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The Mother Wound as a Missing Link to Understanding Misogyny

By Bethany Webster on Friday January 19th, 2018

Image: Unknown

What's Going on with Men?

With this massive wave of brave women coming forward with disclosures of sexual harassment across many industries, many of us, men and women alike, are grappling with the sobering reality of rampant misogyny. As a culture, we’re left to ask questions like, why do so many men have the impulse to disrespect, hate or violate women? Where does that really come from? And how do we stop it?

As an internationally recognized expert on the mother wound in women, I’m often asked to speak about the mother wound in men. At this time of mass disclosures about sexual assault, I wanted to write a piece exploring how the mother wound is the missing link in our understanding of misogyny. In this essay, I’ll examine how boys develop in the modern world, the unprocessed anger below the surface of the lives of men, the role of privilege and the inner work that both men and women can undertake to transform our situation.

Oxford dictionary defines misogyny as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” To understand misogyny we have to explore the first relationship a man ever has with a woman; the relationship with his mother.

For both girls and boys, the relationships with our mothers are one of the most significant relationships in our lives. It’s impossible to overstate just how foundational this relationship is and how it impacts our wellbeing well into our adulthood. In the first weeks and months of our lives, mother is food, mother is world, mother is body, and mother is self. For both women and men, the mother wound itself is a product of patriarchy; of living in a culture with the domination of women at its core.

The mother-child relationship can be seen as the first relationship violated by patriarchy. – Adrienne Rich

The mother woundBoth men and women have a mother wound but men are ill-equipped to heal theirs.

On a personal level, the mother wound is an internalized set of limiting beliefs and patterns originating from the relationship with one’s mother. The mother wound exists on a spectrum, with healthy, supportive mother/child relationships on one end and abusive traumatic mother/child relationships on the other end. Many complex factors go into how one’s mother wound manifests and where one falls on that spectrum. For men, it comes down to the specific dynamics that played out between a boy and his mother, as well as how the father supported or thwarted that primary connection. Because patriarchy—the principle of domination—can be embodied by either a man or a woman, the mother or father may have played the role of the patriarchal parent in a boy’s life. For example, some boys may have experienced their mothers as neglectful or as domineering. Some may have experienced their mothers as victims of their fathers or their mothers as the dominant one and their father the more passive one.

Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples. Since it is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy, to be disloyal to the patriarchal parent, be that parent female or male. – Bell Hooks

As a boy grows today in the modern world, he becomes socialized by his father, by other men, and by society about what it means to be a man. The patriarchal culture of media, education, and religion also perform that function. Unfortunately, it’s well-documented that this socialization of the boy involves, to some degree, learning to dominate others, to shut down his emotions and to devalue women. (See resources below.) This constitutes both a personal and collective trauma.

Healing Personal Trauma is Central to Undoing the Patriarchy

Contrary to our modern world, the history of civilization is full of examples of cultures giving boys the initiatory experience of graduating into manhood through a time of physical trials, which helps them symbolically cross a psychological bridge from the relative comforts of childhood into the rigors of adulthood. In this positive context, surrounded by male elders, some kind of physical/emotional wound occurs, helping the boy contact his inner strength, confidence, and sense of responsibility. Today in the modern world, most boys experience wounding but without a positive transformation. There are few official rites, few wise elders and a dearth of male role models outside the toxic status quo.

The socialization of boysBoys learn to dominate, to shut down their emotions and to devalue women.

The cultural expectation to devalue women, including his mother, sets a boy up for cognitive dissonance about what his mother represents in himself, including the ability to express his emotions, to be vulnerable, to express physical affection, etc. In this way, his mother could be seen broadly as a ‘lost source’ to the boy, and the father, as socializer of the boy into the world of men, could be seen as ‘severer of the bond’ with the mother, with his source.

For white men, privilege plays a role. In addition to discouraging their emotions and encouraging domination, society gives them unearned advantages that are denied to other groups, including women and people of color. According to American sociologist, Professor Michael Kimmel, privilege is invisible to those who have it. This leaves white men with a triple wound; an injury to their ability to process their emotions, a blindness about their privilege and a lack of empathy for those they harm. This triple wound in white men has remained relatively unconscious and has caused unspeakable suffering in the world.

