Hate Your Mother, Love Yourself

The Long-Term Impact of an Unresolved Mother Wound.

Over the last several months, I have been working with a patient (‘Bert’) on his unresolved parent wound, specifically his mother wound. Parent wounds are seldom discussed in psychotherapy but their potential for psychoemotional impact upon the patient is profound. The parent wound can occur for any patient when there has been a significant attachment trauma (i.e., an attachment injury, rupture, or disorder) with the primary parent / caretaker, related to the infant’s separation-individuation process.

I draw the distinction between feminine (mother) vs. masculine (father) as it relates to the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang, which describes the opposite but interconnected forces of femininity and masculinity. Femininity is the aspect of one’s personality that is emotionally based and makes requests. Masculinity is the aspect of one’s personality that is behaviourally based and fulfills requests. For an individual to experience some degree of psychoemotional equilibrium, they must develop a functional balance between their feminine (asking / emotions-based) and masculine (doing / behaviour-based) forces, which is why parent wounds are so common in psychotherapeutic work: Many patients have imbalances in their feminine and masculine forces.

The distinction between attachment traumas (injuries, ruptures, and disorders) is defined by how isolated, localized, or global the attachment issue is. Specifically, an attachment injury is an isolated issue (related to an unmet singular behavioural or emotional need during infancy or adolescence). For example, most patients with North American lineage have attachment injuries regarding the discussion of politics, sex, or religion. Because many North American parents avoid these topics, children / adolescents identify these topics as taboo. If avoidance of meaningful engagement on these topics persists over time, the child is likely to develop an attachment injury: They learn that having emotional needs (e.g., acceptance, belonging, connection, safety, validation) will not be met regarding these focal subjects and, as such, these children / adolescents are likely to develop an anxious-preoccupied or avoidant-dismissing attachment style in response to these isolated subjects. The message often learned is that the child / adolescent would do well to know what topics are acceptable while avoiding topics which are taboo (i.e., they need to figure out “the code”).

An attachment rupture is a localized attachment issue, meaning the patient has maladaptive, attachment-based behaviours and tendencies related to two or more unmet behavioural or emotional needs. For example, in addition to developing a taboo toward topics related to politics, sex, and / or religion, the child / adolescent may also learn that the range of topics their parents are willing to discuss meaningfully falls within a narrow bandwidth which meets the emotional needs of the parents, but not the needs of the child / adolescent. Consequently, the child / adolescent develops the understanding that adhering to the emotional needs of others is the path to trying to fulfill their own emotional needs. The lesson often learned is that the attempts of the child / adolescent to connect with others is less important than how others want to accept connection.  The child must figure out what is taboo and adhere only to what is important for the other person when pursuing a meaningful connection).

An attachment disorder is a global attachment issue, meaning the patient has maladaptive, attachment-based behaviours related to multiple and concurrent behavioural or emotional needs. For example, the child learns that, in addition to certain topics being taboo and the range of acceptable topics being restricted to their parent’s emotional needs, conversational contributions from the child / adolescent hold minimal-to-no value for the adults they seek connection with, unless the contribution is of material benefit to the adult with whom the child / adolescent seeks connection. 

Thus, attachment injuries are related to a single behavioural or emotional topic, attachment ruptures relate to problems in two or more areas, and attachment disorders refer to a maladaptive pattern across multiple issues.

As the above attachment traumas relate to Attachment Theory, in a general sense, attachment injuries, ruptures, and disorders can be associated with anxious-preoccupied, avoidant-dismissing, and disorganized-unresolved attachment patterns, respectively. Please refer to  https://cwcp.ca/blog/important-books-on-your-psychotherapeutic-journey to access additional information about and resources regarding Attachment Theory.

Bert started therapy with me years ago and, in recent months, had been discussing intensifying interpersonal issues in his romantic relationship with ‘Ed’. After dating for nine months, Bert was increasingly focused on using sessions to discuss his bourgeoning relationship misgivings: He felt that he would often show up and make contributions to the relationship (e.g., making coffee after staying overnight; arranging social plans that included Ed; surprising Ed with small tokens of affection, such as flowers and small gifts) and these efforts were seldom reciprocated by Ed. However, Ed’s lack of material reciprocation to the relationship was not the main issue for Bert. The lack of intentional and overt expression of emotional support / emotional co-regulation by Ed was becoming an increasing frustration, despite Bert’s belief that he was making his own emotional needs obvious.

Bert was unconsciously seeking a relationship dynamic wherein his partner offered support for Bert’s unrecognized emotional needs of acceptance, belonging, connectedness, safety, and validation. Bert believed, mistakenly, that if he figured out the behavioural needs of his partner (i.e., “the code”), his partner would in return provide Bert with emotional support / emotional co-regulation.

In one therapy session, Bert responded positively to content related to the feminine / masculine dynamic of Yin and Yang. The surprise for Bert came when he recognized his penchant for over-committing and over-emphasizing masculine characteristics at the expense of adequate emotional transparency.

