Michelle Ross, LCSW
As a therapist, many clients with all types of problems touch my life. But the ones who really touch my heart are those adult daughters of narcissistic mothers.
When I see an adult woman seek treatment for symptoms such as an inability to get close to people, having a hard time letting anyone do anything for them ( because this would be "selfish"), and a long pattern of having people with "big personalities" in their lives, I often wonder if my client's mother is (or was) a narcissist. I am usually right.
These women often fear if they tell me the truth about their moms that I may not believe them. They'll say something like, "She makes Joan Crawford look like a saint." And often these stories do sound like they are from characters in movies, but they are not. The only thing these moms have in common with movie stars is the belief that they are quite special and should be treated as so.
I have observed certain physical attributes and common behaviors in these daughters of narcissists. These moms are often physically striking. Dress and outer appearance is crucial. They often act seductively with men and may have had multiple marriages.
Money is important to these mothers. And they often use money as a weapon against the daughter. They may promise it, then dangle it away or set significant conditions--something quite symbolic of the "love" relationship these moms have with their daughters. The child learns early on to not get too attached to good things because they will get taken away.
Recently a client brought in some "glamour shots" of her mom (autographed by her) and a collection of 40 years of cards and letters. The message was loud and clear (although often encrypted in code): "You should be doing much better with your life. But don’t try so hard because you will never be better than me--and, by the way, dear, no one loves you like your mommy does."
Letting people in is usually challenging for daughters of these narcissistic mothers. Mother has endlessly criticized them, but expects to be admired. She gets what she wants using emotional blackmail: "If you loved me you would do this for me." These children learn to associate love and pain.
What often gets revealed in therapy is a long pattern of a love/hate relationship. These daughters of narcissists move across the country, rebel in their physical appearance, or choose an avocation their mother would despise as a way to create as much distance as they can.
Sometimes these women start to feel better about themselves. They start to hope. They may accomplish valued goals or get involved with a man even though their mom would disapprove. But I have also seen these moments of independence come crashing down with a phone call or a visit, letter or text.
That is where therapy work comes in. Helping women gain healthy separation and determining how what they want in a present relationship with their mother opens up a deeper dialogue into what these women want their lives and what they want in their relationships. As a therapist, it's my role to help provide a safe environment.
During the therapeutic relationship, clients can share some of the horrors they have been through and experience a slow healthy attachment with clear boundaries. Working with a female therapist can allow these women to start to have a range of emotions without punishment or conditions.
It is not always an easy journey. I feel the weight of these narcissistic mothers in the rooms with us. But I have also experienced their presence shrink as the client starts to grow and take on the form they were always meant to be.
Michelle Ross, LCSW, received her undergraduate psychology degree from University of Southern California and her master's degree in social work from the University of Southern California. She completed an intern and fellowship in psychology at the Department of Psychiatry, Kaiser Permanente Hollywood.
In her private practice setting, her specialties include working with men and women suffering from eating disorders, and compulsive addictive behaviors (e.g. spending, eating, addictive relationships).
For more information, also see It’s All About Me! Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissist. Mothers