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I was raised in a household that revolved around my mother. She was a narcissist, someone who, according to Wendy Behary, director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed is “often self-absorbed and preoccupied with a need to achieve the perfect image (recognition, status or being envied) and have little or no capacity for listening, caring or understanding the needs of others.”
My mom hasn’t been formally diagnosed—few narcissists seek treatment or even recognize that they have a problem—but growing up, the signs were all around me.
For women, narcissism is often expressed through the status of their children and their “success” as a parent (think Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, and all those hovering pageant moms). Narcissism ranges from a personality trait, like extroversion or self-esteem, to full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Narcissists, says Keith Campbell, Ph.D., author of The Narcissism Epidemic, have levels of self-absorption, entitlement, distrust, perfection, grandiosity and emotional detachment that affect their functioning and last an extended period of time.
Even as a child, I sensed that my mother’s behavior was inappropriate. I remember cringing when she’d put a hand on my shoulder and announced to friends that the reason she had kids was so she could have grandchildren.
I knew my mother was pretty far along on the narcissism spectrum, but I wasn’t sure that I’d been all that damaged as a result. Until, that is, I reached page 118 of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride, Ph.D. There it was, all laid out in front of me: the exact retelling of how my last relationship devolved and fell apart.
According to McBride, when times get tough, the daughter of a narcissistic mother may get codependent and “end up stifling [her boyfriend or husband] with her overwhelming demands, jealousy and insecurities. She will want him to be with her at all times and expect him to meet all her needs, particularly her emotional needs … [When he can’t] she will feel the same disappointment and emptiness she did as a child and blame her spouse.”
As I continued to read, humbled, I thought: The good news is that I can get better; the bad news is that I’m not the only one who comes from a narcissistic parent and heads ill-equipped into love and dating.
Not the only one at all. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) estimates that between 0.5 and 1 percent of people in the U.S. have NPD, and the American Psychiatric Association estimates that there are 1.5 million American women with the diagnosis.
And it might be on the rise. According to Campbell, more than nine percent of people in their 20s demonstrate enough narcissistic symptoms to be classified as narcissists, compared to just over three percent of people over age 65, though it’s too soon to tell if the twenty-somethings’ symptoms will dissipate with age.
In homes where it’s “all about Mother,” Mom gets all the attention and admiration, leaving little for Dad and the kids.
Mom’s focus may be on appearance, achievement or status, but either way, when it comes to her kids, the focus is more on what they do than who they are. In Mom’s eyes, everything the kids do reflects back on her. Instead of being loved and cherished, the child “has the burden of carrying the spotlight around and shining it on their mother,” says Behary.
After years of feeding mom’s ego, these children emerge into adulthood without a strong sense of self. As opposed to children from healthy families who “grow up feeling inner confidence,” explains Behary, women who have grown up with narcissistic mothers “are walking around feeling like the only value they have is to meet everybody’s expectations.”
Having never experienced real love, children of narcissistic parents often have what McBride calls a “legacy of distorted love… based either on what I can do for you or what you can do for me.”
As the daughter of a narcissist starts a relationship, says McBride, she may look for someone who she can take care of (someone else to shine the spotlight on, if you will) and end up in a codependent relationship.
These women may choose men who are narcissists themselves, or who can’t really love them for who they are. The way that daughters of narcissists choose partners, says Behary, “is very similar to people who grow up with abuse. [They] might reenact the pattern that [they] had as a child.” So, they move from a narcissistic mother to a narcissistic partner.
There is another option: opting out. Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love, Narcissism Revisited, calls this “counter-dependency.” Counter-dependents, Vaknin told YourTango, “fear intimacy and are locked into cycles of hesitant approach followed by avoidance of commitment.”
And even if the daughter does pick a partner, her mother’s focus on the superficial—looks, money, education, job title—in place of emotions and compatibility can interfere with the relationship’s progress. When I brought home a picture of my grad-school boyfriend, I’ll call him Ben, Mom squinted at it. “Is that what all the fuss is about?”