Much male fear of feminism is the fear that, in becoming whole human beings, women will cease to mother men, to provide the breast, the lullaby, the continuous attention associated by the infant with the mother. Much male fear of feminism is infantilism—the longing to remain a mother’s son, to possess a woman purely for him. These infantile needs of adult men for women have been sentimentalised and romanticised long enough as ‘love;’ it is time to recognise them as arrested development, and to re-examine the ideal preservation of ‘the family’ within which those needs are allowed free rein to the point of violence. Because the law and the economic and social order are heavily weighted in favor of men, the infantile needs of adult males are affirmed by a machinery of power, which does not affirm or validate the needs of adult women. Institutionalised marriage and motherhood perpetuate the will of male infants as law in the adult world. – Adrienne Rich

What’s been happening with the #metoo movement, with women telling their stories of sexual assault and outing their abusers, is that the ‘free rein’ that men have used to dominate women in the home and in the workplace is being increasingly curtailed. Women are less willing to remain the silent projection screen onto which men can project their disowned pain with impunity. And many male witnesses are no longer willing to look the other way.

Love or the desire to be mothered?Is it love? Or is it an infantile desire to be mothered?

Assault as Sexualized Hostility

Sexual assault is not about sex, it’s about power. Alexandra Katehakis, a sex therapist and Clinical Director for the Center for Healthy Sex in L.A. describes it this way:

Guys who engage in this type of behavior are incredibly rageful towards females. It often harkens back to childhood abuse. For example, maybe they had mothers who were emotionally abusive or who didn’t protect them from abusive fathers. As some men get older they act out that anger towards women in the language of sex. They sexualize their emotions because they don’t know any other way of comforting themselves.

It is as if the inner male child is unconsciously caught between his painful longing for the ‘lost source’ represented by his mother and his cultural conditioning to hate her as a woman. Put another way, men are caught between a natural desire for their full humanity (the ability to be emotional, vulnerable and empathic) and their desire to remain privileged and in dominator mode. The thing is that one can’t have both. To hold on to dominator mode (patriarchy) is to increasingly lose access to your humanity. And to be fully human, one has to forsake the dominator mode and all the insidious ways it can show up in oneself. No amount of privilege (wealth, power, fame, prestige) will ever compensate for the devastation, to whatever degree, that patriarchy has wrought on the little boy within him. No amount of power over others will ever make up for that lost part of himself. It can only be found through doing the inner work to reclaim it.

A man can find this ‘lost source,’ not in the form of physical women, but in the form of exploring what it means to reclaim what the mother or the feminine represents within him, such as the feeling function, the world of emotions, the experience of deep connection within himself and a sense of authentic belonging with others. However, in order to access these vital capacities that have been in shadow, men first have to engage with the child within who is angry that there has been little payoff for forsaking these vital aspects of himself.

It’s easier to project rage onto a ‘mother substitute’ or the ‘father substitute’ out there in the world. Male privilege permits men a blindness to their mother and father wounds while the world burns. However, it takes courage to retract those projections and process the anger about the inner patriarch, the archetype of the cruel, unfeeling father, that granted him access to the world of men at the massive cost of disconnection from his true self, the innocent boy who came into this world capable of expressing empathy, emotionality, and vulnerability. The anger belongs with the patriarchal father (personal and/or collective), the ‘severer of the bond,’ who betrayed the boy, who socialized him to give up a vital part of himself to be accepted in this world as a man. The anger also belongs with the mother who was unable to protect him from this patriarchal wound or who may have inflicted it herself. When men can direct their anger there, to where it truly belongs, things will really begin to shift.

Split between humanity and dominatorMen are caught between a desire for their full humanity, and to remain dominator.

Misogyny is a son’s outwardly projected rage on a mother who was unable to protect him. – Gabor Maté

At its core, for men and women alike, the task of healing the mother wound is ultimately the same: to de-couple one’s inner and outer life from the lamination of ‘mother,’ so that one’s full potential can be accessed and actualized.

In his book Under Saturn’s Shadow author and Jungian analyst, James Hollis, brilliantly encapsulates it this way:

When we remember that patriarchy is a cultural contrivance, an invention to compensate for powerlessness, we realize that men, contrary to widespread opinions, are more often the more dependent sex. The Marlboro man, the rugged individualist, is most ambushed by his inner feminine, for he is most in denial. Whenever a man is obliged to be a good boy, or conversely he feels he must be a bad boy, or a wild man, he is still compensating for the power of the mother complex.

