The Legacy of Female Shame & How to Disrupt It
Our relationship with our mothers is one of the most complicated, significant relationships of our lives. So it’s no surprise that for many women, Mother’s Day can bring up a complex range of feelings—gratitude, sadness, grief, even anger. Read more to explore the inherited legacy of female shame in our patriarchal society and how to disrupt it in order to heal intergenerational trauma.
The Patriarchy Has a Complicated Relationship With Mothers
Mother’s Day brings up so many complex emotions for women because our culture has a complicated relationship with mothers (and women in general). Mothers tend to be either idealized or blamed: they are seen through a polarized, black-or-white lens, leaving little room for the truth of the complexity of that mother and adult-child relationship. This cultural taboo around the complexity in the mother-daughter relationship leaves many daughters feeling shame and blaming themselves for not meeting this cultural ideal.
Media Messages Portray The Impossible Dream
During this time of year the media messages we receive on TV, social media, and in retail, show us the idealized version of Mother’s Day. They show images of mothers and daughters as best friends, being close, sharing everything, and celebrating together—for many of us, all refractions of the impossible dream.
These images can bring up pain as we see the contrast between the relationship that we’re “supposed to have” and the one we actually have with our mothers.
The Contrast Between the Ideal and Real Life Feels Personal
That contrast between the ideal and reality can bring up sadness, guilt, or shame if our relationship with her is filled with stress, disconnection, or fraught in some way—or if she is deceased or estranged.
The cultural message is “If you don’t have this loving kind of relationship with your mother, something must be wrong with you.”
It also brings up expectations of gratitude, harmony, and closeness, that for some of us, just have never been there, no matter how much we’ve tried to create that.
Female Shame: Hide Your Authentic Self—and Smile Through the Pain
Patriarchy has always pressured women to be “perfect” and hide their pain with a smile. One of the biggest struggles I hear women talk about is a sense that you can’t be your authentic self with your mother, that there’s an unspoken pressure to prioritize “image” over reality. Or, that your mother often prefers “appearances over truth.” There’s a sense that there’s a “wall of denial” that she’d prefer to live inside and if you’re not pretending well enough, you’re doing it wrong. This is one result of a legacy of female shame—and it is a painful realization.
It Is Painful to Face Harmful Early-Childhood Patterns
Over a year into the pandemic, many of us have, for the first time, been comprehending the full magnitude of the early patterns that we grew up with. And, how those patterns left us ill-equipped to cope with a crisis. We may look around and see those problematic patterns still operating in our schools, workplaces, organizations, etc. but even more intimately in families—including with our mothers. We may be seeing values including suppression of feelings, denial, conflict avoidance, small-mindedness, shaming, bullying, harsh criticism, cynicism, ignorance, and resistance to change. This reality is hard to witness and realize.
For many of us, our mothers and grandmothers grew up with different values.
The Legacy of Female Shame
To get by in generations past, one was expected to hide one’s pain, put on a happy face, suppress one’s feelings, and get through life without making waves. Women were expected to stay home as mothers. Outside the home, for many, the only options were to be a nurse or secretary.
The veneer of perfection was crucial for social survival.
For mothers at home who had mental health struggles, trauma, or abuse in their own history, this led to a dangerous situation: isolation at home all day with children, a ton of work to do without help and feeling emotionally unsupported. Despair, suicide attempts, and violence took place behind many closed doors and many children had to bear the weight of that silence. (Being quarantined in our homes during a pandemic, many mothers have been facing a similar reality today.)
The Patriarchy Romanticizes Female Shame
Patriarchy, the principle of domination and “power-over,” has been the cultural atmosphere that has helped foster much trauma, despair, and pain in families that many still carry with them to this day. This mandate of silence was largely reinforced in schools, churches, workplaces as well as movies, TV, and magazines.
Patriarchy romanticizes a kind of vanquishing and termination of our vulnerabilities. Emotional experiences such as being messy, confused, angry, sad, overwhelmed with grief, exhausted, etc. aree seen as liabilities; weaknesses to be suppressed. But these emotional experiences are an inherent and vital part of our humanity: they are what make depth and meaning possible.
In this way, denial became conflated with love. Suppression of feelings and emotions was seen as tough, brave, and necessary for external approval in the world.
Because our ancestors were conditioned to self-exile to retain external approval, differing values may be lost on them and that can be painful to see how emotionally stunted, closed-down or immature they may be.
As Girls, Our Humanity Felt Like a Liability
Many of our mothers’ identities were shaped by these values that prioritized image and roles over truth, depth, and connection. This may have caused them to have a more superficial connection with themselves. I recall an experience of witnessing this with my own grandmother.
Denial Was Part of the Family Ethos in Previous Generations
I had gone with her to attend a grief support group after the tragic death of her son. While we sat in the small group setting, my heart broke as I watched my grandmother tell idealized un-truths about my uncle. She was a parody of herself, her voice lilting, coy, and high-pitched, with a broad smile, as though she was on stage at a beauty pageant. Her denial and “act of perfection” were painful to witness and yet understandable given her great loss. I felt much compassion for the many losses she experienced in her life, of not feeling safe enough to be real, of seeming to equate vulnerability with shame.
