Growing up in a household with a mother who belittled and gaslighted me, my goal was simply to escape. She wasn’t a narcissist but she was combative, jealous, angry, and mean.Hidden deep in my closet where no one could see it, I had a piece of oak tag with the number of days left until I would go off to college, and I recall that the number was something like 1000. My assumption was that the real problem was that I was living under her roof and like any other princess trapped in a tower, it was just a matter of making my getaway.
I could not have been more wrong but it turns out I was hardly alone. This is a very common misunderstanding among daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood. We fail to account for the unseen baggage we have in tow as we head toward the door, as I can personally attest.
As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, while there are commonalities among daughters who received insufficient love, validation, and attunement growing up, there are also some significant differences. Some of these differences can be traced back to the mother’s patterns of behavior.
In my work, I identify eight toxic maternal behaviors which are dismissive, controlling, emotionally unavailable, unreliable, self-involved or high in narcissistic traits, combative, enmeshed, and role-reversed. These behaviors are meant as tools for understanding the effect certain maternal behaviors have on a daughter’s development; they are relatively permeable and a mother may display a number of these behaviors either at once or over time. For example, a dismissive mother may also be emotionally unavailable or a controlling mother may become more combative as her daughter gets older and resists the mother’s domination. A mother high in narcissistic traits may be both controlling and emotionally unavailable.
Each of these behaviors requires a daughter to adapt and deal; the self-involved mother or one high in narcissistic traits shapes a daughter’s development in some very specific ways.
Understanding the long reach of childhood experiences
While we may consciously recognize the lack of love and our own unhappiness in our family of origin, we’re unlikely to be able to see the ways we learned to cope and manage as a result. It’s much more likely that we see our adult behaviors as a reflection of our innate personalities than to see various traits as learned responses to a trying environment, But many of your ways of acting and reacting—it might be your fear of being rejected, the way you find it hard to speak your mind, your panic when attention is turned on you , the difficulty you have trusting people, how you always blame yourself when things go wrong—are, in fact, traceable to those childhood experiences.
The single largest effect on any daughter is her insecure style of attachment which reflects both her deficits in managing emotion and her unconscious models of how people behave in relationships; having a mother high in narcissist traits can result in any of the three insecure styles which are anxious-preoccupied, fearful-avoidant, and dismissive-avoidant.
Being raised by a mother high in narcissistic traits leaves a lasting influence on a daughter. If she is one of her mother’s favorites, she will nonetheless lack true self-esteem since her mother only sees a projection of her own wants and needs, not a person in her own right; lacking true self-worth, she may ape her mother’s behaviors, feeling that it’s the best way to get along in the world and the best way to hide her own woundedness. The sensitive daughter or the one who’s become the mother’s scapegoat may be so afraid of becoming a narcissist that she dodges the limelight and hides in the shadows, rendering herself voiceless. This is what Dr. Craig Malkin in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, calls an echoist. If you think of narcissism as a spectrum with healthy self-regard in the middle, the ends are occupied by the echoist, who lacks self-regard, and the narcissist, who uses exaggerated self-regard as armor.
5 things the narcissistic mother teaches her daughter about life
- you are valued for how you are perceived, not who you are
The mother high in narcissistic traits sees her children as nothing more than extensions of herself and she is highly invested in having them reflect well on her. She cares enormously about appearances and very little about how her children achieve as long as they do. The child who doesn’t go along with the program will be scapegoated and ostracized.
- love is conditional and can be taken away
What passes for love in the narcissistic mother’s domain is praise and attention, and both are dependent on the child’s continuing to reflect well on her, even in adulthood. Because this mother sees love as earned, she feels perfectly comfortable withdrawing it if a child disappoints her. Of course, the daughter grows up believing the love is nothing more than a transaction which requires quid pro quos and, additionally, forces you to always watch your back.
- to belong, you must abide by the rules
Because the narcissistic mother requires that her children present themselves as she dictates, failure isn’t acceptable. Many daughters understandably become enormously fearful of failing and, as a result, aren’t likely to take on challenges; they aim low and safe. Others, intent on garnering their mothers’ praise, aim high and sometimes achieve but don’t really credit themselves for what they’ve earned or take ownership of it; outwardly successful, they feel like imposters or frauds.
- there are always insiders and outsiders
The world the child sees is filtered by her mother’s take on it; there are winners and losers, people inside her mother’s special orbit and those outside of it who have no status and standing. The mother high in narcissistic traits plays favorites setting one child against another, watching as each jockeys for attention. Not surprisingly, the daughter grows up believing that this is how the larger world works and that all relationships follow the same patterns. She thinks you’re either chosen to be on the team, beginning with Team Mom, or doomed to be left out.
- that verbal abuse is to be expected and manipulation the norm
All children assume that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere, and the daughter of a narcissistic mother is no different; she will usually normalize not just the games her mother plays—pitting one child against another, calling out the scapegoat, designating winners and losers—but how she’s spoken to. Name calling, mocking, and gaslighting are usually part of this mother’s repertoire—it’s how she keeps her kids in line—and the daughter comes of age unable to recognize verbal abuse. This sets her up for normalizing these toxic behaviors in other relationships in her life, both in young and later adulthood. It’s not unusual for a daughter marginalized by a mother high in narcissistic traits to end up with a lover or spouse who treats her the same way.
Until these lessons are exposed for the untruths they are, they will continue to shape both a daughter’s expectations and behaviors. Working with a gifted therapist is the fastest route to unlearning, along with focus and self-help.
Photograph by Alexandre Chambon. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.