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Is Your Mother Narcissistic or Controlling?

Taking a close look at two kinds of toxic mothering.

"My mother cared hugely about appearances. What people thought. What people said. Who was mentioned at church, in the local paper, who won prizes. My older brother and I accepted that as the way of the world when we were kids; it wasn’t who you were, but what you did and who admired it that mattered. I was a pretty baby, but in her opinion became an ungainly child in elementary school and later. I was too fat, too clumsy, and that was that. I grew up ashamed of myself, you know? My brother played football, but got bad grades; in our little town, that made him a star. I got good grades, but she stopped taking photos of me when I was ten. The few pictures I have were taken by relatives and friends. How awful is that?"

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Unloved children share some experiences, but not others. The ignored and dismissed child lives in the shadows, but doesn’t experience the pain of living in the glare of a mother high in narcissistic traits. The child of an emotionally unavailable mother feels the pressure to succeed and get attention, because she needs to try to win her mother’s love, but it emanates from within, in contrast to the daughter of a controlling mother who’s constantly pushed and molded. That controlled daughter lacks the room to act, to think, to feel, and to be herself. The combative mother teaches her child to self-armor, to avoid confrontation at all costs, and to stay off center-stage—the opposite strategy of the daughter with an emotionally unavailable mother.

While all of these mothers are unloving, their daughters develop different maladaptive ways of coping, have distinctive emotional responses, and are damaged in specific ways.

Points of Conjunction

Mothers high in narcissistic traits and those who need to control their daughters see their offspring as extensions of themselves, not as individuals in their own right. The degree to which they are supported, paid attention to, and cared about—I am pointedly not using the word “love” here—totally depends on how well they fulfill their mothers’ expectations.

These mothers project their own needs onto their daughters, and don’t recognize that their children have needs of their own. Both controlling and narcissistic mothers appear, to outside eyes at least, to be very together, competent, and even accomplished, although both types may be deeply insecure themselves and afraid of being unmasked or shown to be lacking. Those hidden feelings simply up the ante when it comes to how their lives look, and both tend to be perfectionists about everything, including their daughters. Their own ambitions—to be admired and sought after—are transferred to their children, who are required to look good to others and be admired as well. Because her children are seen only as reflections of herself, anything lacking in the child becomes the mother’s DIY project, something that needs to be tackled or fixed to match the perfectly tended garden and carefully curated appearance she presents to the outside world.

"I was small when my mother made it clear that I couldn’t be friendly with everyone. There were people who would reflect badly on me, on us as a family, and those were the kids I couldn’t invite over. The friends she chose for me were kids I didn’t feel comfortable around, so I stopped trying to make friends. That didn’t sit well with her either—having a nerdy daughter who preferred to read and didn’t sign up for sports or school plays was an embarrassment. She shifted her energies to my younger sister, who was much more pliant, more willing than I was, and scapegoated me. I’m 39 now, and that’s still the story."

Narcissistic or Controlling: Sometimes Linked, Sometimes Not

While these two types may seem closely allied and even interchangeable—narcissists can be controlling, and controllers can be narcissistic—they have different motivations, as well as distinct ways of justifying their behaviors.

The treatment of a child by a narcissistic mother is driven by the mother’s need to be the center of attention at all times. The way she treats her child or children isn’t thought out in any sense, and the truth is that she’s not conscious of what drives her behavior. Her children either reflect well on her, or they don’t; there’s no middle ground. They will either please or displease her, and if it’s the latter, that child will be scapegoated and singled out. This mother engages in a lot of game-playing and manipulation in order to keep all eyes focused on her; that is her goal.

The controlling mother has other fish to fry. Yes, she cares about appearances, as does the narcissistic mom, but she’s motivated by her own fears and insecurities and leaves nothing to chance. She needs to be needed, complimented, and valued, and she doesn’t trust the vagaries of fate or chance when it comes to raising a child. While the narcissistic mother gets off on the power she holds over others, including her children, the controlling mother really believes that without her intervention, the children would fail at just about everything. She’s motivated by fear, but masquerades her control as a form of strength. She’s an authoritarian parent—it’s 24/7 “my way or the highway”—but really believes that it’s a necessity. That said, the messages she communicates to her daughter underscore the fact that, without her help, the daughter would sink.

Insecure Attachment as a Coping Mechanism

Children whose emotional needs aren’t met in childhood—whose mothers are not attuned enough, who are ignored or not given the support and room to explore—are said to be insecurely attached. There are three types of insecure attachment: anxious/preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. The daughter who displays an anxious/preoccupied style actually wants close connection, but she is hypervigilant about being spurned or rejected; she's highly sensitive to perceived slights and emotionally volatile. The dismissive-avoidant doesn’t seek close connection; she sees other people as too needy and prides herself on her independence and resilience. The fearful-avoidant actually wants connection, but her emotional vulnerability makes her self-protect; she’s motivated by fear.

