The Narcissistic Mother: How To Deal With Her And Heal

By JH Simon

Table of Contents

The narcissistic mother can be a destabilising and intimidating force in her child’s life. Healing from her abuse is a sensitive process, not only because of what she does, but what she represents. Much like mother nature, the narcissistic mother has the power to nurture life, or destroy it like a hurricane cutting through the landscape of her child’s heart.

From childhood through to adulthood, she remains a constant shadow over the child’s life, maintaining a set of invisible heart strings which she pulls at a whim. Dealing with a narcissistic mother abuse therefore requires a powerful strategy. This includes having a bulletproof understanding of her manipulations, coming to terms with the damage she has caused, and then undergoing a through-and-through transformation of the Self from the inside out.

Traits Of A Narcissistic Mother

The first step for healing from a narcissistic mother is to spot her surface-level behaviours. A narcissistic mother will exhibit some or all of the following traits:

Lack Of Empathy

When you share something genuine that’s important to you, the narcissistic mother will shut it down as quickly as possible or simply ignore it. She might simply nod, change the topic, or dismiss what you are saying as childish. This rejection of your genuine expression makes you feel shameful and unloved.

Snickering Or Laughing At Your Weaknesses

That all-knowing laugh when you make a mistake communicates how amusing you are in comparison to the narcissistic mother, who would never make the same error. Quite often, the mistake is not even a mistake, but a snicker at something you simply did in a different way from 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 narcissistic mother knows something you don’t.

Condescending Stares / Eye Rolling

A narcissistic mother can communicate her disapproval with a mere patronising look or roll of the eyes. She might send out these signals dozens of times a day as a way to micro-control her child’s behaviour. Over the months and years, her disapproving expressions chip away at her child’s self-esteem and willpower, and mould them into a submissive state where the expressions are no longer needed — the child simply does what she expects.

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Discussing 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 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 couple of hours simply to unwind,) and it forces you to either defend yourself or feel shame.

Critical, Rhetorical Questions

The narcissistic mother might ask: “Why did you arrange the plates like that?” or “Why are you wearing that skirt for?” These questions have no real answer or purpose other than to shine a light on your supposed incompetence or stupidity.

Compare You To Others

When the narcissistic mother points out that your sibling or someone else can do what you can’t, or is better at something than you, she forces you onto a scale of worth. A narcissistic mother will regularly compare you to your siblings to exert her control. She can (subjectively) complain 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 child. These behaviours are just the tip of the iceberg, however.

Characteristics Of A Narcissistic Mother

Narcissistic mother - Effects and characteristics

Furthermore, the narcissistic mother exhibits the following characteristics in her relationship to her children:

Perpetual Dependence

The narcissistic mother wants her children reliant on her, even into adulthood. She will infantilise her child, sowing doubt in their mind about their capability for independence. She will call them baby names, micro-manage their life, and mock them, all with the intent of keeping them small enough to control. Also, by neglecting the child’s need for growth and development, the narcissistic mother communicates to the child that they are not capable of personal power.

Manipulative Communication

To avoid being put in a compromising position, the narcissistic mother will express her feelings and displeasure indirectly, either through her spouse, through one of the children, or by dropping hints. This covert way of communicating allows the narcissistic mother to deliver her message while remaining unaccountable.

If she did permit direct communication, her agenda could be challenged, and her children emboldened. Due to this disconnect between the parental system and the children, resentment and concerns go underground, expressed only in secret between siblings or remaining unspoken.

Lack Of Boundaries

Boundaries are non-existent with a narcissistic mother. The children are expected to comply with her demands at all times, and are not consulted about their feelings or needs. Their mail is opened, and their diaries read.

This enmeshed state allows the narcissistic mother direct access to the children without having to navigate their boundaries. Such a way of operating means the children experience overwhelming guilt and shame for wanting to act separately from their narcissistic mother.

