Mother and daughter smiling while they embrace each other
Love & Relationships

Living Your Best Life Actually Looks Like Decentering Your Mother

As little people – as children – we tend to grow up idolizing our parents. And, for better or worse, we tend to emulate them in so many ways. But the truth is, we cannot be sure which point of view is steeped in our parents' belief system and those that are our own until we do some living. Soul searching, if you will. Arguably, many children (especially teens) have an innate curiosity about the world and may begin to slowly realize they’re not interested in sharing their parents’ P.O.V. on topics such as … let’s say…parenting. But I’m not entirely sure you can fully self-actualize until you’re an adult.

This is the developmental stage where you’re allotted autonomy that prior generations (sans conscious parenting) of children haven’t had access to. According to Allison Sharp, this is a spiritual process known as “decentering” our parents–particularly urging women to decenter their mothers. You’ve probably never heard this language, and that’s because it’s unique to Sharp’s work. And, with its impending popularity, she recently sought out a trademark to ensure she is properly credited for the phrase.

Now, before you get ready to tussle under the assumption that this is a diss track to all the healthy, happy mother-daughter duos. This is not that! In fact, decentering our mothers is a process that should happen regardless of the dynamic of that relationship, according to Sharp. And if we’re being completely transparent, I can attest to the fact that our mothers are our mothers no matter how much of a headcase they also are – and with that comes a desire for approval.

So now imagine you actually come from a mother who is loving and not at all narcissistic – frankly, I’d imagine that I’d value her opinion all the more because I’d idolize her even more.

Black woman lays head on mother's shoulder.

FatCamera/ Getty Images

Still, this work may feel extremely challenging if you happen to come from a toxic upbringing. Sharp explains, “It is challenging for a woman coming from a narcissistic [and/or] toxic mother because you were told every day to go against your own spirit, and if you follow your spirit, you must be punished. The soul is seen as a liability to a mother who wishes to dismantle you.”

With all of this in mind, it sorta does make sense that the evolution to centering self begins with decentering our mothers rather than men or anyone else. If one is able to “identity outside of the woman [she] shared a body with, drank milk from and came out of, what makes you [men] think [she] can’t find [an] identity outside of you? There is a beautiful confidence that is born from that realization.”

The unfortunate reality is that by seeking her approval, you’re not actually living authentically. Because how could you live in your truth if you value her opinions above all else?

Sharp goes on to paint the picture of how we even come to center our mothers, referencing Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, Women Who Run with Wolves.

“It talks about how ‘the Ambivalent mother’ is taunted for having a daughter who is different, and because she is divided emotionally, she eventually gives in and bends her desires to please the village instead of aligning with her daughter. This is oftentimes a pattern within motherhood.” She goes on to add, “For us daughters, we are taught to center our mothers and to center the needs of the village while neglecting ourselves. We begin to grow with a distorted self-image, confidence, and self-esteem because we spent our early womanhood building and tending to others rather than ourselves.”

"For us daughters, we are taught to center our mothers and to center the needs of the village while neglecting ourselves."

1. Reflect on Your Beliefs

Take the time to reflect on your beliefs and opinions. Consider which ones align with your authentic self and which ones may have been inherited from your parents. This self-reflection is crucial in understanding your true values.

2. Establish Boundaries

It's essential to set boundaries to ensure that your decisions and choices are guided by your own needs and desires rather than the expectations or desires of your mother. Clearly define what is acceptable and what is not in terms of influence and interference.

3. Seek Independence

Embrace your autonomy as an adult. Make decisions independently, and don't let the fear of disapproval dictate your choices. Seeking independence allows you to live life on your terms, fostering personal growth and self-discovery.

4. Communicate Openly

Engage in open and honest communication with your mother. Express your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives, even if they differ from hers. Healthy communication is key to building understanding and breaking free from the pattern of centering your mother.

5. Forgive and Let Go

Holding onto resentment or an idealized image of your mother can hinder your journey to authenticity. Forgive past misunderstandings, acknowledge imperfections, and let go of unrealistic expectations. This process is liberating and allows you to reclaim your own narrative.

6. Focus on Self-Care  

Prioritize self-care and self-love. Redirect the energy you might have spent seeking approval toward nurturing your well-being. This includes physical, emotional, and mental self-care practices that contribute to your overall happiness and fulfillment.

7. Build a Support System

Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, mentors, or like-minded individuals who encourage your individuality. Having a strong support system outside of the mother-daughter relationship provides additional perspectives and validation.

8. Embrace Your Individuality

Celebrate your uniqueness and embrace your individuality. Understand that it is okay to have different beliefs, dreams, and goals from your mother. Embracing your own path allows you to lead a more fulfilling and authentic life.

Black woman showing something on her phone to her mom.

SDI Productions/ Getty Images

Though doing the work on your own is possible, if you’re anything like me, you may want a therapist to help the process along. Frankly, I imagine this is actually the perfect nontraumatic scenario to reach out to a therapist. In fact, I spoke with Nicole Lewis, LCSW, a Mental Health Therapist and Coach for Black women, and she was able to provide insight on what therapy surrounding this topic may look like.

Lewis says, “I approach the concept of ‘decentering’ when a client tells me they're ready to work on that. Some clients are not aware that their relationships with their mothers could be causing them so much distress. Once they acknowledge that this is an issue that they want to work on, we explore the roles that family members played in their lives. We especially focus on the mother-child relationship and how that dynamic has had an impact on them.”

Though each therapist is different, Lewis shares some of the approaches she might take if any one of us were sitting on her couch or telehealth session.

“A few therapeutic approaches that I use to help support individuals through the process of decentering include Family Systems Therapy to understand the dynamics and interactions within the family. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) helps process emotions, memories, and beliefs related to the mother-child relationship. I also connect clients to other communities or support groups to build their support systems, as it is difficult to work through this alone.”

What happens if there’s a bump in the road? Well, “there are many ways to address potential challenges or resistance that clients might face in therapy, including building a rapport with the client so they can feel safe while discussing their thoughts, normalizing and validating their feelings, identifying core beliefs that produce internal conflicts about the mother-child relationship, collaborating with the client on the goals they want to reach when decentering their mother, and providing plenty of psychoeducation on codependency, attachment, estrangement, and fear of abandonment.”

Whatever you take away from this, please keep in mind that decentering your mother is not about severing ties or disrespecting her. It's a transformative journey towards reclaiming your own identity, making choices that resonate with your true self, and living authentically. And, the consequence of never knowing you outside of her – of never removing her from “the pedestal,” Sharp continues, “you will go your whole life searching for answers outside of you that only lie within you.”

But more than anything, I encourage everyone in the process of or beginning the process to give yourself space and grace to feel all the things that may come with that – especially those of us who come from toxic or narcissistic mothers. Remember that every time you’ve attempted to “follow your spirit,” you were likely punished.

She adds, and I think this piece is really important in the sentiment of being gracious with yourself, “A woman who is resurrecting is unlearning all the things that once rang as truth to her. That kind of work is incredibly hard and heartbreaking.”

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Feature image by FatCamera/ Getty Images




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