Girls look to their mothers as their first female role models. In that formative relationship, a girl learns about herself and her world. As such, the quality of that relationship has a significant influence on the girl’s life as she grows up and enters adulthood.
A parent should play the role of a loving and positive influence on their child’s life, but narcissistic parents can have the opposite effect. They naturally love their children, but their behavior and attitudes about themselves and their world are unhealthy. Daughters of narcissistic mothers have to deal with a lot of confusion, doubt, and guilt around their authentic selves due to their narcissistic parents’ behavior.
This article will look at the impact narcissistic mothers have on their daughters. This impact can be challenging, but understand that it is possible to recover if you have been affected. It can take some tough realizations and patience, but you can heal from narcissistic parenting with self-awareness, effort, and support. Later, we will look at what happens when a girl grows up with a narcissistic mother, but first, let’s better understand narcissism.
What Is a Narcissist?
A narcissist is someone who displays symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, including:
- Grandiose sense of self
- Sense of entitlement, or being special
- Avoidance of responsibility
- Shifting blame onto others
- Emotional manipulation of others
- Excessive need for attention, admiration, and validation from others
The term narcissist stems from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter and widely adored young man who drowned in a river after becoming enamored by his reflection in the water. The modern narcissist is similarly self-obsessed. They perceive themselves as better than others and have unrealistically high self-esteem.
Narcissists cannot accept blame and go to great lengths to shift it onto others. Their self-obsession eventually leads others into setting firm boundaries or cutting the narcissist out of their life altogether.
Despite their grandiose sense of self, narcissists typically suffer from low self-esteem and self-doubt. They struggle to accept themselves as imperfect and fallible, so they wear a mask of perfection and righteousness in front of others. That righteousness protects them from feeling more vulnerable than they can handle, but even though it is an attempt to protect themselves, it causes lasting damage to their children.
The Narcissistic Spectrum
Bear in mind that all of us display some degree of narcissism. It is a spectrum, and it is entirely possible to hold oneself in high esteem and to want others’ respect and validation without being a full-blown narcissist. So, as a trait, narcissism lies on a spectrum. However, another degree of narcissism is known as developmentally appropriate narcissism.
This type characterizes those whose narcissistic tendencies fall on the more severe end of the spectrum. For example, it is normal for young children to throw tantrums if things do not go their way and behave as if the world revolves around them. That is developmentally appropriate. Such behavior is far less suitable for a mother who screams at her child when they do not do something perfectly.
What Do Narcissistic Mothers Do?
In mother-daughter relationships, where the mother is a narcissist, she engages in several narcissistic traits towards her daughter that later impact the daughter’s mental and emotional health. So, what exactly do narcissistic mothers do?
1. They Gaslight
Gaslighting is a term used when someone makes you doubt your perception of and feelings about an event because they do not want to accept responsibility for doing something wrong. Narcissistic mothers will convince their children that they are wrong for calling them out on certain behaviors, such as shouting or lying. Narcissists need to save themselves— they do not like being called out on inappropriate behavior because it challenges their lofty and idealized view of themselves.
2. They Project
Despite their outward displays of confidence and success, narcissists struggle with low self-esteem and self-doubt. We all struggle with those feelings from time to time, but narcissists have difficulty accepting them. Instead of acknowledging how they feel and allowing themselves to be imperfect, narcissists typically project their fears and insecurities onto others.
For example, a narcissist who feels frustrated might accuse someone else of being frustrated and tell them to calm down. A narcissistic partner who has thoughts of infidelity might accuse his or her partner of cheating. A narcissistic mother who thinks she is not giving her daughter enough love might blame that daughter for asking for too much.
3. They Shift Blame
Related to their tendencies to project, narcissists chronically shift blame. Their self-image, though lofty, is fragile, and any suggestion that they have done something wrong, that they are not perfect, may very well be met with a complete shirking of one’s own responsibilities and shifting those responsibilities onto others.
For example, a narcissistic mother will blame her daughter for being too sensitive if she makes an insulting joke about her appearance or achievements, rather than accepting that what she said was unfair or rude.
What Happens to Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers?
