Trauma Therapy in a World of Imperfect Mothers

Recently, I was watching an episode of the HBO series ENLIGHTENED. This dramady  follows the brilliant actress, LAURA DERN as a divorced, self-destructive woman determined to live an “enlightened” life.

As financial luck would have it, she is forced to move in with her elderly mother (DIANE LADD; Dern’s real-life mom). Dern’s character, Amy struggles to experience some kind of deeper emotional connection with her mother. But of course, her mother is incapable of showing her love (read: emotionally unavailable) which leaves Amy feeling angry, frustrated, hurt – and most importantly – unloved.

This emotional stand-off is an all-too-common dynamic between mothers and their adult children. So many of my clients -whether they have a relationship with their mother or not- usually long for one. But is a healthy relationship even possible when someone is emotionally out-to-lunch? The answer is yes; IF it is built on truth.

An additional complication gets piled on here for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and survivors of physical abuse.  If their mother acted as a silent partner –a co-conspirator if you will- in the abuse, that adds a whole other layer of emotional complexity. Their mother may not have been a perpetrator, but she certainly covered the abusive parent’s tracks and enabled the abuse. Adult abuse survivors attempting to cope with the abuse wrestle with feelings of anger, abandonment and pain. To cope with these overwhelming emotions, they either put up walls, or have no boundaries at all. They constantly struggle with relationships – and not just those with their mother.

In turn, their mother, who typically lives in total denial of the abuse, has no clue why her son or daughter has built an emotional forcefield the size of the Great Wall of China to keep her out. And so the deep-seated anger, pain and frustration on both sides grows and festers like toxic black mold year after year. Some survivors/thrivers of child abuse make the decision to cut all ties with their mothers, but some don’t. Is a relationship with your mother something you want? If so, it can be a second chance to have a positive relationship with her. But I believe it must come from place of truth. No lies; no secrets. That was your childhood; this is now.

I guide my clients through an interactive process I refer to as “the carefrontation”: you confront the culpable parent, but you show a great deal of care. You tell her the truth about what happened; how it made you feel as a child and how she failed to protect you. Best case scenario: your mom takes responsibility for her actions (or inactions), apologizes and you hug it out.

But sometimes you can’t get the Hollywood ending. Then what?

Here’s what: the adult survivor is responsible for their healing.

And this brings me back to ENLIGHTENED. Amy stomps through the episode seething with frustration until she realizes a couple of crucial things: 1) her mom will never be the mother that she always wanted. And 2) She must become the mother she never had — to herself.

I couldn’t have written a better synopsis of my own personal approach to trauma therapy. Unlike most works of fiction you see on TV, my clients experience this kind of “aha” moment of clarity or “enlightenment” everyday in my practice.

It is possible to learn how to re-parent yourself and live the life you’ve always imagined. I can show you how.

-In Your Corner,


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