my therapist but it’s not easy when so much of what I feel is triggered by being in therapy with her. It’s so difficult. There are parts of me that desperately want to connect with her but other parts that are too scared to for fear of being mocked and then abandoned.
Sometimes it is easy to be swept up and away with how bad it all seems. It can feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, and there is no point in continuing. It can quickly become a negative downward spiral. A (perceived) bad therapy session can leave me feeling desperate and helpless and adds fuel to the fire of intense and difficult emotions I’m already battling.
To know that I am not alone in this kind of struggle makes me feel less weird, a little less like there is something very wrong with me, and is helping me move towards the realisation, that ‘f*ck!Things weren’t right when I was small and IT WAS NOT MY FAULT!’ How I am now is a product of what was done to me. What an enormous revelation that is!
It’s also comforting to know that other people are struggling with the constraints of therapeutic relationship (argh boundaries!), feeling deeply attached but also terribly vulnerable, repairing ruptures, having good and bad sessions, cancelling and uncancelling sessions, sitting in silence, raging and longing, moving and stagnating. We’re all giving it a good go and it really isn’t easy! I certainly never imagined therapy could be like this when I entered into it years and years ago.
Over the years, I have seen so many therapists and yet I have never got to this place with any of them – which is both a blessing and a curse! I am finally connecting with emotions after years of talking about the events of my life in a detached way – like whatever I am talking about has happened to someone else. But now I feel like I am caught up in something that I am entirely unprepared for. That’s unnerving.
I like to be in control and therapy doesn’t feel like that right now because adult me isn’t there all the time. There are young ones in the mix now and they are not quite so adept at filtering the feelings that come up. They act out. They are clingy and needy at times and at others completely shut down and avoidant. I really struggle with disorganised attachment: sometimes I totally trust and feel safe with my therapist and at other times I feel like the therapeutic relationship is dangerous and is ultimately going to hurt me.
Reading your blog posts is comforting but also totally harrowing at times: how can it be that there are so many incredibly lovely people out there feeling this way? Why should it be that such vibrant, intelligent, caring individuals who have so much to offer are living day-to-day struggling to exist in the wider world trying to pretend that they are not wounded? The attachment wound it so big it is overwhelming and yet it’s as though it doesn’t exist, or isn’t allowed to exist.
It’s like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet when he has been mortally wounded by Tybalt. Benvolio asks if he is hurt and Mercutio replies:
‘Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch’
(Romeo and Juliet Act 3:1)
And that’s what we do most of the time. We play it down. We cover it up. This is not for our benefit, but rather to try and keep up appearances, to not rock the boat, to not let people down…and strangest of all, to not let the perpetrator of the damage know we are even hurt.
We don’t ever allow anyone close enough to show them how damaged we really are because somehow the culture in which we have been raised makes us feel that there is something inherently wrong with us. So we try very hard to carry on with life, and we do a pretty good job at living with the wound (indeed some of us have even managed to block it from our consciousness). It’s always there, though, and depending on how we move and flex our minds and bodies dictates how able, or not, we are to go on with the show.
My goodness aren’t we great actors and don’t we have insane levels of stamina? But sometimes it gets too much doesn’t it? It’s too real, too painful, too exhausting, too bloody gory and we just cannot carry on. We finally reach a point where we must discover and face our own truth. We can’t live like this any more. We need to be honest and tell someone about our injury. We need help.
In Mercutio’s case it’s his best friend Romeo to whom he tells the truth:
ROMEO: Courage man, the hurt cannot be much,
MERCUTIO: No tis’ not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ‘tis enough. ‘Twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me grave man.’
Mercutio admits that he has been injured and that he will die as a result.
Sometimes it is not immediately apparent to us where our wound has originated from because over the years there have been many, many wounds inflicted and so that the attachment wound gets overlaid with other things and becomes simply ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ or ‘self harm’ or ‘x y z’.
Eventually the inevitable happens: we can’t really function. We reach a time where it becomes almost life and death and we are teetering on the edge. Sometimes the breakdown is averted and other times a breakdown is exactly what drives us into therapy.
Often it is in therapy that we finally realise what the problem has been all along. Sure there are loads and loads of other life experiences that we work through and process. I would hazard a guess and say that most people don’t walk into the therapy room for the first time, sit down and say, ‘So here’s the thing, I am suffering with the fall-out of developmental trauma and my attachment systems are causing me to struggle in relationships and in my life in general’. How wonderful it would be if we did though?! I’d have saved thousands of ££$$ if I’d have really known what I was dealing with in the beginning.
Instead, over time we gently peel back the scab layers that have sort of healed over but not quite. And then we reach it. The core wound. And my god it’s fucking enormous. It’s like staring down into the abyss. How was this level of injury ever survivable? How could a small child endure such damage and still live? Well in my case it came through shutting down/dissociating, repressing memories, and freezing that little girl back in time as well as attacking myself, in various ways, for years.
I have grown up now. I have an adult body. From the outside I have the trappings of a successful adult life: some decent qualifications, nice house, wife and children. But there are certainly parts of me that have not emotionally matured. There are several parts loose and unhappy inside.
When faced with the wound, instinct tells you to run far away and try and forget about what you’ve seen. It’s too much. At the same time another part of you awakens the moment that gaping wound is exposed to the air. Despite everything, the child is alive still. Its need for love and care and holding is still there as much as it ever was back in the past and it is terrifying to the adult. The feelings are enormous. The need is overwhelming. What on earth do you do with that?
How can you care for that smallest part of you when it isn’t your care that the child wants? Indeed, that child has no idea that you even exist. The child wants the love and care of the person who has helped uncover the hidden it. It is that caregiver to whom the child is now attached. They want the person who has taken the time to draw that wounded small child out to rescue them. Session after session of steady work, of calm, understanding, validating conversations lead to this moment. The child loves the therapist how could it not?
