For most people, their understanding of what a narcissist is comes from the myth of ‘Narcissus‘, who fell in love with his own reflection. From that (mis)understanding, these people believe that all narcissists are full of themselves, and constantly talking themselves up. What many don’t realise, however, is that there are two types of narcissists. There is the grandiose narcissist, and the vulnerable narcissist. The former is the type we generally associate with narcissism – they are pretentious, arrogant, very full of themselves, and convinced that they should be ‘King of the World’. The latter is the type that is associated more with narcissistic mothers – they present as meek and vulnerable to the ‘outside world’ while punishing their child/ren for not being exactly the child/ren they want them to be. What both types of narcissists have in common is their antagonism, lack of empathy, and inability to be honest. Both types are also experts at gaslighting.
Both grandiose and vulnerable narcissists will claim to be, or have done, things that make them look better, but aren’t true, or are exaggerated. For example, my own mother used to claim to have taught a huge number of adult courses – but she had, in fact, never taught a day in her life.
Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.
As daughters, we learn how to be female from our mothers. We learn how we are ‘supposed’ to be as girls, as women, and as mothers. Sadly, some of the women in my support group have chosen not to have children. This decision was not made lightly, and was made because they were terrified that they would end up like their own mothers and perpetuate the same horror they had experienced onto their own children. The saddest part is that I can see how brilliant these mothers would have been as parents.
Narcissists are not capable of unconditional love. As the daughter of a narcissistic mother, you need to know that. You need to know that you cannot heal them with your compassion and your love. It will not work. They will never treat you as if you are good enough. They will never treat you as if you are worthy unless you are doing exactly what they want – but, even then, you won’t be doing it properly because you won’t be doing it exactly the same way they would do it. If you don’t do what they want you to do, they become cold, withholding and punishing.
When in front of others, a narcissistic mother will often act like a ‘super mother’ – but it’s not the child they are trying to impress it’s the stranger/s. In public they will be seen as pillars of the community – my own was the secretary of a local school for over 20 years, another woman’s mother was a well-known, and well-respected professional in the charity sector. They can be monsters at home, or cold and distant, and love-witholding. But part of the reason that they withhold love is that they are incapable of giving it. It’s not your fault that your mother didn’t love you. It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s like wanting your hot, buttered toast to fall up instead of down. It’s not going to happen simply because it is not possible.
Narcissists will tear you down, destroy your self esteem, and gaslight you. They will misrepresent the truth, and lie – either by omission, or by commission – about who you are and what you have, or haven’t done. They will exaggerate, and try to convince other of, their own importance.
Because we are trained to believe that mothers love us unconditionally, we believe that the fault lies with us. We believe that we need to improve ourselves to be worthy of our mothers’ love. And the truth is – we are worthy, we are deserving, but we don’t get that love because of a lack within our mothers, not a lack within ourselves. As daughters of narcissistic mothers, our need for maternal love – the love of the mother – will never be met by our own mothers.
As the daughter of a narcissistic mother, you will have noticed that all she wanted was for you to be in her image. She didn’t want what was best for you – she wanted you to be her. She wanted you to act and speak and look and be just like her. She had no interest in you reaching your potential. She had no interest in encouraging you to do what made your soul sing. If she was a stay at home mother, that’s all you would be ‘allowed’ to be in her mind. If she was a nurse, you would be expected to go to nursing school. BUT whatever you did, you were not allowed to be better or worse than she. If you were worse, she would be furious; if you were better she would be jealous. You will be punished for not being good enough, and punished (belittled) for being too good.
Narcissists thrive on doing harm to others. For them, it is thrilling to hurt other people – not least because, at the root of all narcissism, is deep insecurity. Narcissists feel better about themselves by making others feel worse, by attacking the self-esteem of others. Often, as we know, those ‘others’ are their own children. To add insult to injury, we often find that narcissistic mothers will have favourites: There are those of us who will bear the brunt of their narcissism, and their will be the ‘Golden Child’ or ‘Golden Children’ – depending on how many siblings are in the family. Because, of course, the myth that ‘no mother has favourites’ is one that narcissistic mothers put paid to. As the child who is scapegoated, you will find that you are the butt of family jokes – and ridiculed for being ‘too sensitive’, taking things ‘too personally’, and being unable ‘to take a joke’, or ‘take things in your stride’. Narcissistic mothers will manipulate the emotions and responses of their children in order to exert as much control as possible over their lives.
I remember being bewildered when I realised how much my own mother gloated when I was unsuccessful in my endeavours – either personal or professional. Nor could I fathom why on earth she was jealous of me. She did everything in her power to tear me down and undo the advantages I had secured for myself. For example, a few months after my second daughter was born, she deigned to come to Singapore to visit my little family – which consisted of just me and my two daughters; I’d been a single mother since the day after I found out I was pregnant with Kashmira. The other member of our household was my wonderful live-in nanny, Nishanthi. It became immediately clear that – rather than be there to mother me – my mother was there with her own agenda: First of all, she wanted a trip to Bangkok, which I was expected to pay for – she felt entitled to it because she’d come so far to visit. Then she wanted to experience all that Singapore had to offer in terms of nights out, day-trips etc. There were two things, however, that really bothered her – that my apartment was bigger than her house, and that we had a pool, and that I had live-in help. So she immediately did what she could to take those things away from me.
Under the guise of being concerned, she started to put inordinate pressure on me to return to Ireland. She promised help with the children, told me it would be easy to get employment, that I would be better off in Ireland, that I would earn more, and that I would be safer there than I was in Singapore. Sadly, she was so convincing that I ended up believing her and buying her version. She even offered to put our flights on her credit card – provided I gave her the cash when I got back to Ireland. She simply would not rest until she had taken from me what she saw as things she didn’t want me to have because she had never had them.
So, I (foolishly, regrettably!) returned to Ireland, paid her back in full for our flights and stayed with her for a few weeks. During those few weeks, she made it clear that my daughters and I were a burden; that she didn’t approve of how I was parenting, that we were in the way, and that it was difficult to have ‘extra’ people around. Naturally, the promises of help were hollow, her assertion that I would get a job easily in Ireland was a lie, and I have never managed to earn as much in Ireland as I was earning in Asia. I have never had the help I had when Nishanthi was the fourth member of the household loving, and looking after, us.
At the same time as she was treating us like burdens, she was outwardly ‘doing martyr’ and lying to anyone who would listen about how much time she spend with my children, about how good she was to me, and about how much I leaned on her. Of course, none of this was true, but it fit with her idea of herself, and of how she wanted to be perceived.
Sometimes, we worry that we have inherited our mothers’ narcissism; but while we all have the ability to behave in narcissistic ways now and again, that doesn’t mean we are narcissists. For example, you might do a selfish thing on a given day – but that doesn’t make you a selfish person because selfish is not your default position.
Going no contact can often be the safest, wisest, most self-loving thing you can do for yourself. They will lie about you. They will play the victim around your decision to go no-contact. They will trot out ‘proof’ after ‘proof’ after ‘proof’ that you are the evil one, the toxic one, the one who ‘threw it all back in their faces’. Going no contact is often a difficult thing to do because as soon as you start to put yourself first, you will be accused of being selfish – but looking after yourself is not being selfish.
You deserve to be loved, and if your mother doesn’t love you, you need to learn to love yourself. Easier said than done, I know, when you have been told your whole life – in words and in deeds – that you are worthless; but it can be done. You deserve it.