Mother’s Day can be a particularly painful holiday for adult survivors of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), especially for those that are estranged from their nuclear family. Today’s article therefore focuses on healing from mother wounding and nurturing the inner child within.
Did you know that 20 percent of American families have some form of estrangement going on between relatives within their nuclear or extended family? In the United Kingdom, a 2014 study found that one in five British adults reported having estranged family members.
And yet despite these statistics, most of us will find ourselves drowning in a sea of flowery Hallmark Card sentiments and emotionally poignant commercials and advertisements emphasizing the mother/child bond, which can be extraordinarily triggering to survivors of FSA.
If you are distant from your mother or have chosen to go ‘no contact’ to protect your mental and emotional health, Mother’s Day can provide you with an opportunity to both honor and cultivate the powerful energies inherent within The Mother archetype.
The Psychological Power of The Mother
The mother is typically an infant’s first (and primary) relationship, and this relationship markedly influences how we relate with ourselves, others, and the world. For example, an infant’s sense of safety, security, and trust in the world is strongly influenced by the quality of their relationship with their mother, based on the mother’s ability and willingness to attune herself to her child’s physical and emotional needs.
Research findings on the brain also suggest that a child’s experience of their mother (and others in the role of “caregiver” to the infant or child) plays a crucial part in their development. For example, neuroscience research has revealed that a nurturing mother results in an increase in the size of the parts of the brain that assist with memory, as well as increases in the rates of brain cell production, which leads to gains in learning and more efficacious stress responses. Per Dr. Joan Luby, a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience, “It’s now clear that a caregiver’s nurturing is not only good for the development of the child… it actually changes the brain.”
Needless to say, our mother plays a central role in our early experiences – not just in regard to who we are in the world, but how we are in the world. Negative experiences with one’s mother resulting in an impaired primary attachment therefore leads to mother wounding.
The Energetic Reality of the Mother Archetype
Depth psychologists who work with archetypes in their practice will often assert that The Mother artchetype is one of the most powerful archetypes available to us. This is because one’s experience of their mother has a tremendous impact on their life. Some might even say that an infant’s experience of the mother is so critically important that it can determine and shape the entire course their life. Perhaps this is why one of the first forms of religious expression was the symbol of The Great Mother.
The experience of one’s mother is unique and invariably complicated. However, a general distinction can be made between those who have positive experiences of their mother overall, and those whose overall experience is negative. For this reason, Jungian analysts will reference positive and negative mother complexes in regard to their analysands (clients). In the field of attachment theory, we would call this connection between child and mother a primary attachment.
In light of the above, it is clear that our relationship to our mother and the internalized Mother archetype affects our entire relationship with life, in that our experiences of self, others, and the world are affected by our positive or negative mother complex.
Transforming a Negative Mother Complex
In my work with adult survivors of FSA, significant ‘mother wounding’ and a negative mother complex will become evident during the intake process. The nature of attachment with the mother will be described by a client as being “painful,” “confusing,” and/or “complicated”.
Take a moment to reflect upon your relationship with your mother. What thoughts and feelings initially come to mind? Is there a sense of guilt, duty, or obligation? Did you experience feelings of grief, anger, or loss? Was the overall reflection a positive or negative experience for you?
If you are an adult survivor of FSA, and the scapegoating abuse you experienced in your family emanated from, or was overtly or covertly supported by, your mother, you may associate intense negative memories and various types of suffering with your mother. This deep pain stems from unhealed core intrapsychic wounds that can be rooted in multigenerational trauma, as discussed in my book on family scapegoating abuse, Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed.
You may have occasional contact with your mother; you may be enmeshed with her and struggle to have appropriate boundaries; or you may have ended contact all together, feeling that you had no other choice due to repeated experiences of covert or overt abuse.
If you experience mother wounding, know that there is a vulnerable child in you that continues to yearn for a mother’s unconditional acceptance and love. Although you may not be able to experience this acceptance and love from your mother, the good news is that you can learn to love yourself in this same way by drawing on the positive mother archetype.