While the masculine / material behaviours Bert was investing into the relationship (e.g., coffee, social plans, small tokens of affection) were helpful relationship contributions, they were not clear signifiers of Bert’s underlying emotional desires and needs. Bert wished for emotional co-regulation, engagement, and validation by Ed but was lacking clarity in communicating these needs.

At one point in our clinical work, I shared with Bert content from Brene Brown’s (2018) book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. about the importance and role of clarity in communication. As Brown explains, not being clear about your expectations (because it feels too hard) while still holding the other person accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind. Being clear about your needs is kind; unclear is unkind. Bert had to explore what was holding him back from being transparent about his emotional needs in his relationship, which required an exploration of Bert’s imbalance between his feminine and masculine behaviours.

Bert was exceptionally invested in masculine tendencies of doing. He prioritized aspects of his life that allowed him to experience material accomplishments. Often working 10 – 12-hour days, Bert would go out of his way to demonstrate his dedication to platonic and romantic relationships by investing attention, energy, and time to ensure that those people closest to him knew he was steadfast, while at the same time actively pursuing ambitious life plans, such as aggressively paying off loans that fostered his personal and professional achievements. Bert was certainly a “Type A” personality.

But where Bert excelled at masculine energy, he struggled with adequate balance in his feminine energy – which became a chronic tendency toward emotional self-abandonment and behavioural self-sacrifice.

Emotional self-abandonment, when an individual disregards or rejects their own emotions, feelings, needs or thoughts, is commonly achieved through dissociation (i.e., detachment or distancing from a particular behaviour, emotion, or thought). When an emotion is experienced that requires attention, the individual often ignores it by focusing on externalized, dopamine-based addictive behaviours (e.g., alcohol, drugs, friends, fashion, food, gambling, sex, sexual lovers, shopping, social media, television, romantic partners, work, etc.).

Dopamine-based behaviours occur when an individual focuses on ‘feeling good’ vs. ‘cultivating good’ (which are serotonin-based behaviours). Or, as Carol Dweck (2006) explains in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, individuals who emphasize attention to process rather than results are more serotonin-based in their psychological constitution than individuals who emphasize attention on end-results, which is often at the expense of process.

And therein exists the problem: Individuals who can endure frustration or stress (emotions) are increasingly likely to emphasize the role of process, which elevates the potential for associated results. Individuals who place more focus on results are increasingly likely to underinvest or undervalue the process. While the desired results may occur for a brief period for the results-focused individual, the lack of dedication to process in turn limits potential results.

In terms of clinical treatment for individuals who emotionally self-abandon / dissociate, the goal is to increase awareness of self-limiting behaviours, such as engagement with a dopamine-based mindset. Helping patients develop better stress tolerance ultimately enhances their ability to endure stressful situations (N.B., Daily stress is not necessarily a bad thing; identifying how daily stress activates our unresolved emotional pain bodies is where the necessary therapeutic work belongs).

With respect to externalized addictive behaviours, the research by Bruce K. Alexander (1981), commonly known as Rat Park, is an insightful approach for understanding the development of addictive behaviours and personality. Alexander, a psychologist and professor emeritus from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, created an experiment consisting of two conditions: One cage for rats that contained an abundance of activities for the rat subjects to engage with (i.e., a ‘rat park’), and another cage for rats that was devoid of activities. Both cages contained two water bottles; one bottle contained pure water, the other contained water laced with morphine.

In both cages, rats consumed liquid from both water bottles. In the rat park cage, while rat subjects consumed both liquids, they returned to the bottle containing water only and avoided the morphine-laced water. In the basic cage, rats consumed both liquids but returned to the bottle containing morphine-laced water; many to the degree of overdose and death.

Alexander’s findings suggest that one’s environment has a profound impact upon addictive behaviours. Narrowing an individual’s options for actions and interests results in a decreased ability to connect with, openly share, and work through behavioural or emotional issues. For example, when a person has a difficult day at work, they would seek to ameliorate the resulting emotional stress. If the person has fewer addictive tendencies, they will select from a variety of resources for the purpose of metabolizing their emotional experience, such as going to the local pub for a limited number of alcoholic beverages while connecting with close friends; or perhaps going to the gym after work, then connecting with a friend, or self-journaling to reflect upon the day’s experiences.

On the other hand, a person with more addictive tendencies will select from a more restricted pool of coping mechanisms for the purpose of managing their daily stress (i.e., a diminished willingness to experience and engage with emotions and feelings). This person may go to the local pub and consume multiple alcoholic beverages in isolation; or they may talk to their pub friends about how awful their day was (i.e., complaining or whingeing about what happened with minimal engagement toward their emotional experience of the event). The unconscious behaviour of the person with addictive tendencies (narrowing of interests) is the predilection to get stuck or trapped in behaviours that minimize their ability to connect, share, and work through daily hardships (i.e., an avoidance toward experiencing emotions).

