Managing a Histrionic Mother

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Reader’s Question

My mother is confirmed — not by a psychologist of her own, but by my psychologist — to have histrionic personality disorder. I could tell stories that make you wonder if I’m making them up.

I have to say that I’m learning to keep myself safe from harm, while still keeping contact with her. Years of therapy have helped me be more than just the daughter of a woman with a personality disorder. I have a nice job, a nice home, a great family and good friends, which is more than she ever had. I realise this, sometimes feel guilty about it, and sometimes think she’s done plenty to destroy the things that have been handed to her. However, I do find it hard to keep the balance since I’ve become a mother. My daughter is only two; she’s the sun and the moon in my life. I find myself facing my own childhood as I try to be a good mother to my own little girl.

How could my mother have treated me, my sister and my father the way she did? How can she still go on treating people this way? This is my daughter’s grandmother. Am I obliged to keep having a relationship with my mother for my daughter’s sake? Or would it be better if I cut off all contact before she hurts my child? She is already trying to create wedges by undermining our parenting, viewing my boyfriend as a problem (he’s not, he just doesn’t like her), and making our daughter call her by a self-made pet-name (her own name baby-fied).

How can she say she loved us, when clearly she did not and does not? What if, subconsciously, I make the same mistakes? My worst fear, something that I actually think about several times a week, is that in some way I might become to my daughter what my mother is to me, someone to avoid and — in my worst moments — hate. My question is, how I can be a good mother to my daughter while balancing my experiences and relationship with my mother? I get so angry at her for not being a mother to me, and it’s so much more obvious now that I am a mother. Meanwhile, it’s harder than ever to negotiate her behaviour.

Psychologist’s Reply

Dealing with people suffering from personality disorders is exceedingly difficult. Unlike mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, personality disorders are more deep-seated. The entrenched nature of these disorders often means that the person suffering from them isn’t aware that change can occur and, as such, may not work toward that goal. That doesn’t mean that someone like your mother doesn’t want to get better; it simply means that she may not know how, or even if it’s possible.

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According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), Histrionic Personality Disorder is characterized as a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking. People with this disorder often display provocative behavior, rapidly shifting emotions, are easily influenced by others, and consider relationships to be more intimate than they actually are. I imagine that it was quite exhausting to have to deal with these symptoms, and hurtful to not be given the proper attention a child deserves.

I can understand your fear that your daughter might have to deal with the same behaviors you did. No one is obliged to keep having a relationship with someone else that is harmful to them, even if that person is your mother. However, I have to wonder if perhaps there is a way you can manage the relationship so that your daughter gets the good parts of her grandmother without the difficult ones. This would mean setting some firm boundaries with your mother and then following through with the consequences if necessary. If it becomes apparent that the bad is outweighing the good, then cutting off contact will still be an option.

Before you make those decisions, you may want to consider working on your own issues with your mother first. From your description, you are still very angry at her and this anger surely must be driving some of your beliefs, expectations and interactions. While anger is often justified, the weight of such a powerful emotion often drags us down. Consequently, working through some of it may allow you to forgive your mother for her disorder, understand more about why she behaves the way that she does and determine whether you exhibit any ‘red flags’ for similar conduct. It is important to remember, though, that you have spent many years working towards coming to terms with your upbringing, and figuring out how to be different. Since you are so aware of the symptoms and the damage they cause, it is unlikely that you will do the same things. However, if you are still concerned, continuing with some counseling may be very beneficial to you.

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