Symptoms of Mother Wounding
Similar to the distorted ‘family scapegoat’ narrative that I often refer to in my work on FSA, mother wounding that has been passed down to us via our mothers and grandmothers has nothing to do with us or who we are. These wounds are rooted in generations of unaddressed family trauma and include erroneous beliefs, oppressive systemic ‘rules’, toxic shame, unacknowledged grief and loss, and inappropriate blaming and guilt.
As a result, you may find yourself lacking confidence in yourself and may suffer from low self esteem and weak boundaries. You may feel unworthy of being loved and suffer from depression, loneliness, and a sense of disconnection. You may sacrifice your dreams and goals in order to support others and sabotage your own happiness. You may fear excelling and moving beyond your mother’s limitations (this can be particularly true of daughters of competitive, jealous mothers).
You may have internalized the voice of a negative, shaming and blaming mother, resulting in your being mercilessly hard on yourself as you struggle to live up to an impossible ideal. If you are a woman, you may struggle to trust other females due to your negative experiences with your mother. You may feel responsible for your mother’s emotional pain, and may attempt to please her via codependent and appeasing behavior.
How to Heal a Negative Mother Complex
To heal mother wounding that is complicated by FSA dynamics, you will need to do the following:
- Examine your beliefs and expectations. Be especially aware of any false narratives that are supporting a negative mother complex via self-harming thoughts that do not serve you. For example, is the voice of your mother living on inside your head, despite your having distanced yourself from her? Do you have false beliefs or expectations about yourself that are damaging to your sense of well-being? Are you shaming, blaming, “guilting,” or sabotaging yourself and getting in the way of your own happiness? Do you erroneously blame yourself for not having a good relationship with your mother or your nuclear and/or extended family?
- Grieve and accept the fact that your mother was not who you needed her to be. We can never fully know what our mothers experienced in their life. It ultimately is not helpful to demonize our mothers for their inability to appropriately love and nurture us, although we certainly can feel angry about it as we work through our pain and losses. It can be healing in and of itself to take an expansive view of our situation that includes compassion for ourselves and our mother, even as we do what we need to do to heal and protect ourselves from further mental and emotional harm. I like to refer my clients to a poem Birdwings by the mystic poet Rumi, which begins with, “Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror up to where you are bravely working”, for recovering from the ravages of FSA, mother wounding, and multigenerational trauma is courageous work indeed.
- Cultivate unconditional love for yourself and your inner child: While grieving the many losses associated with a lifetime of mother wounding, know that there is a source of unconditional love that is always available to you from within. Strengthened by this love, you can begin to mother, nurture, and re-parent your vulnerable inner child who is desperately seeking love, acceptance, and a sense of belonging and connection. Whether you imagine this source of unconditional love exists within you (such as your innate intrapsychic wholeness, Buddha Nature, or the Christ within) or outside of you (such as a belief in a loving Higher Power or God), or both (such as “living the Tao”), I encourage you to experiment with trusting that this endless source of love exists and is available to you and your inner child at all times.
Because the wounds sustained from family scapegoating abuse and mother wounding are closely related, focusing on your FSA recovery will also assist you in transforming a negative mother complex. Learning to have better boundaries, attending to any complex trauma symptoms, and consciously cultivating healthier relationships while releasing toxic ones will all help you to establish a sense of trust and safety within yourself, allowing you to better take care of your emotional needs and develop positive, nurturing relationships.
As Mother’s Day is this Sunday, I’d like to invite you to share your own experiences of learning to positively ‘mother; and nurture yourself in the comment field located beneath my author bio. If you gained something of value from this article, consider sharing it with others via the social media icons below.
Rebecca C. Mandeville is a psychotherapist, recovery coach, writer, speaker, and media contributor on child psycho-emotional abuse, family scapegoating, and dysfunctional family systems. She has dedicated her 20-year career in Mental Health to advocating for those whose voices are not heard due to being systemically disempowered. Rebecca writes for various Mental Health organizations and her popular blog, Scapegoat Recovery. She is also the author of the best-selling book on what she named ‘Family Scapegoating Abuse’ (FSA), Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed: Help and Hope for Adults in the Family Scapegoat Role.