The Stickiest Hurt of the Mother Wound
This makes us isolate and hide when we need to connect…
In a recent therapy session, the experience of suffering hunger because my mother didn’t know she didn’t have enough milk to breastfeed me came up.
I’ve revisited that experience and how it influenced and shaped me many times before.
But never before had I felt shame about it.
I was really taken by surprise. Not only did I feel the pain of being put in that position as an infant, I now had to deal with the shame of it.
It felt very strange to feel shame. Why would I even have shame? It’s not that I did something wrong. It’s not that I had any way of standing up for myself as a newborn or saying something to change the situation.
I started wondering whether shame had always been there, and I just hadn’t noticed it, or that a new thorny overgrowth had somehow found its way to colonise my memory of the incident.
I was both burdened and curious.
Shame makes us want to disappear or hide aspects about ourselves so we often lose our curiosity about it
With shame comes also isolation. When it shows up in a therapy session, however, you get the chance to use the safe, enriching bond with the therapist as a healing balm.
With all the years of studying the human psyche and soul, and the wealth of experience I have at my disposal, I knew the shame had always been there, but I simply hadn’t noticed it before.
I also knew that exposing that shame meant that I was unearthing deeply buried preverbal wounds.
Shame is one of the unique human experiences born in interaction, as opposed to the basic inherited feelings such as anger, sadness, happiness or love.
Like guilt, pride, humiliation or embarrassment, shame is one of the self-conscious feelings that help us learn how to fit in.
Had it not been for the competitive vibe that characterises schools, for example, you would probably have been simply content with your natural talents rather than developing pride or embarrassment around them.
In the same way, shame (and its sister guilt) sets in when we get a message from others that whatever is happening right now is not working well for them.
As adults, we might be able to deflect the suggestion that we should be ashamed of ourselves, but a baby simply can’t.
Shame appears not because of what happened to you but what happened with you
All throughout our lives, we need others in order to regulate ourselves with a sense of security and calm. As babies, our lives depend on it.
In the first three years of our lives, we don’t ‘think’ about situations in the same way as an adult does. The brain is in development and gets cues about the sense of our identity through the relationship with our mother.
A baby absorbs information directly through sensations and feelings, all filtered by a clear-cut yard-stick — ‘Are my needs being met?’
For a small being, thinking is feeling and sensing.
When your mother answers your needs you feel worthy and safe.
When baby-you felt not safe and in distress, you extracted the meaning of what’s happening in this way—it’s not “mummy’s absent” but “I am absent”, which later reads as “I don’t matter”; it’s not “mummy’s not giving me the attention I need” but “I am not functioning”, which later arises as the many tones of the voice “I’m at fault”.
In this way, our identity is evoked through our relationship with our mother. As long as we don’t have a fully developed thinking capacity this understanding of life and self sits in the body as implicit memory.
Deep shame is a story-less memory deposited in the body
“Maybe I don’t remember well what my mother told me”, I thought, “maybe I’m just exaggerating”.
Implicit memory is what often makes us doubt the truthfulness of what we feel because it doesn’t have a story that for the adult mind feels more real.
For babies, real is what they feel and sense directly.
Implicit memory is remembering something directly through the body without knowing the contextual story with all its history and colourful details.
As adults, we often experience shame in regards to some form of lack—lack of talent, lack of knowledge, lack of money… But in fact, shame is not about the story of what we have or don’t have. It’s about an unmet need.
Shame is learned and can also be unlearned
Many women who haven’t had their needs met experience shame.
Because shame can be transferred directly to a daughter without a story, many women have the experience of shame that feels strange in its appearance and persistence, despite all their efforts to resolve it.
Implicit memory exists not only for babies. It keeps collecting memories all throughout our life. This is how mother wounds are passed down to daughters.
Epigenetic research shows that untreated trauma is passed down through biology.
The mother wound is not just a story about what your mother did (or didn’t do) to you. It often germinates from an inherited set of limiting beliefs and untreated wounds passed on to you.
A mother who was abounded as a child, a mother who was sexually abused, a mother who lived in shame, or suffered harsh criticism—are some examples I’ve seen in my work where mothers passed on their mother wound to their daughters without any harmful intention or lack of care.
One of the most common manifestations of shame comes accompanied by the statement “I can’t believe I’m still dealing with this.”
When familiar patterns come up repetitively, we feel like we are falling short, as if we’re at fault for not being able to resolve them.
This repetition is an activated implicit memory.
Though the narrative of shame can be coded into your emotional body and your nervous system it doesn’t mean it has to stay there for the rest of your life.
Healing shame happens in the same way it occurred—in a trusted and nurturing relationship and in a somatic, embodied way.
Turning towards shame you heal intergenerational wounds and open the door to more self-love
If shame is one of your mother wound inheritances you can try next time it arises to cultivate an attitude of curiosity as a first step.
Ask yourself at that moment—‘what is the unmet need right now?’
This could be the need to be held, the need to be nourished, the need to be understood, the need to be loved, the need for touch, the need to be cared for….
Sense into your body where shame is lodged and let your inner child know this:
It’s not your fault
You are enough
You are loved
And lastly love, I suggest you do that with someone who’s capable of giving you a safe space to explore shame and its healing. This can be me or anyone else who is informed about healing the shame of the mother wound.