That day I had a realization that the denial I was witnessing was not purely a product of her grief, but had been a long-time feature of her personality and the family ethos that I grew up in; and how other family members had enabled her denial to protect themselves from her shadow side.
This experience caused me to pause and reflect on the many times in my own life I had attempted to project an image of ease and perfection while suppressing my own pain to hide a deep shame within. I realized that this was a coping mechanism I had inherited from the women before me, to couple shame with my authentic self and project a false image in order to get love and approval. This brought up a lot of grief for the women in my family but also women everywhere who are conditioned to self-abandon from birth.
The Emotional Wellbeing of Children Is a Recent Consideration
Consideration of the emotional wellbeing of children is a relatively recent development. It wasn’t until the 1960s with the publication of the Dr. Spock manual that parents began to consider the emotional lives of children. Up until that point, children were to be seen and not heard, and providing food, shelter, clothing, and education was considered the entirety of what parenting entailed.
Our aging parents may view our personal development pursuits as frivolous or misguided.
Things like conscious parenting, being trauma-informed, respectful parenting, or attachment parenting are cutting edge now but may be seen as ridiculous or absurd by our mothers.
When we as adult daughters speak our truths, stand our ground, set boundaries, and try new things, our mothers may be offended, hurt, or even feel betrayed. They may feel rejected if we don’t suppress the way they do, or play a role, wear a mask, or exaggerate the truth to look good as they may do. We may feel it’s easier to NOT disclose, share or connect around certain topics to prevent friction or disconnect.
Yet, it is through our choice NOT to suppress that we heal ourselves and the intergenerational trauma from the legacy of female shame.
Parents: Passing Down New Legacies of Depth and Resilience
The legacy of being encouraged to look perfect, look happy and avoid conflict or difficult feelings continues for many families. For many women, keeping secrets, over-functioning, and people-pleasing have been core aspects of female conditioning that our mothers have handed down to us. The pressure continues for modern moms with Instagram and Facebook, places where images of perfection are seen and reinforced 24/7. Many of us are trying to move out of that value system into something different, on the values of truth, integrity, authenticity, the courage in asking for support, in being emotionally available, and the dignity of making and owning our mistakes without shame.
These are things that many parents nowadays want to pass down to their children, new legacies that honor the truth and depth of our humanity and foster resiliency in future generations.
The Impossible Dream: Facing Our Mother’s Limitations
For many women today, they may hold a dream of their mother changing, getting to a point of being able to have deeper conversations, to connect in a more intimate way, to share more truths and struggles, and share support. This is a valid and natural desire. These daughters long for the idealized relationship with their mothers that are everywhere around Mother’s Day. Their mothers may long for this, too. However, in essence, the two may be quite different. For the daughter, she may be craving a bond built on depth, authenticity and intimate sharing. And, for some women, their mothers have evolved, grown, and do have the capacity to meet them in this deeper way. But for many other women, their mothers actually prefer the superficial level and don’t have the capacity or willingness to have deeper conversations or form a deeper, more authentic bond. There’s no shame or blame here. Some mothers of previous generations simply do not possess the capacity to go to a deeper level.
These patterns are like a computer program that shapes our brains in early childhood. As adults these patterns run without our conscious involvement, passing from one generation to another until someone has the psychological capacity and desire to break the cycles.
Grief and Liberation: Beyond the Maternal Horizon
Part of breaking cycles of pain in our maternal line is to grieve that we, as the next generation, will grow and evolve beyond what our mothers and grandmothers had lived themselves. This can bring up feelings of loneliness and grief, that our mothers can’t come with us or don’t want to come with us to new insights, realizations, or ways of doing things. In fact, some mothers will criticize, bully, and harm their daughters when they do things differently, perceiving their daughters’ growth as an affront or personal attack.
A Call to Disrupt the Female Shame Barrier
Part of the wonderful opportunity available to us now is to stop living according to a shame-based identity and break the cycle of denial in our families. True love, true power come not through meeting some image of “perfection” or suppressing our emotions, but through owning and accepting our humanity honestly and without shame. In this way, we model new possibilities for the next generations.
Instead of hiding, suppressing our true feelings, avoiding conflict, forgiving prematurely, and preferring the superficial, we can create new healthy patterns based on truth that foster resilience.
We can transform the female shame we’ve inherited. We can lean into discomfort for the sake of growth, embracing our own fears and living by our own integrity, instead of by the limiting values that have been imposed on us from birth.
Inner Mothering Disrupts Female Shame
It takes a firm commitment to do the inner work of breaking intergenerational patterns. That effort may be lost or unappreciated by our parents or grandparents. It can be lonely to be conscious enough to see the dysfunctional patterns and be on a path of healing and transformation. Our families may not be able to validate or appreciate the work we are doing for ourselves and future generations.
The little girl within us may long for that approval, appreciation, and interest from them. That little girl may still want to justify or explain herself to receive the longed-for validation.