An important distinction for humans exists within characteristics of ambiverts, extroverts, and introverts: When assessing the degree of addiction (i.e., increased vs. decreased resiliency) in ambiverts, one must measure the variety internal and external factors available when in pursuit of psychoemotional resiliency. In extroverts, one must measure the variety of access of extroverts to engage an array of external coping mechanisms whereas measuring the degree of addiction in introverts requires measuring the variety of access of introverts to engage an array of internal coping mechanisms.

As an ambivert, Bert excelled in his access of internal factors for increased resiliency (e.g., self-observation, self-reflection, and self-dialogue). However, he had a penchant for intellectualization (focusing on cognitions and thoughts at the expense of emotions and feelings), which hindered the efficacy of his internal resiliency. Externally, he often relied on drinking. The use of alcohol was an isolating agent – whether drinking with friends or drinking at home, his inclination to discuss emotions and feelings was superficial at worse, academic at best. And identifying, experiencing, and discussing emotions and feelings is where healing occurs. Bert needed to change – if he wanted to heal.

Like emotional self-abandonment, behavioural self-sacrifice is when an individual surrenders or gives up their own needs in order to meet the needs of others. This is a problematic issue itself, but individuals who behaviourally self-sacrifice also often expect that others will show up for them to the same capacity or degree. As Brene Brown explains, this lack of clarity is unkind. Showing up to support another person is a vital aspect of humanity – being human is based in connection. But showing up without communicating that one needs the other person to reciprocate is unkind. Communicating that need in a capacity that empowers others to do so is actually maintaining respectful self-boundaries (and is kind). As explained by Elizabeth Earnshaw (2021) in her book I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age:

When someone sets boundaries with another person, it’s not their attempt to push them away, it’s their attempt to show them where the door is so they can enter in the right manner. Boundaries remind us that we are two distinct individuals with different thoughts, feelings, and needs. They help us respect the space between us so we don’t become so fused that we believe we are one or so angry and resentful that we cut ourselves off.

Without boundaries in our romantic relationships, one person will likely become self-sacrificing, while the other becomes blissfully unaware of how much they are taking. Neither will feel deeply connected because boundary violations create resentment and disengagement.

This was where the romantic conflict was emerging for Bert, who would often show up and support Ed in a behavioural capacity, to a degree that was obviously emotional self-abandonment and behavioural self-sacrifice.  Bert held out hope that if he showed up for Ed in a behavioural capacity, Ed would show up for Bert in an emotional capacity (a form of mindreading) – yet this expectation was never openly discussed. The emergence of an emotionally dependent relationship was evident: When Bert co-regulated and / or managed Ed’s needs, the relationship seemed stable and secure but when Ed did not co-regulate or support Bert’s emotional needs, the relationship stability would falter.

Dependency often flourishes within relationships. And while dependency varies in intensity, the core traits of incompetence and dependence are consistent. As explained by Young, J., Klosko, J., and Weishaar, M., Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide (2006), incompetence is when an individual lacks faith in their decisions and judgements about everyday life. They hate and fear facing change alone; they feel unable to tackle new tasks on their own, and believe they need someone to show them what to do. Because these patients feel unable to function on their own, their belief is that they need to find other people to take care of them. This is the parent-child dynamic of Transactional Analysis whereby the individual assumes a child-mode in response to their significant other, who takes on a parental role. This dynamic can occur within occupational, platonic, social, and /or romantic relationships. The core idea, which varies in intensity, is the belief that “I am incompetent; therefore, I must depend on others.” See Koopmans, L., This Is Me!: Becoming who  you are using Transactional Analysis (2019) for a detailed account.

As mentioned earlier, parent wounds are related to the infant’s separation-individuation process of psychological (behavioural and emotional) development, which is an aspect of psychodynamic therapy (a subsequent branch to Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy) that conceptualizes the earliest stages of human psycho-emotional development as a process that begins as early as 5-months of age and relates to the infant’s ability to establish an identity that is independent of their primary  caregiver. See Mahler, M., Pine, F., and Bergman, A., The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation (1975).

It is important to note that while the above terms are gender-related, they are not necessarily gender-based.

Bert had primarily been raised by his single-parent (masculine-focused) mother who was, by Bert’s account, an emotionally depriving caretaker who focused her parenting efforts on behavioural demonstrations of affection (e.g., acknowledging Bert’s acts of achievement; material gifts; validation through behavioural praise; etc.). She avoided affective / emotive demonstrations of engagement (e.g., acknowledging his effort related to achievement, moments of shared activities, validation through emotional acknowledgement, etc.). Delving into the protective and self-serving nature of his mother’s behaviours was outside the scope of our immediate work, but in later sessions, Bert discussed the ego-protective nature of his mother who most likely endured her own unresolved issues related to worthlessness (which in turn developed into a legacy burden of worthlessness for Bert).

Patients with a history of emotional deprivation enter treatment due to feelings of bitterness, depression, and loneliness but usually do not know why. They often report feeling as though they do not receive enough affection and warmth, attention, or adequate emotional attunement from others. As explained by Young, J., Klosko, J., and Weishaar, M (2006), there are three types of emotional deprivation:

Deprivation of nurturance, in which patients feel that no one is there to hold them, pay attention to them, and give them physical affection, such as touch and holding; deprivation of empathy, in which they feel that no one is there who really listens or tries to understand who they are and how they feel; and deprivation of protection, in which they feel that no one is there to protect and guide them (even though they are often giving others a lot of protection and guidance). The Emotional deprivation schema is often linked to the Self-Sacrifice schema. Most patients with Self-Sacrifice schema are also emotionally deprived.

