Of the 400 female clients seasoned psychotherapist Omar Tauseef has worked with, he’d estimate that 70% of them had toxic mothers. In this powerful column, he talks about the damage this abuse can do, and urges parents to understand the lifelong power their messages have on their children.
“I don’t remember my mom ever praising me when I was young, but she took every opportunity to tell me that I was fat, ugly, dark and that no one will ever marry me,” Asma*, 45, shares with me in a therapy session. Hers is a typical story that cuts through generations, socio-economic classes, mother’s level of education and household structures (big, small, nuclear, joint etc.).
“On the outside ‘unloved daughters’ may be well-presented, well-educated, well-achieving, and well-settled, but inside they’re still little girls with a broken and hurting heart”
Though this lack of maternal warmth and validation is invisible to most, it has a long-term impact on a daughter’s development of a sense of self, esteem and a healthy personality. Psychological literature strongly supports how such toxic mothers deeply affect the emotional health of their girls which has a long-term impact on their adult personalities.
“A toxic mother is one who consistently ignores her daughter’s needs; violates her privacy and boundaries; withholds love; and invalidates her feelings”
So who are these toxic mothers? Are they limited to a small section of the population whom we may label as having a personality disorder, a mental illness or an addictive or neurotic disorder? Say 2 in a 100? Absolutely not! If we were to go with my subjective opinion derived from a small unrepresentative sample of approximately 400 female clients I’ve worked with, I’d say that over 70% of them have had mothers who weren’t attuned to their daughters.
“Who are these toxic mothers? Are they limited to a small section of the population?”
This article isn’t meant to demonize mothers, or disregard the selflessness it takes to raise children; it is intended to highlight the dysfunction in mother-daughter pairs and the pervasive damage this may cause.
A toxic mother is a parent (replace ‘mother’ with grandmother, aunt, guardian, foster mother, stepmother or a relevant relational figure in a young girl’s life) who consistently ignores her daughter’s needs; violates and intrudes her privacy and boundaries; withholds love and attention; and invalidates her feelings, her body, safety and reality. Being raised by such a parent creates feelings of shame, guilt, disempowerment, hopelessness and simply put, makes a daughter feel ‘not being good enough’.
“These toxic messages have been internalized by all categories of women I can think of”
If you asked me what some of the most frequent things I hear from my female clients (anywhere between ages of 8 to 60) are, I’d have echoed the painful statement that Asma made. And I’ve heard hundreds of different versions of these. These toxic messages have been internalized by all categories of women I can think of: young girls, middle aged women, older women, home makers, executives, Ivy League graduates, the religious and the not-so-religious etc.
“Though this lack of maternal warmth and validation is invisible to most, it has a long-term impact on a daughter’s development”
Daughters carry from their mothers burdensome messages of criticism and humiliation, control and intrusion, manipulation and invalidation, hostility and emotional blackmailing, codependency and enmeshment. The terror and trauma of these messages leaves a wound; and this wound is exposed the moment the veil over these is allowed to be lifted.
“Daughters carry from their mothers burdensome messages of criticism and humiliation, control and intrusion, manipulation and invalidation…”
Years and decades later in my therapy room, many of these ‘unloved daughters’ take off the mask of this maternal wounding and grieve. On the outside they may be well-presented, well-groomed, well-educated, well-achieving, and well-settled, but inside they’re still little girls with a broken and hurting heart.
They open up about issues of esteem, feeling unworthy, being stuck in bad relationships, feeling dependent, their having very little entitlement at home or work, their holding resentment for their mother while also feeling guilt at their fragile health, their failing to connect with their spouses and children, their being harshly critical of themselves or others, or needing validation all the time. Some wonder, “Where was my mother when I needed her?” while others quickly go into denial – “She had a tough life, she didn’t know better.”
This very denial is how these women coped and survived (albeit, unconsciously) even decades ago telling themselves that their feelings didn’t matter and mom’s feelings were more important. Attachment studies unequivocally support the idea that humans are hardwired for bonding – and if all that is available is a negative and toxic parent, we would rather believe that we’re fat, ugly, dark and unmarriageable than to know that we don’t have a parent.
I am writing this article while carrying the pain of dozens of heartbreaking stories of daughters who have indeed been wronged by their mothers enough that they’re unable to find love, happiness and peace in their life now. Somewhere on the journey of their healing, I promised them: you voice won’t go unheard any longer. I will do everything I can to remind mothers of the deep and damaging impact their behaviors and words can have on their daughters. So hear these voices…
“I told her I was being abused, and she said, I must have started it.” Unseen, 25*
“She told me that I was badkismet and manhoos for the family.” Unlovable, 28*
“She told me that my father died due to my being born.” Abandoned, 45*
“She told that if I ever shared about her affair she will never speak to me again and dad will die.” Submissive, 68*
“She told me I look like her wretched nand and saas, and she will never like me.” Worthless, 18*
“When she caught me with my boyfriend she didn’t speak to me for a year.” Passive, 32*
“She told me that I am a burden to her and she’d be happy if I died.” Battered, 56*
“She read my diaries and told my friends what I thought of them.” Friendless, 30*
My ethos on this topic is simple: I hold a parent primarily responsible for the care of the organism they have brought to the world – And not the other way around. And I don’t believe that all parents instinctually love and care for their children – Some just don’t.
I hold a parent primarily responsible for the care of the organism they have brought to the world – not the other way around
And we need to stop making excuses for such parents. Though I appreciate that the toxic mother is herself a product of her own dysfunctional upbringing, however this insight doesn’t release us from the burden of our hurtful experiences.
The good news is that adults retain the ability throughout their lifespan to rewire their brains, which is facilitated through an exposure to new experience, including therapy and the use of medication where necessary. If you’re a child of an unloving mother, seek support. You’re not alone.
*Factitious names and ages to conceal identities of clients.
About Omar Tauseef
Omar Tauseef is a Fulbright scholar and is a seasoned psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer. Omar has a spotless reputation of turning around lives of hundreds of prominent individuals from all walks of life. Being a well-sought out and a waitlisted therapist he has also made appearances on TV, social media, radio and newspapers to advocate for mental health needs in Pakistan.