How it Sets You Up for Marrying an Abuser
Our mother is our first love. She is our introduction to life and to ourselves.
She is our lifeline to security. We initially learn about ourselves and our world through interactions with her. We naturally long for her physical and emotional sustenance, her touch, her smile, and her protection. Her empathetic reflection of our feelings, wants, and needs informs us who we are and that we have value.
A narcissistic mother who cannot empathise damages her children’s healthy psychological development. Like Narcissus in the Greek myth, she sees only a reflection of herself.
There is no boundary of separateness between her and her children, whom she cannot see as unique individuals worthy of love. Symptoms of narcissism that make up narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) vary in severity, but they inevitably compromise a narcissist’s ability to parent.
People with narcissistic qualities tend to view life in black-and-white: a world of only losers and winners, victims and victimisers. They loathe feeling like losers or victims. In the case of parents with narcissism, they often shunt those roles onto their children.
Why? Because people with narcissism need to be fed. A person with extreme narcissistic tendencies is like a balloon with a hole, endlessly leaking esteem, always needing a refill. Such a person’s air supply: attention. And who better to provide attention than the captive audience of one’s children?
If you had a parent with narcissism, you may have been trained to focus not on your own feelings and needs, but rather on those of your parent.
Parents with narcissism may wheedle, confuse, or bully you into attending to them, ignoring their lies, and tiptoeing around their vulnerabilities. They generally need your life to be about them. Some people with narcissism, feeling empty at their core and lacking a healthy sense of self, may steal from your very relationship with yourself.
Lack of Boundaries
Some of the effects on daughters are different than on sons, because girls usually spend more time with their mother and look to her as a role model.
Due to lack of boundaries, narcissistic mothers tend to see their daughters as threats to their own egos.
Through direction and criticism, they try to shape their daughter into a version of themselves or their idealised self.
At the same time, they project onto their daughter not only unwanted and denied aspects of themselves, such as self-centredness, obstinance, selfishness, and coldness, but also disliked traits of their own mothers.
They may prefer their son, although they can harm him in other ways, such as through emotional incest.
Emotional incest also known as covert incest, is a dynamic that occurs in parenting where the parent seeks emotional support through their child that should be sought through an adult relationship.
Although the effects of emotional incest can be similar to those resulting from physical incest, the term does not encompass sexual abuse.
Narcissistic abuse, including repeated shaming and control, undermine the developing identify of a young person, creating insecurity and low self-esteem.
Children cannot trust their own feelings and impulses, and conclude that it’s their fault that her mother is displeased with them, unaware that her mother will never be satisfied. In severe cases of emotional or physical abuse or neglect, a child may feel that they have no right to exist, and that they are a burden to her mother, and should never have been born.If not also abusive, often husbands of narcissistic women are passive and don’t protect their daughters from maternal abuse.
Some mothers lie and hide their abuse. A child doesn’t learn to protect and stand up for themselves . They may feel defenceless or not even recognise mistreatment later in adult abusive relationships.
Children rarely, if ever, feels accepted for just being herself. Children must choose between sacrificing themselves and losing the mother’s love
–a pattern of self-denial and accommodation is replayed as codependency in adult relationships. The child’s real self is rejected, first by her mother, and then by themselves. The consequence is internalised, toxic shame, based on the belief that the child’s real self is unlovable. How could the child be worthy of love when her own mother didn’t love and accept them?
Children are supposed to love their mothers, and vice versa! A child’s shame is compounded by anger or hatred toward their mother that they dont understand.
The child believes it’s further evidence of their badness, and that all their mother’s criticisms must be true. Never feeling good enough their lives is one of continual striving and lack of fulfilment. Since love must be earned, adult relationships may repeat a cycle of abandonment.
Emotional comfort and closeness that normal maternal tenderness and caring provide is absent. Narcissistic mothers may tend to their child’s physical needs, but leave them emotionally bereft. The child doesn’t realise what’s missing, but longs for warmth and understanding from her mother that they may experience with friends or relatives or witness in other mother-child relationships. The child yearns for an elusive connection, felt fleetingly or never.
The child doesn’t learn to identify and value their own emotional needs, nor know how to meet them. What remains is emptiness and/or anxiety, a sense that something is missing, and an inability to nurture and comfort themselves. They may look to fill it in other relationships, but often the pattern of emotional unavailability is repeated.
Parents with NPD lack insight. The world revolves around them. They control and manipulate their children’s needs, feelings, and choices when they can, and take it as a personal affront deserving of punishment when they can’t.
Parenting is often, “My way or the highway.” Self-involvement leads some narcissistic mothers to focus only on themselves or their sons, and neglect or deprive their daughters.
Other mothers want their daughter to look and be her best “according to them,” but cripple their daughter in the process through criticism and control. Such mothers attempt to live through their daughter, who they see as an extension of themselves. They want her to dress and behave just as they do, and to choose boyfriends, hobbies, and work that they would choose. “For her own good,” they might forbid or criticise whatever their daughter likes or wants, undermine her ability to think for herself, to know what she wants, to choose for herself, and to pursue it. Their attention on their daughter is accompanied by their envy and expectations of gratitude, and compliance. In adult relationships, these daughters often are in controlling relationships or get into unnecessary power struggles.
