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The Borderline/Narcissistic Mother

Brutal womb vs. barren womb.

Key points

  • Children of mothers with borderline and narcissistic disorders are likely to have suffered some form of emotional abuse.
  • The borderline mother manipulates her child to be available at all times and take responsibility for her.
  • The narcissistic mother lacks the borderline mother's dependency on her child, and instead is simply indifferent about her child’s welfare. 

Are you the child of a borderline or narcissistic mother?

Not sure? It is a complicated topic, and while there's overlap, this guest blog by Daniel Lobel, Ph.D., may help you to tell the difference.

Self-Centered Nurture

Children of mothers with borderline and narcissistic disorders are likely to have suffered some form of emotional abuse; however, each type of pathology leaves its own unique imprint on the development of the child and the parent-child relationship.

Children of borderline mothers are seen as a lifeline, an umbilical cord that the mother may cling onto for life in an exaggerated sense of dependency fueled by a lifetime of parasitic survival. There is a hungry desperateness to the borderline mother, which leaves the kids anxious and never settled. One never knows when mom will turn on you, or undermine any step towards independence. It sounds harsh, but these mothers feel desperately empty and demand that their children be ever available in order to avoid a terrible emptiness.

The borderline mother uses every available resource – emotions, money, guilt, fear, threats – to manipulate their child to be available at all times and take responsibility for her whenever required. In contrast, the child of a narcissistic mother is seen as a utility whose most valuable attribute is his or her ability to aggrandize the parent. Narcissistic parents seek out attention from their children when they need something from them. It could be something practical, like help around the house, or it could be more personal, such as satisfaction of the need for validation or adoration. When their children are not available to do this, they may rage in anger, but they also quickly seek out others to fulfill the task.

Birth, Obligation and Entrapment

Borderline mothers see their children as forever obligated to them. They feel entitled to demand from their children unlimited support and service. The dependency of the borderline is so great that the child is always seen as coming up short with regard to meeting their needs. This often sets up the mother to be the victim and the child to be vilified. The following is the sort of conversation a borderline mother might have with her adult son. The mother lives in Washington, D.C. while the son lives with his family in a distant suburb.

  • Mother: “We should have a place to meet in case the power grid is attacked and we lose phone contact. How about we meet at my house?
  • Son: “Washington, D.C. is a terror target while my town is barely on the map. Meeting at your home will likely require me to drive my family right into a terror target”.
  • Mother: “So are you just going to leave me there?”
  • Son: “Why don’t we meet up north somewhere?”
  • Mother: “I might get lost.”
  • Son: “You have driven to my house many times before.”
  • Mother: “I wish I never had children.”

Here the mother is demanding that her son commit to jeopardizing the lives of his entire family for her survival and convenience. When the son refused, she attacked him with vitriol as punishment. This is a form of emotional abuse designed to make the child feel badly about himself for manipulative purposes.

The narcissistic mother lacks the dependency on the child but is, instead, simply indifferent about the child’s welfare.

  • Mother: “Your father and I are concerned about an attack on the power grid in Washington, D.C. So we are moving to New Hampshire and getting a house with a generator.”
  • Son: “What about me and my family?”
  • Mother: “I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe you could try to meet us there?”

Thus the child of the narcissistic mother is emotionally neglected rather than aggressively abused. The child is left feeling invisible, unimportant, and insubstantial.

The Brutal Womb and Barren Womb

Borderline mothers are threatened by the spouses and friends of their children. They feel that they are entitled to be not only the primary focus but also the only focus of their forever-obligated children. Spouses and friends are seen as distractions and have the potential to vie for their dominance. So they look for fault in friends and spouses of their children and use these flaws as causes for isolation and avoidance.

  • Daughter: “Mom, I hope you don’t mind, I invited Sandy to dinner with us this weekend. Her parents are out of town.”
  • Mother: “Isn’t she the fat one with the showy parents?”
  • Daughter: “She’s a little heavy, what difference does that make?”
  • Mother: “It takes my appetite away to eat with people who have no self-control around food. Doesn’t it disgust you?”
  • Daughter: “No, she’s my friend.”
  • Mother: “Well I’m your mother!!”

Once again the borderline mother portrays herself as a victim for not getting exactly what she wants. This justifies any sort of personal attack on her daughter or her friend. In the above case, the mother simply did not want to extend herself when she had her child all to herself.

The narcissistic mother sees the friends and spouses of their children as a potential audience. They welcome the opportunity to become the center of attention, thus leaving their own child once again feeling invisible.