Ben and I stayed together for four years, including visits to meet my parents that felt more like job interviews than friendly family get-togethers. At a certain point, Ben proposed marriage and then decided against it. One of the reasons he gave for being reluctant to tie the knot: he wasn’t sure that he wanted to be related to my mother. This, apparently, is not uncommon.
When guys meet Mom, explains Behary, “they feel like they’re under the microscope. They look at the mother and think, ‘Is that what my wife or girlfriend will be like in 20 years?’”
Fearing constant judgment and the mom’s intrusion into every aspect of their lives, the boyfriend’s feelings for his girlfriend might not be enough. In the end, he’ll admit that there’s no way he can be with that mother-in-law.
After the failed marriage proposal, Ben and I stayed together for a year trying to work it out. I vacillated between codependency and dependency, entitlement (I deserve for this relationship to work) and blame (it’s all Ben’s fault). I asked myself over and over, “What would Mom think?”
And, when I contemplated the answer, I couldn’t bear the thought of telling her that I’d failed. According to Vaknin, children of narcissists fear abandonment and relationship failure and may be hard-pressed to accept relationship red flags or bail from sinking ships.
For daughters of narcissists, a breakup can cause a collapse that’s on par with post-traumatic stress, according to McBride.
A few years of regular dating and breaking up can be devastating. “Each [break-up] chips away at their self esteem,” says McBride, “and they often think that maybe they won’t find someone who cares about them for who they are.”
I don’t think my mother has meant to hurt me; I think she just doesn’t realize what she’s doing. When she tells me “I’m sorry your relationship failed,” she thinks she’s being empathetic. But she didn’t teach me how to love or be loved, and she isn’t a relationship role model—or even helpful. In the end, says Campbell, “There’s no magic solution… You have to be adult enough to understand that and get the most out of it that you can.”
The best medicine for children of narcissists, according to Behary, is having people to mediate: friends, other family members, or a mentor who can step in and intervene. I’ve come to rely on my friends, sister and boyfriends for emotional support.
They’ve helped me see that my value doesn’t come from being married, having kids, or climbing to the highest ladder-rung in my job. Those relationships have boosted my confidence, so now I don’t have to wonder, “What would mom think?”
In addition to surrounding yourself with loving friends, Campbell recommends encouraging Mom when she is empathetic or caring by telling her what a good parent she is.
Use their personality to your advantage, and hopefully they’ll increase the behavior that you want in the long run.
Behary suggests a different approach: holding Mom accountable. Narcissists don’t like to hear about their faults and will often become aggressive when they’re confronted with mistakes. (When I told my mother that there were aspects of my high school years that I would have changed, she told me that she thought she’d been a “perfect parent.”)
But Behary advises that daughters set boundaries and create accountability. She recommends using a script that gives Mom the benefit of the doubt: “I know you care about me, but it’s hurtful when you do this.” Be prepared for her to say that she’s only thinking of you and be ready to politely restate your position (“Thank you, I appreciate your concern for me, but I’m telling you how I feel.”)
Mom may never have been told that what she’s doing hurts you—and that may be enough to get her to change.
In other cases, the only way to deal with mom’s behavior is through an ultimatum. Behary often tells narcissistic mothers that they must either learn how to work within boundaries or lose the relationship with their daughter.
“You have leverage,” Behary said “and can say, 'I don’t want us to lose our relationship, but I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed because I’m finding it intolerable.’” Ultimately, says McBride, the daughter of a narcissist has to decide if she wants to have simply civil contact with Mom (if any at all) instead of the intrusive, encompassing relationship she’s been used to.
Whatever your approach, your boyfriend will need to be prepared to meet her.
McBride recommends prepping him to answer a barrage of questions or criticisms about clothes, cars, education or job. The goal is to help keep him from coming away feeling judged. After that, you can create a united front and build support to enforce boundaries.
I’m still figuring out how I ultimately want to deal with my own mother. But, in the meantime, I’ve surrounded myself with supportive friends who help tear down my distorted ideas. I’m beginning to understand that relationships can be successful even if they don’t end in marriage and that I’m good enough with or without a partner.
I’ve come away from my most recent relationship confident that I’ll meet someone who loves me for who I am, regardless of what Mother thinks.
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