Self

How I (Barely) Survived My Narcissist Mother

Photo: Claudia K / Shutterstock.com
Mother and daughter in sunglasses on the beach

It was my wedding day. The ceremony was nice and emotional but, as soon as we arrived at the reception, I knew something was off. I was sitting next to my new husband when my mom walked up to me, flowers in hand … dressed up as a clown.

While the outfit was unexpected, the behavior by my mother was business as usual. You see, she had planned a performance in honor of my big day. 

In her mind, it was fun and innocent. In mine, it was another event derailed by her desire to have all eyes on her.

It was yet another example of my mom's narcissism on full, very public display. I managed to survive the day, and I eventually learned how to process the experience of growing up with a narcissistic mother.

You can do it, too.

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Life with a narcissist mother

As I grew up, I never really understood why I was triggered by her. Maybe all teens are annoyed by their mothers. My friends were telling me how funny she was, and I have to admit it was sometimes nice to have a mom who was not typical or boring. She was creative and artsy. She was designing clothes and furniture, organizing dances for our community and on stage playing in her own productions any time she had the chance.

I knew I could talk to her about anything. Except that what I confided in her could eventually be used against me in the future.

One day she could be amazing, giving me advice and encouragement — the next she could crush me.

Success could be celebrated or minimized depending on her mood. A failure was an opportunity for her to destroy all my hopes.

It was never a straightforward criticism. That would have been too obvious. It was a low-level dismissive statement, nice enough to sound like she was concerned for me and hurtful enough to still impact my self-esteem years later.

It was her taking me to the doctor as a teenager to double check if I would stop growing soon because I was “too tall” and her constant noticing that I had put on weight. It was her questioning my intellect when I failed the medical school entrance exam at the age of 18, two years ahead of anyone, and her minimizing, over the years, any of my professional success.

It was her questioning what I did wrong when my husband cheated on me and wondering if I was just pretending to be happy after I worked on myself and bounced back from the divorce. I have never heard my mom say she was proud of me or that I did something right without a “but” at the end of the sentence.

As far as she was concerned, I succeeded because of luck and failed because I was bad.

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Retreating to a protective bubble

I tried many times to defend myself. It always ended up in a fight, a dismissive statement, her questioning my love for her and me feeling guilty for what I just said. When hurt, she could retreat into her bubble and stop talking to me for days at a time.

Boy, she could hold a grudge! It was so hard for me to see her sad. As a kid, I couldn’t understand what I did wrong, and as an adult, I felt it was my fault and I was the bad one.

She had her own terrible story, her reason to feel rejected or unloved. My mom was given up at birth because her father didn’t want to raise another girl. Of course, this childhood trauma had its consequences.

She was highly emotional, volatile, self-centered and needed constant reassurance from others that she was lovable.

After working with many clients who had a mom, a dad or a spouse who displayed narcissistic tendencies, I discovered that most narcissists have their own childhood trauma and their own quest for love. 

Is it reason enough to become hurtful to others? I don’t think so.

Narcissists can display terribly perverse behavior, even becoming violent to prove they are right. I got to observe the terrible consequences of that in some of my clients, but not every narcissist is created equal. Most are actually charming and nice until they turn into a monster whose only mission is to make you feel small and undeserving.

I never was the victim of physical abuse or extreme neglect and I’m so grateful for that. Nevertheless, I knew my mom could sting at any given moment. She was nice more often than not and now that she is older, I’m often surprised by her genuine caring about my well-being, my opinion or simply wanting to know what is going on in my life.

But I’m still on guard. 

RELATED: 4 Subtle Ways Childhood Trauma Affects You As An Adult (Even If You Think You're Over It)

Dismissed, neglected & emotionally bullied

My mother tells me on the phone how much she misses me, but the last time I went to visit her in France and came to kiss her, she looked away and got busy. When she finally noticed my presence, it was to tell me I looked terrible, which made sense after just alighting from a fourteen-hour plane flight.

During a phone conversation, I shared I was in a new relationship with a great man. She sounded really happy for me until she asked me what could have attracted him to me. In her own words, “it is not as though you are the prettiest thing in town." 

Should it matter to a 50-year-old woman coming from an 85-year-old mom? Of course, not.

Still, the little girl in me cringes each time.

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Time brought understanding — not healing

Over the years, I got over most of the pain and the hurt, but it was not always easy. Successes always included a part of doubt and possibilities were always a little bit scary.

Until I realized why this feeling of never being enough stopped me way too many times. I was a shy kid and even though today most people see me as powerful and inspirational, there is always this little voice saying I might not be that good.

I learned a lot. I faced my fears and became a public speaker. This in itself was such a huge challenge. My mom was always the one on the stage and the last thing I wanted was to become her.

But I realized I had a message to share and I decided that in order to make a difference, I had to take the risk. I wrote two books and spoke in front of audiences, small and large.

Little by little I feel more comfortable having my voice heard.

Today, even though I sometimes have my doubts, I am more confident, and I allow myself to be fully visible.

So many men and women tone down their brilliance for fear of getting hurt or dismissed. You might be one of them. Let me tell you what I learned over the years and how you too can realize how fabulous you are.

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There is nothing wrong with you and there never was

You are perfect. Every single one of you. There is only one you. Tall, short, skinny, overweight, straight, gay, black, yellow or green with polka dots, who cares? There is only one YOU and every day you’re making a difference on this planet just by being here.

This fear of being “imperfect” can often be traced back to childhood. My client Diane was a successful badass firefighter who believed no one could love her. Why? Because her mom made sure to tell her she never was wanted. She was an accident.

