Given the ever-emerging media coverage and accessible literature on the subject of Narcissism in recent years, with its hefty emphasis on males representing 75% of this challenging population, many of us can begin to imagine and perhaps even recognize the emotional ruptures created by a narcissistic dad on his child. You may even know the woman married to such a narcissist.
She, often an “offended” family member as well, seeks to protect her children, discretely and consistently righting the wrongful messages and working to heal them from the noxious impact of their narcissistic father… whether happening within an intact marriage or from a post-divorce angle.
If the marriage ends, we might imagine this same mom, who will likely gain primary (or at least shared) custody of the children, spending a good deal of time repairing the hurts and upsets her children will experience (using strategies to prevent potential parental alienation from occurring), instigated by residual and revengeful reactions of a wounded and hostile narcissistic dad during his visitation-custodial days with the children.
But, few of us can yet fully fathom the reality and the fateful fallout of growing up with a Narcissistic Mother (!) despite such classic movies as Mommie Dearest, Ordinary People, or Gypsy, to name a few.
The scenario of a narcissistic mom tends to be seemingly harder to digest. We expect that surely the maternal instinct phenomenon would innately foster tendencies to protect, to unconditionally love, nurture, support, and cherish the vulnerable little being born into the woman’s life, no? And yet such a seemingly sensible hypothesis is, sadly, not the case for all who enlist the role of “mom”.
Some children are instead born to a self-absorbed Femme Fatale, Diehard Domestic Diva, or the (my-suffering-is-bigger-than-anyone’s-suffering) Martyrized Momma. It’s all about her: in scenes from a perpetually “victimized” state or right up in your face, demanding your attention and adherence to her wants and needs.
The narcissistic mom can cast a surrealistic dark shadow on the self-esteem of her young ones. She can also cast the glow of guilt like no other. To illuminate this idea, I share the words of my client, Debra, who suffered the slings and scars of a narcissistic mom: “It was exhausting lugging that heavy spotlight around all the time… the one that I was designated to hold up steadily, shine directly upon my mom, especially when in the company of others.”
That “heavy spotlight” was an illustrative metaphor referring to a little Debra who always had to be at her most adorable and precocious best… pretty, smart, talented, and anything else that would more than adequately reflect her mom’s image to the world as utterly “perfect”; an image that would insure her entitled right to be the envy of all in her presence.
This little girl would be primed to harvest the unfulfilled and often grandiose dreams of her mom, expected to become the best in show… perhaps the prima ballerina, the lawyer, the doctor, the wealthily married, or simply the beauty queen. While at the same time, she would have to manage the contradictory and confusing experience of being treated as the rival, a threat to a resentful woman who felt denied the very privileges that this little girl—her daughter—was being granted (or more accurately put, having foisted upon her!).
Debra was never allowed to feel truly good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or worthy of any of the attention she received, lest she steal the spotlight from her mom. It was mom’s glory game and she was a mere moveable pawn on the chessboard.
But at the same time, she was expected to perform as the consummately desirable and most extraordinary child any parent could wish for, via her appearance, her speech, her awards, academic, athletic, and artistic performances… in order to maintain her mother’s top billing rank on the most-magnificent-mom marquis.
“There was never any ‘me-ness’ in my life, no sense of my own realness vis-à-vis my mother. And, I never felt that I was acceptable enough, despite working so hard to be who she wanted me to be, despite all the attention she would enjoy when others complimented the me-her figure that I was… despite hours of caring for her and consoling her when she would become lonely or depressed”, Debra would say.
“Me-lessness” or the missing “me” in the identity of many a child (especially a daughter) of a narcissistic mom, refers to the absence of developing, cultivating, embracing, and encouraging the essential essence of the self. The sense of “me”— the emerging, self-actualized and adaptive personality— gets elaborated over time, throughout the child’s development. It’s formed by a combination of the child’s innate makeup and natural inclinations matched with a caregiving environment that lovingly (not perfectly) meets the emotional needs of the child and supportively fortifies access to the discovery of the child’s unique preferences, dreams, imagination, creativity, strengths, and challenges. These caregiving navigators, i.e., parents, are the ones who know when to fasten the seatbelt and when to unlock the door, allowing for both safety and discovery to occur in the life and growth of their child, such as: self awareness and “other” awareness, the notion of limits, give-and-take, tolerance, joy and frustration, belonging, self-expression, spontaneity, feeling seen and understood, securely connected as well as appropriately autonomous. These are some of the most important emotional milestones that add to guiding the path for growth and healthy attachment to self and others to emerge; preparing the child to eventually live in the world with the capacity to successfully engage in the
interpersonal as well as the independent domains, and to know how to thoughtfully cultivate and maintain a balanced, authentic, and satisfying life.
