Does My Mum Have a Personality Disorder?

Reader’s Question

I have been concerned about my Mum’s mental health for years now. In the past I came to the conclusion that she had depression, as she was always so negative, never affectionate, angry and critical. But she was always able to put on an act for other people and could appear to be very together and the perfect mother. This has made both myself and my sister very angry over the years. My sister has suffered more than me as she was less academic and more confrontational and I was always keen to please. I would do anything to avoid arguments.

Anyway, these days, I think that she has a combination of personality disorders and I wondered if you agreed. Over the last two years she has become extremely selfish, is out every night, often until very late, and despite being caught out in public with another man, she goes into a rage if anyone dares to suggest she is being inappropriate or lying. Her moods change constantly and she talks about doing nice things for you, but never carries them out. My poor dad is totally confused and for a long time didn’t realise how odd her behaviour was as she would take it out on us when he was at work. Now that we have moved out, he is seeing more of it and she seems to have become worse. She has very odd reactions to things you say, is extremely defensive, attention-seeking, can be very cruel and insensitive and thinks she is superior to everyone. And she does not seem to have a personality of her own. For example, I could not tell you an opinion or view that she holds about anything. Her opinions change depending on who she is with. If she is out in public, she is constantly preoccupied with other people and what they are doing and will make more of an effort to talk to a stranger than to her own family. I could go on…

Basically, when I do not see her, I feel free and as though I can be my own person. My sister feels the same. I feel guilt that she may miss me, but I do not miss her. I miss having a loving mother, but I usually regret it when I see her. I feel I need to decide whether to see her anymore or not, as I am thinking about starting a family myself soon and I know she would be overbearing and critical. It is difficult for me to cut all ties with her — my Dad seemed like he was going to divorce her for a while but doesn’t seem strong enough to do that now. Anyone outside the family would never believe what she can be like, as she seems to create these different personas and appears to be very nice to some people. So I would look like the cruel one.

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Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated, as when no one else sees what she is like and my dad pretends everything is OK. It sometimes seems as though I have imagined the whole thing! Thank you.

Psychologist’s Reply

Q: Based on your description, your mother has strong personality disorder features. Personality Disorders are social chameleons. They approach others and create a personality and behavior that allows them to control, manipulate, and gain attention in any given situation. I’d recommend reading my introduction to personality disorders, available on this website.

Personality Disorders (PD) make up about 9 to 15 percent of the adult population. While they can produce children, they tend to be detached, abusive, neglectful, manipulative, and controlling parents. I’ve addressed Personality Disorders as parents in several Ask the Psychologist questions. My responses can be found by selecting the personality disorders link in the sidebar of the page.

You are at the stage in life where you are recognizing that your mother has personality disorder features. As a young adult, several difficult decisions emerge:

  • How do I now relate to her as an adult? Do I tolerate her behaviors, accept her lies/deceptions, support her bad and selfish behavior, etc.?
  • To what extent do I want her involved in my life as an adult? As a PD, your mother has behaviors you would never tolerate in a friend or co-worker. Many healthy young adults distance themselves emotionally, socially, and even geographically from toxic, personality disorder parents. Do we end the relationship completely and if so, how will that impact on your father?
  • When you form a marriage and family, how much will she be involved? When you consider marriage, you know she’ll try to control the wedding and will punish you if it’s not her way! Your Mum will look at your wedding as an opportunity for her to receive attention!
  • To what extent will you allow her to be involved with your children in the future?

Personality Disorders have no concern for how their behavior disturbs, upsets, or damages others. They are totally self-centered and actually feel entitled to punish and manipulate others. While they become depressed and upset when their demands are not fully met — emotional distress only amplifies their selfishness and increases their misbehavior.

To deal with a PD parent, I often recommend love and monitoring from a safe emotional distance. PD parents are best visited and called on a regular schedule, as varying the visits provides them with an opportunity to manipulate and punish using the visitation times. Despite being a son or daughter, provide only grocery-store level personal information to them — “I’m taking a class in history and thinking about learning tennis, that’s about it”. A PD uses personal and intimate information against you. Don’t take their behaviors, comments, and attitudes personally. Some healthy adults and even children with PD parents often imagine “rating” the comments of their PD parent on a scale of 1 to 10 with a “1” being a sarcastic remark (“Why don’t you visit your Mum as often as other daughters do?) versus “10” as an intentional comment to hurt your feelings as in “Raising you and your sister ruined all my plans for a career and after all I’ve done for you, you only visit every two weeks.”

With your sister and with future partners, there will be a need to develop a strategy to deal with Mum. Working as a team is the only effective way to protect you and your family from her behavior.

Your father has probably developed a form of “Stockholm Syndrome“. For him, a strategy of denial is more acceptable than the temper tantrums, rages, and accusations he would face if he confronts her behavior. He’s now in survival mode and just trying to stay out of her way.

For additional information on how personality disorders control and abuse others, I’d recommend reading my article on Identifying Losers in Relationships on this website. The article identifies several behaviors used by personality disorders to emotionally and socially abuse those around them.

It doesn’t matter if anyone else sees your situation or not. It only matters that you see it, identify the problem, and take corrective action.

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