Narcissistic parenting. The Six Faces of Maternal Narcissism – Karyl McBride Ph.D.
The disorder of narcissistic parenting creates significant emotional damage to children. If not understood, children raised by narcissistic parents grow up in a state of denial, thinking it is their fault and they are simply not good enough. If good enough, they would have been loved by that parent. While this is a cognitive distortion about self, the myriad of internal messages gleaned from childhood have a haunting effect on adult children of narcissistic parents. “Will I ever be good enough?” “Am I lovable?” “Am I only valued for what I do and how I look?” “Can I trust my own feelings?” Sound familiar?
The word “narcissism” is becoming more of a household term, but is usually used in disparaging others. It is not funny, sometimes not understood, and often used to describe a haughty or arrogant person. The reality is, true narcissism is a serious disorder that harms children. I don’t find the humor. Narcissists are truly all about themselves and cannot show genuine empathy. They have a limited capacity for giving unconditional love to their children. The alarming effects are cause for concern.
Identifying parental narcissism is not about encouraging another category of victims. Carrying anger, blame, resentment or rage for that parent is not the point. It is about love, education and understanding so that healing can happen. Children and parents need some common points of connection to be able to recover and move forward with a deeper template. Being able to identify childhood internal messages is significant to thousands. Often a narcissistic parent is not a full-blown narcissist, but has many narcissistic traits. The impact of understanding can assist in repairing past damage. It is true that full-blown narcissists are unlikely to change, but the adult child can do his or her own internal work for recovery.
That said, the six faces of maternal narcissism are identified as: the flamboyant-extrovert, the accomplishment-oriented, the psychosomatic, the addicted, the secretly mean, and the emotionally needy. A parent can be a mixture of these types and often that is the case.
The Flamboyant-Extrovert: This is the mother about whom movies are made. She’s a public entertainer, loved by the masses, but secretly feared by her intimate house partners and children. She’s the show biz or stage mom and is all about performing. She’s noticeable, flashy, fun and “out there.” Some love her but you despise the masquerade she performs for the world. You know that you don’t really matter to her and her show, except in how you make her look to the rest of the world.
The Accomplishment-Oriented: To the accomplishment-oriented mother, what you achieve in your life is paramount. Success depends on what you do, not who you are. This mom is about grades, best colleges and pertinent degrees. But… if you don’t accomplish what she thinks you should, she is deeply embarrassed and may even respond with fury and rage.
The Psychosomatic: The psychosomatic mother uses illness and aches and pains to manipulate others, to get her way, and to focus attention on herself. She cares little for those around her. The way to get attention from this kind of mother is to take care of her. This kind of mother uses illness to escape from her own feelings or from having to deal with difficulties in life. You cannot be sicker than she. She will up the ante.
The Addicted: A parent with a substance abuse issue will always seem narcissistic because the addiction will speak louder than anything else. Sometimes when the addict sobers up the narcissism seems less but not always. The bottle or drug of choice will always come before the child.
The Secretly Mean: The secretly mean mother does not want others to know that she is abusive to her children. She will have a public self and a private self, which are quite different. These mothers can be kind and loving in public but are abusive and cruel at home. The unpredictable, opposite messages to the child are crazy-making.
The Emotionally Needy: While all narcissistic mothers are emotionally needy, this mother shows the characteristic more openly than others. This is the mother you have to emotionally take care of which is a losing proposition to the child. The child’s feelings are neglected and the child is unlikely to receive the same nurturance that he or she is expected to provide for the parent.
If your parent had some of the above traits, it is important to note that they were not born that way. They likely had their own insurmountable barriers to receiving love and empathy when they were children. This does not take away your pain. We cannot ever condone child abuse. But, this knowledge does help accomplish a deeper understanding.
If your mirror is empty and your childhood lacked in proper nurturing, remember as an adult that recovery is the answer. It is mostly internal work that must be done. The healing five-step recovery model is outlined in Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. Once we understand, we can move forward and build an internal mother who is always there when you need her. Unlike the narcissistic mother who is always there when she needs you.
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? – Karyl McBride Ph.D.
Are you in relationship with a narcissist?
Adult children of narcissistic parents commonly grow up with this nagging feeling that they flunked childhood and it’s all their fault. They internalize the message they are not good enough no matter how hard they try. While everyone has times they don’t feel up to par in some area of life, this “not good enough” feeling that emerges in childhood and results from narcissistic families is different. It seems to permeate the total being of the person and causes damaging emotional effects and life-long patterns in adult life.
