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Ask Ellie: It takes work to undo damage from toxic mother

Therapy can help greatly in learning how to move forward with your own goals and improved self-confidence, despite your mother’s negativity

Dear Ellie: When I was a teenager dressing to go out on my first date with a boy I liked, I asked my mother: “How do I look?” Her answer was this: “It’s your character on the inside that counts.”

Maybe she meant well. Character is very important long-term, whereas a single night’s outfit is only a passing show … but at age 16, it felt to me like she was saying that whatever I wore, I wasn’t up to her standards as a person.

It could’ve been me just feeling insecure. But here’s another of her verbal shots, delivered soon after I got married, and which kept me insecure for years: “Your husband’s very handsome. You’ll have to work hard to keep him.”

I’m 42 now, happily remarried after getting divorced from my less-handsome but shallow ex-husband, and the adoring mother of three wonderful daughters, 20, 18 and 17.

I promised myself when the first child of my heart emerged into the world, and again with the next two baby girls, that I’d never repeat my mother’s undermining of any children, nor of girls and women in general.

What is it that poisons the mother-daughter relationship in so many cases? Is it jealousy of the adoring relationship that some young girls have with their fathers? That could have been a contributor to my mom’s putdowns of me… but I know this female disconnect also happens where there’s no father present. So, is it her nature or her own mother’s lack of nurture that poisons a mother’s “advice” to her daughter?

My Mother’s Meanness

Originally published as far back as 1977, the book My Mother/My Self by author Nancy Friday rocked the female world into acknowledging the often painful interactions between mothers and daughters.

Friday publicly tore the wraps off the presumed natural bond between mother and daughter, and revealed anger, hate and an odd self-conflicted love wherein adult daughters sometimes “become” their mothers in attitudes and behaviours.

As one therapist wrote in Psychology Today back in 2010: “A truly difficult mother is one who presents her child with a profound dilemma:

“Either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me, at great cost to your own outlook … and values, or suffer ridicule, disapproval or rejection.”

Today, many women still feel a chasm of misunderstanding and disconnect from their mothers.

A 2021 article on the website betterhelp.com lists some behaviours of “toxic mothers:” Constant criticism, control, guilt-tripping, manipulation, humiliation, passive aggression, and more.

I’m all in for the next statement: “You can’t change your mother, but you can work on your relationship with yourself.” From your letter, it’s clear that you’ve already done this work.

But for others reading this, know that getting personal, professional therapy and support from a trusted source can help greatly in learning how to move forward with your own goals and improved self-confidence, despite your mother’s negativity.

Readers’ commentary regarding the husband happily married for 12 years and contemplating leaving his wife and children for a dream job across the ocean in London, U.K. (Nov. 16):

Reader 1: “Look hard enough and you’ll find that “dream” job here so you can also stay living with your family. I know that when you go away, those children are going to miss you. And you’re going to miss them.

“That’s what I experienced personally. I say you should look for that job here where your family lives. Also, regular meditation helps with feeling satisfied.”

Reader 2: “I suggest that you perform a full cost/benefit analysis with everything taken into consideration. Example: Additional income for you? Loss of income for your wife if she moves with you? Emotional stress from being separated? Emotional cost of moving your whole family? Consider everything, including the possible end of your marriage.

“Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Are you prepared to live with the costs?

“Also, strongly investigate life in the United Kingdom. Maybe one suggestion is to make acceptance of the new job conditional upon a successful trial period of no more than six months.

“Personally, I was seconded for a temporary job in the U.K. At the end of my six-month commitment there, I couldn’t get back home fast enough. I also experienced the same feelings about a temporary assignment I had in the southern U.S.”

Ellie: Readers’ comments are a welcome resource for others considering similar long-distance moves.

Ellie’s tip of the day

Women who have had toxic mother-daughter relationships can, through professional psychotherapy, recognize their own value, and achieve their goals.

Send relationship questions to ellie@thestar.ca.

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