The Narcissistic Parent
Healing from a malignantly narcissistic mother
Posted May 19, 2016
“I was sixteen years old, and my boyfriend was seventeen. One day after cheerleading, I came home and found my mother sitting on the couch kissing my boyfriend."
"I remember freezing and going numb. It was like I could not move. I always felt that my mother was jealous of me in some weird way, but this confirmed it,” Amanda said, a client that had sought my services. She wanted to stop attracting self serving men like her mother. Amanda was a tortured soul who desperately needed help.
Today’s guest post by Lisa Romano tackles the difficult problem of overcoming a narcissistic mother. (To be fair, we hope to have a follow up on narcissistic fathers as well). "Amanda" is a composite of a number of clients Lisa has guided through the process.
Does "Amanda's" story resonate with you in some way?
Amanda is a successful executive who has never been married. Although she has had a string of relationships, they have all ended quite horribly. Inevitably, she would discover that either her partners were addicted to porn, were having affairs, or simply failed to meet her basic needs.
“My relationships seemed to last only when I was willing to ignore my feelings about something that made me uncomfortable in our relationship. Once I opened my mouth, these men would either shut down and try to punish me with silence, or they would berate me for having dared to express a personal need I had in relation to their treatment of me.”
When I asked Amanda who these men reminded her of, she sat quietly for a moment and said, “These men treat me the way my mother did. As long as I meet their needs and stuff my own, they're happy. But the moment I show any emotion, they shut me down. It's like I'm expected to simply be an extension of them. My purpose is to sit there and listen to them, as well as to allow them to control me in every way possible. And when I dare complain, I discover that a punishment of some kind will follow.”
Amanda was aware enough to see the similarities between the relationship with her mother and her relationships with men, but she was lost as to what to do about it.
The Visible Mother—The Invisible Child
Children of narcissists are abused in insidious ways. Narcissistic parents don’t have to work at manipulating their children into adoring them like they do with strangers or people they want to impress.
In Amanda’s case, feeling any emotion threatened her survival. The moment her mother became aware that she was unhappy with something that took place at home, Amanda would be berated into emotional submission until she apologized for being sad or angry about something her mother had done.
This dynamic is characteristic of a narcissistic relationship between a parent and a child. Most would agree that narcissism exists on a spectrum, but in Amanda’s case, the level of manipulation and exploitation she incurred over a lifetime was toxic. In fact, it almost killed her. During her teenage years, Amanda attempted suicide in an effort, she says, to “end the never-ending feeling of invisibility and torture she could not escape as the child of a woman who dazzled every man, as well as every boy, who laid eyes on her, and who could charm the skin off a snake but seemed incapable of seeing her as a valid, individual entity, nonetheless her child.”
Amanda had grown up feeling invisible, and often times wondered if she were real at all. The inability to feel connected to her mother wounded her in a way that caused her to doubt her right to feel worthy.
The Urgency of Approval
Amanda did what so many of my clients have done in order to somehow gain their parents’ much-needed validation. She succeeded at school and outshone many of her peers academically.
She even won state fairs in cooking competitions. Her drive for success was fueled by the need to somehow get her mother to focus completely on her achievements, not for selfish reasons but simply for the sake of feeling seen by her. When I asked Amanda to assign a feeling word to this need to feel seen, she chose the word “craved.” “I cannot remember a time when I did not ‘crave’ my mother’s validation or attention.”
Putting One’s Life Back Together
Eventually Amanda began to put the pieces of her life’s puzzle together and realized that in all of her relationships with men, she also “craved” their validation. And, like her dynamic with her mother, no matter how hard she tried to be “good enough” to gain outside validation, she never could. In spite of how incredibly powerful these revelations came to be for Amanda, our work together had just begun. Amanda said, “Intellectually, I always knew my mother didn’t or couldn’t love me, but I have never allowed myself to feel that.”
A mother’s connection to a child is innate, and most would admit magical. As two seeds become one, a divine connection begins to form between a mother and her child. Outside a mother’s conscious understanding, her body undergoes profound adaptations that will allow for her growing fetus to feel nurtured, protected, and loved. The female body is genetically designed to completely and totally support all the needs of her growing fetus.
Even after birth, the mother’s body is equipped to support her newborn child. The connection is so divine that a mother’s body has the ability to regulate her newborn’s body temperature. The secretion of oxytocin serves as a bonding agent to help solidify the connection of the mother and child after birth.
Once the umbilical cord to the mother has been cut, the newborn is completely reliant on the willingness of the mother to maintain these miraculous connections. And although for most mothers, the desire to lovingly support a child is natural, for some it is not.
Helping clients become more consciously aware of the dynamic between them and their narcissistic parent proves to be quite healing. As the client is more able to understand that the dysfunctional dynamic between the parent and the child was outside of his or her ability to control it, less anxiety is experienced, and a sense of freedom to express even more trauma unfolds.
Consistently reminding a client that what occurred was “not your fault” can prove to be a comforting notion. Cognitive revelations that are met with a sense of comfort and validation ease the mind’s ability to more willingly access the trapped emotions. As the pain versus pleasure principle is lubricated by absolution and validation, narcissistically abused adult children find a way to access emotions that in the past were too terrifying to integrate.
When Mother’s Milk Is Poison
Amanda’s biggest hurdle was not her mother.
