Understanding Self-Sabotage and The Mother Wound
Do you ever feel guilty for your success? Worse, do you ever self-sabotage when you start to find success or happiness? You are not alone. Children are hard-wired to seek their mother’s approval to survive. If your mother—unconsciously or consciously—used that desire for approval to manage her own feelings then it can lead to unhealthy adult behaviors. Understanding self-sabotage depends on recognizing its connection to the Mother Wound.
What Is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage is when we are excited about a goal but we unconsciously create obstacles that directly prevent 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 elucidate this connection in this blog article. (I suggest grabbing a cup of tea and sitting in a comfy chair. This is a long 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 their 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 the 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.
Understanding Self-Sabotage and The Mother Wound
Do you self-sabotage when good things happen in your life? Do you feel uncomfortable noting your achievements, especially with your family? Do you feel more comfortable talking about when things are not going right? The key to understanding self-sabotage is seeing its connection to the Mother Wound.
Many women recognize the themes leading up to self-sabotage. 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.”
Here are some concepts and patterns to help with understanding self-sabotage and the Mother Wound—and how patriarchal cultures ultimately keep women from living authentically.
1. Patriarchal Messages Pass From Mother to Daughter
Usually, the implicit patriarchal messages are 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 feel 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.
The Role of the Patriarchal Mother
In patriarchal cultures, the power of the parent is often considered unquestionable and can easily be misused; 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.”
Examples of Patriarchal Messages Passed from Mother to Daughter
Understanding self-sabotage means deciphering the messages we receive as women in patriarchal cultures. Here are examples of unspoken messages of mothers in a patriarchal mindset (which 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 into 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.”
2. Being Small Is Associated With Staying Safe
With the messages passed from a patriarchal mindset, there begins to be an association between being safe and non-threatening. Understanding self-sabotage ultimately means understanding the patriarchal messages meant to keep women small, such as staying safe.
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 of 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 disorient 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.
3. Your Expression Stimulates Her Grief and Rage
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.
4. Self-Sabotage Is a Form of Emotional Caretaking
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.
5. Mother Tantrums Keep You Terrified
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.
6. The Child Within Is Terrified So You Self-Sabotage
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 to 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 You 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.
Break Associations That Keep You Small
In order to heal self-sabotage, we need to break the link between being authentic = abandonment, rejection (Loss of Mother).
We need to create a NEW link between being authentic = Being safe, Loved, Cherished (by inner mother)
Establish Healthy Boundaries
The healthy emotional separation between mother and daughter needs to happen for both to flourish as individuals and to have an authentic, nourishing heart connection between them. Start by setting healthy emotional and physical boundaries.
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.
Questions For Reflection: Understanding Self-Sabotage and The Mother Wound
- 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 in you increases.