How Childhood Pain Affects Adult Relationships and How to Use Mandalas to Help Explore Thoughts and Feelings

Oops, I Did It Again

I recently lost a friend. I didn’t lose her as in she died. I lost her as in we completely mismanaged our relationship and now our once close and intimate bond is a scarred and broken mass of awkward conversations and distance.

Has this ever happened to you?

Have you ever lost someone who was once a really big part of your life?

Personally, I hate it. Friends are such a sacred part of my life. Sisterhood is something I deeply treasure yet, despite my best intentions I’ve lost best friends more often than my little heart wanted to. I’m the opposite of many women I know. Most women I know play their ego drama out in love relationships, with their boyfriends or husbands. They get divorced. They live in unhappy or challenging marriages. They attract men who don’t treat them nicely. Not me. Finding lasting, committed, loyal love with the most amazing man I know wasn’t the challenge for me (knock on wood).

But creating the same happy, forever kind of love with a best friend has led to one heart break after another.

I used to feel so much shame about that, as if I was flawed in some way or there was something wrong with me. And there was something inside me that kept creating this drama but not in the way I should feel shameful or embarrassed about. More in a way that deserves compassion and understanding. I didn’t know this until I learned how to meet my own emotional needs but my failed friendships were simply life’s way of inviting me to revisit my unhealed childhood wounds over and over again.

I’d like to share with you the story of this one particular childhood wound because it fascinates me how I continued to play out this drama for years after it happened and I suspect you can relate. Most of us spent our childhoods in environments where our emotions were stuffed deep down into our subconscious because we were never taught how to acknowledge them much less deal with them.  This is a classic example of what happens when we don’t help ourselves or our children deal with emotions.

Hidden Emotions and the Zombie Mom Nightmares They Induce

When I was a preteen, friendships became my epicenter. Hanging out with my girlfriends, desperately trying to fit in, passing notes during class, collectively mourning a friend’s breakup while drinking Strawberry Angel and listening to Guns n’ Roses, pining for Corey Hart and his wake-up-my-sexuality sunglasses…for me, these really were the best of times and the worst of times all wrapped up in one ‘80s cliché.

I used to look back at my middle school years with fondness and nostalgia.

It wasn’t until I did some serious soul-searching that I realized this was actually one of the hardest times of my life.

It is during these years my mom fell into a severe depression and was hospitalized. My brothers and I fended for ourselves a lot more than we wanted to. I was lonelier than I had ever been. I was more scared than I had ever been. I didn’t know what was wrong with my mom. No one spoke about her condition nor did they explain it to us.  I was convinced she was going to die.

I had nightmares where I woke up to find her dressed in her housecoat, hair matted and eyes vacantly staring off into nothingness as she rocked back and forth and back and forth in some creepy zombie state. In the dream, I screamed in her face but nothing would wake her from the spell she was under. I felt terrified and ran all over my neighborhood knocking on all my friends’ doors but everyone’s mothers were doing the same thing; sitting in rocking chairs, staring off into space; wild bodies with empty eyes. I was stuck in a town of comatose moms and the terror of that fact usually jolted me awake.

Besides this recurring nightmare, it is also the period in time when I swallowed my feelings.  I spoke of them to no one and no one asked me about them.

mother daughter relationship

Instead of dealing with my emotions in a healthy way, I sought solace in the only place I found comfort and joy…my friends.

It’s commonly accepted that children seek to gain independence in the pre-teen and teen years. Friendships naturally start to play a bigger role in children’s lives around this time.  For years, I thought the distance I created between myself and my family was typical but it wasn’t.  My withdrawal wasn’t only a natural quest for independence. It was a way to try and escape the scary feelings I didn’t understand.

I clammed up at home and spent as much time away from it as I could. I hung out with my best friend’s family more than I hung out with my own. I played with her sister more than I played with my own brothers. At least it felt that way. I don’t have a lot of family memories from that period in my life. That’s no surprise really since I had shut myself off from feeling anything at all at home. The feelings were too big and I didn’t know how to deal with them.

The pain and fear I was experiencing was so abysmal it’s as if I clung on to my best friend’s life in hopes of saving my own dear life. I was convinced being in her home was easier and happier than being in my own home. This, of course, wasn’t actually the case. There were as many unresolved issues floating around in her home as there were in mine but my preteen brain ignored that fact. Instead, I determined that my best friend’s life was better than my own and the more I could focus on her problems and her dreams, the safer and happier I would be.

