A mother is supposed to be your best friend. She’s someone you can talk to, laugh with, and learn from. She’s the one you count on to wipe your tears, mend your broken heart, and help guide you to adulthood and beyond.
So what happens when that’s not the case?
What do you do when the woman who should love you the most turns out to be a narcissistic mother?
It’s not a commonly used phrase when it comes to parents, but narcissism is something fairly common to come across in general. The term narcissism comes from Greek mythology about a man named Narcissus. He was so enamored with his own looks and appearance, he wasted away after finding a reflection of himself in a pool of water. The man literally starved to death because he could not handle looking away from his own reflection!! So that’s how the phrase came to be, but what exactly is a narcissistic mother?
There’s a few commonly shared traits with a narcissistic mother; an overwhelming sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited power and success, requiring excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of treatment or compliance with their expectations, using friendships or relationships for personal gain, lacking empathy with others, being envious of others, and showing arrogant attitudes.
So then you have to ask yourself some questions to understand if you might have a narcissistic mother. Do you find yourself constantly trying to win her love and attention, but never feel able to please her? Do you feel like she puts more importance on how things look rather than how you feel about them? Is she unable to empathize with you? Are boundaries basically nonexistent with her? Do you feel like you can be yourself even if that conflicts with her beliefs and views? If you said no to all of these or most of these, you might have a narcissistic mother.
Now you know the definition and you’ve done a self-assessment to see if maybe this explains a lot of emotional trauma and pain you’ve dealt with in the past or maybe you’re still dealing with it. So what now? Can we even do anything about it? Well, according to Dr. Karyl McBride, the author of “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” there’s a three step recovery model.
Step one is to identify the problem. What issues are you dealing with? What instances can you remember from your childhood that relate to the way your mother was? Some of us, myself included, grew up with the feeling of never being good enough. I always felt like my mother’s love was completely conditional on how I made her feel or how I made her look. I messed up? I felt like I wasn’t worthy of her love. I did something right? I was showered in praise and attention. It didn’t seem normal, but neither did anything else at the age of 14. When you grow up under these conditions, self-worth and self-esteem seem solely based on what comes from the mother and that seems to be the norm.
Step two is to grieve. Honestly, grieve like you’ve lost someone you loved, because you have. You’ve lost your ideal mother. I’ve always wondered what the ideal mother would be. I asked some friends. A lot of traits were similar.
“…someone that accepts me the way I am.”
“…a mom that loves unconditionally.”
“…a mom that always has my back.”
When it comes down to it, a lot of us are just looking for the basic needs we expected from a mother but never got. Grief always comes in stages, though Dr. McBride makes a suggestion to switch a few of the normal steps we see when tackling grief.
Stage 1: Acceptance
We have to accept that Mother has a limited amount of love and empathy to give. It’s really the only way to allow ourselves out of denial and be able to process all the feelings and emotions that come with it, which leads to the next stage.
Stage 2: Denial
As a child or teenager, we would often deny that fact our mother was incapable of the love or empathy we were searching for. It was really a survival method. No one wants to believe that the person that created us and was supposed to be biologically programmed to love and support us, simply can’t the way we want her to.
Stage 3: Bargaining
We have been bargaining our whole lives with Mother, both internally and with her. We have been wishing and hoping she would change, that things will be different the next time we need her. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. That’s basically how this works. We are put in the same positions over and over, begging Mother to give us what we need, whether it be love, attention, or validation.
Stage 4: Anger
This is basically what comes after the bargaining doesn’t work. We also get angry because now we realize our emotional needs were not met. This neglect has affected our lives and now we have to try and work through it. We feel enraged at our mothers and also at ourselves for letting the patterns continue and for being stuck in it.
Stage 5: Depression
This is where reality sets in. We feel intense sadness that we have to let go of the hope and the vision of the mother we wanted. It sets in that she will never be as loving as we want her to be. She will never be empathetic like we hope. This is when you have to let go of expectations, while also grieving the loss of these expectations we had.
So now let’s deal with the guilt that will inevitably surface after going through these five steps.
“Good girls don’t hate their mothers.”
That is definitely not the truth and going through all this does not mean you hate your mother. I love my mother. She means the world to me. I also know that what I’ve felt and dealt with since I was young is real and valid. Those two facts can coincide together. Try to visualize what you might have been as a child, as a teenager, and now as an adult if you didn’t have a narcissistic mother. One exercise Dr. McBride recommends is creating a journal and using that to talk to yourself. Starting out as a child and aging naturally will help you realize things and times you needed the kind of mother you didn’t have. Another suggestion by Dr. McBride is EMDR therapy*. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. This therapy works to better alleviate the stress and trauma associated with certain memories.
So now it’s time to separate. In this context, it means you are going to take control of your sense of self. In normal functioning families, individuation happens when a child is growing up into an adult. It’s basically becoming your own sustainable, objective, and less emotionally reliant on the family you were born into. It causes you to be more aware of the myths, distortions, and images you’ve been blind to while growing up with a narcissist mother. So how do we separate exactly? We have to get rid of the negative messages all around us!
How do you make decisions or form opinions? Well, if you’re like most of us, you gather your information and talk to people you trust. You make sure it’s from a reliable source. When it’s something about yourself, wouldn’t you make sure that the person telling you any information is someone who loves and respects you? So if all of that is true, this is also true. Things that were said in the past or present by someone, like a narcissistic mother, are not from someone who loves and respects you. They are not from someone who has any kind of emotional bond with you. Does it make sense to trust that information? Of course not! So anytime a message sneaks into your brain or psyche that is coming from an unreliable source, like your mother, answer back. Replace every negative thought from her with a positive and true thought from yourself or someone else you love and respect. Sounds easier said than done, but I promise it can be done.
And once it is, as cliché as it sounds, the healing can begin.
That can look different for everyone. Dr. McBride has a list of criteria to tell when you’ve separated from your mother and have become your own person. If you have the capacity the experience a wide range of emotions deeply, if you have the capacity to expect appropriate entitlements (giving credit to yourself when credit is due), the acknowledgement of self-esteem not built on your mother’s opinions, and the ability to soothe painful feelings when they do arise, then you are well on your way to healing.
Regardless of how many times it takes to go through the five stages, it’s progress. No matter how many times we find ourselves still wishing for the picturesque mother/daughter relationship we never had, it’s progress. The journey through all of this is hard. It’s painful, it’s long, and it’s a roller coaster. But I also know from my own experience, it’s worth every moment.
*For more information on EMDR therapy, I recommend emdria.org. It’s an amazing resource to use if it’s something you think might be beneficial to you.