Daughters of both narcissistic and controlling mothers may display any of these attachment styles in adulthood, or a combination of several.

What Daughters of Narcissistic and Controlling Mothers Have in Common

1. Trouble managing feelings.

This, along with impaired emotional intelligence, is typical of all daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood, regardless of the maternal style. Children learn how to manage feelings of sadness and hurt through interactions with an attuned adult, usually their mother, during infancy. As explained by attachment theory, when this process doesn’t take place, children either push off from their feelings so as to avoid stress (an avoidant style of attachment) or become flooded and overcome with emotion (an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment).

2. Inability to see herself clearly.

Since both of these types of maternal behaviors focus on externals—the daughter is defined by what she does, not who she is—it’s easy for the daughter to lose sight of her own thoughts, feelings, needs, desires, and ambitions. Many of these daughters grow into adulthood knowing very little about their real selves, which are buried deep down.

3. A warped notion of love.

These mothers teach their children that love always comes with a quid pro quo or has strings attached, and that understanding is one that can hobble a daughter throughout her life. She’s likely to be attracted to people whose treatment of her echoes that of her mother—we are all drawn to the familiar, even when it makes us unhappy—and who define love in the same way.

The Impact of the Narcissistic Mother

Since this mother is an inveterate game-player and manipulator who strives to stay the center of attention, the effect she has on her daughter partly depends on the child’s acquiescence. A golden or trophy daughter goes with the program, losing sight of herself as she does; if she's sufficiently detached, she may exhibit narcissistic traits herself. A scapegoated daughter recognizes the toxicity, but may suffer great inner turmoil. What to do: Pay attention to her own feelings and perception, or stay in the game to try to get Mom to love her?

No matter her position—whether stellar or shunned—the daughter of a narcissistic mother will be affected in some specific ways.

1. Habit of second-guessing and self-criticism.

The challenges to a daughter’s perceptions, whether through gas lighting or constant harping on what’s wrong with her, leave their mark. Even though she may be outwardly successful, she is also filled with self-doubt. Anecdotally, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a middle-ground in terms of achievement: daughters will either flounder and be unable to set or achieve goals, or they do well in the world.

2. Normalizes narcissistic behavior.

All young children believe that the little world of the family they inhabit is like other families; they believe that what goes on in their house goes on everywhere. The daughter of a narcissistic mother may believe that being put down or marginalized is just the way things work in the world, and that you must earn every scrap of attention you get or, if she’s the favored or trophy child, that love requires you to hide your true self and be whatever your mother wants you to be. She’s likely to be drawn to narcissistic friends and lovers, and it will take her a long time to recognize how she’s been damaged and wounded by her mother’s treatment, because of her tacit acceptance.

3. Has problems with intimacy and connection.

Even though this daughter may want close connections, both her inability to manage her fears and insecurities and her attraction to those who treat her as her mother did (or does) will get in her way.

The Impact of the Controlling Mother

It’s distressing that the term “helicopter parent” has snuck into the dialogue, because it sounds so much more benign than the word “controlling”—and there’s nothing benign or benevolent about this kind of mother. These daughters have a 24/7 diet of being made to feel inadequate, with a message that is consistent: “You are nothing without me.”

Growing up this way leaves them with specific deficits and problems.

1. Mistaking control for strength.

This daughter's rationalizations of her mother's behaviors—“She was heavy-handed, but she had my best interests at heart,” “She really meant well,” “She didn’t realize how painful it was to me”—often leave her confused about the difference between being strong and being controlling. Alas, she’s likely to feel more comfortable around people who boss her around, even though they make her unhappy and ignore her needs and thoughts, as her mother did.

2. Lacking resilience.

The habit of self-criticism is so deeply ingrained in many of these daughters that they are largely motivated by avoiding failure at all costs. Of course, we all suffer setbacks and make mistakes, but the daughter of a controlling mother sees these moments as emblematic of why she’s worthless and has great difficulty recovering. Setting her sights low is often a lifelong pattern.

3. Hobbled by inaction

A controlling mother denies her daughter the space to make her own choices and to trust her own instincts and thoughts. In adulthood, these daughters are fearful and often incapable of acting on their own behalf, and they end up doing what someone else thinks they ought to. Absent such guidance, they’re much more likely to stay in situations — both in their working and personal lives — that make them miserable.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2017.

This material is adapted from my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. Visit me on Facebook.

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