Crazy preteen logic, oh how you have caused me such heartache!! This preteen logic, left unchecked and never analyzed, became a long lasting thought pattern that embedded itself in my subconscious mind. Happiness is outside. Don’t focus on your problems. Focus on your best friend’s problems instead.

You can imagine the tangles and knots these thoughts created as I grew older.

My family eventually moved away from the home where all this went down but I took my unhealthy logic with me. Over and over again, I played out a devastating story of falling in friendship love with women who could never give me what I needed. Each and every relationship was doomed to fail the moment it sprouted into existence. I had gaping emotional voids that no friend could ever fill, even though I believed they could.  And of course, I always attracted women who subconsciously played out their own part in my twisted logic. Like a cruel puzzle, our wounds fit together perfectly.

Writing my story out like this makes it sound so trivial but it wasn’t. It was always gut-wrenchingly hard. Losing people you love over and over again isn’t easy. It’s so hard. It’s one heart break after another. Its promises made, futures dreamed and sisterhoods carefully nurtured for years then abruptly lost. It’s loving someone with all your heart then losing them because you each played out a sick and twisted story of emptiness seeking wholeness through another. It’s yucky and painful and tear-stained and I hope I never have to go through it again.

My most recent time on this shitty merry-go-round was unlike any other times. Yes, I still lost a near-and-dear-to-my-heart friend and yes, it’s been as sad and hard as any other time but it’s also been so much more illuminating and life-changing than any other time. This was the only time I was so acutely conscious of how my unhealed wounds from my preteen trauma created the experience.

I am 50% responsible for every relationship I co-create. Of course the friends I loved and lost each had a part in the drama we experienced but my 50% was based on this hidden preteen logic I kept carrying with me.

The little girl in me who felt like she lost her mom and who tried to escape the pain of this by losing herself in friendship became the adult woman who focused more on her friend’s problems than her own dreams and family.

mother daughter therapy

A Happy Rewrite

As soon as I recognized how my childhood trauma was orchestrating this nonsense, I rewrote my story. I did what I couldn’t do as a child. I saw I wasn’t the only one to blame. I stood up for myself in ways I never would have. I learned to make taking care of me, my dreams and my family a priority. And when the friendship fell apart, which inevitably it had to, I allowed myself to feel every painful and difficult feeling that surfaced. I dealt with the trauma instead of trying to find a way to escape it.  Because I had hidden all the feelings I felt when I was younger, my tears weren’t just from losing another best friend in my adult life. I was also crying all the tears I couldn’t cry as a child.

My commitment to be present through the suffering didn’t take away the grief and loss I felt losing another friend but it did make the experience more manageable and a lot more magical. Handfuls of tear-stained tissues were followed by transcendent moments of heart-opening revelation. Moments of grief and loss inspired waves of love so grand if I was the ocean and love was the moon, my waters would be pulled forty feet high in an ecstatic tidal wave of compassion and understanding. My pain became my freedom. My drama became my miracle.

Retro image of girl in the sea

I rewrote my own story and it feels so damn good.

I wish with all my heart it would not have required me to lose relationships I adored but that’s how my particular heart drama played out. Life is messy. Learning to live in a holy relationship isn’t for the faint of heart and learning to live a conscious life isn’t an immediate prescription for nirvana. It’s full of growing pains, loss and destruction. It’s a great big passionate goddess coming into your life and shaking away everything that isn’t true. And the taller you’ve built the lies you created and are desperately attached to, the harder you fall.

I have no idea what the future holds for any of the relationships I lost but I do know that I’m not the same person I used to be. I’ve changed my core foundation and from what I’ve seen in the past, shifts in my internal world inevitably change my external reality. They always do. They already have.

Although my preteen drama eventually led to rock-my-soul insights, what could have prevented my adolescent mind from planting destructive beliefs in my subconscious mind was being conscious of what I was thinking and feeling during those difficult preteen years. I would have benefited so much from someone, anyone in my preteen years, recognizing my pain and helping me to choose to be present with it, express it and get curious about what conclusions I was drawing from it. I would have loved for someone to help me release my fears and my sadness. I would have loved for someone to  help me understand how big those emotions can be and how, without a safe place to release them, people will try anything and everything to run away from feeling bad.

