Mental health, Parenting

How to Cope with a Narcissistic Mother

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Dear Readers,

In my experience, people get the concept of narcissism correct fifty percent of the time. Most people gather the first definition, when in reality there are two:

A.) Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.

B.) Self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.

The reason this matters is simply because one can be more harmful than the other. Most people generalize narcissism as an irksome personality trait to be avoided, however, in the event of a full blown disorder it can become catastrophic, specifically within the context of the mother-daughter dynamic. That is to say, there is a difference between a pesky inflated sense of self, and conceptualizing others as part of your own ego to reap a benefit regardless of the pain it causes. This topic truly makes me ill. So, onward and upward to the coping strategies!

JP Thorpe at Bustle Magazine writes,

“You may think your mother hits all the items on the narcissism inventory, but the odds that she’s received a formal psychological diagnosis are slim. However, lack of a formal diagnosis doesn’t mean that knowledge about how narcissism operates can’t inform your interactions with her. It’s important to note that if your mother only fits a few traits, rather than the majority of them, you shouldn’t dismiss the entire idea out of hand; narcissistic aspects to a personality can be deeply harmful, and even just a few can still deeply impact your relationship with your mother and the way you were raised. The good news is that there are psychological strategies that can help us attempt to deal with the difficulties of narcissistic mothers; the bad news is that the methods can be difficult themselves (and your mother almost definitely isn’t going to like them).

1.) Recognize the Competition

McBride is quick to point out that it is daughters who tend to face particular difficulties with narcissistic mothers, in part because their mother often see them as competition. “A narcissistic mother,” she writes, “sees her daughter, more than her son, as a reflection and extension of herself rather than as a separate person with her own identity.” Separating out your own identity from your mother’s can be an immensely tricky thing as a woman, even without the added pressure of years of demands that you conform to behaviors that make your mother look good. It’s a double bind, though: daughters of narcissistic mothers will recognize the feeling that they’re meant to be perfect, but not quite so perfect that they overshadow their mom. Psychology Today pinpoints the source of this competition in your “youth and sexuality”: in your mom’s eyes, you are effectively your narcissistic mother 2.0, and she sees you as a direct threat.

This is not how we’re conditioned to see mothers, particularly ones who “look good” from the outside. Alas, it’s a key part of narcissistic maternal behavior. The next time your mother is thwarting or disparaging towards you, look at it like you would a competitor in some small contest in 4th grade who can’t accept losing. It won’t hurt less, but it might give you more of a handle on the situation.

2.) Understand That She is Unlikely to Change.

The notion that your mother may, bit by bit, eventually learn how to become a better maternal figure might have been a sustaining hope for years, but it’s important to know that this probably isn’t likely. Dr. Craig Malkin explains in his writing for Psychology Today that people with full-fledged narcissistic personality disorder may be capable of change, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen: “It’s not that people with NPD can’t change; it’s that it often threatens their sense of personhood to try.” Narcissistic people need to learn to empathize and feel vaguely insecure, and most are deeply uncomfortable with that feeling.

The psychotherapist Michelle Piper, who specializes in narcissistic mothers, points out that “ironically, though the people around the narcissistic mother can identify the source of their suffering, the narcissist does not believe she is the one who should change. Therefore, it is unlikely your mother sought treatment for narcissism.” Narcissists, she says, are “highly resistant” to treatment. The way to cope, therefore, is not in trying to force your mother to make changes in ways that will end in failure; it’s largely centered on you, and how you interact with her (or don’t).

3.) Trace How Her Behavior Has Influenced Yours. 

If you’re going to fully confront your relationship with your narcissistic mother, you need to do the uncomfortable work of looking at just how badly it has affected you — and then work on defusing or combating those particular aspects, so that she has less power. The Huffington Post has a solid collection of six signs that you were raised by a narcissistic mother: you fear her disapproval, you experience chronic indecisiveness because of her constant control over you, you experience the need to have others fulfill your needs, you have difficulty expressing feelings, as well as a fear of tantrums and anger, and a lack of boundaries with your mother herself.

Collectively, this can be categorized as “co-narcissism,” or the condition of adapting to life with a narcissistic person and developing weird emotional problems as a result. Dr. Alan Rappaport explains that “co-narcissistic people, as a result of their attempts to get along with their narcissistic parents, work hard to please others, defer to other’s opinions, worry about how others think and feel about them, are often depressed or anxious, find it hard to know their own views and experience, and take the blame for interpersonal problems.”

So once you’ve realized the patterns, what can you do? First things first: get a very good therapist, one who accepts the idea that your mother is a narcissist and will help you through the results.