Lack Of Accountability

One thing is sure with a narcissistic mother; she is never accountable for her actions or the family’s problems. The blame always lies with the scapegoat of the family, another of the children or an external source. These dynamics ensure complete control over the narcissistic mother’s family, and with that, total grip over her environment.

Meanwhile, the narcissistic mother remains practically untouched and uninfluenced. Although it is highly detrimental to the well-being of the rest of the family, the narcissistic mother remains unwilling to loosen her hold for fear of losing control. As long as she is in charge, the emotional flow of her family unit remains stagnant. The family members repress their emotions, and their maturity is compromised.

Effects Of Being Raised By A Narcissistic Mother

Growing up in a home dominated by a narcissistic mother has numerous consequences for the child, such as:

Emotional Repression

The child must hold back their feelings so as not to disturb the narcissistic mother’s fragile emotional balance. Negative feelings especially challenge the happy family image and are ignored, discouraged or attacked. The children learn to repress their anger and resentment, which leads to shame and depression. Also, by suppressing some emotions, the child is forced to suffocate all of them, which kills their ability to feel joy, stunts their growth and alienates them from their True Self.

Unhealthy Beliefs About Relationships

The child grows up with the idea that relationships are about which role you can play, being in constant competition with others, and about love being a limited resource which you must earn through your actions. The reality that love is a means and not an end, is about sharing and not about performing, is entirely lost on the child.

Stunted Maturity

Due to their emotional immaturity, the narcissistic mother’s child sees the world in black and white, all-good and all-bad. This way of living stops the child from seeing reality and integrating new viewpoints into their understanding of life, leading them to dysfunctional and harmful outcomes.

Toxic Shame

Being trapped in a rigid environment without having a say is shaming. For this reason, the child of a narcissistic mother must surrender all agency and feel constant shame. Add to that neglect and abuse, and these shame ‘experiences’ bind together. They then collectively amplify as the child grows, and culminate in toxic shame.

When a child internalises toxic shame, any situation which remotely reminds them of a past shame event can cause a flood of painful feelings to arise. This torrent functions autonomously and can render the child helpless, pulling them into a deep depression which can last for days at a time.

Mental Illness

Borderline Personality Disorder, Complex-PTSD, Bipolar Disorder and many other mental illnesses plague the children of narcissistic mothers. The worse her abuse, the more ruptured the child’s sense of Self becomes. They then experience emotional lability, a fractured identity, an incapacity to control their impulses, and much more.

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How To Deal With A Narcissistic Mother

The child of a narcissistic mother suffers greatly. Healing from her abuse requires them to untangle from her manipulations and carve out their own life. But where to begin?

It starts with a lighthouse to move towards, which involves you separating the person from the bond. Your mother is verbally abusive because she knows that by shaming you, destroying your self-esteem and making you feel guilty, she can keep you malleable and controllable. She does this because she is terrified of losing control over you.

Dealing with a narcissistic mother involves the following strategy:

  1. Get out of the firing line: Separate yourself from her for periods of time. Then use this time to bring yourself back to a calm emotional baseline. Look after yourself and create an environment conducive to feeling safe and empowered. This can be a favourite cafe, a park, a wellness retreat, a place in nature or your home.
  2. Mindfully explore the damage: Write about your experiences with her. Meditate on them. Be mindful of your inner state. Remind yourself that this state was created by another person.
  3. Pendulate: After spending time isolated from her, re-engage her. Set a time limit on this. Then separate yourself again and pay attention to the fallout. Do you feel differently after being in her presence? How exactly? Notice it, and if need be, document it. Bring yourself back to calm.
  4. Disengage: When you’re with her, pay attention to the patterns of her mind games. Does she aim for specific sore spots? Do certain things she says hit home harder than others? Analyze these attacks, and resist responding to them. See the attacks for what they are; desperate attempts to undermine and control you. The emotional reaction will still be there, but you can reflect on it when you leave again.

Keep Focussing On The Lighthouse

Isolation, re-engagement, mindfulness and analysis, and back to isolation.

