Learning not to Take Mother’s Narcissism Personally

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Reader’s Question

My mom’s behavior confuses me. Sometimes she can be very nice and understanding. Other times, she is very dramatic and competitive; if I say the sky is blue, she will correct me and say it’s gray. She also can’t be happy for me — when I received my graduate degree, all she did was complain about how much money it cost (even though I offered to pay for school myself, and she insisted on paying for it). Later she said, “Well, I was a few credits away from getting my graduate degree. I had enough credits for two degrees.” If I mention my stomach hurting, later she will claim her stomach hurts. Once, when I was talking about something, she interrupted and said, “Okay, back to me! It’s about me!” I was shocked. She seemed to notice and tried to brush it off as a joke, but it was unnerving. When I’m upset or angry about something, she’ll just laugh at me. Literally, she’ll just laugh.

I feel like it’s all about her and her needs, never mine. If I try to talk to her about this, she’ll get all upset and say, “Oh, so everything’s my fault?” and I end up apologizing to her!

My older sister and I get along very well, and my mother says that I’m lucky to have such a relationship because she was not close to her sister. Sometimes though, my mom seems jealous when my sister and I talk. My mom will also try to create drama between us and say things like, “Oh, your sister seemed mad at you.” When I ask my sister if she is mad at me, she says no. I just don’t understand why my mom is this way.

Psychologist’s Reply

Some people are narcissistic — overly focused on themselves and their own experience. And, just like the majority of the population, most narcissists marry and have children. We’ve all heard of narcissism, but may not recognize it in our loved ones (or want to admit it). Perhaps we don’t want to think of our own relatives as flawed in this way, but also, we may feel confused because not every interaction or every moment is obviously narcissistic. At times, these individuals show interest in others, making us question why they are so self-centered at other times.

No one knows how or why narcissism develops. One theory is that such individuals were reinforced for drawing attention to themselves and inflating their own self-importance during childhood. As a result, narcissism is believed to be a learned strategy for gaining attention and maintaining a sense of importance or value.

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Another explanation focuses on the fact that narcissists are often very insecure about themselves below the outer shell of self-promotion. On the surface they may seem as though they have an abundance of self-esteem, yet minor criticism or situations that challenge their sense of competence often reveal underlying anxiety and a fragile sense of self. The theory here is that some children learn to cope with feelings of insecurity by puffing up their sense of self-importance, as though attempting to convince themselves and everyone else that they are worthy of attention and love. Unfortunately they never develop a genuine sense of self-worth and therefore never give up the strategy.

Regardless of the cause or source of narcissism, the extent to which such individuals are capable of truly empathic relationships may be limited. To be able to fully give our attention and care to another person requires a sense of stable selfhood, so that we’re not threatened by the prospect that there is no one else paying attention to and taking care of us at that time. This lack of empathy may help explain your mother’s apparent insensitivity when you try to relate your own painful experiences to her.

The self-centeredness of narcissism is frustrating, but perhaps most confusing is the tendency for your mother to undercut your achievements and attempt to undermine your relationship with your sister. However, lacking a firm sense of genuine self-satisfaction and truly empathic relationships, your mother may feel threatened when people close to her seem to possess these things. In a twisted way, then, keeping those close to her a bit insecure maintains a more level playing field. For example, notice how, had she allowed you to pay for graduate school, she would have had no claim for complaining and tarnishing your accomplishment.

In the end, when loved ones are deeply flawed, often the best we can do is to better understand the nature of their flaws, so that we do not take them personally when they’re acted out in our relationships with them. Hopefully, intellectual understanding helps create enough emotional distance from the problematic aspects of the person’s personality, that we can then see the other person more objectively and recognize the limits of the type of relationship that is possible with that person. Of course, we also have to grieve that our loved one is not the parent (or child, or sibling) that we wished they could be. Such is one of the painful tasks of growing up; seeing our parents’ psychological problems through an adult level of awareness.

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