I Can’t Move Past Having Had a Neglectful Mother

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 20-year-old woman who is attracted to other women. When I was younger my mother wasn’t very close to me; she was a lot closer to my other siblings. Actually, she was quite verbally abusive to me. It didn’t used to bother me as much as it does now. Back then I didn’t need a woman to hold me and tell me everything is okay; now I can’t go on. I’ve been depressed for a long time and I have social anxiety too. I was always put down by everyone and needed my mother to says it’s all okay, but she never did. It is so painful for me to go outside and see children with their mothers telling them nice things and holding them. I can’t fill the void in my life, and my heart aches to have another mother. I get attached to women I meet and eventually they all leave me devastated. I want to be helped but I don’t know what to do.

Psychologist’s Reply

My immediate suggestion is to begin the process of meeting professional counselors until you find one with whom you feel comfortable (as comfortable as is reasonable given a first meeting with someone new). Counselors and therapists are experts at helping people feel comforable and trusting when they seek possible treatment. In other words, a good counselor will be extremely easy to talk to. Depression and social anxiety are each serious enough on their own to warrant help from a professional, and when they exist together, social isolation is the natural result. Neither depression nor social anxiety is likely to improve in the context of social isolation.

Being depressed and socially isolated likely adds a dark lens between you and your view of life and the world in general. As you observed, in the past you did not care as much that your mother was so far removed from an ideal of motherhood. It may seem logical to conclude that you’re depressed because of having had such a mother, but that doesn’t answer the question of why you used to feel so much better than you do now (despite having had the same mother then). There are many people who have endured abusive childhoods who do not experience debilitating depression and anxiety.

So, instead of focusing on how you wouldn’t be in this dark place had you experienced more nurturance, it may be worthwhile to begin shifting focus to treatment and building the most satisfying life you can as an adult. When the past is not what we wish it would have been, we may need to grieve a bit for the loss. However, we have to move on to the present and future since there is no way to change the past.

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I don’t want to jump to any diagnostic conclusions based on the little bit you shared. Still, you may want to research borderline personality disorder and whether some of those issues apply. As we mature, all of us have to learn to soothe our own feelings, rather than continue to rely on the important adults in our lives to soothe us. However, some individuals miss out on developing that skill, particularly if their parents were abusive. The result is a weak sense of self, and great difficulty regulating their own emotions. Consequently, such individuals often seek attachment to another person as an immediate way to fill in these psychological gaps.

It may be difficult not to immediately see your new relationship with a therapist as the connection you’ve been missing (and therefore the answer to your problems). Of course ultimately the goal is develop a more reliable sense of core identity and ability to mother oneself. Without that, attempts at healthy romantic relationships face an uphill battle. The good news is that therapists well-versed in working with people with borderline personality disorder are used to working on these issues with clients. The process takes time, but the first important step is reaching out.

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