What do we require of our mothers? Certainly not perfection. All mothers would fail at that. Dr. Donald Winnicott, a well-known psychoanalyst from decades past, used to say what we need from mothers is for them to be "good enough". What does "good enough" mean? Attachment researchers look for 3 qualities in "good enough" mothers: sensitivity -- being able to notice that an infant is distressed, responding quickly to the infant's signs of distress, and responding well enough that most of the time the infants get relief.
Keeping that in mind we could hardly find a worse type of mother than someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5the Edition (used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal
may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in
order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to
reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little
genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
1. Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is
better than others; condescending toward others.
b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
**Please remember that this blog is not intended to diagnose anyone. If you have questions about diagnosis seek the counsel of a licensed mental health professional**
Now, given those criteria, you may be saying to yourself "wow, a lot of that sounds familiar!". Mothers who are highly narcissistic tend to see their children not as independent little people but rather as extensions of themselves. For this reason they are often very preoccupied with how the child looks, dresses, is seen by others, etc. Narcissistic mothers get upset if they feel that their child is in any way "reflecting badly" upon them, precisely because they do not differentiate between themselves and their children. They often use the talents, successes or qualities of their children for self-aggrandizement. Or sometimes the inverse-- they refuse to share the spotlight with their own child and will put them down or undermine them to ensure that they are the only "star" in the family.
Narcissists, underneath all of their inflation and grandiosity, are terribly insecure. If they ever feel devalued, belittled or exposed they may fly into a narcissistic rage, attacking anyone and everyone who does not support the version of themselves that the narcissist wants everyone to see.
Narcissistic mothers are incapable of helping children cultivate their authentic selves. If your authentic self loves playing in the mud your narcissistic mother may forbid you do do so but rather dress you in pretentious clothing and parade you around like a prize dog. If your authentic self wants to grow up and be a writer your narcissistic mother may chastise you and shame you into deciding you want to be a doctor or a lawyer (or whatever she thinks is appropriate). Children of narcissistic parents often have trouble finding their authentic selves even in adulthood because they learned long ago not to listen to what they really wanted or felt inside and rather learned to perform a role to keep their mother happy and engaged.
Narcissistic mothers may shun the less glamorous and more private aspects of parenting like bathing, cuddling, feeding or simply spending time with their children. They may use nannies, babysitters or other types of childcare so that they do not have to "waste their time" with these daily acts of devotion and nurturance. On the other hand the narcissistic mother may take extensive interest in things like dance classes, music lessons, athletic competitions or academic endeavors as they bring her a sense of self-aggrandizement by identification with the child's successes.
The important thing to know if you grew up with a narcissistic mother is that you CAN heal from this. Therapists are excellent at providing the type of attunement and nurturing that was missed by having this type of mother.
You may find this list of qualities of narcissistic mothers helpful:
21 signs of a narcissistic mother taken from Alexander Burgermeester's website
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.