Narcissus was a character in Greek mythology who was so enamoured by his own reflection in a pool that he could not tear himself away from gazing at it for long enough in order to provide for his sustenance, and thereby withered and died.
At least Narcissus had the decency not to cause damage and distress to other people in the process. Unfortunately, that is not the case with narcissistic mothers. I am not suggesting that narcissistic fathers do not cause damage; I am simply focusing on narcissistic mothers in this post.
There is a condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and there are strict diagnostic criteria required in order to diagnose this or indeed any other personality disorder. However, the nature of psychological diagnosis is such that one requires a spread of symptoms at a certain level of intensity in order to make a diagnosis. Some of the people whom I refer to in this post would certainly qualify for a diagnosis of full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder; however, there are others who exhibit narcissistic traits who probably fall below the diagnostic threshold. In my experience both groups cause significant damage to their children.
My readers will know that I like to cut down on psychological terminology as much as possible, so perhaps the best way I can describe a narcissist is to say that she or he is a legend in her or his own mind. A narcissist believes that she is not only at the centre of her own universe, but that she should be at the centre of everyone else’s universe as well. In the case of a narcissistic mother this includes her children.
Whilst most parents may take delight in nurturing their children, watching them develop individual personalities, basking in their success, and experiencing distress at their setbacks, for a narcissistic mother her children are simply an extension of herself.
Love and affection from a narcissistic mother are dependent upon a child’s ability to make her (the mother) look good in the eyes of others and thereby feel good in the eyes of herself. The cruel trap is that there is nothing one can do to gain the love and respect of a narcissist: there is only one person a narcissist loves and respects, and that is herself. The horrible outcome is that the child continually tries to gain the love and respect of the narcissistic parent and continually fails.
I regard myself as a survivor of a narcissistic mother. I can tell you this tale without distress as over the years I have learned to cope with the situation by what I think is a combination of insight and humour.
I remember a colleague whom I would also regard as a survivor of a narcissistic mother telling me a tale that illustrated her personality some years ago. This middle-aged man had returned to live at his aging mother’s address in order to support her in her later years (probably because of the emotional damage he suffered earlier at her hands). His mother announced that she was visiting her daughter in another European country for Christmas. My colleague was delighted: a week without his mother, the house to himself, and the ability to do anything he wanted. Before she left his mother said to him, “Whatever you do, make sure that no one knows I’m away.”
He questioned why this should be; would it not be appropriate merely to mention to neighbours that she was visiting her daughter for Christmas?
“No,” came the reply; “I don’t want anyone to think that I’ve left you on your own for Christmas.”
In other words, that she would leave him on his own at Christmas (which by the way he was very happy with, although she could not understand this) was irrelevant. What was relevant was that she did not want the fact that she was doing so to affect the image that she tried to instill in others that she was the perfect mother: certainly an image she held of herself.