You have met this woman. She looks great and has all the trappings of success. She's smart and independent -- the kind of woman you would expect to see in an American Express commercial. She's on the go, and her career is taking off.
She is also unhappy.
The problem? A feeling of worthlessness, no matter how much she achieves. You don't have to look far to find the cause of her low self-esteem. More and more, mental health professionals immediately focus on what is increasingly seen as the Achilles heel of women whose professional and personal lives are out of sync: remembrances of daddies past.
Linda Schierse Leonard, a Jungian psychoanalyst and author of the 1983 book, The Wounded Woman: Healing the Father-Daughter Relationship (Shambala, 1983, $7.95), says that during her early childhood, her father was "so proud of me that I always had a sparkling, glowing smile." As she grew older, however, she discovered that her father was the neighborhood drunk, and she stopped identifying with him. Despite her psychoanalytic training, for many years her unresolved relationship with her father remained an "open wound" in her psyche. Many women are walking wounded, carrying into their adult relationships damage left over from their lives with father. But most don't make the connection.
"I hated myself because I hated my father," says an attractive, 35-year-old brunet we'll call Pamela. She works as a legal assistant and writer in the District. Her father died when she was 3. Not long afterward, her mother remarried, but Pamela never gave her stepfather a chance to become close to her.
"It took me 28 years to get over my father's death," Pamela says. Ironically, it was her stepfather's death while she was working in Mexico that forced her to confront her feelings: For the second time in her life she lost a man who could have been important to her. "I was grieving, not for my stepfather, but for my father," Pamela recalls. "I cried 'Daddy' over and over. For more than 20 years I had not been able to say that word. Suddenly, I felt so strongly that I needed someone who could let me be his little girl."
Pamela tried to commit suicide in Mexico, then went into therapy after returning to the United States. She began to understand that her unfinished business with her father had caused her years of depression, even taking its toll on her sexuality. "I needed to be someone's little girl first," she says, "in order to become someone's lover."
As the first man in a girl's life, a father helps foster his daughter's feminine identity, psychologists say, by the little gestures of affection and approval he gives. A father's role is more nurture than nature and is not as easily established as maternity. When a father's approval is withheld, a girl may grow up with so little self-esteem that she will continually seek affirmation from other men to shore up her ego.
"It is very important for a woman to deal with the issue of her father because what you resist, persists," says Dr. Harold H. Bloomfield, a psychiatrist in Del Mar, Calif., and coauthor, with Leonard Felder, of Making Peace With Your Parents (Ballantine Books, 1985, $3.95) and The Achilles Syndrome: Transforming Your Weaknesses Into Strengths (Random House, 1985, $15.95). "Freud had a theory which he called the repetition compulsion: that what is incomplete in the past, we recreate."
To become truly her father's daughter almost 30 years after his death, Pamela sought out his family and learned about what kind of a man he had been. She succeeded in forming a bond with him. She now believes that, had her father lived, he would have been close to her. "I found a way to survive, despite not having had a relationship with my father," says Pamela. "Until I did that, I could not love myself."
A 32-year-old paralegal in Houston we'll call Amy found her romance relationships overshadowed by her father's rejection of her during adolescence. She says it's now like she has an antenna: "In a room full of men, I will invariably pick the biggest bastard of all."
As a young child, Amy had been close to her father. But when she reached puberty, "he cut me off completely," she recalls. "He couldn't deal with me as a woman."
Suddenly, she couldn't do anything to please him. Her teen years were a constant conflict with him. She married a drug dealer ("A man my father considered no good, so I decided to spite him"), and when the marriage crumbled she moved to Houston and began one-on-one therapy. Then, her father, at 61, committed suicide because of his fear that he had cancer.
Overwhelmed with guilt, Amy went into an emotional tailspin. After two years of therapy, she came to grips with her compulsion to repeat with other men her destructive relationship with her father.
The fear of getting hurt again, says Dr. Bloomfield, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Amy confirms this, saying that she has repeatedly set herself up for rejection. The pay-off, she explains, is in the pain she knows these men will eventually cause her -- because she feels worthless anyway.
Instead of withholding affection, some fathers give daughters the wrong kind of affection. Dr. Paul Chodoff, a Washington psychiatrist, has seen the results. Young girls lacking a stable relationship with their mothers turn to their fathers for emotional stroking. Unfortunately, the affection they receive has erotic overtones. These girls learn that "the way to be cared for is to come across to men in a seductive manner," says Dr. Chodoff. They go through life trying "to seduce men into serving as substitute mothers" instead of pursuing their own independence.
Women who had damaged relationships with their fathers often experience a spiraling effect in their anger and resentment. It remains buried in their subconscious but is revealed in their adult relationships with men.
Dorothy is a 48-year-old secretary in the District. She left her husband, who physically abused her, when their daughter, Nadine, was 10. He showed no interest in the girl after the break-up; nor did he offer to help support her. Nadine is now in her twenties, and has a 4-year-old daughter out of wedlock. She is constantly depressed because the father of her child is married to someone else. When told by Dorothy that she should ask her boyfriend for child support, Nadine answered: "You never asked my father."
"We often punish ourselves worse than our parents ever did," says Dr. Bloomfield. And the punishment isn't always tied to poor relationships with men. For instance, Marian, a 31-year-old scholarship program director in the District, says she had a "normal, run-of-the-mill" relationship with her father -- except that she always fell short of his expectations. She thinks that might be the reason she is a compulsive perfectionist. "I berate myself when I fail," she says. "I get down on myself very hard. I just can't take being wrong."
When women allow early rejection to replay in their adult lives, say mental health professionals, they give up control over self-esteem. But negative patterns need not be replayed: They can be broken.
"While some women are uniquely able to survive on their own, others can be helped by finding a coach, a therapist," says Anne Gonzalez, a Washington social worker and family therapist. A good start, says Gonzalez, is to identify the particular pattern of relating to one's father and to other men.
"Many women," adds Gonzalez, "should work on developing a different kind of relationship with their fathers, because to sever ties with them would cut off a part of a woman's self. Women must accept that there are things we cannot do about the past. One must go on living with vitality for the future."
Ultimately, says Dr. Harold Bloomfield, "a woman must take responsibility for being her own father -- her own best parent."