“Mama’s girl” – what are the characteristics of such a mother-daughter relationship? How can you take back your power and take control of your life? (I)

The concept of "mama’s girl" evokes a relationship in which the mother and the daughter become excessively involved in each other's lives, in a way that the boundaries between them become blurred. What are the characteristics of such a relationship?

The mother exerts excessive control over her daughter's life and is overly involved in it. She is an overbearing mother who insinuates herself into your plans, whether you want it or not. What she considers loving behavior, you perceive as suffocating and invasive. She sticks her nose into everything and wants you to spend all your time together, giving her all your attention, regardless of your own plans. She relates to you as if you are everything to her, and even though you are an adult woman, she still treats you like a helpless child.

You already have certain habits. For example, you talk on the phone every evening, and if you miss a call, you know she will hold you accountable and expect a detailed explanation of what you were doing that made you unavailable. You visit each other daily/weekly/for every holiday, and if you refuse even once, she makes you feel guilty. Feelings of obligation and guilt are, in fact, a significant red flag. Respecting certain traditions and customs or having your own rituals can be wonderful only if you genuinely want and feel like doing those things. If you feel obligated, if you are afraid of the consequences, or guilty, your relationship with your mother is likely based on conditioning and fear.

Both the mother and the daughter feel dependent on each other, they are enmeshed - a daughter who is overly emotionally involved in her mother's life (and vice versa) can become excessively dependent on her. This dependence can affect her relationships with other people and the ability to cope in difficult situations without maternal support. If the relationship becomes suffocating and unhealthy, it can lead to physical or mental disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression.

In such a context, you may have difficulty discovering and developing your own identity, adapting to changes, and making decisions on your own. You await your mother's approval and validation, and your sense of self-worth depends on this.

It is difficult for you to express your needs and desires, to define and communicate your personal boundaries and limits, to build healthy relationships with other people. You have learned that loving means pleasing others at the expense of your own wellbeing, making others happy even if it means giving up on yourself and your desires. You have learned that you can earn others’ love by giving them what they want, whether you like it or not.

You may fear intimacy and find it difficult to open up emotionally to a man. You may feel like you would betray your mother if you were to pay more attention to your partner. If your mother doesn’t approve of the partner you have chosen, you may hesitate to fully engage in that relationship out of fear of upsetting your mother. You often feel caught between a rock and a hard place.

In any case, your mother will overly interfere in your relationship, criticize your partner, criticize you, and behave as if she is the "boss" of you, leaving you often in the role of a child who must obey her, who must listen to her. Instead of making decisions with your partner, you often end up making decisions with your mother. If you live close to each other or, more problematically, in the same house, you will have no privacy, and your romantic relationship is inevitably going to suffer.

It is also possible to fear men. By being possessive, your mother may have distanced you from your father. Because you were not allowed to get too close to him, i.e., to have a balanced relationship with both parents, you may have formed a belief like: "if my good and protective mother doesn't allow me to get close to my father, it means that my father is bad, he is dangerous." Unconsciously, you may relate to men in this way and reject them because you perceive them as dangerous. To some extent, you reject the masculine energy within yourself, and this turns you into a passive being who believes she always needs someone to move forward in life.

There is also the scenario where, due to an intense fear of abandonment, you desperately cling to your life partner or your own children, repeating the same pattern. Your mother's love is possessive and restrictive, and this is the type of love you know and expect in return.

You feel responsible for your mother's emotional needs and feel pressured to fulfill her desires and expectations, even if it means giving up your own needs, desires, interests, and aspirations. You fear that you will lose her affection, and you feel obliged to do everything you can to make her happy. Subconsciously, you are haunted by the primary fear of a child – if I do something wrong and push my mother away, she won't love me anymore and won't take care of me, and I won't be able to survive on my own. So, if she disapproves, gets upset, or shows disappointment, you feel like you have no choice but to yield to her.

In any case, if you don't comply, she will make you feel guilty. Guilt is the "hook" that catches you every time. A certain tone, a look that you know very well, a specific sigh can instantly trigger guilt in you. There's no need for her to be harsh when talking; it could be as simple as saying things like: "oh, I'm so disappointed that you're not coming to dinner this Sunday" or "I'm so sorry you didn't tell me you were going to the theater, you know I wanted to come too. I stay at home all day doing chores, but who appreciates that?".

You are your mother's confidante and best friend – if your mother is unhappy in her own marriage or if she's a single mother, she will try to get the affection she lacks from you, and you will become her primary support. She will rely on you to alleviate her loneliness, fulfill her emotional needs, putting immense pressure on your shoulders. The same situation applies if your mother has not been able to build a fulfilling life for herself. Perhaps she gave up on her dreams, couldn't achieve what she wanted, didn't form a social circle, didn't explore her interests, passions, talents, and you have become her solace, the reason for her to live, her confidante, her best friend.

What does this overwhelming love and friendship mean to your mother?