Keep repeating this process over and over. Use it as a lab for making sense of the madness. It will seem futile and pointless, and especially at the beginning you will just feel overwhelmed. It’s important to keep going and to be patient. The shame and trauma caused by a relationship with a narcissistic mother is enormous, and to begin with will be far bigger than you can fathom or cope with. Like any challenge, you begin a total amateur, but with every small win you get closer to mastery.

Narcissistic mother pendulating

Beyond the initial strategy of mindfulness and self-care, you will need to go deeper. The real answer, as with all relationship dysfunction, 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 child and mother is forged deep inside the child’s subconscious mind, body and spirit. It is only through their inner child that the adult can move toward healing from the narcissistic mother and make lasting change.

The Source Of The Narcissistic Mother’s Power

The mother, narcissistic or not, is the figure which all of our relationships stem from. The attachment to her is rooted deep in our core, where it continues to influence us into adulthood. This is difficult for the adult to understand. Detaching from the narcissistic mother feels impossible because the attachment is not just to a person: but an powerful archetype in their mind. They are attached to an idea.

When a child first bonds 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 while craving her total acceptance. As long as abandonment equals death, the child watches the mother’s reaction to them with hyper-vigilance. 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.

Good Mother, Bad Mother, Narcissistic Mother

Furthermore, as the child develops, 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 trauma. 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 in their mind. When the mother mirrors them, caters to their needs and makes them feel safe, they project and identify with the good mother, who is divine and perfectOther times the mother is angry, neglectful, or does not cater sufficiently to the child’s needs, such as with the narcissistic mother. In this case, the child identifies in their mind with the bad mother, who is tyrannical and wicked.

How the child experiences their narcissistic mother

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 also gives them a sense of control, and allows them to vent their frustration. The more abusive the mother is to the child, the more overwhelming the terror and rage become, 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 healthy mother will sufficiently mirror the child, cater to their needs, and offer them love and acceptance. When she inevitably lets the child down, she will remain calm as the child expresses their rage. By doing this, she allows the child to vent their negative emotions and return to emotional stability and health. Feeling safe again, the child will continue to bond with the good mother.

Eventually, the child matures, and their magical thinking fades. They come to 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 begins 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.

The Narcissistic Mother Hijacking The Good Mother

When trying to heal from a narcissistic mother, it becomes much more difficult to resolve the split. Firstly, in a healthy child-mother relationship, the child experiences the good mother on their own terms. Their needs and wants are catered for, 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 emotions, 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.

The narcissistic mother holds the child hostage through being their lifeline. Meanwhile, she remains unpredictable, selfish, manipulative, controlling and abusive. Holding onto the good mother in such an environment is difficult and frustrating work — and often crazy-making. The problem is that the child cannot let go of their desperate longing for the good mother — it is too deeply ingrained. They live with an overwhelming, unconscious impulse that tells them to cling desperately to her.

The Narcissistic Mother’s See-Sawing Love

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 in the child, so they must work especially hard to please their mother. They also worship and appease the narcissistic mother in the hope that they can bring out the good mother they so desperately need. This form of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ can keep the adult trapped for a lifetime and permanently hijack their chances of healing and maturing.

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, panic 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 for who they are. They are merely playing the role of the good child, hoping to gain the love they crave.

Grieving The Narcissistic Mother

Breaking free from the narcissistic mother

The child can begin healing from the narcissistic mother when they learn to see the dysfunction at play. Seeing it, however, will not fix it. The power of the good mother is irresistible. 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 from a narcissistic mother 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.

A Rite Of Passage

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. Yet they will leave this 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. They 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 and heal from a narcissistic mother, 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 death of the good mother. The rose-coloured 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 was acting out her illness via a dangerous and destructive 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 from the narcissistic mother and bask in the warmth of life, unhindered by her shadow.

Want to learn more about narcissism? Check out How To Bury A Narcissist for the definitive resource on overcoming narcissistic abuse.

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