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Source: javi_indy/Shutterstock

Mother’s Day should be a special day to honor mothers and appreciate them for all that they do and have done. But for some, Mother’s Day ends up being a triggering event that reminds of sadness and loss and even causes post-traumatic stress symptoms. This is what I refer to as the emotional collapse.

For those of you who come from dysfunctional families in which one parent was a narcissist (or both), you will likely approach Mother’s Day traditions in a very different way. Many of my clients spend extensive emotional energy on determining what to do: “Should I send a card?” “What kind of card?” “Should I call my mother?”  “Should I see my mother?” “Should I ignore the day?” “How do I feel OK on this day?” “It makes me realize so poignantly that I didn’t get to have the kind of mother who knew how to love.”

There is no doubt that a healthy mother’s love is powerful. It is embedded in memories of kindness, nurturing, and compassionate connection that lasts forever. But if you didn’t have that kind of mom, you find yourself watching other families that do. You wonder why you had to suffer this loss and may even beat yourself up as you wonder if it was your fault: “Why can’t my mother love me?” “Is there something wrong with me?”

Most adult children of narcissists sensed there was something wrong in early childhood, but couldn’t figure it out. When their needs were not being met, they typically blamed themselves and were left feeling “not good enough." It’s often much later in life that the adult child of a narcissist realizes what the real problem was. (It wasn’t them!)

It’s hard to wrap your head around “lack of empathy” and the “inability to emotionally tune into a child.” If you are a person with empathy and are sensitive to the emotional needs of your children and others, understanding that narcissists can’t do this is hard. This is why so many people keep going back to the empty well of the parent over and over, wishing and hoping it will be different: “If I just act better, love more, do what they want, maybe they will love me.” When it doesn’t happen, and the narcissist is not accountable, it causes more angst, pain and disappointment. In recovery, it is most important to be able to accept that the parent has a disorder and is not going to change. Real recovery can’t begin until this is accomplished.

My heart goes out to adults who didn’t have the archetype of a loving mother. It’s a significant loss that causes very real pain and sadness. So what can adult children of narcissists do on Mother’s Day if the mother was the narcissist? Here are 10 tips for a day that may trigger you:

  1. Don’t blame yourself.
  2. Celebrate yourself, whether you are a mother or not.
  3. Celebrate other mothers you know who are loving and kind.
  4. Focus on empathy throughout the day and give it to friends and family members.
  5. Honor other women who may have given you motherly love and attention, like a grandmother, aunt, or friend. Let them know how important they were to your development and teaching you how to love.
  6. If you are a mother, think about your own values and what you want to be able to give to your children to end the legacy of distorted love.
  7. Make sure you are working your own recovery so you don’t pass the legacy down to your children.
  8. Spend the day doing something you truly love to do.
  9. Try not to buy into guilt trips from your family of origin.
  10. Talk to others who understand the narcissism dynamic and can support and love you — and don’t try to explain it to those who don’t.

If you are working your own recovery, good for you. Remember it’s just another day and you can make of it what you want. Value your own ability to love. Being able to love is a gift. Embrace that gift and celebrate you. As Henri Nouwen famously said, “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.

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