12 Signs Of A Narcissistic Mother & What To Do For True Peace & Freedom
Before you run into a narcissist partner, chances are, you've had some of this in your family line. Hitting closest to home is a narcissistic mother or parent. It is incredibly confusing and unsettling because we come into the world as helpless babies. Our parents are meant to keep us safe and nurture us. And as children, we naturally trust and depend on them. While most parents do the best that they can, some deliberately do the worst that they can.
Enter, the narcissistic mother.
What is a narcissistic mother?
While a healthy amount of self-love is important so we respect and care for ourselves—and also show others how we should be treated—the narcissistic mother is all about her. She believes she is entitled to that, and she is incredibly self-absorbed. It's one rule for her and another rule for everyone else.
Whether she is a grandiose narcissist who needs to be the loudest or shine the brightest or the vulnerable kind who has to compete about who's suffered the most, she lacks empathy for everyone except herself. Sometimes, it's a combination of the race to the bottom and the top. And she may even enjoy watching her own children suffer, as she plays out her manipulative machinations.
When we say narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) in psychology and psychiatry, what we're really meaning by "personality disorder" is that this pervades their functioning in life, affecting their relationships, careers, and well-being. Hence, the qualifier "personality." And someone with NPD will not, and cannot, change.
Signs of a narcissistic mother
Treats her children as an extension of herself
You are treated as an extension of her, not your own person. You are effectively your mother's trophy. Everything good you do is considered a reflection of her—her superior genetics and her hard work in raising you. And she'll never stop bringing it back to it being all about her, plus she'll dramatize it all. Or steal someone else's credit, like claiming she worked her fingers to the bone to send you to violin classes when your father paid for it. Naturally, anything you do or aspire to that does not align with what will make her proud will be shot down.
Plays her children against one another
Classic narcissist family dynamics are when a narcissistic mother elects a "golden child" who can do no wrong and then a scapegoat who's blamed for everything. Sometimes, there is also a "lost child" who's neglected. By triangulating children against one another, the narcissistic mother keeps everyone in their place, teaching them they need to work for attention or that they don't deserve it at all. Part of this could be a sadistic drive to see their kids suffer. Some mothers rotate these roles among their kids, or they could play their child against a cousin or neighbor, in the case of single-child families.
Petty rivalry with her own children
You should never outshine Mom in her talents or appearances, unless she's groomed you to do so. Even then, as she gets older, she will become jealous and find ways to put you down or destroy you.
Here's when someone screws with your sense of reality, so you no longer trust yourself and become dependent on their version of reality. Gaslighting is a classic element of narcissistic abuse. As children, we don't expect our loved ones to do something so horrendous. Often you don't know you are being gaslighted—it's a poison that spreads insidiously. You'll be told you are too sensitive, crazy, or some other derogatory adjective. Eventually, you gaslight yourself.
Emotional Münchausen by proxy
Münchausen syndrome1 is when someone benefits from playing ill or continuing to be ill after healing. Some narcissistic mothers sometimes "train" their children to play ill—often in the form of fears, or even hurting themselves—by only intermittently giving them comfort and attention when they fulfill these roles. Not only does the inconsistent care teach the children that they are not worthy of energy, but by putting them in an inferior position where they are ill or weakened, it keeps them small and feeling small, which might even delight the narcissistic mother who's watching this sadistically, or simply make her feel more powerful and needed.
A subtle but effective way to teach a child they're unworthy and that they're damaged goods is to give them presents that are damaged. This is incredibly common in narcissistic mothers, and you train yourself to think it must have been an accident. Because, why would your mother do that? Eventually, while they are sadistically enjoying watching you squirm while being polite, you learn to talk yourself through any uncomfortable situation with them.
Effects on children
While it's true that growing up in a narcissistic family of origin breeds more narcissists—the effects of genetics and upbringing goading each other on—it doesn't mean that every child turns out that way. Here are a few ways being raised by a narcissist can affect children:
You are incredibly attuned to others' feelings.
Never knowing when your mother would be decent or hostile, you walked on eggshells, and your radar on others' emotions is finely attuned. In the world of medical tests and statistics, we call an oversensitive test one that produces false positives. Meaning, something that should not test "positive" because it is not present yields a "positive" result.
This is because having a more acutely sensitive antenna helps you to survive. It's better to think Mom is gonna treat you badly, so you learn to run away before it happens, "play dead" by making yourself as invisible as possible, or be obsequiously nice to please her. Just in case.
These trauma responses are so deeply embedded within you, they act on autopilot. You're likely to be this way in other relationships—and you're hypervigilant for any time you may get into trouble, always in a state of anxious watchfulness. This severely depletes your energy levels and health over the long term. But because you've lived with this your entire life, you're not aware of just how exhausted you are. Until you get some respite.
You have poor emotional intelligence.
You may be wondering, how can you be incredibly attuned to others but have poor emotional intelligence? This is because the other side of the equation of emotional intelligence hinges upon being aware of your own emotions and being able to take care of yourself.
Unfortunately, a narcissist's children are brought up to dismiss how they feel. Not only did Mom invalidate or gaslight you, but you also learned that the best way to survive is not to feel anything. Instead, it's to convince yourself by being overrational, that it's not that bad. And to stay positive—aka, toxic positivity.
Everybody is born with an innate sense of what's right and what's wrong—our intuition tells us that. But because you've learned to smother your gut, silencing it in order to survive, you don't know when your body is screaming out to warn you against other toxic people.
You put the blame, shame, and guilt on yourself.
Because you have fabulous empathy for others—telling yourself that "hurt people hurt people," that Mom has her reasons for acting this way—the only way to maintain such unnaturally high empathy reserves is to blunt any empathy you have for yourself.