Where does this feeling come from and how do we understand it? From twenty-five years of research, which culminated in the writing of, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, I found several significant factors seen in adult children raised by narcissistic parents. When raised by a narcissist, there are some common psychological dynamics that ensue for the child.
In the narcissistic family usually the parental hierarchy is reversed so the child is taking care of the parent instead of the other way around. When a child is put in the position of parental care taking, they are being asked to do a job they cannot do based on their maturity and development. In this impossible role of “parentified child,” the child learns that he or she is not capable of changing or fixing their parents which results in an internalized message of “I’m not good enough.” This same message is internalized in adult children of alcoholic families. This, of course, is not usually understood until adulthood.
A narcissist cannot give empathy and unconditional love to their children. This causes a child to keep trying to find ways to win this approval and attention to no avail. As time passes, the child assumes it is about him or her and feels unlovable. If my own mother or father can’t love me, who will?
Narcissists are not in touch with their own feelings and don’t embrace and heal those feelings. This causes them to project feelings onto others. If angry, sad or lonely, for instance, the narcissist will project the emotion onto their children or other people leaving the poor unsuspecting “other” wondering what hit them. For example, a narcissist may experience anger and instead of own the anger, they ask, “why are you upset with me?” If you are a young child and experiencing this, it not only causes emotional confusion but also creates a sense of shame without knowing why.
Because narcissists are all about image and how it looks to others, this becomes more important than the person or the child. It becomes about how you look and what you do, rather than who you are as a person. This causes the narcissistic parent to not emotionally tune into the child and that child grows up with a parent who does not know who they really are. The child is left with unmet emotional needs and proceeds to adulthood with an empty emotional tank. The emotional development is stunted.
Narcissists don’t tune into feelings and therefore do not acknowledge and validate their child’s feelings. This causes the child to repress or deny feelings, and to determine that their feelings are not important. It translates into adult life as the child grows up not trusting themselves or their own feelings and thus creates crippling self-doubt.
Because narcissistic parents tend to use their children as a reflection of themselves, it is a mixed bag if the child does well or not so well. If the child does badly in life or makes mistakes, the narcissistic parent is mortified because it reflects on them as being a bad parent. If the child does well and outshines the narcissistic parent, then it can cause a jealous reaction in the parent. Imagine how confusing this is to the child. They can’t win either way.
Being critical and judgmental is the way of the narcissist. They do this to make themselves feel bigger and larger than they are. It manifests from their own fragile sense of self and/or lack of self. When around narcissists you will notice them being critical of others on a constant basis, including their own children. Children of narcissists grow up to have a great deal of sensitivity around being judged and criticized by others and understandably so. It feeds into the “not good enough” feeling that began early in life.
You may have been raised by a narcissist or are currently involved in some relationships with narcissists now. One way to determine is to assess if you constantly feel “not good enough” in the presence of this person. It may be a spouse, significant other, sibling, family member, co-worker, boss or friend. If you plug in some of the factors above, you will begin to know how to spot a narcissist and can learn to protect yourself. How do you feel in the presence of this person? A healthy relationship brings out the best in you and you are allowed to be your authentic self. You don’t feel put down or judged but rather feel valued for who you are. The real you comes alive in a healthy connection.
If you grew up with the “not good enough feeling” and feel you were raised by a narcissistic parent, we welcome you to join our recovery work beginning with learning more about the insidious disorder of narcissism. See additional resources below that can be of assistance. There is always hope for recovery and not passing on the legacy of distorted love to your children and grandchildren. If you are wounded from your past, through recovery you can become inspired by it as well. It can be the catalyst for changing how we treat our children and others we love. It does take a village of support but it always begins at home.
The Legacy of a Narcissistic Parent – Goop
When Dr. Robin Berman was first establishing her own practice, she intended to work solely with kids—until she realized that she couldn’t do much for little ones without re-parenting the grown-ups. Per Dr. Berman, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, the vicious cycle can be intense. But there’s hope, which she details in a compelling read, Permission to Parent: How to Raise your Child With Love and Limits, which combines her own insights with feedback from kids and adults who turned out well. The themes of the book are straightforward and profound: In short, this generation’s take on parenting—overbearing, enabling, overindulgent—is a pendulum swing in the opposite direction from the way they were parented (ignored, abandoned, unseen).
One of the more vicious cycles that Berman has addressed in her practice is the legacy of the narcissist parent—because it often begets narcissistic children. Here, her thoughts on how it manifests, plus ways to break the cycle.
I was in the grocery store when a three-year-old girl burst into tears in line after her mom said that she could not have candy. Looking agitated, her mom barked, “I have no time for this nonsense right now!” Then came the clincher: “Why do you always do this to me when I am in a hurry? You sure know how to ruin my day.”
