Pain of early separation from our mothers and its impact on relationships

Pain of early separations from our mother can haunt us for a long time and we may not always know what the pain is about. It’s an issue that Mark Wolynn, San Francisco based therapist on multigenerational trauma addresses at length in his book It Didn’t Start With You : How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.  The separation may not have been physical alone, it could be just that our mother was undergoing a depression, grieving a loss or being unseen and unnurtured by her own mother did not know how to be fully present for us.  (According to Wolynn the original problem or disruption often lies a generation or two back and we may be unaware of it).  We feel the loss and absence keenly and such feelings can cause us to actually turn away when our mother tries to connect with us another time.

Wolynn shares just such a story on page 175 about a baby Myrna whose mother leaves for three weeks.  On her return as she waits and longs for her daughter to run to her Mryna’s mother experiences instead a daughter who turns away becoming even more distant.  Rather than understand her daughter’s reactions and look for a way to restore the bond Myrna’s mother instead encourages her independence.  The mother loses sight of her child’s vulnerability, so where did it go for Myrna?  Answer in short.  Into the unconscious.

Of course later when Myrna fell in love, love was experienced as a minefield and its something I can relate to as will anyone with insecure, avoidant or anxious attachment.  Vulnerability of needing another opens up a pit of loss we do not fully understand and we can relate by sabotaging things further should we choose to deny or repress our true need feelings and vulnerability.

Mark Wolynn talks of interruptions to the flow of love and energy between parent and child a lot in his book.  He knows a lot about it as he pursued a path of so called ‘spiritual bypassing’ seeking a healing he could not find in ashrams and through meditation (though he does use visionary meditations with a clients ancestors in order to effect healing of past wounds carried on).  Wolynn did not heal his early trauma with his mother until years later understanding how its roots lay far back in his own mother and grandmother’s history and eventually becoming a therapist himself.

When our early experience with our mother is disrupted by a significant break in the bond, shards of pain and emptiness can shred our well being and disconnect us from the fundamental flow of life.  Where the mother-child relationship remains severed, empty or fraught with indifference, a stream of negative images can lock the child in a pattern of frustration and self doubt.  In extreme cases, when the negative images are continuous and unrelenting, frustration, rage, numbness, and insensitivity to others can emerge.

Psychopathic behaviour can be the result but the key result if often a form of pathological narcissism – an inability to truly connect and take in love.

According to Wolynn the majority of us have experienced some kind of break in the bond with our mothers.  Many though, got enough of what was needed to be able to maintain healthy relationships later in life.  Many of us were not so lucky.  Ideally disruptions to attunement need to be healed in the context of any relationship.  How we deal with them are important as are the beliefs about our inherent lovability.  According to Janet Woititz adult children of addiction and trauma believed they will only be loved if they act in a pleasing happy way.  No relationship can survive like this and neither can we.

Knowing what happened in the bond with our mother and the impact it had on our attachment style as well as inherent negative self beliefs and development of what Wolynn calls ‘core sentences of separation’ is vitally important if we wish to heal.  We can become conscious of these, work to understand how they may be influencing our present and do inner work to change negative core beliefs we may have absorbed unconsciously so they do not continue to play our in our relationships.  I have found so much help myself reading Wolynn’s book which I shared from extensively in my blog last year.  It is well worth a look if you struggle to maintain healthy loving relationships in your own life and are working to understand how the flow of love between you and a parent (not only your mother) is impacting you in later life.

(Examples of core beliefs which negatively impact our capacity to love and be loved are :  I’ll be left:  I’ll be abandoned. I’ll be rejected.  I’ll have nobody.  I’ll lose control.   I’ll be helpless.  I don’t matter.  I’m too much.  I am not enough.  I’ll be annihilated.  I’ll be destroyed.  I will push love away.)

The importance of good therapy support

We all need support.   We cannot exist in a vacuum and so many of our wounds come out of early relationships so those wounds can only really be healed and explored in relationship.  This is something that we may get mixed up about, especially if we had to develop an avoidant style to cope.  We can and do on our path of confusion get drawn towards certain spiritual disciplines and then we may be told we have a problem with our ego or need to learn not to ‘attach’.