A mother’s narcissistic tendencies harm the health of those around them, especially their children. Children of narcissistic mothers are likely to develop unhealthy psychological development due to excess stress, suppression of their authentic selves, and prioritizing their mother’s needs over their own. They are subject to unhealthy and even toxic levels of stress and confusion about their place in the world and their role within the family because their mothers make them feel unworthy and unlovable.
Typically, a narcissistic mother tries to live vicariously through her daughter. The mother may live with some unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, so she pushes her daughter toward those dreams even if the daughter does not want to follow them. As they grow up, children of narcissistic mothers are likely to struggle with any or all the following:
Adult children of narcissistic mothers tend to experience a lot of self-doubt throughout their adult lives. Children are likely to experience gaslighting, a type of psychological manipulation in which the gaslighter makes the victim doubt themselves and their perceptions.
For example, if a girl calls her mother out for insulting her, the mother, the narcissist, will deny if she ever insulted her. If the child has negative feelings about her mother’s behavior, her mother will invalidate those feelings because she does not want to feel bad about herself. The narcissist’s refusal to accept what they did wrong helps them feel better about themselves, but the consequence is a child who now struggles to believe and validate her own experiences. As such, she is likely to grow up unsure of herself and easily manipulated by others.
2. People Pleasing
People pleasing, or fawning, is a trauma response that leads a person into prioritizing others’ wants and needs above their own. People’s pleasures can seem kind and helpful, but their behavior stems from insecurity rather than genuine kindness. They feel that they must help others get their needs met and neglect their own in the process, all because they learned that doing so is how to earn someone’s love.
Daughters of narcissistic mothers tend to be people pleasers. In childhood, she believed that her mother’s wants and needs were more important than her own and that unless her mother’s wants and needs were fulfilled first, she would not get the love she needed. She needs to get that love or attachment to feel accepted, so she sacrifices her authenticity.
Some children of narcissistic parents take selflessness to the extreme—they become chronic people pleasers. However, some children learn to mimic their parents’ behavior and become narcissists themselves. Comparison and criticism are common in narcissistic family dynamics. Parents encourage their children to be better, to be less flawed and more perfect. Children then hold on to these values and carry them into adulthood. They want to be better than others and view admiration and attention as a high priority.
It is not just exposure to narcissism that creates a narcissist. Sometimes, a child can take on narcissistic tendencies to achieve closeness with her mother. The emotional unpredictability, projection, confusion, and fear the child’s faces threaten the vital mother-daughter connection, so taking on or mimicking their mothers’ behaviors may help them keep the connection tight.
4. Conditional Love
If your mother was a narcissist, she might have taught you that you are only loved when you achieve something. Perhaps she taught you that you were only loved when she felt happy, so you have dedicated yourself to making her happy. Maybe she is not expressing her love and care when you were disobedient or did not like the hobby or activity that she signed you up for, yet gave you love and attention when you did as she asked. Children of narcissistic parents believe that they could only be loved on condition rather than unconditionally.
American author and psychotherapist Dr. Karyl McBride writes in her book Will I Ever Be Good Enough?:
‘Narcissistic mothers teach their daughters that love is not unconditional, that it is given only when they behave in accordance with maternal expectations and whims. As adults, these daughters have difficulty overcoming feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, emotional inadequacy, and sadness.
McBride explains that daughters of narcissistic mothers ‘may also have a fear of abandonment that leads them to form unhealthy romantic relationships as well as a tendency to perfectionism and unrelenting self-criticism, or to self-sabotage and frustration.’
How to Heal from Narcissistic Abuse?
It can take many years before one realizes that they have been a victim of narcissism. It is a harsh realization because it means looking at your life from a fresh and not-so-pleasant perspective. However, as challenging, upsetting, or uncomfortable as it may be, the good news is that you can heal from narcissistic abuse. Moreover, many people who do recover from growing up with narcissistic parents manage to achieve what psychologists call post-traumatic growth, a sense of the word of oneself that involves hope and fulfillment, but that may not have been achieved without the prior traumatic experiences.