- you are not allowed to have a life that doesn't include me;

- you are not allowed to have secrets from me;

- you are not allowed to say "no" because that means you don't love me;

- you are responsible for my happiness (you are everything to me, you are my reason to live, so your job is to make me happy);

- you must please me or take care of my needs because... I only have you / I have made so many sacrifices for you  / I have given you so much / this is what a good daughter does (or you will feel extremely guilty otherwise);

- you are not allowed to love anyone more than me;

- you are not allowed to prioritize anyone else (not yourself, not your partner, not your children).

Your mother may feel that her maternal role defines her. Her own fear of abandonment and her need to feel loved and important push her to wish for a symbiotic closeness with her child. She needs you to need her. She needs a dependent child to feel useful, valuable, important.

The mother uses her daughter to give her life a purpose or to boost her ego: "look what a good mother I am, how much I do for you, my helpless little girl". She is a devoted mother, willing to do anything for you, except to allow you to detach from her. Her needs are more important than yours – she burdens you with the responsibility of making her happy, rather than teaching you to build your own life. The messages she has conveyed to you have emphasized your duty to her (and less your duty to yourself), her expectations, and what you should be in relation to her needs.

If you try to detach from her, as is natural, to take a step back, to leave, she will do everything possible to bring you back. From this point of view, your adolescence may have been an emotionally difficult time for you, full of arguments, conflicts, or victimization, emotional blackmail, and sulking. Your desire to explore and your natural need to assert your individuality clashed with your mother's stubbornness not to trust you, to continue to treat you as a child lacking judgment.

"Be careful, my dear, not to get into trouble," "I won't allow you to... because I'm afraid you'll get into trouble," "Are you sure you want this? How can YOU do that?" and other similar phrases she used represented a way to control you by instilling fear. The message is: "don't stray too far from home, meaning from me, because something bad will happen to you." Even though this approach stemmed from her own fears, self-doubt, or anxiety, such messages constantly repeated gradually made you lose your enthusiasm and self-confidence. You have come to internalize them, and now, as an adult, you may suffer from anxiety, fear of trying new things, seeing dangers where there are none. You constantly need your mother's approval, and you doubt what you want, your choices, and your decisions. Of course, she doesn't need to express this approval verbally because you have already internalized her voice; you already know what she would agree with and what she wouldn't. Practically, you have conditioned yourself and restrained yourself.

In a healthy mother-daughter relationship, the messages you would have received would have helped you develop self-confidence, independence, and supported your growth.

Another way your mother supports this dependency is through acts of service – she offers to help you, to cook for you, to take care of your children, she gives you money, she constantly says phrases like: "I'm so glad I can help you, that's my role as a mother," "I live for you." She makes surprise visits where she brings you gifts, but she rarely questions whether her presence is appropriate or not. She may even criticize other mothers for not being devoted enough, providing many examples just to highlight how much she does for you or to prompt you to praise her.

If you are accustomed, from childhood, to be overprotected, to have the certainty that your mother will save you from your responsibilities every time, you may now view her actions as a display of affection and parental care – her tendency to do things for you or in your place, which you could very well do yourself. To some extent, you fear that you would not be able to cope without her – without her help, her advice, her gestures. You have developed a dependency that paralyzes you. By always being helped, you have been given the feeling that you are not capable enough, not good enough, not competent enough. If your mother emphasized what you couldn't do, your weaknesses, as if you were not capable of much, assuming the role of nursing you like a bird tending to its wounded baby, you may feel like something is constantly wrong with you. But it's not. Your wings are perfectly healthy.

People around you may envy you for all that your mother does for you and even accuse you of being ungrateful without knowing the intricacies of this relationship.

Usually, the price paid is the loss of your independence, intimacy, and a nagging feeling of obligation. Somehow, you feel that nothing is "free," that what she does for you, the gifts, and her acts of generosity represent the currency through which she can infiltrate your life, eventually taking it over entirely. Even if the help is very real, it can also serve as a pretext for your mother to constantly demand that you stay in touch, regardless of your needs and concerns. The more you feel you owe her, the guiltier you feel when you refuse her, when you want to do things for yourself, when you want to put yourself first in your life, when you want to live your life independently of her.

Your real job is to define your individuality and build your own life, making your own mistakes and learning from them, just like any other person on this Earth, and your mother's role is to support you.

The problems or inappropriate behaviors of others are NOT your responsibility.

You have the right to say "no," and you have the right to change your mind.

You have the right to your own opinions, beliefs, and feelings.

You have the right to the life you want and to find your adult strength.

However, it is still difficult for you to detach from her because you constantly feel guilty if you refuse her, if you don't behave the way she expects and wants, if you choose to do things for yourself and put yourself first in your life. At the same time, you can feel angry and frustrated. There have been many moments in your life when you tried to resist her, to get out from under her wing, when you felt that it was too much, but you didn't succeed in changing much.

What can you do now? I invite you to read the rest of this article here.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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