  • Daughter: “Mom, I hope you don’t mind, I invited Sandy to dinner with us this weekend. Her parents are out of town.”
  • Mother: “Isn’t she the fat one with the showy parents?”
  • Daughter: “She’s a little heavy, what difference does that make?”
  • Mother: "I have the perfect diet and exercise books for Sandy. When she comes I will show her my book collection and then personally take her through the routine that my trainer gave me for rapid weight loss. Then I can help her with her new wardrobe.”
  • Daughter: “Mom I think she’s just hoping for a relaxing meal, not a lifestyle change.”
  • Mother: “We’ll let her decide if I have something valuable to offer. I think I know girls like Sandy better than you do!”

Here the need for self-aggrandizement and to be the center of attention dominates the mother’s perception of the event. She knows of no other way to relate, thus repeating the pattern of neglecting the child and making her feel invisible. The narcissistic mother treats her offspring like a know-it-all baron who rules from up high.

Children Need to Feel Worthy

The way that parents respond to their child’s successes and failures has a great effect on the formation of self-esteem and concept. Normal parents validate their children easily and don’t expect anything in return.

Not so with the borderline or narcissistic Mother.

The borderline mother and the narcissistic mother have different ways to handle validation. They differ with regard to the definition of success and failure. The borderline mother’s definition of success for her child involves obedience and reinforcement of the attachment to the mother. Borderline mothers may say to their friends, or anyone who will listen:

“I was so proud of my daughter. She took us all out to dinner for my birthday and bought me one of those bouquets from Hawaii. She is such a fine young woman.”

Borderline mothers are not particularly pleased with their child’s accomplishments as they do not want their offspring to have the attention and admiration of others. (It is too threatening.) They see such admiration as a danger to their connection and tend to downplay this sort of accolade. Narcissistic mothers, on the other hand, are eager to share their children’s accomplishments, but when they do so, they also take credit for the achievement and use it for self-aggrandizement.

“My daughter was selected to chair the committee for the arts at her alma mater. I always knew she had artistic talent. I guess having a musically talented mother paid off for her.”

“My daughter just won a silver medal at the Summer Olympics. Lucky she had me pushing her to get swimming lessons and compete on the swim team.”

Yet again, the child of the narcissist is left feeling invisible.

The effect of a sustained pattern of the parent putting their needs first, including the need to be superior, is that the child is left with a damaged self-esteem. Children of narcissists may take with them a tendency to see themselves as ‘less than’ or wrong during conflicts with others. They embarrass easily and sometimes may be overly apologetic.

Children of borderlines have much less stable self-concepts. The feedback they get from their mothers is radically variable. It’s a fundamentally unstable relationship. When they please their mothers by strengthening and reinforcing their mother’s need to be over-attached, they get very positive feedback.

You are my favorite child. I love you more than your brother.”

“You are very kind and a very fine person.”

However, when the borderline parent is displeased, the same mother offering positive feedback above says:

“I should have never had children’”

"My children hate me.”

This pattern of wildly divergent feedback over time leaves the child of the borderline in a state of significant confusion. At times they are idealized and at times debased. No doubt the self-esteem, especially of a very young person, is thus ping-ponged by the mother for selfish and manipulative purposes: reassurance that her overstated dependency needs will be gratified.

The Therapy of Escape

The children of borderlines and narcissists all suffer assaults to their self-esteem and self-concept as result of different forms of abusive parenting. The brutal womb of the borderline offers a high level of inconsistent feedback to the child, resulting in confusion about the self with associated loss of confidence in self-perceptions and self-judgment.

The barren womb of the narcissist offers an environment of neglect with their children feeling invisible, ‘less than’, or at least ‘less important than’, and unworthy with associated low self-esteem. While there is some similarity in symptoms between children of borderlines and children of narcissists, the different patterns of feedback require different approaches to recovery.

The child of the borderline mother must work to consolidate a conflicted sense of self, and find a way to break free. They are preoccupied by what Mom thinks today, which interferes with everyday life and adult relationships. The child of the narcissist mother must analyze their sense of self and rebuild it without relying on their parent or parent substitute for approval. The world will supply many narcissistic characters who demand admiration and will provide approval when you comply. The task of the child of a narcissist is to find approval on the inside. The task of the child of the borderline is to arrive at a place where you just don’t need her as much.

Truly breaking free requires seeing things for what they are. Effective therapy will require grieving the mother you wish you had and coming to terms with a parent, however destructive, who is doing (and did) the best she can. Anger yields to sadness, which yields to acceptance.

A good therapist and the blessings of time can make all the difference.

Dan S. Lobel, Ph.D., is in private practice in Katonah, New York.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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