Initially, Bert entered clinical work due to his unacknowledged emotional deprivation – while he did not feel depressed, he certainly reported on feeling alone at times and often emotionally bitter. As such, Bert had already established an initial awareness of his mother’s emotionally deprivating tendencies but had not yet fully understood how these childhood dynamics showed up in his adult life.

As explained by Mahler, M., Pine, F., and Bergman, A. (1975), when adequate / effective separation-individuation is achieved, the infant can engage and disengage their caregiver and have their behavioural or emotional needs met without issue (e.g., as it pertains to the feminine dynamic, when the infant wants to be fed as a function of psycho-emotional safety, the mother / feminine caregiver willingly accepts the infant to the source of nourishment; when the infant is sated, the mother / feminine caregiver allows the infant to withdraw).

For the purpose of clarity, we can generalize that behavioural needs are fulfilled by the masculine caretaker and emotional needs are fulfilled by the feminine caretaker. Note: Caretakers do not need to be birth parents; they can be adoptive parents, foster parents, grandparents, or even extended family members – the defining feature is the degree to which the person assumes a caretaker role of the infant / child / adolescent. When there is insufficiency, deprivation, or impairment in the fulfillment of behavioural needs, the father wound occurs, and the child can develop resentment (a passive emotion, emerging from the child’s understanding that they must surrender to emotions in favour of behaviours) toward the masculine caretaker. Conversely, when insufficiency, deprivation, or impairment in the fulfillment of emotional needs, the mother wound occurs, and the child can develop anger (an active emotion, developed as a function of the child’s understanding that they must protest their emotional unfulfillment) toward the feminine caretaker.

Behavioural needs relate to the infant’s ability to adequately engage with and make sense of the world through action. Specific behavioural needs relate to the infant’s current stage of development.

Emotional needs relate to the infant’s affective experience, which has to do with our basic needs for survival. Examples of emotional needs include acceptance, affection, appreciation, autonomy, belonging, calmness, compassion, connectedness, creativity, curiosity, security, and validation.

Feelings are the somatic experience / bodily sensations associated with behaviours and emotions. Feelings fall within a vast range.  Tertiary feelings are expressed feelings, such as anger.  Secondary feelings are experienced feelings, such as hurt.  Primary feelings are internal perceptions about the self (known as exiles), such as worthlessness. Primary feelings are the fundamental focus of psychotherapeutic work. When operating from an Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy, examples of IFS-focused primary feelings include dependency, fear / terror, grief / loss, loneliness, neediness, pain, shame, and worthlessness, which are identified as the primary IFS exiles. Visit https://cwcp.ca/blog/what-is-a-part-ifs-model for more information about the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy.

It is important to note that mental health professionals often use common psychological terms (e.g., behaviours, compassion, emotions, empathy, feelings) differently, depending on the therapeutic context. Please ensure that therapist and client are using the same working definition of each term.

Unfortunately, caregivers often have their own psychoemotional issues which can impede or interrupt the separation-individuation process (as was the case for Bert). The infant develops an attachment injury if their caregiver responds negatively toward the infant’s attempt to have their behavioural or emotional needs met (e.g., inconsistently responds, frequently disregards, or outright ignores the infant’s attempt to engage), or if the caregiver responds negatively toward the infant’s attempt to disengage (e.g., does not easily allow the infant to pull away from feeding). If repeated over time, this typically results in the development of an attachment rupture. If severe, an attachment disorder will emerge.

In terms of an attachment injury, the feminine / mother-child relationship is based in the ability of the mother / feminine caregiver to meet the emotional needs of the child. When the feminine / mother-child relationship experiences an attachment rupture, this means the child’s emotional needs (e.g., safety) are not adequately and consistently met, which results in the activation of associated feelings (e.g., pain, loneliness, loss).

For example, if feeding / nutrition cycles are inconsistent, thereby fostering a perceived or real sense of insufficiency and / or inconsistency in sustenance, the associated emotional concern (e.g., safety) is likely to be activated. The longer the emotional issue remains ignored, the more intense the associated feelings (e.g., fear, as a function of scarcity, or pain, as a function of discomfort affiliated with hunger pangs) are for the infant. The result is a psychologically and physically overwhelming experience for the infant. If repeated enough times across a sustained period, the infant is certain to develop an attachment rupture and likely to develop an attachment disorder.

However, if the mother / feminine caregiver is accessible, responsive, and engaged (i.e., a good-enough parent, defined as a parent who show up a minimum of 30% of the time to emotionally attune, empathetically support, and adequately validate the child), the mother / feminine caregiver will take on the psychological (emotional) or physical (feelings) aspect of the infant’s experience. In doing so, the infant’s overwhelmedness becomes manageable for the infant, who can then focus on understanding and tolerating the elevated psychological or physical experience(s).

