The Link Between Narcissistic Mothers and CPTSD
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder and narcissistic emotional abuse.
Posted Jan 05, 2021
When we think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) we are usually referring to a condition which is a response to a single event and is characterised by symptoms such as flashbacks to the original trauma. We often hear about PTSD in the context of war veterans who have experienced combat-related trauma; we may also associate it with people who have witnessed horrors, such as an accident, or who have been sexually assaulted.
In 1988, Judith Herman, a professor in Clinical Psychology at Harvard University, suggested that a new diagnosis—complex PTSD (or CPTSD)—was required to describe the effects of long-term trauma.1 Some of the symptoms between PTSD and CPTSD are similar—including flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening right now), intrusive thoughts and images, and physical sensations including sweating, nausea, and trembling.
People who have CPTSD often also experience:
- Emotional regulation difficulties
- Feelings of emptiness and hopelessness
- Feelings of hostility and distrust
- Feelings of difference and defectiveness
- Dissociative symptoms
- Suicidal feelings
The causes of CPTSD are rooted in long-term trauma and, although it can be caused by any ongoing-trauma—such as domestic abuse or living in a war zone—it is most often associated with trauma which has occurred in childhood. The obvious childhood traumas are physical and sexual abuse and emotional neglect.
But emotional abuse, while often more difficult to identify, can also cause CPTSD. And emotional abuse is at the heart of the experience of those children who grow up with a narcissistic mother. In the case of the narcissistic mother-child relationship, emotional abuse will be disguised as bonds of love, taking its form as a whole range of behaviours designed to control you, keep you close, and have you on hand to reflect back to her what she needs to see to bolster her fragile ego.
One of the most difficult aspects of being the child of a narcissistic mother is that your primary interest to her is your ability to be of use to her. What type of use you have to her is dependent on what type of narcissist she is.
We often associate narcissism with those grandiose types who always want to be the centre of attention. But narcissists take all shapes and forms and their narcissism is defined not only in terms of their need for attention, but in terms of their need for control of their environment and protection of themselves, through the use of others.
Your mother may have used you as someone to defend her against her husband, as someone to be her best friend, as someone to put down and criticise so that she could feel better about herself. Whatever particular use she had in mind for you—and children are very much part of a narcissist’s “supply”—you will likely have experienced extreme ongoing pressure in the process.
In an ideal world, you’d be allowed to grow up simply being a kid, revelling in the freedoms of self-exploration and self-expression. Children of narcissistic mothers often don’t get that luxury and, instead, are constantly looking over their shoulder to see whether they’ve upset their mother by saying or doing the wrong thing. They know that the most important thing in the world is to try and please their mother and live in a constant state of fear in case they get it wrong. (It takes many years of learning to know what it takes to “get it right,” so complex is the narcissistic mother’s set of rules).
Is getting a harsh word, a criticism, a denial of one’s experience really as bad as being slapped for bad behaviour? The answer is a resounding yes. The verbal venom which a narcissistic mother can direct towards her children is often extreme and every bit as frightening to a child as being slapped. And along with the fear is the constant confusion. Narcissists are highly emotionally fragile and create a very complex web around themselves in order to control what they do and do not come into contact with. As a child, your emotions may be deemed as inherently unacceptable if they pose any kind of a threat to your mother.
Let’s say you love your paternal grandmother but know that your mother is jealous of her. Instead of being free to express your love, you might find yourself saying nasty things about your grandmother to please your mum.
Or let’s imagine you’re a naturally outgoing child but know that your mother becomes jealous quickly if you take the limelight away from her. Simply expressing sadness or fear could be met with derision and mockery. My mother married my father partly because he came from a wealthier background than her and to her, being financially comfortable was the primary signifier that we had an easy life. Any emotional expression that things were less than perfect in my life—lonely and with the heavy threat of suicidal thoughts hanging over me constantly—was met with a sharp sarcastic defensiveness which was terrifying and shaming to be on the receiving end of.
Not all children of narcissistic mothers will develop CPTSD, but many of the fundamental ingredients are there—including constant fear, pressure, and confusion. Narcissistic mothers are masters of gaslighting and, by the time you reach adulthood, your version of reality may have been so denigrated that you may well buy into the idea that there is something inherently defective in you—because the reasons you can come up with for feeling depressed, anxious, and hopeless have all been ridiculed and denied by the very person who raised you.
There’s no let-up for the children of narcissistic mothers to simply be. That consistent wariness and worry, experienced day in and day out for years on end, can be the root cause of ongoing mental health problems, including CPTSD. Feelings of worthlessness, subjugation, defection, dissociation and hopelessness can, and do, persist long after the original trauma.
If you need help with any of the above issues, please seek out a suitably qualified therapist. To find one, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
1. Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books