The narcissistic mother is a source of much pain and guilt for adult children of narcissism. Dealing with a narcissistic mother and her manipulations and neglect is a sensitive process. From childhood through to adulthood, she remains a constant shadow which abused sons and daughters struggle to escape.
Traits of a narcissistic mother
Dealing with a narcissistic mother requires you to first see her surface level behaviours. A narcissistic mother might exhibit some or all of the following traits:
- Snicker and laugh at your weaknesses: That all knowing laugh when you make a mistake communicates how amusing you are in comparison to the narcissistic mother, who wouldn never make the same error. Quite often, the mistake is not even a mistake, but a snicker at something you simply did a different way to how the narcissistic mother would do it. Not uncommon still is being laughed at even if you did something correctly, just to make you question yourself and think the narcissist knows something you don’t.
- Speak about you in the third person when you’re present: When you’re discussed with someone else while present, especially in a non-favourable way, it can make you feel both shamed and powerless. For example, “Lisa has been so lazy around the house. She hasn’t done any housework, she just watches Netflix all day.” When this is said to someone else in your presence, it shines the light on you without actually including you in the conversation. It creates an illusion of two people of ‘higher knowledge’ discussing you: the object of ‘concern’. Firstly, such a statement is subjective (Lisa might have felt a bit sick and watched Netflix for a few hours simply to unwind) and it forces you to either defend yourself or feel shame.
- Ask critical, rhetorical questions: For example, “Why did you arrange the plates like that?” or “Why are you wearing those pants for?” These questions have no real answer or purpose other than to shine a light on your supposed incompetence.
- Not allow you to set boundaries: A narcissistic mother might assume she knows what’s best for you – without consulting you first. She’ll order your drink without asking, make decisions involving you without consulting, open your mail and so on. This objectifies you and makes you feel like only she knows what’s best for you.
- Compare you to others: When the narcissistic mother points out that someone she knows can do what you can’t, or is better at something than you, she forces you onto a scale of worth. Real or not, it is shaming and can be difficult to ignore. A narcissistic mother can (subjectively) explain to her single daughter that every other woman her age is happily married and has children. Such subtle comparisons undermine and shame.
These traits are just a subset of the destructive ways a narcissistic mother causes emotional harm to her daughter or son. Therefore, dealing with a narcissistic mother requires a person to untangle themselves from her manipulations. Doing so can positively impact one’s life in unimaginable ways, allowing them to finally move on and live life to its fullest. But where to begin? The answer, as with all relationships, lies in childhood.
An adult will never ‘mentally’ solve the problem. The narcissistic mother maintains her grip because she established it long before the child developed thinking capacity. That is, the dynamic between a child and the mother is forged deep inside the child’s subconscious. It is only through the inner child that the adult can move toward healing from the narcissistic mother and make lasting change.
The mother, narcissistic or not, is the figure which all of our relationships stem from. The attachment is rooted deep in our core, 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 just to a person: they are worshipping an archetype in their mind. They are attached to an idea.
Good mother, bad mother, narcissistic mother
When a child begins to bond with the mother, they are highly sensitive and vulnerable. The mother is the child’s lifeline; their only way to survival and growth. The mother sustains the child completely, nourishing their fledgling body with milk, love and warmth. As a result, she takes on a godly role in the child’s life. The child senses her as a divine being, craving nothing else but her total acceptance. As long as abandonment equals death, 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, wherein a severe storm 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 forces them to split the mother in two. 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, neglectful, or does not cater sufficiently to the child’s needs, the child identifies in their mind with the bad mother, who is tyrannical and wicked.
The child splits like this so they have somewhere to place the intense emotions which they cannot process. It is important for the child to hate the bad mother and focus their rage toward her. This helps them maintain the image of the good mother while escaping the terrifying fear of abandonment. It gives them a sense of control. 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 sufficiently mirror the child, cater to their needs and offer them 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 bond with the good mother and eventually realise that the person whom they love (the good mother) and the person whom they hate (the bad mother) are the same person. The constructs of good and bad merge, 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 is ok, she won’t leave when things turn bad.
If the mother allows the child to bond with her and grow under her wing, then the child can sufficiently internalise and eventually outgrow the good mother. 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.
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The narcissistic mother hijacking the good mother
When dealing with a narcissistic mother, it becomes much more difficult to resolve the split and undergo healing. 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. It also 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 them. 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. Meanwhile, the narcissistic mother remains 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 faith in the narcissistic mother, she will sense their withdrawal. She reacts by suddenly becoming attuned and caring, or she guilt trips them by accusing them of ‘abandoning’ her. 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 work especially hard to bring the good mother out of their narcissistic parent. They worship and idolise the narcissistic mother in the hope that they can bring out the mother they so desperately need. This use of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ by the narcissistic mother can keep the adult trapped for a lifetime and permanently hijack their chances of healing.
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; i.e. overwhelming shame and guilt. After a certain amount of time, the child usually becomes exactly what the narcissistic mother wants them to be, and order is achieved. Yet deep inside, the child is lonely, frustrated and in despair because they are not being heard, understood and loved. They are merely playing the role of the good child, hoping to gain the love they crave.
A new hope for healing from the narcissistic mother
Dealing with a narcissistic mother 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 path to healing 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 their inner child to bond with the new mother figure 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. As the therapist offers sufficient empathy and understanding for the adult, the adult’s child will 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 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 come to see and experience the truth: the mother they crave 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 — 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 unbound by shame. They require a state of complete vulnerability; 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 can experience and then slowly grieve the good mother. The glasses slowly dissolve and the adult begins to see their therapist as a human being: a woman with admirable qualities but also with flaws and ‘bad’ elements.
Most importantly, the adult will learn to see their own mother more clearly; as a deeply wounded person who is playing a dangerous game. It is the game itself which becomes most clear to the adult, and they stop taking the bait. Guilt and shame lose their power. At some point, the child inside comes to life and the adult experiences peace and joy they did not know existed. They begin to heal and bask in the warmth of life, unhindered by the shadow of the narcissistic mother.
Dealing with a narcissistic mother requires you to to better understand the dynamics of narcissistic abuse. To learn more, check out my book, How To Kill A Narcissist. In the follow-up, How To Bury A Narcissist, I delve deeper into the narcissistic family and Self-actualising after narcissistic abuse. If you need support in cultivating healthy, empowered relationships, then Transformational Life Coaching might also be helpful.