*Beth, 34, sat in my office, rocking herself back and forth and issuing guttural sobs wrenched from the depths of her being. It was two weeks before Mother’s Day and my 34-year-old patient found herself triggered by childhood memories of life with her mother *Anna, memories that most of the year Beth could avoid allowing to subsume her.

No, Anna wasn’t physically dead, but dead to her daughter. In a ferocious act of self-preservation, three years earlier Beth had banned Anna from her life.  It was a necessary step to healing for this only child raised by a parent with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), a personality disorder classified by the DSM2 and characterized by “…a pattern of need for admiration and lack of empathy for others. A person with [NPD] may have a grandiose sense of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, take advantage of others or lack empathy.”3

Growing up, Beth recalled that although Anna, who presented a larger than life image that attracted countless people into her orbit, spent an hour each day doing her own hair and makeup, but never so much as brushed her daughter’s hair, and rarely noticed if Beth left the house with two different colored shoes.

On the other hand, if Beth got below an A+ Anna would reprimand her daughter, yelling “I was valedictorian! How can I show my face to people who expect my child to be as smart as me?” Yet at family gatherings, Anna would brag about her “amazing daughter” and even hug Beth—two actions that never happened in private.

That’s when Beth would be subject to a constant barrage of criticism (i.e. “You are mean and stupid!”). Beth painfully recalled a memory from high school. Upon hearing her daughter was chosen to be president of her class, Anna commented, “They must really want a president they can manipulate.”  Then there were the constant searches of Beth’s emails and bedroom. The reason: “I don’t want you getting pregnant young as I did. You ruined my life!’

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It wasn’t until her self-declared emancipation that Beth began to see she had grown up constantly terrified,  a complete doormat, unable to assert herself or feel worthy. Not surprisingly research1 has shown that the effects of parental verbal aggression toward a child “can lead to increased levels of depression, anxiety dissociation, and drug use.”

In our session Beth confessed to me the reason for her tears, “Dad called and said Mom just had a mastectomy. They got all the cancer but if I don’t reach out to her, especially on Mother’s Day, won’t I be as horrible a person as she is?

Can a Narcissist Truly Love?

Like many children of narcissists, even after realizing that her mother’s ill-treatment wasn’t because Beth was unlovable, but that Anna has a psychological disorder, Beth couldn’t dispel the gnawing ache: “Does my mother love me?”

We all desire and deserve to feel unconditionally loved by our parents. However, at the root of narcissism is a person who inwardly is a roiling mass of fears, resentment, and turmoil with such a fragile ego and virulent self-hatred that it is impossible to truly have empathy or healthy love for another being—even one’s own child.  The world view of a narcissist is typically binary—black or white. If you view your child as a threat, it is difficult to also love him or her.

The ability of a narcissistic to love another in a relatively unselfish way depends largely on two factors: an ability to feel some empathy, coupled with a willingness to do the work necessary to look at and ‘own’ his or her faults—an extremely difficult place to be if you are a narcissist.

Can a Narcissist be a Good Parent?

Again this depends if the parent is willing to accept she has a problem and embarks on therapy—CBT and DBT are typically the most helpful in teaching how to manage emotions and develop an understanding of how to be more empathetic.

However, one need not be a narcissist to on some level, view a child’s success as a reflection of your parenting and thus do anything to ensure certain outcomes. Consider the recent college admission scandal involving scores of wealthy parents who allegedly paid for illegal schemes such as falsifying athletic records of their children to help them gain entrance to renowned colleges. (Note: The complexity of parenting can sometimes lead to unintentional harm done while trying to protect a child’s best interest).

Deborah Burns, the author of Saturday’s Child, a memoir about growing up with a narcissistic mother, says, “On one level my extraordinarily beautiful mother was adventurous and glamorous, clever and fun. Every friend of mine thought I had the best mother. When we were together I basked in her presence and longed for more of those moments. On another level, she was distant and removed from my day-to-day care, and I never felt I was her priority or fully loved.”

How To Deal With a Narcissistic Parent

Here are some steps you can take to help claim your life:

  • Educate yourself about narcissism. The object is to help you understand what you are dealing with, and cement the truth that how you were treated was not your fault. Read books, watch movies and TV shows that will have you cringing and laughing in recognition.  It is essential for you to separate emotionally from the mother who has dominated your life so that you can start looking at your own beautiful self. And also to accept that your parent will likely not change. You have been dealing with her on her terms. Now it’s time to set your own.
  • Set healthy boundaries. Doubtless time and again you tried to draw the line, yet time and again fell back into her web, so desperate were you for her love and attention, and so guilty that you were “failing her” that you gave in. This is understandable behavior—change is so hard—but behavior that kept you enmeshed. For instance, Beth kept trying to limit the topics of conversation with her mother to “safe” ones that weren’t provocative, and to limit the contact between them to monthly calls and visits on the holidays, but Anna always overrode Beth’s efforts which led to…
  • If all else fails, end contact. If your mother cannot cease her destructive behavior, tell her you need total space—at least for a while. Your mother’s behavior toward you, even if born of her inability to love herself was abusive. The term, in this case, is narcissistic abuse, which involves tactics such as shaming and control. You were damaged, and you need time to heal and develop a network of people in your life who treat you with love and respect.
  • Develop empathy for your mother.  The more knowledgable you are about your mother’s childhood, and the toxic forces that shaped her, the more you can loosen the emotional chokehold she has on you. Even if you no longer see or talk to her, if your thoughts are constantly filled with anger toward her, she is still very much ruling you and the relationships in your life.

Beth, with her hard-won freedom, decided that she was still too close to ‘recovery’ to risk visiting her parents on Mother’s Day. So she sent flowers and a card wishing her mother well and a quick recovery from surgery. “I’ve learned my first priority now is to learn how to parent myself.”

*Name of patient and identifying details are changed.

 

 

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Last Updated: May 7, 2019