Anju Chandy was 18 years old when she left her Bakersfield, CA, home for a college far away. After years of frustration, the more miles she could put between her and her narcissistic mother, the better.
“I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere near my mother. I needed to forge a path of my own away from her influence and control,” says Chandy, who’s now a musician living in Indianapolis.
“I had spent almost all of high school fighting her. She wanted to control me. She wanted me to just stay home, sit still, look pretty, and do nothing. She had an irrational fear that I was wanting to go out and be promiscuous all over town, even though that isn’t who I am or what I wanted to do.”
Living with a narcissistic mother is challenging. Narcissists are highly self-absorbed and often see their kids as extensions of themselves. “Often children feel unheard, unknown, and used by their narcissistic parent,” says Kimberly Perlin, a licensed clinical social worker in Towson, MD.
A mother who is a narcissist may actually seem self-sacrificing — like someone who’s always doing things for her kids and never thinking of herself.
A narcissistic mother may be a class parent, PTO president, or soccer coach. But that involvement is self-serving. She does it because she wants attention and needs to be involved in every decision.
If you’re an adult, she may be too involved in your life. She might make what you do more about her than you, Perlin says. Maybe you’re planning a wedding but she refuses to come if you invite your father. Or when you talk, she always shifts the focus back to her. If you have children, she may work hard to become your parenting partner, even if it means pushing aside the other parent.
If your mother is a narcissist, she may be emotionally manipulative and coercive, says Mark Ettensohn, PsyD, author of Unmasking Narcissism: A Guide to Understanding the Narcissist in Your Life. “Narcissistic parents may give unrealistically positive feedback which can suddenly turn into overly harsh or punitive criticism,” he says.
Your mother may not see you for who you are inside, aside from being an extension of her. She could have trouble understanding and accepting your feelings and get anxious or angry when she feels rejected or criticized.
“Narcissistic traits run along a continuum,” Perlin says. Your mother may have a few, like self-absorption and entitlement. Or she may have full-blown narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
Signs of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- A strong sense of grandiosity (high levels of self-esteem, self-importance, self-confidence, and feeling like they’re superior to others)
- Arrogant attitude or behavior
- Taking advantage of others to get what they want
- Believing they’re unique or special
- Exaggerating achievements and talents
- Excessive need for admiration
- Feeling envy toward others or thinking others envy them
- Lack of empathy
- Fantasies of brilliance, power, or success
- Sense of entitlement (they deserve special treatment just for being who they are)
Perlin says to ask yourself these questions to see if your mother is a narcissist:
- Can she handle negative feedback?
- Does she seem overly concerned about how she looks to others?
- Does she need you to prop her up with compliments and positive feedback?
- Does she need others to know she’s the most overworked, underappreciated, or giving mother?
- Does she make it clear you owe her?
- Do you feel you need to be a certain way or achieve something for her love and approval?
- Does she feed off attention in ways that feel uncomfortable or over the top?
“If you answer many of the questions with a yes and her behavior is consistent over time, you can consider narcissism,” Perlin says.
If your mother is a narcissist, take these steps to manage your relationship:
Set boundaries. Create and maintain healthy boundaries. Be clear about what’s OK and what isn’t.
Stay calm. Try not to react emotionally to what she says, even if it’s an insult. “The narcissist wants a reaction from you because it means they have control and can shift the mood as they please,” Chandy says. “Your calm is your power.”
Plan your responses. “Have a respectful exit strategy when conversations go off the rails,” Perlin says. Prepare and practice statements like “I have to get going, Mom,” or “We’ll have to just agree to disagree.”
Let go. You may feel pressure to keep your mother happy and be a perfect daughter or son. Let go of these thoughts. Remember, it isn’t your job to make your mother feel special, needed, or relevant.
Get help. Talk to a counselor. They can help you understand how her narcissism affects you and learn how to break the cycle.
Step away. It may be best to have limited or no contact with your mother, especially if she’s abusive or violent. Instead, focus on the things you can control. “I currently have no contact with my family,” Chandy says. She believes that’s the only way to deal with a narcissistic mother if your growth and happiness is a priority.
If your mother is a narcissist, avoid these things:
Don’t expect an apology. Narcissists are unlikely to accept critical feedback. They often have excuses and justifications for their behavior. Your mother may not see herself as wrong or her behavior as bad. She probably thinks she’s the victim, not you.
Don’t try to fix or heal her. You can’t change her personality. Narcissists often grew up with narcissistic parents and were used and hurt by them. It’s something she has no control over and likely won’t heal from. It may help to build compassion for her struggles and recognize what she does isn’t conscious.
Don’t compare her to others. “Try to have the best relationship you can with the mother you have,” Perlin says. “Think about when the two of you shine. Do you share a talent or interest? Try to bond on that.”