I do not say it is a man’s fault that he is so vulnerable, so dependent; that he is merely human. What is his responsibility is to recognize how deeply any child needs positive mothering and how much the pattern of that need sets his psychic life in motion and continues to operate beneath the surface. He may pretend to adult empowerment, hold the reigns of government or the purse, but the lines of stress reach deep down into his relationship with his mother. Men must grasp and accept this fact, and then take responsibility for it, or they will continue to play out infantile patterns forever.

Healing the mother wound for men involves removing their projected rage off of women and processing it towards its true target… with patriarchy itself and to the very specific traumatic events of their childhood in which that played out.

Process the angerMen must learn to process their childhood anger without projecting it onto others.

To do this deep inner work, it’s crucial that men get support from other men who have already done a significant amount of work on this journey themselves, including professional support from male therapists skilled in this area.

Broadly speaking, men’s inner and outer work involves:

  • Processing the anger about the parent (mother and/or father) who betrayed him by making him give up vital parts of himself, in order to be considered a man in this world. Grieving about what that has cost him.
  • Taking responsibility for their emotions, feeling them and processing them. Getting support.
  • Having sex as a way to connect, not a way to feel powerful.
  • Soothing the little boy within him when he’s triggered.
  • Becoming aware of his projections and seeing the women in their lives as people, not as objects.
  • Being honest about his life. Acknowledging his secrets and taking responsibility for his actions.
  • Feeling genuine remorse about the ways that he has harmed other people and the Earth by acting out his pain in unconscious ways, both personally and collectively, while taking empathic actions on a consistent basis. Experiencing real consequences for their actions.
  • Finding a community of other conscious men who are on this path of reclamation and reconciliation.

Shawn Vestal explains that it’s not for a lack of training that men sexually assault in the workplace.

It’s not about what men don’t know. It’s about what men have known too well: That we can get away with it. That it will be excused, hidden, justified and rationalized, and no one will be called to account.

In other words, until men have sufficient integrity to not sexually assault, real consequences must come into play at work and in relationships that halt the toxic behavior. Basically, men need a global intervention, a resounding, societal ‘no’ to wake up to the realities they’ve been oblivious to.

Support is keyA support network of like-minded men will help through the process of healing.

To support this process, as women, we have to say no in every way possible to the raging boy within the men in our lives, be they friends, colleagues, brothers or husbands. Back to Rich’s quote, women have to withdraw from the ways that we have over-functioned or mothered men. We have to “withdraw the breast, the lullaby and the constant attention associated by the infant with the mother.” That way, men can feel the full magnitude of their predicament, which is the beginning of lasting, meaningful change.

Only by men feeling the painful gap of what women are no longer willing to do for them, will they experience sufficient motivation to finally step in and fill that gap from within themselves.

As women, we must keep using our voices and speaking out about male abuse of power with every chance we get and amplify the voices of other women who are enduring male abuse, particularly the voices of women of color and indigenous women.

As women, we must stop:

  • Catering to their illusions that come from an ignorance of their own privilege.
  • Staying quiet to avoid conflict.
  • Internalizing their projections from their disowned pain.
  • Minimizing our feelings in their presence.
  • Accepting crumbs of respect, instead of what we truly deserve.
  • Giving our power away in the form of emotional caretaking.
  • Giving time and energy to men who refuse to do their inner work.

The truth is that women are very limited in how they can help men in their healing. We can hold space but we can’t do the work for them. It is their journey and they have to want it for themselves. In the meantime, let’s expand our awareness of our value outside the male gaze, prioritize our own inner work, and heal our own childhood wounds. Let’s hold strong boundaries with those who are not doing their inner work and spend more time with those who are. True sisterhood is a crucial source of nourishment for these times.

Women have a responsibility tooWomen must stop pandering to a man’s patriarchal patterns.

Harnessing Our Anger as Fuel for Wise Action

The more we contact the truth of our worth as women, the more rage we will feel about the devastation toxic masculinity has caused. Our anger is an essential tool in this time, to sharpen our refusal to be compliant with oppression of any kind, including internalized misogyny directed at ourselves, and for white women, a refusal to be patriarchal to others, and specifically facing how we have facilitated the oppression of men and women of color.