Ugh. My heart sank. I felt badly for this little girl, not because her mom said no to her candy request, but because her mom was so blinded by her own feelings that she could not have empathy for her daughter. A less narcissistic mother would have taken her daughter’s hand, looked her in the eye and calmly said: “I get how much you want this candy, but we don’t have candy before lunch.” If the mom had shown she understood her daughter’s feelings, instead of dumping her own, the girl would have felt heard and the tantrum could have subsided.
Children need to feel seen, heard, known and cherished. To be adored for who you really are is the highest form of love. Giving unconditional love is our greatest legacy as parents. Long after we die, our children will be able to tap into the feeling of being celebrated for their true selves.
By spewing out her issues, the mom skipped over her daughter’s emotions and made it about her. But as parents, we often have to set aside our own feelings to be in service to our children. Children learn when parents mirror their feelings and help them understand their experiences. When narcissism interferes, the mirror is reversed. Narcissistic parents need their kids to mirror them.
WHAT IS NARCISSISM?
Narcissism runs on a spectrum, from healthy narcissism to malignant narcissism, with a lot of gray in between. Many people can have a narcissistic trait or two without actually being a narcissist.
HEALTHY NARCISSISM is basically good self-esteem. You believe in yourself and what you can do, and your self-evaluation is realistic. You can empathize with other people, and understand their feelings and perspectives. You aren’t devastated by criticism, mistakes, or failure. Your sense of self can withstand life’s ups and downs and people’s opinions.
MALIGNANT NARCISSISTS have a very fragile and reactive sense of self. They are extremely self-involved and have a highly inflated view of themselves, which masks profound vulnerability and shame. They are fueled by praise and admiration, and deeply injured by criticism and even honest feedback. Benign comments or constructive criticism threaten their fragile self-esteem and can trigger anger. All of these qualities interfere with a narcissists’ ability to form healthy relationships. Those partnered with narcissists can feel quite lonely and exhausted by trying to shore up their partners and tiptoe around their sensitivities.
MODELING KIDS IN YOUR OWN IMAGE
Narcissism doesn’t have to be absolute. It can show up in little ways and often under the guise of doing “what’s best” for your children or giving them opportunities you were deprived of when you were little. For example, it’s understandable that you’d want to enroll your kids in soccer because you didn’t get the chance to play, but you also have to notice if they even like soccer. You might bring home clothes in monochromatic colors because that’s your style, but you have to notice what colors your child gravitates to. While you want your child to attend your alma mater because it worked for you, think about whether you’ve asked if it will work for him. To get narcissism out of the picture, make sure your motivation stacks up with what your kid wants.
HOW NARCISSISM INTERFERES WITH PARENTING
Narcissists have a way of making everything about them—they take up all of the air in the room. Their profound need for attention and praise subverts everyone else’s needs. Unchecked, a parent’s narcissism eclipses a child’s feelings. Narcissistic parents take their children’s every feeling or action personally. These parents are easily angered when a child does not agree with them or mirror them. Parents with narcissistic tendencies are so sensitive to praise and admiration as fuel that it makes them overly sensitive to criticism. So children learn to tiptoe around these emotional minefields, trying not to trigger that anger, or worse, have their parents withdraw love.
Perceptive children will also pick up on the emotional vulnerability of their parents. They will compliment their parent or try to be a perfect reflection of them. They hope that taking care of mom or dad will shore the parent up enough so he or she can eventually get back to taking care of them. With all of that care directed at parents, these children will likely lose touch with their own emotions and needs.
STEALING YOUR KIDS’ EXPERIENCES
Audrey was trying on prom dresses in a department store dressing room. The store was getting ready to close, and Audrey was acutely aware of her mom’s desire to buy a dress and leave. Her mom’s need to be done dampened Audrey’s excitement about finding a dress she felt good in for this special rite of passage. Her mother said, ”I found the perfect dress for you!” and held up an ugly dress with red and white stripes. Audrey took one look and immediately hated it. Masking her disappointment, she put it on anyway.
“It’s perfect, I love it!” Mom said, not even seeing how unhappy Audrey was. Now the girl was in a bind. Which mirror should she attend to: The literal one, which clearly showed a dress she would be embarrassed to wear, or the mirror she was used to reflecting and pleasing?
The daughter tentatively expressed her discomfort. Her mom’s agitation flared. Audrey reflexively changed her tune: ”I guess you’re right, it does fit well,” she said flatly. Her mom smiled, feeling much better. And for just the moment, Audrey felt better, too. But not really.