Of significant note here is the function of psychotherapy: Patients who seek psychotherapeutic support typically have a functional ability to identify their tertiary (expressed) and secondary (experienced) feelings. However, they typically struggle to identify primary (exiled) feelings (e.g., fear, loneliness, pain, shame, worthlessness, etc.). If the mother wound is deep enough, the patient is partially blind or completely unaware of their emotional needs (e.g., acceptance, affection, appreciation, autonomy, belonging, calmness, compassion, connection, creativity, curiosity, security, and validation, etc.). The focus of clinical work is on supporting the patient as they work to heal their primary feelings / exiles through accessing and exercising self-fulfillment of their emotional needs.

As the infant learns to engage further with the interconnected experience of emotions and feelings, the infant requires the ability to draw on the mother / feminine caretaker for emotional co-regulation as required. When this is adequately consistent, the infant will develop competency, confidence, and self-mastery of emotions and feelings, thereby enhancing the infant’s fundamental goal of psychoemotional self-regulation (i.e., a secure attachment).

When the mother / feminine caregiver is inaccessible, disengaged, and / or unresponsive, the infant becomes overwhelmed by the concurrent psychological and physical experience and must learn how to manage their emotions and feelings on their own. This results in the formation of an attachment disorder / insecure attachment style (i.e., anxious-preoccupied, avoidant-dismissing, or disorganized-unresolved).

For children of mothers who sometimes engage yet sometimes disregard their infants attempts for emotional connection, an anxious-preoccupied attachment style usually develops: Due to the variable nature of their mother’s attention, the infant identifies that should they figure out the “magic code” so that the mother will provide attention. For children whose mothers usually disregard the infant’s attempts for emotional connection, most likely an avoidant-dismissing attachment style is developed: Due to the consistent tendency to disregard their emotional needs, the infant learns how to bury or suppress their emotional needs. For children whose mothers incorporate variations of abuse, punishment, or violence to manage their child’s attempts for emotional connection, most likely a disorganized-unresolved attachment style is developed: Due to the inconsistent and aggressive / violent response to emotional needs (as the infant must be prepared for some backlash toward their behavioural or emotional need for connection), attaining emotional validation is acknowledged as dangerous and should be avoided unless necessary.

Emotional connection is a critical necessity for healing any form of psychoemotional trauma (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, 2015).  It is also essential to all successful relationships (The Relationship Cure: a 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, John Gottman, 2001).

As a result of having both mother and father wounds, Bert had developed a complex attachment disorder. His internal psycho-emotional experience was dominated by an anxious-preoccupied attachment pattern, his external self-regulation was dominated by an avoidant-dismissing attachment pattern, and when he had an emotionally responsive connection with another person (for example with me as his therapist), his general personality was dominated by a disorganized-unresolved attachment pattern.

The intersection of Internal Family Systems and Attachment Theory is intriguing from a clinical perspective. Patients presenting with anxious-preoccupied attachment patterns often present with unhealed exiles (primary fears) of loneliness (which can be expressed as abandonment, aloneness, and a lack of belonging) and pain. Patients presenting with avoidant-dismissing attachment patterns often present with unhealed exiles of fear and worthlessness. And patients presenting with disorganized-unresolved attachment patterns typically carry unhealed exiles of loss, dependency / neediness, and shame.

Bert struggled intrapsychically with feelings related to loneliness and the affiliated pain associated with a lack of belonging. Bert would often engage behaviours toward Ed that include caretaking / fixing and rescuing. Emotional dependency, emotional self-abandonment, inadequate self-care / passivity in asking / receiving support from others, self-sacrifice, and unspoken perfectionism (in terms of relationship expectations) were also evident.

Interpersonally (i.e., the father wound), Bert struggled with feelings of fear that Ed did not fundamentally view Bert as having worth. Seeking to self-regulate or self-contain his underlying fear of worthlessness, Bert would often engage in behaviours related to anxiety / obsession, distraction (such as being engrossed in social media for extended periods of time), self-criticism / self-judgment, problematic alcohol consumption, anger, and excessive control tendencies.

As these above intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics coalesced, Bert’s disorganized-unresolved attachment pattern would activate, resulting in him becoming blended with his exiles of loss, neediness, and shame. The culmination of Bert’s mother / father wounds resulted in him relying upon distraction or minimization toward the significance of his emotional needs; dissociation by shutting down toward Ed; and fantasy (imagining that Ed would suddenly realize his negative impact on Bert and mindfully work to repair the relationship ruptures). And in sessions whereby his disorganized-unresolved attachment style became active, Bert would desperately seek emotional accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement during therapy but would concurrently shut down any emotional connection due to his fear that sincere attention from me, as therapist, was disingenuous.