One oppresses what one fears. – James Hollis

Healing from patriarchy requires that every privileged group actively confront their ignorance and cultivate sincere empathy for how their privilege has caused harm to others.

Allowing oneself be emotionally affected by the depths of horrors that have been perpetrated by our privilege is a necessary, but often avoided, step in creating real equality between people. Just as white women need to endure the experience of feeling genuinely horrified about the ways in which we have, knowingly or unknowingly, facilitated white supremacy onto people of color, white men have to do the same about how their ignorance, afforded by privilege, has collectively caused an unspeakable amount of pain in the world to women, people of color and the planet itself.

May this ever-rising tide of female anger be followed by a commensurate wave of brave men, willing to explore their inner terrain, to embrace the abandoned boy within and to process the legitimate anger and grief about what patriarchy has stolen from them: their full humanity. Collective change will occur when enough individual men change. May men take full responsibility and humbly embrace this raw, necessary discomfort as the medicine they need to heal their personal and collective mother wound. And may women refuse to allow the behavior of unconscious men to define them.

 

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Mike
Guest
Mike

Thank you. I was just confronting the misogyny inherent in many rap lyrics today. This article is just in time and was the basis of my critique.

David
Guest
David

After reading this article it has saddened and disappointed me how little responsibility is taken by women … they bring males into this world … that world is entirely shaped by women … first at home … then school … and finally in relationships … most men spend their entire life supporting women … and for that privilege they die earlier … have more health problems … 4 times higher suicide rates … in my personal relationships all I ask is to be treated as an equal … something neither myself or any of my male friends have experienced in… Read more »

Laurie
Guest
Laurie

WE have taken all of the responsibility forever. This article is not about blame this article is about how to become a full human even though our society has lived with patriarchy forever. Power and control does not work. This article is talking about the responsibility men must take for their own emotional well being by doing the work. Also, women. Everyone needs to take responsibility to become the best versions of themselves fully in order to be able to create a better relationship and a better society for all. Maybe you should read this again. Become the better version… Read more »

Clementina Labinjo
Guest
Clementina Labinjo

Really enjoyed your response Laurie. The article as you say is not apportiining blame. Your comments were objective and very mature. I just think you can’t collectively blame women David. No one but you is responsible for the choices you make or blaming women for how you feel no one can make you feel anything without your own permission. I have had a few long term relationships which have been wonderful my partner’s have encouraged my growth enjoyed my changes and supported me emotionally. My parents wanted us and we were loved so my relationships have been great and loving.

Brian
Guest
Brian

Note that the article does mention that wpmen can also act out the patriarchy but then conveniently ignores it and is never mentioned again.

Alex
Guest
Alex

The author does assign blame when talking about male infantilism being to blame for the way in which men act out, because whether you believe its the fault of men or the fault of the environment it is wholly their responsibility to fix and the problem has very clearly been defined as a problem with ‘maleness’ so to speak, and a lot of people are rightly upset that they are reduced to infants when they spend most of their time working to support a woman or a family, at least financially and dont feel, that they are chained to the… Read more »

MC - a female
Guest
MC - a female

I totally agree with you, but unfortunately like everything else, the victims need to step up first – that is the total catch 22 for this. Men are wounded by the mother (not all, but mothers that are personality disordered), and then the victim goes into therapy years later, and then therapy brings to light other problems in society, and then society recognizes the need to punish every abuse from every gender. “Times Up” applies to women and mothers also. Abusive mothers will become accountable just like everyone else in this world hopefully, and when that happens, a new generation… Read more »

David 27 non-binary
Guest
David 27 non-binary

cool thank you. This gives me a lot of freedom at the moment. I am at the core of knowing what my wounds about my parents give me. I am not in a blamIng situation. But I do expect my parents to listen what I have to say and that both have done wrong to me. My mother didn’t protext me from my emotional abusive father, herself she also couldn’t give me emotional strength and I see it very clear nowadays and that she is also still doing those things and I always advice her to react different and take… Read more »

Spencer
Guest
Spencer

David, what were you looking for in those toxic relationships that you appear to want to blame women for? Why did you let them happen? What were you getting out of them?