We must grieve that disconnect, nurture that little girl inside and get support from other women so that we can keep going on our own paths. If we can’t get the support we need from within our families, we can find it elsewhere from other sources. Many of us do this through a cumulative effect of many sources, such as books, close friends, teachers, therapists, women’s support groups, online communities and more.
Mindsets, Affirmations, and Messages to Disrupt Female Shame
You are not alone this Mother’s Day. You are one of many female warriors disrupting the systems and patterns that are tenets of patriarchy—and you are healing intergenerational trauma while you heal yourself. Here are some messages and affirmations to support you:
Mindsets For Disrupting Patriarchy on Mother’s Day
Image-based and role-based living does not bring the true connection we crave, it takes us further from it.
Denial does not protect us, it projects us (projects our pain on others).
Love alone is not enough to prevent harm. We need wisdom, skills, and awareness to love well.
It takes committed effort to disrupt dysfunctional patterns. This is our work. It’s not easy but there is deep soul-nourishment in the work.
Perfectionism is a dead-end. Nourishment comes from honoring our humanity, our truth, integrity, our own organic timing, and the messy, authentic beauty of life.
Truth can be painful but it’s always fortifying. Truth is always solid ground for the next steps.
Needing support isn’t shameful, it’s human. We all need and deserve quality support.
A shameful narrative is never true. There is validity and dignity to every step on the human journey. We blossom and grow best with love. Love includes both tenderness AND fierceness.
Mature adulthood involves owning your missteps honestly without shaming yourself.
A sovereign adult does not try to change another adult to feel safe. Our safety lies within.
Affirmations for Mother’s Day
My mother has her own journey and her own separate path. Her choices are her own.
I am not responsible for my mother.
My mother may not understand me AND I’m safe, lovable, and capable.
I don’t need my mother to understand me accurately in order to love myself.
My mother’s criticisms and negativity may be a reflection of her own pain. I refuse to take it personally.
My mother cannot offer me something that she cannot offer herself.
My mother’s feelings belong to her and are her responsibility.
It’s safe and good for me to have my own path that is different from my mother’s.
Even though my mother may not be able to love me, I love myself.
I refuse to abandon myself when my mother rejects or criticizes me.
Messages For Your Inner Child on Mother’s Day
Your pain is not your fault. I’m here for you now.
I love you now just as you are, not some future version of you.
You have nothing to be ashamed of. All your feelings are OK with me.
Feelings are natural, normal and they always pass. Nothing you feel will offend me.
You get to be where you’re at without someone else’s agenda pushing you to some future goal.
I don’t need you to be a certain way for me to feel OK.
I’m here to support you every day. I love taking care of you!
This Inner Work is Humbling and the Grief Is Real
Dismantling patriarchy and healing intergenerational patterns requires that we break the taboo of silence around seeing how our mothers may have passed down patriarchal values down to us. How she may have had to reject her own humanity to survive and how we may be playing those patterns out in our lives now as adults.
This work is humbling and deep—and it’s the work of our times.
The pandemic is bringing new insights to the surface of our awareness about what patterns we inherited. They’re not working both collectively and personally—and, we are exhausted. We are seeing the futility of these patterns to bring us the connection we long for. We are realizing the profound disconnection that we’ve lived with for generations and this new perspective is motivating us to commit to our own healing process to create real change. Our mothers and grandmothers may not have the capacity or willingness to grow, evolve or understand what it is that we are doing.
If we want to create a world where each child feels safe, loved, and respected, then we need to do this for the child within ourselves. Breaking the legacy of female shame requires that we become the loving mothers to ourselves that we always wanted.
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Patriarchy is the principle of domination or “power-over.” We see this operating today in every facet of society, from governments, religion, public safety, education to name a few. We all grew up in an atmosphere to some degree that perpetuated a “power-over” mindset, including inside our own families.
A little-known fact is that the most insidious forms of patriarchy are unconsciously passed down from mother to daughter. As little girls growing up in a patriarchal culture, our needs for love, safety and belonging got merged with the patriarchal values of our times. We bonded not only with our mother herself but also with her beliefs, behaviors, and worldview. One could say that we all have patriarchy inside us.
The Mother Wound is the product of how we are conditioned (to some degree) from an early age to limit and shame ourselves as women. Like an invisible fence, the Mother Wound keeps us unconsciously confined in certain thoughts, behaviors, and values, until we become ready to make a shift, initiating ownership of our own lives and embodying a unique expression in our mother line.
Over a year now into the global pandemic, many of us have now become more aware than ever of the dysfunctional patterns we’ve inherited and how they’re not working for us anymore. We are feeling more ready than ever to break intergenerational cycles and disrupt the dysfunctional status quo, to make way for a new consciousness and new possibilities. We are realizing that all efforts towards social justice and cultural transformation must be paired with a commitment to inner work and healing for lasting change to occur.
Mother’s Day is a powerful time to examine these inherited patterns and disrupt the cycle for the coming generations. This is not about blame, but about healing and liberation.My goal for my upcoming FREE training is for you to experience a major shift that supports you in becoming initiated in your true power as part of this collective change.