Self-sabotage is when we are excited about a goal but we unconsciously create obstacles that directly prevent that the achievement of that goal.
For some women–being big, visible and powerful may unconsciously feel like a betrayal of their mothers . . . and to relieve this unconscious guilt, they self-sabotage.
The connection between the mother wound and self-sabotage is rather complex. I’ll do my best to eludicate this connection in this blog article. (I suggest grabbing a cup of tea and sitting in a comfy chair. This is a longer article!)
This pattern starts very early in our development and that’s why it can be so insidious. Children are biologically hard-wired to seek mother’s approval at all costs to ensure their survival.
As adult women, this pattern may still be unconsciously operating. We may still feel like our happiness rests on the happiness of our mother. You may observe your mother’s unhappiness and begin to feel guilty for your own success. This is particularly common in women who were parentified daughters as children; (the daughter being used as a surrogate parent to the unhealed child within their mother.)
Self-sabotage may have served as a survival mechanism to prevent abandonment and rejection by mother.
We may unconsciously think: “I can’t possibly be fully happy or successful if my mother is lonely, sad, uncomfortable, bitter, jealous, etc.” This is the viewpoint of the child within us that still thinks her survival rests on the well-being of her mother.
The most common theme I’ve heard from women is “My mother’s happier when I’m experiencing challenges. But when things start going well in my life, she gets increasingly cold, distant and critical.”
Another common thing I’ve heard is “On some level, I can sense that my mother wants to destroy me.”
Usually this is very unconscious and unintentional on the part of the mother. But unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum, there are mothers who willingly make their daughters feel responsible for their own happiness. This may be due to the deprivation consciousness that can be found in some women in patriarchal cultures; women feeling owed and entitled due to the level of sacrifice and the inner split they had to make within themselves to be acceptable and loved in this culture. It’s nothing short of tragic.
In patriarchal cultures, the power of the parent is often considered unquestionable and can easily be mis-used; power for power’s sake. If a mother has not acknowledged or refuses to directly address how her child may be triggering a painful emotional wound within her, she may unconsciously bully her daughter in covert and overt ways to relieve herself of the pain she is pushing into shadow within herself.
(The trigger in itself is not a problem; it’s normal to feel triggered in moments by your children. The problem is when it is not directly addressed and the mother begins to project her wounds onto the child.)
For the sake of illustration, here is a more extreme example of a patriarchal mother who has not addressed her own wounds. She may unconsciously convey the following message to her daughter:
“Your smallness makes me feel safe. By staying small you protect me from my pain. Please don’t be your full self–it will remind me of what I had to give up in order to have you. Please don’t leave me with my pain. I’ll be all alone. Be a good daughter and carry my pain for me.”
More examples of unspoken messages of mothers in a patriarchal mindset: (comes from feeling powerless and out of control in her own life.)
- “You’re being ungrateful when you’re being your full, big, authentic self.”
- “You’re honoring me when you’re suffering because look how much suffering I endured to bring you in the world.”
- “I’m your mother and I deserve your respect no matter how much I denigrate or abuse you.”
- “You make me feel inadequate when you reach your goals.”
What happens is there begins to be an association between being small and non-threatening as a way of feeling loved by mother. In this situation, we give our power away to our mothers in exchange for her love. We may sense her fragility, her weakness, her unacknowledged pain, and out of compassion, we commit to staying small so as not to cause her any more pain. The child within us feels it is the cause of her pain, but the cause never had anything to do with us. I’ve talked to hundreds of women all over the world about their mother wounds and it’s incredibly sad to hear about the level of emotional abuse mothers are capable of when they feel threatened by their daughters. This is not about love, but about power and control. Because this is such a taboo subject, most women feel very alone in this predicament.
For many women, one of THE hardest things is allowing your mother to have her own painful lessons and her own healing process. This is about releasing the need to display a false self to please your mother and instead being your authentic self in her presence, even if she expresses disapproval. It involves allowing your mother to express displeasure about your truth without allowing it to dis-orient you and without getting pulled into a battle with her.
You are not a “bad daughter” for allowing your mother to have her own lessons and challenges without rushing to solve them for her.
In the best of situations, letting your mother handle her own painful lessons and problems is what may stimulate the grief that is necessary to bring true healing within her, but only if your mother is open and willing to grow. The unfortunate truth is that some mothers are patently unwilling to do the hard work of healing their own wounds and would rather make their daughters feel responsible for them.
As a daughter, when you express your own separate self-hood, individuality, realness, power, etc. if your mother has a pattern of reacting with hostility, it may be because your authentic expression has stimulated the seeds of those things that never came to blossom in herself. Your mother may experience your true, vital, authentic self as a painful mirror showing her the ways she had to forsake herself in order to survive her own family and patriarchal society. It may trigger deep grief over her of her loss of self. If she’s unable or unwilling to feel the full grief and process it, she may react with anger, manipulation, competition, jealousy or withdrawal.
The deprivation that your mother feels cannot be solved by anything that YOU do.
Her pain cannot be filled by you staying small and unhappy. Walking on eggshells and “not rocking the boat” may accomplish short-term “peace” but in the long-term you are handing your life-force over to the mother wound. It’s a form of giving your power away. You do not owe your mother anything. Your unhappiness and dissatisfaction will never compensate for her unhealed wounds and struggles. She is the only one that can take the necessary actions to change her situation.
