The narcissistic mother is a source of much frustration and dread for adult children of narcissism. Discussing her is a sensitive topic. From childhood through to adulthood, she remains a dark shadow which the abused struggle to escape. For this reason, it is important not only to explore the topic but to work on finding a lasting solution. Untangling the hold she has on her children can positively impact their lives in unimaginable ways, allow them to finally blossom and live life to its fullest. But where to begin? The answer, as with all relationships, lies in childhood.
An adult will never be able to mentally solve the problem. The narcissistic mother maintains her grip because she established it long before the child developed thinking capacity. The dynamic between a child and its mother is forged deep inside the child’s subconscious. It is only through the inner child that the adult can make lasting change.
The mother, narcissist or not, is the figure which all of our relationships stem from. The attachment forms and remains deep inside our subconscious where it continues to influence us well into adulthood. What makes it so difficult for the adult to understand and detach from the narcissistic mother is that the attachment is not with the narcissist mother: the person is worshipping an archetype in their mind. They are attached to an idea.
Good mother, bad mother
When a child begins to bond with the mother, they are vulnerable, sensitive and deeply insecure. The mother is the child’s lifeline; their only way to survival and growth. To the tiny child, she is larger than life. When the child looks up to her, she appears like a divine being. Abandonment equals death, and the child watches with hyper-vigilance how the mother reacts to them. A child in the face of an angry mother is the equivalent of a person with an extreme fear of flying in a severe storm that forces the plane to drop a hundred feet in a second.
Furthermore, as the child develops their ego, they initially only have the capacity for black and white thinking. They don’t comprehend that a person can have stress in their life, have bad moods or be dealing with childhood issues. When faced with overwhelming emotions, the child’s black and white thinking paired with their extreme fear causes them to split. When the mother mirrors them, caters to their needs and makes them feel safe, they project and identify in their mind with the good mother, who is divine and perfect. When the mother is angry at the child, neglects the child or does not cater sufficiently to their needs, the child projects and identifies in their mind with the bad mother, who is destructive and wicked.
The child splits like this so they have somewhere to place the intense emotions which they cannot process. It’s important for the child to hate the bad mother and focus their hate and rage toward her. This helps the child to hold on to the image of the good mother and escape the terrifying fear of abandonment. The more abusive the mother is to the child, the more overwhelming the terror is, and the more the child splits to cope. They cling even tighter to the idea of the good mother to help assuage their fear and dread.
Reconciling the good and the bad
Ideally, the mother will more often than not mirror the child sufficiently, cater to its needs and offer it love and acceptance. When the mother inevitably lets the child down, she will remain calm as the child expresses their rage. By doing this, the child will sufficiently bond with the good mother and begin to realise that the person who they love (the good mother) and the person who they hate (the bad mother) are the same person. The constructs of good and bad will blend together and the child will begin to see a human being, not a construct in their mind. The child’s thinking establishes shades of grey. Mother is good and bad, and that’s ok, she won’t leave as a result of the bad.
If the mother allows the child to identify with her and to grow under her wing while feeling safe, then the child can sufficiently internalise the good mother and then eventually outgrow her. This is a process of maturation which requires the patience and support of a good parent. The child needs time to experience the good mother and then to transcend her. There are no shortcuts.
Hijacking the good mother
In the case of the narcissistic mother, it becomes much more difficult to resolve the split. Firstly, in a healthy relationship, the child experiences the good mother on their own terms. Their needs and wants are catered for by the mother, which instils in them high self-esteem and confidence, and offers the child the freedom to act independently of the mother without fear of losing her love.
With a narcissistic mother, she only becomes the good mother when the child is behaving as she expects. If the child exhibits negative emotion, acts out or defies the narcissistic mother, then she reverts to the bad mother by unleashing her rage, shaming the child or turning her back on the child. The consequences of losing the good mother are devastating. Remember that to the child, abandonment equals death. Therefore, the child quickly learns that if they want the good mother, they need to behave as the narcissistic mother expects. The child temporarily resolves the split by being obedient.