Fantasy Bonds, as discussed by Robert W. Firestone (2022) in his book Challenging the Fantasy Bond: A Search for Personal Identity and Freedom, are when an individual gives up vital aspects of their identity to maintain a personal relationship. For example, when trying to sustain a romantic relationship, you recognize that your partner avoids consistent communication, and so you disregard your own need for consistent communication. We identified Bert’s emotional self-abandonment and behavioural self-sacrifice tendencies in his relationship with Ed as a reflection of Firestone’s Fantasy Bond dynamic. By this point, not only was Bert beginning to realize that his romantic relationship with Ed was based in unconscious maternal transference (i.e., the mother wound), he was also beginning to recognize the prevalence of his mother wound occurring in most of his past romantic and recent platonic relationships.

Growing up, Bert’s mother frequently relied upon superficial validation (e.g., verbal praise, such as “You’re such a good boy for Mommy!”; material reinforcement such as gifts; and behavioural affection, such as hugs) as a reward when Bert took care of her emotional needs. To Bert, this felt like maternal affection, connection, and love. These were only superficial validation because they were not attempts at genuine emotional connection for the benefit of Bert, but instead were his mother’s way of getting Bert to behave in a way that was exclusively beneficial to her.

Bert also realized that his tendency to meet the material needs of others was an unconscious lesson he acquired from his mother: The only way he knew how to secure affection, connection, and love was to provide material reinforcements to the people with whom he sought a relationship. Consequently, he had conflated emotional connection with material validation.

When Bert demonstrated or expressed any of his own emotional needs, his mother would admonish, ignore, minimize, or scorn him for needing such attention. Consequently, he developed the underlying belief that his needs did not matter, whereas catering to the needs of others was important.

As he emerged into adult life, Bert assumed a very strong caretaker role in the hope of securing the familiar sense of (superficial) validation he had experienced in his youth. The results, however, were often unhelpful for Bert’s romantic endeavours. The extent to which a person abandons their own emotional needs vs. self-advocating is the primary difference between self-sacrifice and caretaking. Bert’s caretaking role was based on self-sacrifice and suppression of his own emotional needs.

Through therapy, Bert was able to initially identify some superficial relationship issues with Ed.  Bert recognized that whenever he expressed his own emotional desires or needs, there was a tendency for Ed to shut Bert down. Ed would insist that he was, in fact, meeting Bert’s needs. Sometimes Ed would explain that Bert’s needs were “too much” or were unfounded, which reinforced Bert’s underlying belief that his emotions did not matter. When Bert was struggling with emotional hardships, Ed struggled to remain accessible, engaged, and responsive, despite Bert’s consistent emotional support of Ed (this was a function of Ed’s own parental wounds). As a result, Bert began to discontinue his acts of kindness and support within the relationship and sexual intimacy eventually ended. After a period of emotional withdrawal by Bert, the two would end up in a heated argument which would lead to prolonged silence followed by apologies but no behavioural changes.

These initial, superficial issues are referred to as ‘entry session topics’ and are different from underlying developmental traumas. Bert’s focus on current, situational events distracted him from dealing with his unresolved, underlying developmental traumas. Mental health professionals need to be vigilant in how they identify and respond to entry session topics (i.e., distractions) vs. underlying and unacknowledged developmental traumas (i.e., exiles).

Bert’s romantic disputes conflict pattern followed a dominant conflict style referred to as the “Protest Polka” by Sue Johnson in Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008).

As Johnson explains:

One partner reaches out, albeit in a negative way, the other steps back, and the pattern repeats. What is underlying this is a reaction to the primary person not getting an emotional response from their loved one – and when this is the case, we protest.

The purpose of the Protest Polka is all about trying to get a response, a response that connects and reassures.

For example, one partner is demanding, actively protesting the disconnection; the other is withdrawing, quietly protesting the implied criticism, sometimes freezing, or saying less and less as a form of self-preservation and relationship-preservation. Unfortunately, the old axiom of “when in doubt, say or do nothing” is terrible advice in love relationships.

As sessions continued, interpersonal conflict (i.e., the Polka Protest) became more frequent and the relationship between Bert and Ed ended. From Bert’s perspective, he was confused, frustrated, hurt, and sad (i.e., secondary emotions).

During one session of significant self-reflection, Bert came to the discomfiting realization that he had an unacknowledged tendency to date men who were exceptionally akin to his mother; men who would welcome the emotional attention Bert offered them while scorning or ignoring Bert’s emotional needs. The issue was not that Bert had a tendency to date emotionally unavailable men; the issue was that Bert was unable to identify he had emotional needs and identify whether the other person was able to support his emotional needs. However, recognizing the pattern was one thing; changing the relationship dynamic was another. It activated fears of abandonment and worthlessness – restricting Bert’s ability to make significant change. All he could consider in terms of options was to accept the standard relationship dynamic or walk away (i.e., a very “borderline” or black-and-white perspective).

During one session, I commented, “Bert – you’re able to recognize that your history of dating is a replica of your relationship with your mother, whom you were never allowed to be sincerely angry at. The misgiving I have with your internalized (and often intellectualized) anger is that until you express it “toward” the person who activated it – your mother – you will perpetuate your inability to move beyond repetition of the dynamic.  In short, you need to give yourself permission to be angry “toward” your mother – to hate her, if needed.”

