Crippled by self-criticism and self-doubt? You could have a mother wound.

When Jo, 46, an artist from Sydney, was in her thirties, she went into therapy to get her drinking under control. Instead, she uncovered a belief system created in early childhood that had impacted her life. "I've spent my life underestimating myself, but somehow, miraculously, I'd crafted a relatively successful life that feels as if it had nothing to do with me," she said. The reason for this was Jo discovered she had a mother wound

Rather than a clinical diagnosis, a mother wound is a loss or lack of mothering. "Typically, the mother struggles to develop a relationship that feels safe for the child," explains Dr Kassandra Gratwick-Sarll of Tend, a psychology-based organisation founded to help women overcome the barriers that hold them back.

"In turn, the child internalises the feeling that they're not good enough, developing a sense that there's something inherently wrong with them and that they're unlovable on some level. Not having a close attachment to their primary caregiver can make a child feel very alone."

Watch: A spoken word video starring Laura Bryne articulating the contradiction of pressures that mothers face in their daily lives. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Jo relates to this feeling, and her mother had suffered terribly throughout her childhood. "My nan was a cold fish with a bit of a mean streak. She died shortly after I was born. My mum was never taught love. Subsequently, when my brother and I came along, Mum had the practical skills of mothering, but love and affection were lacking. After experiencing some psycho-sematic physical symptoms, Mum went into therapy in her forties, which softened her beyond recognition."


Jo surfaced a deep feeling of being unlovable in therapy, which she found surprising as she and her mother were super close. The revelation also came with a sense of unexpected anger. "I found it hard to reconcile that part as I love my mum. When I talked to her about my feelings, Mum said she could understand why I felt that way and how sorry she was that she hadn't known how to be a more loving mother, but she just didn't have that emotional language as a 22-year-old when I was born," Jo said. "While it was a healing conversation, my lack of self-belief continues. If I'm honest, even with therapy, it's a daily battle to override it, even though I'm in the world achieving."

A mother wound is often an intergenerational issue that seeps into the psyche through learned parenting styles. "It might not be extreme neglect, but when you feel invalidated, unrecognised or unimportant, you take it on because that was your experience. Your mother learns it from her mother and passes it on to you. I always say, we're all victims of victims," said Dr. Gratwick-Sarll.

For those who have experienced a mother wound, it can be challenging to self-regulate intensely felt emotions or reconcile the crushing sense of emptiness. "As a way of self-soothing, women may engage in ineffective ways of managing their emotions such as drinking or taking drugs excessively or seeking relationships that aren't meeting their needs."


Kate, 56, from Brisbane, relates to feeling the deficit of nurturing. "My parents divorced when I was two. I have a decent relationship with my dad, so I couldn't understand why I was choosing such vile men. I used to think I had 'MUG' tattooed on my forehead. My relationship with my mum was fractious as she was incredibly dramatic about everything. However, she'd tell me to get over it if I had stuff going on. I don't think she even noticed me most of the time. I put it down to her being a stunning woman and having to be the centre of attention. There was a level of competitiveness. She put me down for my weight since I was a kid. As an adult, I feel fat as a size 12 because even now, when I see my mum, she'll be critical. I hate to admit this, but when I buy clothes, I wonder what my mum will think. She's now 82."

A mother wound manifests in a raft of self-esteem issues from people pleasing, self-sacrificing, being hyper-critical of yourself, having perfectionist tendencies to prove your worth, feeling pressure to conform, competitiveness with other women, the inability to set boundaries, a feeling of needing to be friendly to feel accepted, fear of failure or success, alongside an overwhelming need for approval, especially from your mum. "Often there's a lack of self-compassion and recognising your boundaries and prioritising your needs," said Dr Gratwick-Sarll.

Listen to Fill My Cup where Author and Clinical Psychologist Dr Rebecca Ray joins us to shed light on why we people please and how to set better boundaries. Post continues after podcast.

However, besides maternal influence, societal norms and expectations reinforce these damaging notions. "We have had generations of women internalising the messages that we're not good enough. We're not living up to expectations. We always need to be doing more when never enough. Yet women are extremely good at blaming themselves," says Dr Gratwick-Sarll. 


Self-awareness can be the catalyst for change. "Recognising that what happened was not our fault and realising that as a child your emotional needs weren't met can come with a great deal of pain," says Dr Gratwick-Sarll. "Yet it makes sense to feel like this, given how you weren't nurtured. Then, it is learning different ways of responding to situations or experiences so that you step out of the same old patterns you're used to interacting with and instead learn to do something different in the moments where it matters. At its core is developing self-compassion, identifying your needs and responding appropriately, while seeing more of our parent’s humanity."

Suppose you've read this far and recognise the struggle to feel connected to your child or find it hard to tolerate their emotions; it's an indicator that it might be beneficial to go and seek some therapy, says Dr Gratwick-Sarll. But there is a broader lesson for us all in tolerating other's emotional experiences and responding appropriately. "It's simple, but it does take a lot of emotional resources to do it. When your child comes to you with something, it's about being able to sit with them in it and not just trying to solve the problem, get them to stop talking or shut them out. It's sitting in the emotion with them, helping them to recognise the way they're feeling is understandable in the situation, that they think that way, and then helping them to move through the emotion."

Feature Image: Getty.