The child’s hopes of being loved, held, and contained unconditionally reawaken in a flash, and there it is. Hope is ignited. Maybe this time that hole, the wound can be filled with the therapist’s love. If we can just get enough of it…
Oh, if only it were that simple!
It’s only natural that when you realise that you are severely injured that you would want to pack the wound, fill it, and close it over. The desire for the wound to heal is huge and it often feels like the only way to heal it is for the therapist to pour more and more love, and time, and evidence of care into it. If we could only get more contact with our therapist, more sessions, contact between sessions, more tangible verbal reassurances, physical holding, and emotional containment then perhaps this wound will heal up. We scream out for ‘more more MORE!’ of the good stuff…
There’s a problem, though. This wound is like a bottomless pit isn’t it? No matter what you throw into it, no matter how you try and pack it, it never fills. It can’t be filled by the therapist’s love alone. We can’t sit back and watch and hope that this person can magically fix us. We have to turn around and look deep into that hole and see how it is constructed because it is us that holds the tools to be able to heal and mend it.
It is agony staring down into that dark place. Realising just how much pain it contains is enough to send you insane. Somehow bit by bit that hole will fill and we won’t feel so empty, one day. We will learn to love ourselves and feel good enough and steadily those edges will close in. There will always be a scar, though. We can never fully take away the injury. I’m nowhere near healed. In fact writing this I can feel that hole gaping wide.
From what I can tell, not many of us feel comfortable exposing this wound to friends and family in any real depth. We might be able to talk about feeling depressed, or even allude to how bad things were when we were growing up. But when it comes to the intense feelings we feel towards our therapists and how much that impacts us on a day to day…well, it’s little wonder we don’t share that. It’s totally cringeworthy.
A lot of the time we struggle to admit the feelings we have about our therapists even to them in a therapy session so there’s not much hope of letting that out to others! We can’t face the shame, embarrassment, or the pitying looks but also the lack of understanding we are so often faced with.
Despite all the recent publicity and trying to normalise mental health issues in the media it just doesn’t always filter down into families. It feels like this in my wider family: ‘yeah, mental health issues need to be talked about and there needs to be more funding for it. Isn’t it terrible? It’s lucky that no one in our family struggles with their mental health. We’re all jolly and normal aren’t we?…what breakdown? Oh no, that wasn’t a breakdown it was a gap year, she didn’t want to work. She’s fine. Anorexia? No, no, she’s naturally thin and athletic…’
There is so much denial in my family about what has and hasn’t happened, who does or doesn’t struggle, that it’s almost funny. I can sort of accept the wall of pretence from outside the house and notch it up to ‘my dysfunctional blood relations’. I find it far harder when I face criticism and/or lack of understanding at home.
I’m sure it’s not just me that gets these kind of wonderfully helpful soundbites directed at them when the blood starts to seep through a bit and the ability to hide the gaping hole is lessened:
‘What have you got to be depressed about?’
‘You need to learn to let this go.’
‘You can’t change it so don’t let it bother you.’
‘Why can’t you see all the positives you have in your life?’
‘Why am I not enough for you?
‘Why don’t you let me in?’
‘Your depression isn’t getting any better.’
‘I won’t watch you destroy yourself again.’
‘How much therapy does one person need?’
‘Your relationship with your therapist is unhealthy.’
‘I don’t see any improvement in you since you’ve been in therapy, if anything I think you are worse.’
‘You need to try harder to be happy.’
‘I feel like there’s a huge part of you that I just don’t know, why won’t you talk to me?’
‘Can’t you just put it all in a box and forget about it?’
I could go on and on and on but I’m sure you get the idea and have several of your own to throw in there.
When, periodically, faced with those kind of statements it makes it incredibly difficult to open up and be honest about how things are. I think this is, in part, why the therapeutic relationship becomes so important to so many of us. We just do not have anyone who really, genuinely, can listen without judgement. It’s hard to be your real self when your true self isn’t what people want to deal with. They like the one that hides the wound and soldiers on.
Sure, our loved ones love us and care deeply about out wellbeing, but it is also so hard for them to witness how bad things can be for us. It’s not easy witnessing so much pain and being powerless to really help. They can’t fix us. They don’t really understand us. They don’t see the child inside or if they do, what on earth are they meant to do with it? They are desperate for us to be well and happy but it’s not a quick solution…and often in therapy things get worse before they get better. I think that must be terrifying for them and so it is understandable that, at times, frustrations air.
The problem for a lot of us is that we fear abandonment and rejection so much that these kind of statements can make us hide and build our walls even higher. I, for one, am a highly sensitive person and so any kind of criticism like that really hurts me. I feel like the emerging self is not the one that people want to know. The high-functioning adult is far more appealing than the vulnerable one who can’t just cope with anything that’s thrown at it.
I’m aware that this is a massive ramble and I haven’t really said all that I want to. It is certainly a subject to come back to at some point. As I have been writing this I can feel the little parts have really started to stir. I felt very much in my adult when I began and now I feel very small and sad and lost.
The little girl inside realises, yet again that Mummy isn’t coming and the idealised replacement mummy isn’t really a ‘mummy’ to her at all. Ouch!
And so, I guess, this is the bit where my therapist would say that I somehow need to summon up my adult, the one that is a mummy to two beautiful small people, and get her to pick up that little girl and hold onto her tightly, tell her she is loved, and that she is safe. I so want to be able to do that for her. I absolutely want to soothe that part of me but right now all I seem to be able to do is watch her suffer. I have no idea how to make things better for her. I know before long I will end up attacking myself because the pain is so overwhelming and that doesn’t help anyone.
The mother wound is gaping today.