It became essential for her to fall back in love with the little girl she was and realize her mom was the one who was wrong. She was no accident, she was a miracle to make this world a better place.

Try this exercise: Write a love letter to your inner child reminding her how amazing she is.

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You are enough

You are not too much. You are not too little. When you succeed there is no “but” at the end of the sentence.

When you fail, it doesn’t make you a failure. You are a human being. A work in progress. Your ups and your downs have value.

Michaela was always the first one to criticize herself. If she had success, it was never enough. Her sense of failure came from having a mother who would reject her over and over again. Later in life, Michaela married an abusive man who made sure to tell her how lucky she was to have found him.

In order to recover from these two toxic relationships, she had to recognize her own value and celebrate her successes.

Another exercise to try: List everything you have achieved so far and celebrate every single achievement.

You don’t have to compare yourself to others

Many narcissistic parents will not put you down directly instead they will play you off against your siblings. You are good but look at your brother/sister who is better than you.

Unfortunately, after many years of this treatment, one of the siblings will feel entitled and will probably become a bully, while the other one will feel less and less worthy.

Sandra was always compared to her sister. Her sister was the princess, the beautiful one, the one who could sing. Years later Sandra had trouble expressing herself without stuttering and had cut any connection to her sister.

Her sister was entitled and frankly unpleasant. Sandra became shy and more and more introverted. It took her over 60 years to accept that she was brilliant, smart and actually beautiful.

Try this reflection: How would be your life if you knew you were lovable?

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It’s okay to be you

When you are put down for being who you are, you often decide it’s safer to become someone different.

My mom was an artist. She liked to be on stage, write and paint. I became a scientist. I was good at it but more importantly, it was the one thing I could do without competing with her. By the time I realized my gift was not being in front of a book or scientific journal but in connecting with others, I was in my late forties.

I tried so long to not become my mom and to not compete with her that I forgot who I was. Still, I have to admit that in some way, I’m just like her. I am an artist: a sculptor. I write books and articles, she wrote poems and plays. Like her, I love to be on stage. My goal is totally different though. Of course, I enjoy compliments and applause but more importantly, I do it to make a difference and inspire others.

You have a mission. You are meant to make a difference on this planet. The way you will contribute to the world is yours, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Another moment of reflection: What is your personal gift to the world?

Speak up and be visible

How many of you heard statements like:

  • Kids are meant to be seen not heard.
  • Don’t show off.
  • Don’t be too much.
  • Don’t be needy.
  • Stop talking all the time.
  • Who do think you are?

How many of you grew up in families where it was safer to disappear?

I recently saw this brilliant cartoon of a parent talking to his kid: “Honey when you grow up, I want you to be assertive, independent and strong-willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable and obedient."

Are you this kid? If so, it is your time to shine! It might feel safer to stay in hiding but the world will be missing out on someone amazing: YOU. Take a chance and get out of your comfort zone. Maybe not in a crazy way. Maybe just 10% today. Or maybe go all the way. What do you have to lose?

Many of my clients have a vision. Oscar wants to be successful and make a difference by becoming a speaker and a leader in his industry. As a kid, he grew up with a bipolar dad and a depressed mom.

As an adult, he tolerated being mistreated by others because he wanted to be accepted. Today, he has had enough. During our last hypnosis session, he got to talk to his future self: elegant, successful and inspiring. Now he is taking the steps to become that man. One step at a time.

Reflection for perspective: What can you do today that would take you closer to being who you are meant to become?

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You are brilliant, and the right people will see it

You can try to bend forward, backward or sideways but some people will never be able to see your brilliance. Not because of you, but because of them.

Ines tried so many times to escape her depression and get rid of her chronic anxiety. Unfortunately, she was bullied at school and physically abused at home. By the time she became an adult she didn’t dare open her mouth anymore.

She was extremely shy, and suffered from an eating disorder and chronic pain. Still, she knew that once she found her way out, she wanted to help other victims of abuse.

In her case, the only possible way to heal implied cutting off her violent mother and reconnecting with herself miles away from her family. Her siblings couldn’t understand her choice and criticized her, but she didn’t quit.

Little by little she reconnected with who she was: a brilliant, positive, powerful young woman.

Today, she is happily married, has two amazing kids and helps victims of trauma. She is even starting to write her first book. She finally feels strong enough to share her message of hope, and the right people will connect with what she has to say.

Try this exercise: Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself three things you appreciate about YOU. 

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Stop hiding in plain sight

Are you hiding in plain sight? Are you present in the world and at the same time totally invisible, or at least not showing your true self? It makes so much sense. As human beings, our priority is to survive.

For Sandy, life was never a safe place. Her mom was a perverse narcissist, and later on, her husband was an abusive alcoholic.

Sandy was a sensitive old soul with magical healing powers. Of course, consciously she wanted to be herself, but she didn’t feel safe.

On the outside, she was this bubbly, happy blonde executive. On the inside, she was a wounded being who came to me with pain in most of her body.

It takes some time to heal these kinds of wounds. It takes energy and courage to try again and again. It’s about letting go of the pain and about creating new possibilities, one step at a time.

For Sandy, it started by reconnecting with her inner child and falling back in love with herself. The next step was to let go of a toxic relationship. And the next is to find a job where she can express herself fully. She will find it.

RELATED: 8 Long-Lasting Effects Of Having Narcissistic Parents

Dr. Fabienne Slama specializes in allowing you to let go of past trauma and blocks so you can live the purposeful and visible life you want. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.