Having some measure of self-esteem is critical in ensuring we believe we are worthy of love and deserve to be treated well. Where it becomes a problem, and indeed could be diagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder, is when there is a consistent pattern of behaviour involving an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Narcissists can go to great lengths to get what they want and are angry when they believe they were not given their due. At the same time, they are fragile in that they can’t handle criticism. Easily shamed and embarrassed, they can become consumed with anger, stress and depression, and the need to annihilate the perceived threat.
Daughters of narcissistic mothers can particularly suffer as they are both sources of reflected glory – “look at what I have produced!” – and detractors if the daughter is seen to fall short. Therein lies the bind: the daughter needs to shine enough to polish the mother’s image, but also be sufficiently “flawed” or subservient so as not to become too much of a threat.
For their own good development, children need to feel special and admired. This is how a child develops a positive sense of self, by “showing off” to parents and receiving positive feedback that they are good, worthy, and doing well at their various milestones. A child also wants to please her parent to feel secure.
However, a narcissistic parent is almost impossible to please. A child is in service of their narcissistic mothers’ fragile self-esteem; without constant reinforcement, the mother might deflate, rage or take to her bed in depression. Daughters can end up learning to either submit and placate in order to manage the constant rollercoaster of their mother’s moods or might rebel so as not to suffocate under all the demands. However, being a “mini me” is an invidious position as the daughter never gets to be valued in her own right and is always framed as a work in progress. A rebel is at risk of being hated and rejected; perceived as both a source of shame and a threat to the fragile mother.
Getting away from this unhealthy dynamic is often very difficult. Here are some ideas to help you start to make some positive changes:
- While our parents have a strong influence on us, it is part of growing up to realise that they are human, and like us, are flawed. Notice the quality of your mother’s other relationships. People with more extreme narcissistic traits fall out with many people including friends, partners and extended family. It’s not about you, it’s about her. Even if your mother can’t see you as a separate person, start to construct a view of yourself as different and separate.
- Develop other sources of self-esteem. Listen carefully to feedback from teachers, friends, even casual people you meet who say something different about you. Try and give these other perspectives more weight. Don’t let your Mum discount it.
- Even if your Mum can’t admire or credit you, don’t let that stop you saying that her feedback is hurtful and unfair. She may not be able to change much, but by standing up for yourself, you don’t let her be the last word on you.
- Manage her fragility in a skilled way that protects you both. If your Mum can slide into despair or depression, then that can be a huge burden to handle. In order to stand up for yourself, you might need to manage her emotions too. However, instead of this being your sole focus, it is about sharing the focus. So, you might say “I know you may not mean this at all but when you don’t acknowledge how well I did I think we both miss out on an opportunity to celebrate…” That means that you save her from any implied criticism and help both your self-esteems stay afloat.
- By acknowledging her fragility, you can start to own your own strength. Being able to stay calm in your own mind while your mother’s moods rollercoaster is hard but is the goal. Give yourself that task rather than get drawn into the job of making her feel better. If you want to continue to have your Mum in your life, then managing yourself rather than her (as you will have been trained to do for many years) will need to be your priority.
If you have grown up with these relationship dynamics, they can be difficult to separate from and forge your own path while staying connected.
Seeking advice from an impartial relationship counsellor can help. Simply call Relationships Australia NSW on 1300 364 277 to make an appointment.