All we really want is to feel good. And if we don’t know how to do that in a healthy way, we’ll figure out a way to feel as good as we can regardless of how much devastation our messed up logic and choices to feel good cause us in the future. If we are young enough, those escape methods will become our subconscious programs and we’ll play them over and over again…until we expose those nasty stories and rewrite them.

If you’d like to excavate your inner landscape or check in and see how your daughter is doing in her inner world of thoughts and feelings, I created this Story Art activity titled My Mandala Story for you. It’s a simple, playful exercise you can do yourself or with your daughter. No previous art experience necessary.

My Mandala Story

A Fun Exercise to Help You (and/or Your Daughter) Explore Your Inner World of Thoughts of Feelings

Here on my blog, I feature soulful art activities. These are playful art inspired activities that help you learn more about your life and soul stories. They also help you rewrite the parts of your life story you don’t like. I keep the instructions simple and fun so they don’t require any previous art experience; just a willingness to let go and play. Many of my activities are also geared at helping mothers and daughter enjoy intimate conversations that help them learn more about each other.

The following is an exercise to help you dig deep and get curious about what is really going on in your inner world of thoughts and feelings.

If you have a daughter, I suggest finding creative ways like this to check in and see how she’s really doing with all the changes going on in her life. You might believe you already know how she’s doing but I’d like you to think about that for a moment. Do you know how to identify, articulate and navigate your own thoughts and emotions all the time? Have you ever done some soul-searching only to realize you had no idea what you were thinking and feeling deep down?

I guarantee you the answer to that question is yes. You are often a mystery to yourself. We all are. That’s why therapy, writing  in a journal and vision quests are so powerful. They reveal to us what is going on in our very own hearts and minds; places that are so near and dear to us but often elusive and confusing. It’s no different with your daughter. I believe we all can use more reflective, intuitive tuning in time. I also believe introspection can be fun and playful and can help us bond with each other.

mother daughter mandala therapy

What is a Mandala?

In its simplest definition a mandala is a sacred circle. I tend to look at mandalas as sacred circles that represent our subconscious mind or as Susanne F. Fincher describes them…reflections of the self.  People from all over the world for thousands of years have created mandalas to meditate, to induce harmonious states of mind and to describe their ideas of God or the divine.

Here are some examples of mandalas created by clients I’ve worked with in the past:

In this Story Art activity, we will be using mandalas to excavate the patterns, ideas and beliefs that may be hiding below the surface of your awareness.

I’ve created a step-by-step guide to show you how to use mandalas to help you and/or your daughter explore your thoughts and feelings. This is a PDF file I created myself so it’s safe and made with lots of love and care. To download it just click on the link below:

Story Art 1 My Mandala Story Nov 2015

Here’s a video showing a completed mandala.


I hope you have a chance to try out this exercise. If you do, comment below or send me a quick email to and let me know how you liked it.

With Love,

Dana da Ponte




*This activity is most effective when you create a mandala of your own and not just expect your daughter to create one. Excavating your inner landscape is an intimate and sacred activity that is sure to bring you closer together.  You may be tempted to teach rather than participate and share your own reflections and insights but if you want your daughter to share her inner workings with you, then be prepared to be open and honest with her about your fears, mistakes, ego traps, insecurities and weaknesses.

**The more open and honest you can be with her, the more open and honest you are inviting her to be with you – sharing in an age appropriate way of course.  A great rule to follow when deciding what is appropriate to share is to avoid sharing problems or issues you are currently sorting through. If the emotions are still raw and heavy for you, they will probably be too raw and heavy for her. Instead, as you go through this exercise, contemplate issues or problems you’ve already sorted through. You won’t receive as much personal insight this way but you can always redo the exercise in your own time afterward. Also, avoid sharing your personal problems or issues if they paint someone she loves in a negative light or will cause her to worry of feel insecure. When bonding with my child, I’ve mostly used my own childhood and early adulthood as opportunities to share openly and honestly. This way, I was able to reveal intimate details about myself without causing concern or fears.

***This activity is just as effective with sons as it is with daughters.

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