Believing she is “the fairest one of all” or fearing that she’s not motivates narcissistic mothers to not only criticise her daughter, but to compete with her daughter for her husband's and sons’ love. These mothers may deny or not protect their daughter if they abuse her. They may restrict or disparage her boyfriends because they’re “not good enough,” yet nevertheless compete for their attention and flirt with them. To be in control and number one in their daughter’s life, they may invade their daughter’s privacy and undermine her relationships with friends and other relatives.
HOW TO MOVE FORWARD FROM A NARCISSISTIC UPBRINGING
But you aren’t a child anymore. You have power and options you never had as a child. Here are six ways you can take back your life after a narcissistic upbringing:
1. See Beyond the Narcissistic Facade
People with narcissism tend to be pretenders. Dwelling in a cyclone of shame, they live in mortal terror of anybody saying the emperor has no clothes. They fear being seen as flawed or ignorant and hate feeling powerless or embarrassed. These fears tend to drive their behaviour. To avoid feeling flawed, they have to be the best and insist on perfection from others. To avoid feeling ignorant, they act like know-it-alls and rarely admit they are wrong. To avoid feeling powerless, they act larger than life. And when they feel embarrassed, their volcanic rage may erupt, burying anyone in their path.
When you know this, you can see what drives their outlandish behaviours. You don’t have to take it personally, wondering what you did wrong.
2. Identify Distortions and Double Standards
When people with narcissism make a mistake, they tend to blame others. When you make a mistake, they blame you. When they succeed, they cite their superior character. When you succeed—thus temporarily stealing the spotlight they so crave—they may take credit for your success, call it a fluke, or diminish it by pointing out other times you have failed.
People with narcissism tend to distract and disguise. Like kids caught with their hands in the candy jar, they may try to confuse, belittle, bully, or otherwise avoid responsibility for their actions.
Don’t be taken in. Pay attention to what they do, not what they say. Their words are often attempts to throw you off and make you feel small or doubtful while making themselves feel big. Their arguments are generally not to be taken seriously or even responded to, because if you refute one argument, they may simply come up with another and another.
When they are abusive, manipulative, or withholding, see it for what it is. They are using you to avoid their own issues and satisfy their urges. They may feel entitled to do so. This is not healthy. Nobody is entitled to abuse or use another.
3. If You Are Drawn to People with Narcissistic Qualities, Be Clear About Why
If you have been drawn to people with narcissism, it may be because it is simply a familiar dynamic. But it can also reflect an unconscious hope that if you can find a person with narcissistic tendencies who happens to treat you well, it will make up for what you didn’t get years ago from a parent with narcissism. It is an understandable wish. Yet relationships with people with narcissism are often disappointing and superficial because people with narcissism generally don’t care about treating others well.
4. Use Your Voice
Let’s say, for example, you give a person with narcissism a holiday gift, and they give you nothing. The person with narcissism then says something like, “You’re just trying to make me feel guilty because I didn’t get you anything.” This is classic narcissistic behaviour, shifting the attention to you and putting you on the defensive. Simply knowing they are doing this may be enough to help you gain perspective, and you might choose to say nothing. But if you feel that you are shrinking in stature, you may feel better about yourself by speaking up. For example, in a situation like this you could:
Confront it by saying, “No, that is not why I gave it to you. But now that you mention it, do you feel guilty for not giving me anything?”
Use humour by taking their accusation about you trying to make them feel guilty and saying something like, “Well, is it working?”
Be honest and direct by saying, “No, I gave you a card because I wanted to. And now that you mention it, I do feel hurt that you didn’t give me anything.”
Remember, hard as they may try, people with narcissism can never take away your truth, experience, or feelings. They can dispute it, threaten you, and deny it, but they cannot make you give it up. They are projecting on you what they can’t feel in themselves. Don’t take it on.
5. Seek Balance
Being raised by a person with narcissism can throw your life out of balance. One way to regain healthy balance is to do the opposite of what your parents did. For example:
If you received much criticism and scant praise, you may need to sidestep criticism (including self-criticism) and increase self-acknowledgment.
If you have been compulsively driving yourself in reaction to people with narcissism who called you lazy, you may want to slow down and focus on quality of life. Conversely, if you have been underperforming in reaction to pressure from people with narcissism, you may want to push yourself beyond your present comfort level.
If you have felt deprived, allow yourself to desire and receive more.
If you were not allowed to say no or point out what was wrong, you may need to spend time saying no and focusing on what should change in your relationship, family, workplace, or society.
If you have been giving people with narcissistic qualities the benefit of the doubt to your own detriment, you may want to start questioning their actions and believe in yourself, perhaps seeking the guidance of a trusted therapist or friend as you do so.
6. Trust Yourself
Your parents may have shamed you when you experimented, asked questions, or expressed your views. This may have led you as a child to become more dependent on them or alienated from yourself. Even in adulthood, you may second-guess yourself, struggle to make decisions, and shy away from taking risks that could enhance your life.
When you have to make a decision or when a challenge arises, ask yourself, “If I knew I was absolutely trustworthy, what would I do?” Then assess how you can make that happen. By assuming you are trustworthy, that your feelings are valuable, and that your intuition is reliable, you can see that you have within yourself all you need to handle challenges—despite what your parents may have tried to make you believe.
If you were raised by a parent with narcissism, you are not alone. Millions of adults have had a parent with narcissistic tendencies. No matter how you were treated as a child, you deserve to be seen, heard, and do what is healthiest for you.
Your Thoughts: do you notice parallels in your behaviour and that of your mother? Do you notice any of these parallels in the partners that you have chosen to be with?