“You want me to be angry at my mother? How is that helpful?”

“What I’m suggesting is that you need to direct your anger and hate toward your mother, within our therapeutic sessions, so you can ultimately love yourself. To clarify, I am not suggesting that you call your mother and ream her out – I’m advocating that you give yourself permission to allow her to ‘bear’ your anger and hatred.”

“When you were a kid, you were never allowed to be angry at your mom – and that is neither healthy nor helpful! As we grow up, kids become overwhelmed when they experience either intense feelings and emotional conflicts or intense feelings and behavioural conflicts concurrently.”

“For example, when kids of good-enough parents struggle with an emotional issue (e.g., they fall off their bike and suddenly realize how unsafe the world can be) or a behavioural issue (e.g., they fall down and embed gravel in their palms, causing the kid to become overwhelmed and in need of physical healing as well as emotional support), they simultaneously experience overwhelming secondary feelings, tertiary emotions, and primary emotions. Children do not have the capacity to tolerate this simultaneous experience. In a family dynamic where there is a good-enough parent, one of the parents will intentionally or unconsciously take on the intensity of the feelings, thereby allowing the child to tolerate and engage with either the physiological or psychological distress.”

“Since your (masculine-focused) mother never assumed responsibility for your emotions or feelings when they became too intense for you, you became overwhelmed and shut down your emotions so that you could tolerate the distress of your feelings. And because your mother did not help you with your feelings either, you had to use your child-based brain to make sense of and interpret the world using the only information you had available: yourself. As a result, you made the errant interpretation that the reason your masculine-primary mother would not hold your emotions or feelings for you (i.e., co-regulate), was because your emotions and feelings were worth “less” than hers – and over time, you solidified that interpretation into the belief that you are fundamentally worthless.”

Bert returned to his core understanding: “So you want me to hate my mother?”

“Think of it like this: You go to the grocery store without a shopping bag and decide to carry everything out in your arms – which ends up creating an overwhelming burden. This is your relationship with your mother: As a function of that dynamic, you ended up carrying an overwhelming burden. If your arms are full of groceries, is it better to organize and reorder them while holding onto them or is it better to place the items in a shopping cart so you can create a better plan for how you will carry them?”

“Let your mother be the shopping cart – while you are in therapy, allow her to hold the anger you were never permitted to feel toward her; the anger for her being such a terrible mother; for being such an emotionally unsupportive and uncaring caretaker, so you can finally put the overwhelming burden of anger down, look at it differently, and do something new with it.”

“But what do I do after I hate my mother?” Bert asked.

“Once you have allowed yourself to shift your anger toward your mother and heal the underlying emotional pain contained in your unresolved emotionally painful memories, you will need to discover your own emotional needs and behavioural wants and give yourself permission to care about them rather than about the needs and wants of others. In short, you need to be selfish for a change!

What a revelation: Bert needed to be selfish. Appropriate selfishness is considered a critical and instrumental component of healing the mother wound. Being too selfish fosters unhealthy narcissism but exercising too much selflessness fosters unhealthy emotional self-abandonment and behavioural self-sacrifice; and Bert was already well-versed in this form of selflessness. Michael J. Bader (2003), in his book Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, explains that developing a healthy balance between selfishness and selflessness is critical for individuals – especially in the capacity of sex. When engaging in the act of sex, being too selfless means that, ultimately, you never have an orgasm – or at the very least, not one that is fulfilling or satisfying – because at some point, you must be completely selfish and focus on your own cravings, desires, and sexual wants in order to climax.

An alternative way of conceptualizing selfishness is to relate with the IFS concept of Self (i.e., calmness, clarity, compassion, confidence, connectivity, courage, creativity, curiosity, patience, perspective, persistency, playfulness, and presence) – meaning to become more Self-ish; as in ‘Self-like’.”

The idea of being selfish was extremely uncomfortable for Bert. Therefore, the work ahead of Bert was challenging: first, Bert had to acknowledge that he had needs, identify what these needs were, and learn how to communicate them to himself and others. The second step, which was more difficult for Bert, was to identify others who were unable or unwilling to respond positively and supportively toward his communicated needs. This second step required Bert to identify and ‘refuse’ the mini versions of his mother that frequently reappeared in his interpersonal relationships.  Fundamentally, he needed to identify, connect with, emotionally heal, and reparent younger versions of himself who still longed for the maternal affection, connection, and love that he had never received from his mother. Doing so meant he would need to be selfish – in a capacity that focused on emotional fulfillment (i.e., serotonin), not material validation (i.e., dopamine).

As our sessions continued, Bert realized he had a significant amount of psychotherapeutic work to do. Carrying the unresolved mother wound meant he needed to identify, bear witness to, and ‘hold’ his own behavioural wants and emotional needs while concurrently learning how to actively meet them – instead of being passively dependent upon others in hopes they might prioritize him. Additionally, learning how to acknowledge, accept, and integrate emotional support and validation from others concurrent to doing so for himself was going to require some in-depth clinical work surrounding his father wounds related to fear and worthlessness.