Brian
Guest
Brian

David is not blaming women he is merely pointing out what is glaringly obvious in the article. That it is abusive women who are creating the psychopathic monsters and it is not even mentioned!!Hello??

A.M.
Guest
A.M.

Brian, David and all the other men who are courageous enough to express outrage at men being singled out here – think about it for one moment. Most women have been twisted through the ages by what they had to do and what they had to become to just stay alive and have access to food and shelter and it continues to this day. How can you expect any woman who then gives birth to be able to wade through centuries of conditioning to then be able to be the model mother and give a child everything he/she needs? It’s… Read more »

Neil
Guest
Neil

David, from my perspective, you give proof to what the essay is speaking to. Your mother wound has you blaming women for their role in you feeling powerless. The work needs to be done by both sexes. If you are open enough, stay away from any relationship that disempowers you, search inside yourself for parts of you that are frightened, powerless and start working from there.

Brian
Guest
Brian

He is not blaming women.. He merely pointed out a glaringly obvious fact

Jennifer
Guest
Jennifer

I have to disagree that the world is shaped by women. It is shaped by patriarchy. And patriarchy has affected both men and women.

petr
Guest
petr

He is completely right. This world is not equal. Altho we have so called patriarchy, it is the women who shape this world. The aggresion from men comes from the frustration of having no real power in the sense of equality. Therefore as a man you can loose yourself and turn this into violence against women because we are usually stronger physically and it is our last resort to fight the inequality. If women want to make this world a better place from their side they need to start treating men as equal partners in the constant play of divine… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

I agree that we women need to step forward into our natural divine beauty and strength. Pointing fingers at each other as to whom is wrong, is not helpful. We women need to see the value within ourselves rather than objectifying ourselves as sex objects and putting all the blame on men. We have our part to change as well.

Susan
Guest
Susan

Actually, all the blame is heaped onto the woman. For eg…your thoughts that women bring males into the world…they can’t make male babies by themselves…they need an other – male. Have you not heard of fathers/males who leave the woman to fend for herself and their kids…this is a worldwide known fact that such does happen…if as a male you want to be treated as an equal, do you treat your other half as your equal or do it begrudgingly?? sounds like you do with all your male friends too? thought about your mother wound…male or female, we all have… Read more »

Kat
Guest
Kat

David, the thing is here that most people have been wounded by their parents. Even well intentioned parents (like mine) screw up big time because they parent the only way they know how, and then add the stresses of everyday life. In my situation should I just hate all men bc my dad did a bad job? But the point is that men have a more difficult time in the self healing aspect of their childhood traumas and instead of facing it or realizing this issue for what it is, they will project all their hurt and rage onto all… Read more »

Patty
Guest
Patty

Just want to ask if there is a way you could make your articles printable; I know about the overuse of trees, but it is a trade off when the material is so needed in the right places, and sometimes a good page in hand is like a seed bomb or a strategic strike of enlightenment when the person is not online as many of my clients are not; it would seem to be in line with your ethics to share and express positive evolving ideas and knowledge, and would be another way to help the quickening we need…thanks for… Read more »

Ruth Neeley
Guest
Ruth Neeley

Patty, to print you can take screenshots then email them to yourself. Open the emails then print. Easy breezy.

Cally
Guest
Cally

You could also copy and paste into a Word document and print from there. 🙂

Carolyn
Guest
Carolyn

Thank you. This feels to me like the missing piece to the articles I continue to read about our “MeTo” movement and to my own reflections on my relationship with my mother. I recognize my own passivity and indeed complicity even though I call myself a feminist and have tried to understand and act upon feminist principles. I encourage others to respectfully join the conversation.

Laurie
Guest
Laurie

This is a fantastic article and if we ALL pay heed to it and ALL do the work wouldn’t it be a different world and our experience in it?

Billie
Guest
Billie

Wonderful article. Our society has so much work to do. Patriarchal men need to wake up and give it up. #me too is their aeskening.

Lila
Guest
Lila

What’s with all the divisive racial talk Bethany? I thought this was a gender issue. Nice try slipping it in to beat “white men” over the head while you were at it. Clear as day.

Dena
Guest
Dena

Yes, that part seemed to have been popped into the article as an afterthought.. I was taken back by it and was surprised so little was written about it. I assume it was a segway to another article. Was it ? Thank you, D

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