Meanings of Words, Psychology

The Destructive Power of Maternal Narcissism and How to Stop It

Maternal narcissism

“There’s a definition of narcissism that when a parent is narcissistic, instead of the child seeing himself reflected in the mother’s face and the mother’s joy, the child of the narcissistic parent feels like, ‘What can I do to make her okay, to make her happy?'”

–Susan Sullivan

Symptoms of Maternal Narcissism

“Narcissism” is a word that has been appearing with ever greater frequency in social media in recent years. In the age of the selfie, it is used most often to describe someone who is excessively vain or temporarily self-absorbed. However, unlike its meaning in common usage, narcissism is also a very real psychological personality disorder. There are many stories of people recounting childhoods in which a parent exhibited the damaging behaviors associated with narcissistic personality disorder.

Maternal narcissism, in which it is the mother that suffers from the disorder, is characterized by a number of symptoms.

  • One of those is the inability to recognize the needs and feelings of others, one of the most essential nurturing qualities of a parent. Those suffering from this disorder require constant admiration themselves and are frequently envious of any attention paid to others unless it reflects positively on themselves.
  • Other characteristics of the disorder include a sense of superiority and entitlement to special privileges as well as the inability to respect personal boundaries. These personality traits are often manifested in unrealistic expectations of others combined with attempts to exert excessive control over their lives through manipulation. One of the manipulation techniques commonly used by those who suffer from maternal narcissism is constant criticism.
  • Another is taking advantage of the weakness of others, and children are among the most powerless.

Causes and Effects of Maternal Narcissism

The causes of maternal narcissism are not well understood, but it is theorized that narcissism is a generational disorder. Rather than accepting responsibility for changing them, narcissistic parents tend to project their own undesirable character traits onto their children, which perpetuates the cycle. Some experts believe that it may be caused by inconsistent parenting in which a child is both excessively punished and excessively pampered.

Children of narcissists often feel that they are a burden to their parents and experience a deep sense of existential shame. Some of the damaging behaviors frequently displayed by mothers suffering from maternal narcissism include dividing siblings through deliberate favoritism in order to prevent them from forming alliances and reducing her degree of parental power.

Maternal narcissism can have serious negative effects on a child. Children of narcissist parents often feel that they are fundamentally flawed and unacceptable and must therefore adapt their personalities to become “good enough”. They also suffer from tremendous anxiety due to the inconsistent and conditional nature of the parent’s acceptance.

The sense of being fundamentally unlovable often persists into adult life. These feelings of low self-worth often result in adult children of maternal narcissists gravitating towards people who are similarly critical, rejecting or emotionally withholding of acceptance and affection. Having little previous experience with true intimacy based on consistent acceptance, they may find it frightening. Many adult children report having moved frequently, partially to avoid a level of intimacy that they’d never before experienced. Children of narcissists usually grow up having their personal boundaries constantly violated, and often have little ability to maintain healthy boundaries as adults, which also interferes with intimacy.

Additionally, each move represents an opportunity to build a new life with a clean slate, free of the past mistakes which they were convinced made them unacceptable to their narcissistic parent.

Resources for Treatment

There are an increasing number of resources and support groups for adults who experienced parental narcissism as children. A recent article by a survivor describes some of the details of their emotional recovery, and feels that it’s important for people to be aware of and accept that all humans have narcissistic tendencies. One aspect of recovery is learning to be able to accept and enjoy praise without suspicion or fear of envy.

Another important aspect of recovery is that of restoring, or building, self-confidence. Narcissistic mothers often discourage their children from becoming self-sufficient because it means losing control of them. Self-confidence is also damaged when children have to compete with more capable adults for both attention and resources. All too often, children learn to criticize themselves, which leads to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism in adulthood, robbing life of much of its joy.

Many helpful books have been written to help adults that suffer from the damaging after-effects of maternal narcissism. Dealing with feelings of inadequacy, fear of abandonment, and emotional emptiness can be extremely difficult, especially with the demands of work and family. Many people seek professional help in breaking the generational cycle of abuse.

Recovery requires a deep commitment and willingness to face the pain of childhood, but healing makes it possible to build future relationships based on mutual respect and acceptance, and there’s no better legacy for future generations than that.

Maternal narcissism
Narcissus by Caravaggio, gazing at his own reflection (1594-96) Public domain
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