Secondly, reassess your boundaries with your mother. Normal parenting does not require the majority of the child’s energy be devoted to soothing or attending to the parent; you are allowed to have your own life and needs, something a narcissistic mother will not understand. Consider developing boundaries, including the necessity of consequences every time she violates one.

4.) Don’t Feed the Inner Voice.

Many children of narcissistic parents will have a constant feeling of flexibility in their sense of self and a constant, nagging “inner voice” — what psychologist Lisa Firestone calls “an inner critic… that reminds them they are not good enough or that they need to be the best or they are nothing. Because their parents only value their accomplishments as they reflect on them, the child never truly feels they are good enough.” This inner voice can be deeply damaging and highly powerful, and it can take years of work to detach value from its proclamations of “nope, not good enough.” Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a very useful tool in gradually lessening the power of this critical inner voice; the tricky bit is that even if you know it’s not true, it can still be very loud in your head.

5.) Distinguish Between Conditional and Unconditional Love.

The Counselling Directory recommends that one of the main ways that daughters can heal from a narcissistic mother is to “[recognize] the internalized messages of conditional love and the effects in your life and relationships, both with others and yourself.” Conditional love is the key aspect of narcissistic maternal relationships: they only dispense love when you do something worthy that makes them look or feel good, and at all other times you have no value and therefore deserve no affection. Unconditional love, on the other hand, continues even if you are not “performing” or doing anything to deserve it; it assumes constantly that you are deserving, purely by dint of being yourself. Yes, this exists. No, really. Find people who give it to you, and hold onto the sense of contrast.

6.) Do Not Allow Other Narcissists to Come Along for the Ride.

Kathy Caprino at Forbes makes the salient point that daughters raised by narcissistic mothers can often be conditioned to view the narcissistic condition of love as normal, and therefore are open to relationships (friendships, intimate relationships) with other narcissists. “They are so familiar with narcissism (because they dealt with it all their lives),” she writes, “that they unconsciously attract it into their lives, through their adult relationships, and in their work cultures and careers.” If you’ve identified your mother as a narcissist, apply the same test to others. Do they bear the hallmarks? Is the way in which they deal with you unnervingly familiar? This is not normal and you should not accept it as such.

7.)  Consider Cutting Her Off.

Sometimes establishing boundaries, working on yourself, going to therapy, understanding your past and finding unconditional love still isn’t enough. Narcissistic mothers can have the power to make life utterly miserable (and to be totally unrepentant while doing so). And there is weighty evidence in favor of cutting them out of your life. Psychologist Dr. Pat Frankish, writing in The Guardian in 2012 about a woman who had cut off communication with her mother, commented that she “had her identity, her vitality and her energy sapped – and if she stays in touch with the person who is taking all that from her, she’ll be unable to maintain a sense of herself. It’s a question of whether you succumb or survive – and she has chosen survival.”

It’s excellent phrasing to emphasize just how horrific the experience can be, and how justified a complete cut-off can be. If this is the choice you’re considering, you’ll likely find Gabrielle Moss’s guide to guilt at cutting off contact helpful. Otherwise, many experts recommend “low contact“: strictly controlled interactions where you determine what is and isn’t acceptable, and leave or hang up the second she crosses the line. If you choose this, don’t feel guilty. You’re not being a bad child; it’s justified self-protection. ”

It goes without saying that this dynamic can have a harmful impact on the heart and mind of a developing child. When narcissism exists within the space where love and acceptance should be, the end result of this shaping is considerably altered from that of a healthy fruitful parent-child relationship. If this sounds all too familiar to you, I recommend starting with low-contact boundaries while slowly incorporating the above mentioned coping strategies. Anything worth doing is never easy, but removing avenues of abuse in your life is always called for.

Discuss: Are you in a narcissistic mother-daughter dynamic? Which of these resonated most with you?

**If you’re a mental health survivor or mental health provider and want to tell your story – please email me at contact@deskraven.com!**

For more excellent insight and entertainment through a collaborative approach to all things mental health, including a guest post from yours truly, visit the Blunt Therapy Blog by Randy Withers, LPC! For additional perspectives on suicide prevention from master level mental health providers visit, 20 Professional Therapists Share Their Thoughts on Suicide!

In collaboration with Luis Posso, an Outreach Specialist from DrugRehab.com, Deskraven is now offering guides on depression and suicide prevention to its readers. For more information on understanding the perils of addiction visit, Substance Abuse and Suicide: A Guide to Understanding the Connection and Reducing Risk! In addition, for a comprehensive depression resource guide from their sister project at Columbus Recovery Center visit, Dealing with Depression!