So, the first step in recovering from narcissistic parenting is by recognizing that it exists. Consider the signs of narcissism outlined above and reflect on your exposure to such behavior in your life. It helps to write down your thoughts and feelings on this journey of self-discovery, so dedicate a journal to your growth. Ask yourself some questions to help you reflect, such as:
- Do I put other people’s wants and needs above my own and neglect mine?
- Do I shy away from confrontation because I feel overwhelmed by conflict?
- Am I living my own life, or am I living the life my mother set out for me?
- Do I blame others but never take the blame?
- Do I behave inauthentically to get love and affection?
Some difficult feelings may come up as you recognize how narcissism has impacted you. When things get tough, it is important to reach out to friends or trusted family members for emotional support. Your journey is entirely your own, but that does not mean you cannot ask for some help along the way.
2. Accept Your Feelings
Realizing that you have grown up with and been impacted by a narcissistic parent can stir many complex emotions. Anger, sadness, loss, and grief over the childhood you could have had if things were different are just some of these feelings, and they can be incredibly overwhelming. These feelings must be worked with, lovingly accepted (as they may not have been in childhood), ]then compassionately let go.
3. Set Boundaries
When you are a child and live with a narcissistic parent, that parent probably will not teach you about healthy boundaries. In many cases, narcissistic parents use their children for validation and may do so without respecting that child’s time, space, and stage of development.
As an adult, it is well within your right and ability to set healthy boundaries. That means drawing a solid line between where you end and your narcissistic parent begins. In some cases, that might look like limiting phone calls to once a week. It may reduce contact between your mother and your children. In other cases, it may require a complete no-contact approach.
Boundaries also let others know how to treat you. For example, if your narcissistic mother is overly critical of your parenting style and makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed, you can set a boundary there. You can tell your mother how her comments make you feel. Note that you should make your feelings about you, not them.
For example, when your mother questions your parenting style even though you know you are doing a good job, you could explain: ‘When I hear those comments, I feel like I’m not doing a good job as a mother, and it knocks my confidence.’ That is more personal, mature, and grounded than saying, ‘You always insult me! You’re too critical!’ The latter also may provoke the narcissist into defense mode, at which point their finely honed manipulation skills will enter the scene, and you may feel worse afterward.
Once you have told her how her comments make you feel, you ask her to stop. That is the line you have to set, which you are entitled to make. Now, it is up to your mother to accept your boundary. She can listen to you and adjust her behavior, or she can choose to ignore you and continue to criticize your parenting style. If she chooses the latter, you are allowed to follow through with your boundary and cut out or reduce contact with her.
4. Practice Re-Parenting
Living as an adult with a history of narcissism in the family can leave a lasting wound. You can seem fine on the surface, but you may never be fully complete or whole with this wound in your psyche. This wound belongs to your inner child, the child who did not get the consistent parenting and unconditional love that would have helped her feel complete as an adult.
With your grown-up and mature capacity for seeing that wound objectively, you can start to re-parent yourself and heal it. That means giving your inner child, that part of you that still hurts and seeks love and care, the childhood she needs. When you re-parent yourself, you help her, and your adult self builds trust, develops confidence, and meets your needs effectively.
Reparenting is by no means an easy process, and it may take a lot of conscious inner work, journaling, meditation, and getting out of your comfort zone to do it well. Understand that you do not have to do it alone. In fact, it is better to call on support. Humans are social in nature. Having the support and encouragement of others who love and trust you can foster a deep sense of motivation and purpose along the way.
Adult children of narcissistic parents are faced with unique challenges. Growing up, they were forced to take on coping mechanisms to deal with their narcissistic parents’ confusing and frightening behavior. They adapt to get through their childhood with this parent. Still, often those coping habits linger into adulthood and can bleed into one’s adult relationships or their relationship with their own children. They also face an increased risk of mental health issues and feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth.
Suppose this has been your experience growing up. In that case, the challenge you face today is letting go of the beliefs, values, limits, and labels that you learned in that mother-daughter relationship and replacing them with healthier ways of seeing and feeling your way in the world. This can be tough, so patience, compassion, and support are your keys to success.
Remember that you can recover with consistency and perseverance even when things seem tough. Finally, living your own life with your unique perspective and story will be worth all the work you put into your healing journey.