This dynamic becomes ingrained in the child’s being. The narcissistic mother holds the child hostage by threatening their lifeline. As they grow into an adult, the child loses awareness of this fact completely. They live it out without knowing. The worst of it is that the narcissistic mother is unpredictable, selfish, manipulative, controlling and abusive. Holding onto the good mother is difficult and frustrating work, and often crazy-making. The core of the problem is that the child cannot let go of their desperate longing for the good mother. They have no awareness of her existence in their mind, and no way to prove that she does not exist. They live with an overwhelming impulse that tells them to cling desperately to her.
If the child loses heart with the narcissistic mother, she will notice their withdrawal and suddenly become attuned and caring. The child will again project the good mother and then unwittingly re-enter the narcissistic mother’s game, after which she can resume her control of the child. To hate the bad mother induces guilt and shame on the child, so they must especially work hard to bring the good mother out of their narcissistic mother. They worship and idolise the narcissistic mother in the hope that they can bring out the mother they so desperately need. This ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ can keep the adult trapped for a lifetime.
The nail in the coffin is that the narcissistic mother will never be the attuned, loving person the child is frantically searching for. The child either has to put up and shut up or suffer the consequences; overwhelming shame and guilt. They are addicted to the warmth and safety of the good mother. After a certain amount of time, the child usually becomes exactly what the narcissistic mother wants them to be, and order is achieved. But deep down inside, the child is lonely, frustrated and in a deep despair because they are not being heard, understood and loved. They are merely playing the role of the good child.
A new hope
Hope comes when the child can begin to see the dysfunction at play. Seeing it, however, will not fix it. The power of the good mother is irresistible and undeniable. For the child to escape the dysfunction of their relationship with the narcissistic mother, they need to embrace the idea of the good mother and surrender to it: through another person.
The way to freedom remains through the good mother, but the adult must replace the figure who represents her. The narcissistic mother will never offer the attuned love and empathy which the adult’s inner child requires. The adult will need to find a female therapist and lay their trust and faith in her. The adult will consciously be aware of what they are attempting but must allow the subconscious process of attaching to and bonding with a new mother figure to occur at its own pace.
Eventually, if the therapist is selfless and attuned enough, the adult will be able to slowly drop their guard and allow themselves to be infantilised by the therapist. As the therapist offers sufficient empathy and understanding for the adult, the adult’s child will begin to re-experience their trauma in a safe environment and begin healing. The therapist will have their own flaws and issues, but will leave them out of the therapist’s office to ensure that the adult can sufficiently reproduce the good mother projection unhindered.
Over time, the adult will begin to consistently and truly experience the good mother, and then begin to grieve the fact that they will never find her in their narcissistic mother. They will begin to see and experience the truth: she does not exist. She is a construct in their mind which they have grasped onto their entire life. In order to mature, every single person must experience the good mother sufficiently and then finally let her go. It is a rite of passage which we all need. The adult begins this process by directing their longing toward a person who can cater to their needs. The therapist’s office is a controlled, safe environment where the adult can connect with the good mother. The therapist’s boundary setting can allow a safe space for the adult’s child to truly experience the good mother without the sudden disruption from the bad mother.
The mortal woman
A person cannot know of the good mother and then instantly let her go. The adult must experience her. It is also crucial that they experience her on their own terms. In the therapist’s office, the adult must be uncensored and unbounded by shame. They need to be completely vulnerable; like a child. They must expose their deepest being to the therapist, and allow the therapist to connect with it and accept it. With the therapist’s support, the adult will begin to experience and then slowly grieve the good mother. The glasses will slowly dissolve and the adult will begin to see their therapist as merely a human being: a woman with admirable qualities but also with flaws and ‘bad’ elements.
Most importantly, the adult will begin to see their own mother more clearly, as a deeply wounded person who is playing a dangerous game. It is the game itself which will become most clear to the adult. The deeper the adult explores this peculiar construct, the clearer the game becomes. Finally, the child inside will come to life and the adult will experience peace and joy they did not know existed. They will begin to blossom and bask in the warmth of life, unhindered by the shadow of the narcissistic mother.
To better understand the dynamic of a narcissistic relationship and for help recovering from narcissistic abuse, take a look at How To Kill A Narcissist. Also, a helpful book on narcissistic mothers is Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing The Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.