Her biggest challenge was finding a way to rid herself of her childhood programming that seemed to be held captive inside Pandora’s box. Unable to access the painful emotions in the box, due to her brain and perhaps the ego’s desire to keep Amanda from actually “experiencing the abandonment, rejection, loneliness, and shame that was locked within it,” we needed to create an environment that was full of warmth, contentment, and validation. The more Amanda felt seen, the less afraid she was to see or feel the emotions that were locked away.
Week after week, my client and I would sit and talk about her experiences. I encouraged her to tell me how each incident she could recalled ”made her feel.” Validating each emotion with empathy and total compassion for the inner child who, in fact, had a right to feel what she felt, allowed Amanda her birthright to feel seen.
Amanda and I became a team devoted to discharging the negative power of shame by consistently reminding ourselves that it was not Amanda's fault that her mother was incapable of loving her in a healthy way. In addition, validating the idea that feeling unloved was real, and even normal under the circumstances, helped Amanda feel less conflicted.
For years her mother and boyfriends had told her she was “crazy and too sensitive.” Realizing that she felt unloved and that such an emotion was indeed valid, she permitted herself to accept her reality, rather than be in opposition to her sad truth.
Quite profoundly it was not the feeling of being unloved that had Amanda stuck in patterns of dysfunction. It was the fear of validating the reality that she felt unloved that kept her in emotional bondage. As Amanda learned to recognize the idea that her experience of feeling unloved by her mother was appropriate because her narcissistic mother was unable to love normally, it brought peace and emotional integration to her anxiety-riddled body. Once that hurdle was crossed, Amanda was able to acknowledge and validate her own experiences from a more secure sense of knowing, the grief work began.
The Past Is NOT the Future
Today Amanda is no longer locked in never-ending cycles of codependency, in which her behaviors are unconsciously controlled by a deep sense of unworthiness and a neurotic desire to feel validated by others. We have since worked on re-framing her ideas of what healthy mother-and-child relationships look like. She has learned to replace the shame that once had her stuck with empathy for the wounded child who was powerless to change the environment she was innocently born into.
Amanda, as well as many of my other wounded adult clients from dysfunctional homes, is learning to heal from narcissistic abuse through cognitive work that is compassion and validation based. Shame is a crippling emotion, and it seems the human mind will do almost anything not to “feel or face” it. In my practice, it seems that once an environment has been created in which the client understands that what lurks within the subconscious mind is not his or her fault, shame begins to slowly lose its power over the client’s mind. As emotions are consistently validated, the mind seems less afraid to confront the frightening feelings that have clients believing in their unworthiness.
Narcissism, Parenting & Emancipation—Important Lessons
In the end, my clients and I strive to believe and understand that all children are born deserving, innocent, divine, and perfect. It is never the fault of any child if that child ever feels unloved or unworthy. It is a child’s birthright to feel seen, protected, nurtured, wanted, desired, accepted, worthy, validated, and loved.
No child should ever have had to wonder if they were worthy of their mother or father’s attention or validation. No child should ever feel disconnected from his or her mother and instead should be permitted and encouraged to bond with his or her parents until the child is psychologically ready to begin separating from them in his or her own time.
When relationships with children and their parents are healthy, separation occurs as naturally as the seasons change. However, in the case of children who are born to narcissistic parents, these children are denied their civil rights to be individuals and instead are delivered to parasites, who emotionally and psychologically feed off of them, sometimes for the lifetimes of both the mother and the child.
- Abused adult children of narcissistic parents need to know it’s not their fault that they cannot make their parents happy or gain their validation.
- They need to know that their parents are the ones who failed them. They did not fail their parents.
- They need to know what narcissism is and how it impairs a parent’s ability to express love.
- They need to know that they felt unworthy because their parents made them feel that way.
- They need to know that feeling unworthy was valid. They really did feel that way because their parents abandoned them in various ways.
- They need to know they are not crazy for doubting their parents love them.
- They need to know that anger, grief, sadness, disillusionment, and even depression are normal emotional responses to being raised by a narcissistic parent.
- But perhaps most of all, abused children born to narcissists need to know they can heal. If they can feel their emotions, they can heal them.
As life coaches, psychologists, and licensed therapists, we can create environments that are geared toward reducing the shame that is associated with the deep sense of unworthiness found in the adult child of narcissistic parents. We can help others not only heal but learn to believe in the absolute worthiness of the Self.
I am happy to report that Amanda has learned that just because her mother was unable to make her feel loved, it did not mean she was unlovable.
Our guest blogger, Lisa Romano is a leading certified life coach who specializes in mentoring adult children of alcoholics seeking to move beyond their painful pasts. She is also a bestselling author, radio show host, speaker and the creator of the Twelve Week Breakthrough Coaching Program that addresses healing adult children of codependency and narcissistic abuse. https://lisa-a-romano.mykajabi.com
Lisa is the author of six books including: The Road Back to Me: Healing and Recovering From Co-Dependency, Addiction, Enabling, and Low Self Esteem, Codependent – Now What? (It’s Not You – It’s Your Programming), among others, which are available on Amazon - Lisa-A-Romano.
Lisa offers consultations, tele-classes, speaking engagements, one-on-one and group coaching as well as on-line coursework and insightful videos. She can be reached at: http://lisaaromano.com/
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