The Selfless Myth | Narcissistic mothers and their daughters

“I was four – nearly five – years old when I realised my mother didn’t love me,” Sarah* recalls.

“I’d got lost on the beach, and she came after me. She was annoyed – accusing me of ‘wandering off’, and ‘not paying attention’. I started to cry. A man on the beach looked at me kindly and asked if I was all right. My mother put her arm around me, smiled at the man and said ‘She’s fine. She just got a fright because she got lost.’

“I remember thinking that she was only ever nice to me when other people were watching,” Sarah continues. “Then I was shocked at myself for thinking that. Everyone knows that all mothers love their children. So, I thought there was something wrong with me; that I wasn’t good enough. I spent the next thirty-two years trying to make her love me.

“Eventually – with the help of a good therapist – I realised the problem wasn’t me, it was her. I broke all contact with my mother, then, once I’d realised how toxic she is, and how she’ll never accept me, or love me. It was hard, but I’m definitely happier since.”

Sarah’s experience isn’t unique. More and more women are realising, in their adulthood, that they were raised by narcissistic mothers. The general perception is that narcissists ‘just’ have an over-inflated sense of grandiosity, and that they endeavour to be the centre of attention at all times. The truth is more nuanced – and the effects of having a narcissistic mother are far more damaging than merely having a mother who is full of herself.

A complete disrespect for her daughter’s boundaries means that a narcissistic mother tends to view her daughter as both a threat to, and an annex of, her own ego.

“I could never understand why my mother was jealous whenever anyone paid me a compliment. I remember being at a family pot-luck dinner one night. An aunt of mine said my garlic bread was delicious,” Orla says. “My mother scrunched up her face and said ‘Do you really think so? I find it too buttery. And too garlicky.’ I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just let me enjoy a compliment. Now that I have daughters of my own, I find her attitude horrific.”

For obvious reasons, having a narcissistic mother can have a more damaging effect on daughters than on sons. Girls learn about what it is to be female from their mothers. They learn from their mothers what society expects of a woman. Narcissistic mothers often play favourites, which is a form of ‘divide and conquer’ that sets siblings against each other. This can leave the least favourite child without any allies within the home. Narcissistic mothers also tend to prefer their sons to their daughters.

“My brother had a very different experience of childhood to me,” Rose says. “My mother idolised him. He could do no wrong. She was forever telling other people how wonderful he was – while at the same time saying she didn’t know where she got me from. Everything he wanted to do received her full support, while every idea I had was ridiculed and told how useless it was – how useless I was. I was constantly reminded that I was a disappointment to her.”

This resulted in Rose feeling that she was worthless and unlovable.

“I’ve spent my entire life looking for love,” Rachel adds to this. “But not having had my mother’s love, never having had that secure attachment…I find it difficult to believe I deserve love from anyone. At the core of my being, I feel that if my mother couldn’t love me, then who could?”

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Part of the difficulty daughters of narcissistic mothers face is the myth that every mother is selfless. To challenge that notion is to tackle a major social taboo. For many women, this ‘disloyalty’ and the possibility that they will be disbelieved, chided, or blamed, for their mothers’ behaviour means that they don’t discuss it – which can keep them feeling isolated.

One of the hallmarks of a narcissist is that they have a limited capacity to feel empathy, so they don’t actually care about how their daughters feel. They are only concerned with how the rest of society views them.

In my case, that concern meant my mother refused to allow me to be taken into care in the late 1980s because she was afraid of what the neighbours would say. In her mind, it was preferable for me to stay in what the (then) Eastern Health Board referred to as a ‘dangerously dysfunctional’ home (I was a victim of incest – another societal taboo) than for the neighbours to think she was anything other than a perfect mother.

For Cathy, her experience of a narcissistic mother was compounded by the fact that her mother was well known in their community for her ‘selfless’ charity work. She was honoured, several times, for the work she did with the homeless. This was a huge disconnect from the mother Cathy knew. “I saw Mommie Dearest for the first time when I was 24, and it was like watching a version of my own life – except with rich people.”

Having been raised by a mother who was incapable of loving her, Cathy made the painful decision to eschew motherhood herself. She was afraid she would hurt and damage a child as much as her mother had hurt and damaged her. Ellie made the same decision, for the same reason.

“I was 17 when I made the conscious decision not to become a mother,” Ellie explains. “My own mother was so cruel, I was afraid I’d be the same. I love kids and I would have loved to have been a mother – but I’d never been shown how to be a good mother, and I was afraid. Afraid I’d be like my own mother. Afraid I’d raise a child who didn’t feel loved. There is nothing worse.”

Narcissists are skilled manipulators, and they don’t always present as charming entertainers; sometimes, it serves their purpose to play the martyr/victim for attention. They also lie. A lot. These lies are not always outlandish, and are often lies of omission or half-truths.

“Years ago, we five kids clubbed together to send my mother away to her sister’s in Boston,” Rose remembers. “Afterwards, I overheard her telling another of her sisters that my brother had paid for the entire trip. I was really hurt – sure, his was the credit card that was used for the transaction, but we’d all chipped in. I’d been a student at the time, and had struggled to find the money for my share – and I was proud of myself for managing. And she was told it was a gift from all of us. But she still gave him all the credit. Sometimes, I’m glad she’s dead – but sometimes I wish she were still alive, so I could tackle her over all the horrible stuff she said and did.”

The truth is, though, that even if Rose’s mother were still alive, Rose’s thoughts and feelings would not have any effect on her mother. Narcissistic mothers refuse to accept any criticism, or take any responsibility for their behaviour – which is why they rarely seek therapy. And on the rare occasions when they do, it’s usually for the undivided attention of a sympathetic individual. Their inability for self-reflection, or to take any hint of criticism, means they often don’t stay in therapy for long.

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The notion that mothers are all self-sacrificing saints makes it even more difficult for women to remove themselves from the toxicity of their relationships with narcissistic mothers. They often feel very conflicted because of the perception is that mothers always do their best for their children, and we daughters of narcissist (sadly) know that isn’t true.

No matter how old we are, or how successful we might be in other areas of our lives, the hurt and harm caused by narcissistic mothers seeps into all our other relationships. Most especially the one we have with ourselves.

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