When your mother is a narcissist
You know the story: The Evil Queen stares into her Magic Mirror and asks, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” And every day, the mirror responds that she is the fairest in the land. Until, that is, the mirror suddenly tells her she’s not and her stepdaughter Snow White is.
The story of Snow White and the Queen is the perfect example of a mother (or stepmother) with narcissistic personality disorder, a condition in which someone values their own self-esteem above all else and lacks the ability to relate to others in a stable and realistic way.
“Their self-esteem is like a balloon that will slowly drop to the ground unless someone is around to give it a tap back up on a regular basis,” explains psychologist Elinor Greenberg, and author of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptations: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.
Some narcissists seek this boost from their work or social circle. Others look to receive it from their romantic partner, and still others may rely on their children to prop up their egos. Among the latter, there are different ways a mother can use her children to achieve the validation, praise and adoration she craves.
So, if you’ve ever wondered Is it me – or is it her? here are four examples that you may have a narcissistic mother.
The closet narcissist
“I knew a woman whose child went to private school,” recalls Greenberg. “She idealised her son as the golden child, the special one in the family. I ran into her one day and the first thing she said was, ‘You’ll never guess how many Facebook followers my son has’. She eagerly talked about how popular he was. I actually had to ask after her daughter because the woman never mentioned her.”
This mother is a closet narcissist, explains Greenberg. She doesn’t feel special about herself on her own, so she looks for other ways to get that recognition.
“The closet narcissist is nervous about feeling exposed as inadequate so she attaches herself to something – her child, in many cases – and says that person is great and you should support that,” says Greenberg.
While having a closet narcissist as a mother can sometimes be nice for the golden child who’s receiving all the attention and praise, it can also be incredibly embarrassing during periods in a child’s life when embarrassment is a worse punishment than grounding. And if there are other children in the family, they can feel ignored or as though they’re an afterthought.
“You’ve heard the phrase in relation to royal families – the heir and the spare,” says Greenberg. “It’s the same idea.”
The exhibitionist narcissist
“I was at a school production for one of my kids once. The girl who was the star of the show did a great job,” says Greenberg. “But her mother’s reaction was, ‘Well, I made your costume. That’s why you were so good.’ She could not acknowledge the child’s talent.”
She was an exhibitionist narcissist.
“This parent vicariously takes responsibility for all of the child’s accomplishments and no responsibility for the child’s deficiencies,” says clinical counsellor Mike Gallagher.
It is also the expression of narcissistic personality disorder most similar to how a grandiose narcissist (one who is outgoing, sociable and extroverted) would act in a romantic relationship.
This can have a serious impact on the child’s development and self-esteem.
“If the mother is an exhibitionist narcissist, that’s worse than if the father is one because kids are more in tune with their mothers in the early years,” explains Greenberg. “It makes more of an impact on the child early in life.” They are less attuned and have less experience of being nurtured and being cared about.
And if the child is a daughter, things can get even worse. “With daughters, mothers can become competitive. Think of it like in Snow White,” Greenberg adds. “Mothers will make sure that their daughters are not as pretty as they are.” This, in turn, can lead to constant anxiety and worry in daughters as they grow up.
“I can often tell in therapy if this was the case,” says Greenberg. “The women don’t look quite put together. There’s something odd about their appearance, almost like an abandoned child.”
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