In one profound breakthrough appointment, Bert shared excerpts from his journal, wherein he recognized his tendencies as a ‘fixer’:

“The Fixer”

I fix things. But my specialty is people. I find broken, lost, misunderstood people. I make their problems mine. I provide an open mind, listening ears, broad shoulders, endless options of advice, hours upon hours of research, and sleepless nights. I provide all the things I so desperately want for myself. I love so deeply. I love so hard that I further deplete the already empty shell called Bert. I love others the way I want to be loved. I love so much that I often allow myself to be taken advantage of but do not see it until it’s much too late.

I avoid my current problems by solving other people’s problems. I expect that once I’ve resolved their problems, they in return will help me solve mine. But when the other person is fixed, cared for enough, loved enough, their cups are full, and their self esteem replenished, they leave.

While I know I am worth loving, I don’t know how to love myself. Yet I expect others to love me.

I want to be loved, but being loved is scary. I want to be loved, but not loved enough to tell you what I think I might need or want. Because I can’t let you see the softer side of me. I want to be loved so much, but I want that love at a distance – because distance is safe. I want you to know how I think and what I think, but I don’t want to share my thoughts with you. I want you to see how worthy I am, but I don’t want to have to prove my worthiness to you. I want you to help me, but don’t take away my power.

While I know history repeats itself – I’ll be expecting a different outcome. And when that person is fixed and I’m left feeling even more exhausted, depleted, and taken advantage of, I’ll keep my eyes open for the next person. I am a living, breathing poster child of not making changes while I fix people, and feeling more broken because of it.

Bert’s powerful insight was a significant first step in healing and we transitioned into the next phase of psychotherapeutic treatment, which was empowering Bert to become increasingly “selfish” / self-like. Bert focused first on identifying his emotional needs (e.g., admiration, affection, intimate conversation, domestic support, family commitment, financial equality, honesty and openness, physical attractiveness, recreational companionship, sexual fulfillment, etc.).  Second, he identified the associated feelings / exiles (e.g., dependency, grief / loss, fear / terror, loneliness, neediness, pain, shame, worthlessness) that emerged when his emotional needs were unmet. Third, he identified his behavioural needs (e.g., referring to Erikson’s Stages of Development: Trust vs. mistrust; autonomy vs. shame and doubt; initiative vs. guilt; industry vs. inferiority; identity vs. confusion; intimacy vs. isolation; generativity vs. stagnation) and associated feelings / exiles (e.g., dependency, grief / loss, fear / terror, loneliness, neediness, pain, shame, worthlessness) that emerged when his behavioural needs were unmet.

Offering a comprehensive, patient-specific, step-by-step guide for healing parent wounds would be ideal. However, doing so is difficult, given the nuance of human behaviours and emotions.

Nonetheless, some general guidance is possible: Choose to examine current and past relationships for themes in pursuit of identifying whether you surround yourself with unhealed wounds related to your mother and / or father. Ultimately, we all have unidentified intrapsychic children who engage in some sort of emotional self-abandonment and behavioural self-sacrifice – as social beings we always seek connection. As adults, we must examine whether our search for connection meets our current, genuine needs, or unconscious, unacknowledged, and unmet emotional needs of our past. Current, genuine needs can be supported by emotionally attuned others in our life; unmet emotional needs of the past are ours to heal and resolve.

An initial process for healing your mother wound is outlined in the following 5 steps offered by Instagram author your.relationship.reset (2024):

  1. Acknowledge your inner child’s existence and begin to connect to this part of yourself;
  2. Build a relationship with your inner child by checking in with them daily, asking them questions, and learning what their needs are;
  3. Develop reparenting skills to help your inner child feel safe and know that you will not abandon them;
  4. Identify the beliefs and burdens your inner child holds about relationships developed resulting from abandonment (e.g., if I share how I feel, they will get mad and ignore me); and
  5. Through empathy, nurturance, and validation, work with your inner child to heal and transform these beliefs and burdens. Encourage your inner child to share their emotions, experiences, and feelings with you and respond to your inner child in a way they needed a healthy caregiver or parent to respond in that historic moment.

As my work with Bert continues, I look forward to sharing more about subsequent stages of his therapeutic journey – healing his unresolved parent (mother) wound.


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Want to know more about a specific topic related to psychotherapy? Send me an email (adam@cwcp.ca) and let me know so I can write a blog post about it. And if you would like an honorable mention for your recommendation, let me know that too and I will include your name!

Born and raised in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Adam gained his designations as an Ontario Registered Psychotherapist and Ontario Registered Social Worker following the completion of his master’s in counselling and psychotherapy at the University of Toronto, OISE Campus, in 2016.

Living and working in downtown Toronto, Adam spends any available time in Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon, while offering in-person / online video / telephone sessions from his Toronto office (Church Wellesley Counselling and Psychotherapy) and online video / telephone sessions when he is away in the Yukon.

Want to learn more? Visit https://cwcp.ca/clinician/adam-terpstra