As children, the easiest way we take control of situations is to blame ourselves. If you were to visualize self-blame as a muscle, then by adulthood, this well-pumped muscle has become the size of the Hulk.
You'll experience guilt for things you did and the things you did not do. For being human—experiencing certain emotions, making mistakes every human makes—and for the things others did, that you blame yourself for. And you'll shame yourself because you see yourself as a fundamentally bad and unlovable person.
You have terrible or nonexistent boundaries.
Children raised by narcissistic mothers often grow up to have poor standards and poor boundaries. While standards are the Hell yeses in your life, boundaries are the Hell noes. And if you're not aware of what those are, then you don't know when they are being transgressed. And even when something feels off, you're able to talk yourself into why you're being too sensitive or unkind. Meaning, you gaslight yourself.
Otherwise, if you kinda know what you do not stand for, and even sometimes say your peace, deep inside you do not believe you have permission to have boundaries. And so, people don't honor them.
You also overgive and solve others' problems unsolicited—that's way easier than taking care of yourself.
You keep trying to have a "do-over" with Mom, or with someone else like her.
The thing about growing up under the clutches of a narcissistic mother is that the trauma leads to repetition compulsion.
What these two fancy words really mean is the trauma leads our brains to bring us back to similar situations to resolve the original trauma. But because this is largely unconscious, your brain brings you back to repeat the same patterns with Mom or with someone like Mom—even a person who's a romantic partner of another gender or someone who's younger than you. And of course, such toxic situations mean that the trauma never resolves itself; instead, it compounds. Repeat this situation enough times, and it feels like a never-ending bad magic spell. You learn to be helpless and start believing that this curse is your destiny.
Because it's unconscious, you are suckered back into such relationships over and over again. The traumatized child inside you believes, "If I work harder, this time, it will be different."
You develop an insecure attachment system.
Attachment is a way we can understand how we perceive and respond to intimacy in relationships. While genetics and other life experiences matter, the way our parents cared for us is a major force in shaping our attachment styles.
Being brought up by a narcissistic mother, you might develop an insecure attachment. If you're anxiously attached, you could fear that your partner does not want to be as close as you'd like them to be and interpret many things unnecessarily negatively. You might lash out and then feel worse. Or, you could protect your autonomy at all costs, keeping others at arm's length and being a closed book.
This is detrimental to nurturing intimacy because an avoidantly attached person is always misinterpreting others as impinging upon their independence. Or, you could be a combination of both anxiously and avoidantly attached.
RELATED: What Is A Conversational Narcissist? 4 Signs To Look For
How to heal and find peace
Stop blaming yourself.
If you suspect or realize your mother may be a narcissist, that Eureka! moment can be freeing. Things start to make sense. But you might end up blaming yourself for making her behaviors worse, not seeing through her earlier, not standing up to her—anything. Or you might be furious at yourself for not knowing what things like boundaries and attachment are.
First things first. We went to school and learned loads of nifty formulas and facts—you might even have many, many fancy degrees. But we didn't learn crucial life skills and financial fluency or boundaries. So please, enough beating yourself up. Otherwise, you've left the playground, but you've become your own bully. 24/7.
Recognize her intentions and act accordingly.
Next, when dealing with your mother, put yourself in Law of the Jungle Mode. Law of the Jungle means you consider what moves your narcissistic mother is making and how they are designed to trip you up. Look at the bigger picture of what's going on, and then deal with her as impassively as possible. (This is also sometimes referred to as the grey rock method.)
You might protest that this makes you inauthentic. But you don't go to war without weapons or shields. Remember this, and you can then reserve all your energy and authenticity for those who have your back.
While I advocate no contact—because you've paid enough, and you owe her nothing—I get that it's not always practical. In these cases, have as little contact as possible, and any form of you playing nice is strategic, not unconscious, in order to move the pawns on the metaphorical chessboard. For instance, you might want to praise her so she leaves you alone and gives you some peace. Rather than do it because you're hoping she'll finally be the (consistently) loving mother you never had.
It also means expect bad behavior from her. And discount any good behavior as flukes or costly manipulations you'll have to pay for later.
Do not be hoodwinked.
Take care of yourself.
You will feel guilty and ashamed for abiding by the Law of the Jungle. Same with not being nice 24/7 to her. For daring to think she's a toxic person. You'll have to learn how to take care of these emotions and practice taking care of yourself. It sounds easy, but you'll need to keep practicing it—it's an alien subject that children of narcissists often don't believe they have permission to do.
You'll also have to take care of your nervous system, helping it to heal from the effects of trauma. Part of this may be also recognizing who else in your life is like your mother because chances are, it's a house of mirrors, and she's not the only narcissist in your life.
What this translates to is learning to give yourself permission to have boundaries and learning how to have boundaries—you lay down the law. Take comfort in the fact that you will learn to be more discerning and flexible with your boundaries, so it's OK to start rigid—like any skill you practice, it feels awkward and inflexible initially.
As you're doing these, you'll also be grieving deeply. You'll have to come to terms with the fact that the mother you always dreamed of will never be.
These would be things you should do with trained professionals—a mixture of therapy, coaching, energy- and bodywork, as well as supplementation, to take care of your gut and brain.
You can feel like you're betraying your roots, or you may worry that healing may take forever.
The thing about healing is that's not your final chapter. Look to the person you'll become. Consider those beautiful chapters of your life, after healing. In essence, you'll become the champion and parent your younger self never had. This is the real "do-over."
May that comfort you and guide you forward in your journey toward true freedom and peace.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.