She’s 70, and still going strong. Never mind that I am 44, and a mother myself. She always has me in her sights—how I’m overweight, how my house isn’t as neat or pretty as my sister’s, how my nephew is doing better in school than my son. I get off the phone or walk out of her house feeling lousy about myself every time and it takes me a good week to recover. Why do I even bother?
Of the eight toxic patterns of maternal behavior I outline in my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, it’s the self-involved mother or one high in narcissistic traits who’s gotten the most popular attention, Narcissism has become a buzzword of sorts, a Google search favorite, the focus of websites and books, and has even spawned its set of acronyms. (NM or Narcissistic Mother, DONM or Daughter of Narcissistic Mother, and more.) While these mothers behave in ways that are similar to controlling mothers—indeed, they are controllers—what sets them apart is what motivates them. Similarly, the self-involved mother may also act in ways that are reminiscent of the dismissive mother’s tactics—literally ignoring a child when she doesn’t please her, not paying attention to her daughter’s expression of her feelings, needs, or wants—but, once again, what drives her behavior is different.
What makes a narcissistic mother tick?
It’s all about being at the center of things, and having all roads lead back to her. She sees her children as extensions of herself, and she values them according to how well they reflect her own achievements as a mother; winners, not losers, are what she’s interested in. Her need to be the sun around which her child or children revolves means that she has to be expert at making sure their gaze is always directed at her; she’ll manipulate and play one child off another to make sure that everyone’s still focused. Sibling relationships are understandably impaired by the need to be on Mom’s “good” side or to avoid being on her “bad” one, and it’s not uncommon for brothers and sisters to join in on scapegoating, gaslighting, or other kinds of verbal abuse.
The longest-lasting and most damaging lessons taught
There are a number, all of them unconsciously internalized as information about how the world of relationships works and how people behave and treat each other. According to attachment theory, these become the mental models or the lenses through which we see close connections as learned from our caretakers in infancy and childhood.
Perhaps first and foremost is the definition of love as earned and never freely given; seeing love and affection as a transaction with requirements that must be met for it to happen hobbles the adult in countless ways and opens the door to mistaking an abusive relationship for a caring one.
Second is the lesson that it’s not who you are that matters—that person inside with unique thoughts and feelings—but that you are valued for what you do and what other people think of you. It’s very easy for a high-achieving child raised by a narcissist—who believes that her value as a person resides in gold stars, accolades, and popularity—to become an adult who is outwardly successful but beset by gnawing self-doubt and a morbid fear of failure. Or someone incapable of setting goals for herself, too afraid of failure and disapproval.
Third is the lesson that you don’t matter except as an extension or reflection of someone else. This is a toxic lesson especially when you consider that humans take so many years to be able to take care of themselves. These children grow up to be adults who are attracted to people who will write their lives for them—again, this is maladaptive unconscious process—and the end of the story can be very painful. Since this happens without conscious awareness—and is accompanied by tons of rationalization—it takes years and sometimes even decades for the adult to see the truth. We all normalize the circumstances of our upbringing and families of origin.
The six major effects on a daughter’s development
In order to heal from childhood, we must first be able to identify the ways in which our behaviors were shaped by how we were treated; you can’t dress a wound you cannot see.
- She has impaired emotional intelligence
These daughters often detach from their own thoughts and feelings as they try to win their mother’s affection, so much so that they actually have trouble identifying and naming their emotions. In ways more literal than not, they are apt to lose sight of themselves.
- She lacks real self-esteem
While a loving mother communicates the message “I love you because you are you and you are unique,” the self-involved mother only validates achievements that make her look good. Because this kind of validation is just an impoverished and fake version of real love, the daughter tends to mistake one for the other and, as an adult, will seek out relationships that work in this familiar way. She looks to others to make feel good about herself and isn’t surprised when it doesn’t happen regularly.
- She’s unhappy but doesn’t understand the source
All children normalize what they experience at home, believing—wrongly—that what happens at their house happens everywhere. That’s especially true for the daughter of the narcissistic mother because her eye is always on the prize—getting the tidbits of attention that are the substitute for caring and love. If she succeeds at staying in the bright light of her mother’s sun—as the Trophy or Golden child—she’s unlikely to even notice that what she’s chasing isn’t love at all.
- She’s uncomfortable being intimate
Real intimacy and sharing make this daughter uncomfortable because they’re not something she’s used to; she may perceive closeness as crowding or threatening to her independence or, alternatively, as making her vulnerable to rejection, depending on her style of attachment. Because she sees love as a transaction, always subject to conditions and never totally reliable, she’s always on her guard.
- She’s hypervigilant and rejection-sensitive
The games the narcissistic mother plays teaches a child that you can be on Team Mom one day, enjoying the light of her sun, and cast out to emotional Siberia the next if you displease or disappoint her. This daughter goes into adolescence and adulthood still seeking validation of herself from friends and romantic partners but she’s also highly reactive, scanning the horizon for potential trouble and possible rejection.
- She’s attracted to those high in narcissistic traits
We all gravitate towards and are attracted to the familiar and that, alas, includes the unloved daughter raised by a self-involved mother who is likely to be drawn to those who treat her as her mother did and who display the same kinds of traits.
Our childhood experiences will continue to affect our adult choices and behaviors until we begin to see how we were shaped and start the process of healing and reclaiming ourselves.
Photograph by Mensah. Copyright free. Pixabay.com