When we emotionally caretake our mother in the form of self-sabotage we actually inhibit our mother’s healing because we become complicit in maintaining her illusions. And we put our lives indefinitely on hold waiting for her approval that will never come.
We best serve both ourselves AND our mothers when we confidently and non-defensively rest in our worth and authenticity while she has her upset.
I call these upsets “mother tantrums” because this is when the unhealed inner child within a mother starts projecting unprocessed pain onto her daughter (or son) in response to the daughter not complying with an unspoken mandate to stay non-threatening to her. A mother tantrum can be expected if the daughter has had the role of being subservient, deferential or submissive to the mother, and is now changing the dynamic in the relationship by more fully expressing her authentic, true self around her mother. (This could be in the form of the daughter setting boundaries, speaking her truth, limiting contact, making authentic choices that are not necessarily in alignment with the beliefs of the mother, etc.)
In that moment of a mother tantrum, your mother is NOT seeing you accurately (as her daughter) but rather, she may be seeing you as her own rejecting mother. That’s why it feels like she may want to destroy you–that is the regressive energy of the angry child within your mother that she has yet to integrate and heal within herself. (Understanding this helps to not take your mother’s behavior personally. It’s really not about you at all.)
The “mother tantrum” can range from a minor upset to a full-on episode that can include the mother flying into a vicious rage, jealously withdrawing or sulking, calling you every name in the book or bringing up every mistake you ever made to shame you back into being her emotional crutch.
The intensity or duration of the tantrum depends on how severe her mother wound is.
No one wants to witness or be subject to this kind of event as it can be incredibly hurtful and disturbing. It’s understandable to want to ignore or prevent this at all costs. And the child within you is terrified of this situation. The point is to support your inner child in realizing that although you were not safe THEN as a child (rejection by mother meant death), NOW you are an adult capable of supporting your inner child through this experience. This is what breaks the spell of self-sabotage and it’s such an important step in healing the mother wound. (It’s important to be ready and fully supported before attempting this. It can take a while to work up to this.)
You WILL survive the tantrum and it will liberate you in more ways than you can imagine. You just have to be emotionally prepared for the consequences and have vital support in place. How you respond in the face of a mother tantrum can look different for many different people and it will be specific to the particular dynamics between you and your mother. The challenge is not get pulled into the drama of victim, perpetrator or rescuer, but to stand in your truth. For example, it may mean speaking out or it may mean remaining silent. Reflecting on what would be the most empowering and appropriate response to a mother tantrum is a powerful process of discovery in itself.
I recommend that this be deeply reflected upon prior to taking action steps to change patterns of relating with your mother. The most important part is to feel supported on the inner and the outer before attempting a confrontation.
How do we stop self-sabotage?
The experience that breaks this pattern is realizing that you can survive your mother’s rejection of you. This may seem obvious to your intellectual, adult mind, but to your inner child, or primitive emotional parts of your brain, rejection from mother still feels very dangerous and way too risky. That’s why we get so far and then, BOOM, we unconsciously feel unsafe and revert to old patterns of guilt, emotional-caretaking, shrinking to please others, apologizing for existing and being addicted to approval and external validation.
Feeling small and stuck doesn’t feel good, but to our inner child it feels SAFE.
- In order to heal self-sabotage, we need to break the link between: Being authentic = abandonment, rejection (Loss of Mother)
- And we need to create a NEW link between: Being authentic = Being safe, Loved, Cherished (by inner mother)
We do this by separating out the past and the present. In the past we needed mother’s approval for survival. But now as an adult you are capable of surviving her disapproval which can take the form of a mother tantrum (her upset when you refuse to cater to her illusions).
This is one of the most empowering steps of healing the mother wound and self-sabotage. It’s a form of creating the healthy emotional separation between mother and daughter that needs to happen for both to flourish as individuals and to have an authentic, nourishing heart connection between them.
Healing the mother wound is part of healing the female “pain body.”
In order to truly own our worth and live our greatness, we must be willing to be disapproved of, misperceived and unseen — all while feeling deeply safe, loved and cherished within ourselves. Creating this inner safety is essential to blazing new trails, innovation, soulful creativity, inventiveness and originality. There are limitless gifts within you waiting to be discovered and manifested. As we heal self-sabotage we become liberated to access and enjoy ALL that lies within us.
© Bethany Webster 2014
Question for reflection:
When you were a little girl, what were the specific situations in which your mother responded to you with praise, recognition, rewards, validation and love?
And what were the specific situations in which you were met with some degree of rejection, aggressive hostility, cold withdrawal, animosity, jealousy or bitterness?
Can you see a connection between what responses you were met with when you were a child and what comes up for you when you approach new, exciting ventures and goals that require you to be seen, vulnerable, visible and confident? Is your inner child trying to keep you safe by self-sabotage? A simple exercise is to help your inner child feel safe by explaining to her in writing that what happened in the past is not a danger now in the present because you are a grown adult. Empathize with her pain of what she experienced and her desire for safety. Think of ways you can demonstrate in the present that she is safe. Soothe and nurture her on a daily basis so that her trust of you increases.
I invite you to leave a comment below: What has been your experience with self-sabotage?
Update: My online course on “Healing the Mother Wound” is now available!
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Thank you for reading! :)
(art credits in order of appearance: Alet Pilon, Frederic Leighton, unknown, Melissa Zextor, Jonathan Glazer, Sofia Bonati, Hans Holbein, Lindsay Stripling, Heather Murray, Taras Loboda, stock photo, stock photo)