On prom night, Audrey walked self–consciously down the stairs to greet her date. His disappointed first words—“Red Stripes?”—were crushing.
THE EMOTIONAL TOLL OF A NARCISSISTIC PARENT
Long after the prom dress was discarded, Audrey’s memory of catering to her mom’s needs on her special night—and many other occasions—lingered. Children like Audrey often end up in therapy. They are trying to discover who they really are. They often don’t trust their instincts, and they have trouble expressing their feelings. The boundaries between mother and child become so blurred that surviving childhood means catering to their parent and subverting themselves. Children like this worry that if they assert themselves in their adult relationships, they will risk losing love. This is what happens when a parents’ narcissism engulfs their children.
But narcissism can show itself in the opposite way: Neglect. These parents are so self-obsessed that their children feel invisible. Without being seen, these cannot develop a stable sense of self and may grow up to be narcissists themselves.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
If you grew up with narcissistic parents, never fear, the legacy can end with you! Your parents’ mistakes can be rocket fuel for your own development.
– First, you have to grieve the loss of the parent you never had. Really grieve the fact that you didn’t get the parent you needed, the one who put you and your needs first. Part of that requires releasing the fantasy that your narcissistic parent can change and eventually give you what you need. They can evolve and grow, but they may never evolve enough to meet your deepest needs. Therefore, managing expectations is key, particularly when you see glimpses of the healthy parent you wish you had had, but in fact those glimpses are often not sustainable. Accept that your parent was limited—and could not give you unconditional love or even deep empathy because she could not get past herself to truly see you. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, the anger and the sadness. Emotion has the word motion in it; allow your emotions to move through you. You might not have lost your parent to death, but you lost what could have been—you lost an opportunity to be truly mothered—and that is really a profound loss. Accepting this, rather than denying it, is the first step in opening your heart to healing.
– You are going to need to discover boundaries—where you begin and your parents end—to free your authentic self. When you choose who you want to be, rather than who your parents wanted you to be, you break free from their narcissistic grip. Tolerate their discomfort, even if they make a lot of noise. You are not misbehaving, rebelling, or rejecting them. You are being you, the real you—maybe for the first time. This is the first part of breaking the cycle. Next, you don’t want to repeat/generalize the relationship that you had with your narcissistic parent to your coworkers, partner, or friends. Realize where you are meeting the needs of other narcissists in your life, real or imagined. Sometimes children of narcissists assume that every person they’re close to will need the same kind of hyper-attention and appeasement that their parent did—and unconsciously begin doing mental backbends to please others. At times you may be tapping into the expectations of a narcissistic boss or partner, and reflexively playing that familiar role. At other times you may be making erroneous assumptions about what someone important to you really needs—perhaps they don’t want you to mirror their opinions or they don’t need you to sugarcoat your real feelings or soften constructive criticism. Breathe, pause, give yourself some psychic space and then test it. Try just being frank, try not to rush in and take care of their feelings. If being different from your loved one feels uncomfortable—or if you feel you’re risking love with that stance—just notice it. Watch how much stronger your bond is than what you secretly imagined it to be. This is the gift of evolving past the scene of the original crime—your own childhood. Surviving childhood meant taking care of the narcissist and swallowing your feelings. But now as an adult you can begin to surround yourself with people that you feel safe and at home with—like soul mate girlfriends—who know and love the real you, and this can be deeply transformative.
– Children of narcissistic parents often wonder if they are really loveable. You are! Start loving and caring for yourself in ways that you wished your mom or dad had loved and cared for you. Start paying attention to what really matters to you; what makes you feel alive and moments when you feel authentically you. Maybe you will need help mothering yourself. Maybe that means getting re-parented by a therapist, or maybe the healing comes from an emotionally reparative romantic partnership. Maybe you have a friend’s mother who is nurturing to you, or a mentor who celebrates the real you. All of these people can become part of your collective parent. No one person is ever capable of meeting all of your needs so start building your collective parenting community. And once you have learned to mother yourself, you will be able to mother your child.
Your journey is to love your children for their true, glorious, separate, authentic selves—and to give them what you may have not gotten enough of. It will not only be beneficial to them, it can be quite healing for you. You will grow and evolve enough to ask yourself, in difficult situations: “Is my reaction more about my child’s feelings or my own? What does he or she need right now?” This will prevent you from reacting with anger or withdrawing love, as your parent may have done to you. You are now a cycle breaker.
Conscious, mindful parenting is the ultimate in damage control. When you get your ego out of the game, you can step back enough to see the soul of your children. Just nurture that, and watch them soar.