Narcissism not only stifles the me-ness in the child, it can flat out ignore it, especially if the child’s temperament and inclinations are not well-matched to the prescribed and self-consumed needs of the parent who harbors this personality profile.
Debra, like many adult children of narcissistic mothers, would go on to struggle with food and body image issues, perfectionism and procrastination, always feeling that she was not attractive enough or intelligent enough… the internalized message of mom had now become a familiar and automatic message resonating from what seemed like her own voice. She would develop a self-defeating pattern of using food as the soothing ally for her upsets and insecurities, as a means of detaching from painful beliefs and emotions.
I have treated other women and men plagued with this developmental life experience, some who went on to instead mimic their narcissistic mother, becoming narcissistic types themselves; while still others ended up on the path of surrender, giving in to their sense of nothingness, forfeiting the search for their lost selves, and instead designing a life that had them again bending and flexing to become whoever and whatever was expected of them—be it in their relationship with a (narcissistic) partner, with a boss, or even among their friends.
You may wonder: How does a parent end up getting away with this? Where is the other parent? Where are the rest of the adult caregivers? Does no one stand up to the narcissist? Most partners-spouses are also at the mercy of the narcissist. They may become depressed and disconnected, rooted in their own avoidance, hopelessness, or self-blame, tattered by the onslaught of demeaning and threatening words of the narcissistic partner. Others may try to amend the emotional casualties caused by the offending parent, but repair is difficult when dealing with consistently toxic exposure.
To paraphrase the beautiful words of Dan Siegel (Parenting from the Inside Out), the greatest gift we give to our children to support their healthy growth and development is a healthy parent. Of course getting the narcissistic person to treatment takes leverage—better known as a meaningful consequence that the narcissist does not want to experience—and this is not always easy to access in the current condition or to create as a future outcome. It also takes a very competent therapist who is skilled at working with this challenging client, utilizing an effective therapeutic approach, and although not impossible, this is not an easy find either.
Kathryn Rudlin captures the essence and the elements of healing from the hurts caused by a narcissistic mother in her beautifully written book…
GHOST MOTHERS: Healing From the Pain of a Mother Who Wasn’t Really There:
“Have you ever tried to hug a ghost? You end up hugging yourself. The longing for a real mother will diminish as your needs are met in other ways….
…What I’ve learned is that the more you learn to trust, appreciate and listen to the intuition that has helped you survive the turmoil you’ve experienced, the more you’re able to access deeper levels of living, and healing. These are the hidden gifts of having to deal with this pain. Ultimately, your ability to accept your ghost mother’s limitations, and to move past her illusiveness, leads to the creation of a rich environment for healing that stands in stark contrast to how you grew up. In this new way of living, you appreciate being treated kindly by others, acknowledge yourself as a powerful person, and see wonderful possibilities for the future.”-Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
If you are a parent who is poised to take steps to end the legacy of narcissism that resides in your family’s generational history, the one who seeks to break the chronic chain, and make this the final stop on the treacherous train ride… you will need to secure some golden nuggets in your parenting toolkit. Be sure that empathy and unconditional love are right on top, right within your reach. With this in place – your child stands a great chance of feeling seen, connected, accepted, and valued, of developing a “me-ness” as well as a sense of “otherness” that they can successfully carry forth into celebrations of joyful times and face the challenging ones, appreciating the magical moments as well as the far-less-than-perfect ones… a child who is prepared to experience and effectively interface with the real world, the one filled with beauty and bumps.
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About Wendy T. Behary, LCSW
With 25 years post-graduate training and advanced level certifications, Wendy Behary is the founder and director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and The New Jersey Institute for Schema Therapy. She has been treating clients, training professionals and supervising psychotherapists for more than 20 years. Wendy is also on the faculty of the Cognitive Therapy Center and Schema Therapy Institute of New York, where she has trained and worked with Dr. Jeffrey Young since 1989. She is a founding fellow of The Academy of Cognitive Therapy (Dr. Aaron T. Beck). Wendy is also the President of the Executive Board of the International Society of Schema Therapy (ISST).
Wendy Behary has co-authored several chapters and articles on schema therapy and cognitive therapy. She is the author of the New Harbinger Publication (1st and upcoming 2nd edition) Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed. Wendy has a specialty in treating narcissists and the people who live with and deal with them. As an author and an expert on the subject of narcissism, she is a contributing chapter author of several chapters on schema therapy for narcissism. She lectures both nationally and internationally to professional and general audiences on schema therapy, and the subject of narcissism, relationships, and dealing with difficult people. Her work with industry has included speaking engagements focused on interpersonal conflict resolution. Her private practice is primarily devoted to treating narcissists, partners/people dealing with them, and couples experiencing relationship problems. She is also an expert in coaching individuals in interviewing, public speaking, and interpersonal skills enhancement.