Under a Friendly Spell

How friends influence us, for better and for worse, throughout life.

Getting Over a Narcissistic Mother

How to get over your narcissistic mom.

We tend to throw around the descriptor "narcissist" when we really mean "selfish," but the term can properly refer to someone who consistently exhibits narcissistic traits as well as to someone with a full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The APA estimates that 1.5 million American women are "official" narcissists, meaning millions more can be found on the lower end of that personality spectrum.

Karyl McBride, Ph.D., has spent more than 20 years studying and treating women who grew up with narcissistic moms. I interviewed her about her new book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing The Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

What are the hallmarks of maternal narcissism?

An inability to give love to, and show empathy toward, the child.

How would you describe the typical husband of such a mother?

The spouse has to revolve around her, often, in order to stay in the relationship. He may practically worship her. That means he may never help or protect the child who is being ignored. Some fathers I've talked to realize the damage being done to their child, but feel that they can't do anything about it. Others seem to not be aware.

You found two typical patterns of behavior in daughters of narcissistic mothers.

Yes. There's the high achieving daughter—I call her Mary Marvel—who appears to be perfect in all she does. One of the main messages that gets internalized when your mother is narcissistic is, "You are valued for what you do and not for who you are." So Mary Marvel is constantly trying to prove to herself that she does have worth, by mastering different endeavors.

The other kind of daughter is a rebel. She's an under-achiever who self-sabotages. She may end up on welfare or addicted to drugs or alcohol. It's interesting, the two types look very different on the outside, but their internal landscape is similar. The self-saboteur also thinks she's not good enough, but has given up on disproving it.

What determines which way a daughter goes?

I was really interested in this question, especially since my sister and I fit this pattern— where I'm the "Mary Marvel." It's not entirely clear, but it seems that in the case of the over-achiever, she had someone in her life—maybe a grandmother—who gave her unconditional love.

What typically happens to these daughters in their own romantic relationships?

These daughters learn a distorted view of love. They learn that love is about "what I can do for you and what you can do for me." They may be overly dependent on their partners, or choose people who are entirely dependent on them. A healthy relationship, meanwhile, is based on the back and forth of interdependency.

How can an adult daughter "recover" from narcissistic mothering?

In the book I outline a 5-step program. The first part is accepting that you had a mother that didn't love you. This is very hard for some women to acknowledge, especially because daughters in these families were not taught to deal with their feelings.

Then the daughter must separate psychologically from her mother. Part of that is tapping into who she is and figuring out who she wants to be. It's also important to end the legacy, to prevent the next generation from suffering in the same way.

How can these women avoid becoming just like their mothers, then?

It's really about internal changes, and changing how they interact with other people.

You can learn how to be empathetic with your children. That doesn't mean loving "my kid the ballerina" or "my kid the soccer player," but really tuning into who your children are as people. And it's not about praising them just to praise them. That leads children to feel entitled, which is a narcissistic trait.

If these women treat their mothers differently, will the mothers react differently?

If a daughter starts setting boundaries in the beginning of this process, the mother's bad behavior may in fact escalate. That's why I often recommend a temporary separation.

The mothers may not change. I wouldn't want to give daughters hope that they will. But once a daughter understands her mother's narcissism, her own anger and resentment will fade. She can approach her mother in a loving way, and not as a victim.

It's really about accepting your mother's limitations. One of the women on my online forum described her old mentality toward her mother as something like this, "It's like my mom is colorblind, and I keep asking her to appreciate a rainbow."

 Friendfluence will be released on Jan. 15!

Carlin Flora is a journalist in New York City. She was a member of PT's staff from 2004-2011, most recently as Features Editor.

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