There seems to be a link between backache and mothers. It may be mostly for daughters – I’m not sure whether there is the same link for men. Mothers often have backache themselves, and it would not be surprising if their daughters had it too. But the interesting thing is that talking about their mothers in a counselling or therapy session can sometimes cure or modify a daughter’s backache. I must emphasise the ‘sometimes’, but it happens sufficiently often for me to think it worth exploring. Even if it doesn’t take away the pain, most of us could benefit from a bit of thinking (preferably with someone else) about our relations with our mothers.
I think identification is involved. Daughters identify with their mothers, even when they don’t want to. Mind and body identify differently, so thoughts and feelings which daughters know about may be different from the ones ‘held’ in parts of the body. And it seems that backs often ‘hold’ or are identified with some of the more painful aspects of relations with mothers. Symbolism can also be involved. This is true for any pain – the symbolic element can be crucial. A mother may be a real pain; a heavy burden; a weight on your back; a pain in the backside. She may cold-shoulder you or make you carry her emotions, her troubles. She may stab you in the back or talk behind your back. She may be always present in the back of your mind. Pain represented in a physical way through back pain may be at odds with the conscious mental picture of the relationship with the mother, or it may simply take it one step further, holding some aspects which are painful to recognise – such as the fact that it, or she, really hurts. And this hurt has many and complex roots, including enormous love as well as betrayal and all the other things mothers do to their daughters and daughters to their mothers.
A woman who cares for others may feel, like her mother before her, that she is carrying on her back the whole of her family; back pain may be sign that she has overburdened herself, that she has taken on too much, that she is at risk of breaking under the strain. Her children may note this and draw their own conclusions. Back pain can be a signal to others, and is often read as such. Children who take on the mother’s role when they are young may have an idealised view of mothering, resulting in precisely this sense of being overburdened as an adult.
Counselling or therapy is different from conversations with friends, or ‘just thinking about it’ on your own. Becoming aware of the depth of the feelings involved, both loving and angry, even hating, feelings, is not easy. The balance between loving and unloving feelings needs to be held. In order to explore just how anger-provoking, irritating, anxiety-provoking, distressing and distressed one’s mother is, the listener has to be trusted to keep these thoughts and feelings confidential and to remember that there is also a quite different set of feelings which probably include real love and affection, tolerance and warmth. It is probably not possible to hold both in your own mind all the time; and friends and family may have the unfortunate habit of remembering what you said once on a bad day.
Back pain can often be brought on by moving in a particular way, and prevented by not making that particular movement. How people sit and move may well be under the control of unconscious fantasies, of automatic processes which can be caught and changed by the right kind of attention. Sometimes people can recognise what they do to bring their back pain on, and in counselling, work out when and, perhaps, even why they did this at a particular time. There may be a sense of having to be careful how you move, or what steps you take; of treading on eggshells, or watching your step, any of which may apply to the relationship with the mother too.
Clearly, our backs may be physically and genetically like our mother’s backs, and we may be vulnerable to the same conditions she had. But a need to express in some non-verbal way the feelings associated with the person who brought you into the world – painfully – may play a part in the timing, and perhaps positioning, of back pain.
We particularly identify with people we lose, or are afraid of losing; we may (in unconscious fantasy) ‘become’ them, in order to hold onto them and not lose them; so anything which provokes thoughts of losing or separating from one’s mother may increase unconscious identification processes. When a daughter thinks about her mother, including thinking about how alike and how different they are, some of the unconscious identifications shift. And this may shift the back pain too.
Freud, writing about Elizabeth von R. in his Studies on Hysteria, showed that the pains in her legs were (at least partly) a self-punishment (for being in love with her brother-in-law). It is possible that sometimes the pain of backache could be brought on (quite unconsciously) as a punishment, perhaps for bad or disloyal thoughts towards the mother. If so, sorting out these thoughts, naming and locating each one, recognising that it is perfectly normal and forgivable to have bad thoughts towards one’s mother, and that bad thoughts do not destroy or wipe out all the good and loving thoughts, may reduce the ‘need’ for the punishing pains.
Freud used the term ‘overdetermination’, meaning that any symptom would have many threads of meaning, never just one. (Elizabeth von R’s leg pains also meant the same brother-in-law had to carry her home.) Overdetermination would certainly apply to backache. Physical causes can combine with many different symbolic meanings to create or increase a pain in the back. Sometimes disentangling at least some of the emotional and symbolic threads linking the back with the mother can reduce the pain. It may reduce that part of a pain which is brought on by a particular, avoidable, movement, for example. It would be wonderful if all back pain could be cured in this way, but sadly, it cannot.
Thinking about mothers it is always also worth asking if there is some projective identification going on. Does (or did) she ‘dump’ on her daughter feelings she cannot or could not bear? Feelings of inadequacy, of being insufficiently devoted, of being not good enough? Of jealousy, or envy? Of exasperation, fury, a need to escape? Of stupidity, or of threatening, ‘too clever by half’ intelligence? Whatever feelings she evokes or evoked in her daughter, it is worth wondering whether she herself suffered from these feelings – and probably worse, in a more distressing context. Is there any way she might have felt these feelings herself, when she was younger, perhaps? The pain, for example, of recognising that as a mother you do not love your daughter very much, or you feel trapped by her, or intruded upon, or that you made terrible mistakes, can feel unbearable. These unbearable feelings can be (quite unconsciously) evoked in a daughter in a way which includes an absolute prohibition on talking about them. The daughter sees them as hers entirely; she is presented with a view of her mother which bears no relation to these feelings – until she thinks aloud, with a counsellor or therapist. And a back pain may be a sign that some of this could be dealt with differently.
The fact that pain can make people bad tempered, irritable, difficult, also has complex threads attached. Like alcohol, back pain can reduce the tolerance threshold and allow a long-suffering daughter for the first time, perhaps, to ‘be a pain’, to accuse, to justify, to bring long-unwanted behaviour to a halt; to ask for care and attention for herself, perhaps, rather than feel she has to provide it – for her mother (or for a partner or children, any of whom may represent her mother in this). The pain may realistically make it harder to maintain a ‘front’, to keep quiet about things in order to consider someone else’s feelings. It may also be seen as an excuse to express angry or resentful feelings which normally the daughter would keep to herself. The physical pain may also be seen (unconsciously) as a shield against feared retaliation from an accused mother: how much worse the mother will feel if she attacks her daughter while her daughter has back pain! (It may not prevent the attack, of course, but it may allow the daughter to feel secretly – though ultimately, hollowly – triumphant against her mother if she does.) In another generation, her mother’s back pain may be seen by a teenage daughter as a most unfair weapon in the battle for family space and attention; teenagers can be more aware of symbolic, emotional meanings than of the reality of physical pain.
On the other hand, saying things which previously were kept hidden, and asking for attention which is really needed, whether as the result of back pain or not, can sometimes bring changes which improve life for everyone.
Looking at the hurtfulness of relations between mothers and daughters sounds depressing. What is amazing is that following through some of these threads can end up, not only with a reduced back pain, but also with better relations between mother and daughter, even many years after the mother has died. Mothers and daughters who are kept on pedestals are not so comfortable or as easy as those who are human and faulty. And fortunately, we can and do love those who hurt us, as well as, (though this may be harder), those we hurt.