For a really interesting perspective on this I highly recommend reading Mark Wolynn’s book It Didnt Start With You.  Mark had a traumatic relationship with his mother who carried lots of wounds, he went on a spiritual path and it was when he was caught up in meditation in a monastery or ashram he got the inner message that he was never going to find true relief or healing until he reconnected back with his Mum and learned about her life.   A lot of his book concerns what happens we learn to block the love we give due to love blocked coming to us from a parent for some reason.  Often the root of the blockage or disconnection or even complicated enmeshment which ensues lays several generations back and may be hidden or shrouded in silence.  I have a number of posts which share research from that book to back up this point of view.

I was prompted to write this due to some comments back and forward about how much good therapy helps us and to my mind it has less to do with the type of therapy we engage in and more with the person we chose as well as with how accurately our true self and attachment wounds are  ‘got’ by the therapist and contained.  If you have ever had serious therapy ‘misfits’ or clashes you know how painful these can be.  If you have early attachment wounds and a borderline personality style the important of a consistent reliable, emotionally present person in your life is essential.

I listened to the second of a series of radio programmes on Sunday on BPD and the girl interviewed was told she would never recover by several professionals, but she has and part of her story was a story of maternal separation going several generations back.  The girl in question was aboriginal and her grandmother or mother was one of the ‘stolen generation’ those kids forcibly removed from their mothers or families by white colonisers ‘for their own good’.  As she pointed out in the programme, she carried that wound for the collective and is now healing and addressing it.  She is now helping others to come to terms with and understand the deep roots of a borderline personality diagnosis.  The programme gave me real hope that things can change for those who suffer in this way.  What she mentioned as being most important was the consistent love of a therapist to be available, something I shared about in several posts last year.

In my own life, I know the legacy that inconsistent, unreliable or emotionally neglectful attachments had on me. I was taught by my older sister to bond and seek relief in alcohol and I idolised and idealised her for years.  I know she learned this coping style in my family but it got worse over several generations until it reached critical watershed in me.  I am so grateful not only for the sobriety I attained at 31 years of age but for the family member who in doing ancestral research gave me essential missing pieces of our multigenerational inheritance about 10 years into my recovery.  Up til then I saw myself as the failure, the one who couldn’t cut it, the one who was hopeless or a helpless alcoholic.

All along the way of recovery my higher power helped me try to undo this mistaken belief though.  There was the woman who came to me for an astrology reading in 2003 and told me of the book How AA Failed Me.  Apologies here to active members of 12 step groups. I did get a lot of help in AA but defects of character and some of the strong moralistic tone of the programme did not help but confused me more.  This book which I was never able to find again and which she loaned to me helped me at a critical time not to become what I now called scapegoat identified.  AA was though, like everything, not totally good or totally bad, parts of the programme still sustain me and I use them in my life but other parts didn’t explain to me the important missing human attachment dimension of my own psychic wounds and injuries.

For me therapy has been the healing place, a place to be mirrored effectively in my true self, a place to be given good boundaries of care, a place to be myself, to be nurtured, to grow, to freely express all of me and never, never to be shamed ever as I was at times in other therapies.  I know how set right I am after a good session, how it wasnt an ego problem really but a problem of a healthy emotionally grounded and aware ego that lay at the root of a lot of my difficulties.

Its been a long road to get here but without that help and support I would never have got this far.   And it has helped me to undo the fallacy I was told by certain older sober members that I could only ever look to God for that kind of understanding and care rather than ever fully trust another human being.   Not everyone will fail us, and when we find the right person we can finally heal our deeper attachments wound and learn how to trust the right people, developing a deeper inward discrimination for whom is helpful or harmful to us.   When we understand how that injury underlay so much that came to pass in our lives we can learn also to let go of self blame which can dog so many of us who were never adequately mirrored, held, affirmed or nurtured in childhood.