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The Narcissistic Mother

The Narcissistic Mother | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I was walking with my daughter around our neighborhood last weekend, strolling the half-mile or so her little two-year-old legs can handle right now, and, because we live in a residential neighborhood, we were walking past our neighbors’ cars.

“Blue truck! White car. BIG red car.”

She loves calling out the colors of each as we pass. And then, as we come up to each one, she’ll stop and wave at her reflection in their shiny paint. “Hi me!”

But then, another block down, we got to an SUV that had been painted matte black. No shine. No reflection for her to see as we approached it. 

“Mama! No see me. No see. Mama!” 

The Narcissistic Mother | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

The Narcissistic Mother

She couldn’t figure out why she didn’t see herself in this reflection of the matte black. Something so different than the parade of cars she’s used to passing.

I was thinking about this little interaction – this weekend moment that seems so mundane – and thinking about how that matte black SUV, without its ability to accurately reflect back my daughter’s image in all her toddler glory, felt like such a perfect metaphor for the experience some children might have with a mother who is a Narcissist.

An inability to see themselves reflected back clearly, some distress at the lack and gap, confusion, a failed mirroring experience.

Growing up with a Narcissistic mother can be deeply impactful to the developing child and while popular culture (and, in truth, statistics) portray more men than women predisposed to this particular personality disorder, it’s important, I think, to illuminate that women can be diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, too, and, if that woman is a mother, what the complexity of impacts on their child might be.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

“I have never known a patient to portray his parents more negatively than he actually experienced them in childhood but always more positively–because idealization of his parents was essential for his survival.” ― Alice Miller

First of all, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is different from narcissism as a trait

Narcissism – interest and occupation with oneself – exists on a spectrum, from mild to moderate to severe.

Truthfully, we’re all a little narcissistic. We all possess this trait.

But there’s a difference between possessing the trait and having it be a normal and natural aspect of a multidimensional character versus someone who meets the full criteria of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as illustrated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM) – the bedrock clinical textbook of my field.

According to the DSM, the clinical criteria of someone with NPD include:

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates accomplishments and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate accomplishments).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”*

*American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.

Additionally, according to the DSM, prevalence rates for NPD “range from 0% to 6.2%” of the population and, of those diagnosed with NPD, “50-70% are male.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013)

But still, that leaves a possible 50-30% of the American population where Narcissistic Personality Disorder can show up in women. 

And, given 2018 data from The Pew Center For Research which indicates that, by ages 40-44, some 86% of women are mothers (a statistic that’s noticeably higher than 80% measured in 2006), these two statistics combined illustrate a potential large overlap of mothers who could and are diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

So, DSM diagnostic criterion aside, what does growing up with a Narcissistic mother actually look and feel like? 

What Does A Narcissistic Mother Look Like?

“Dysfunctional parents do not apologise. It is one feature that the children of narcissists would instantly agree on. They will lie and justify themselves, but never accept they did anything wrong.” ― Diana Macey

The Narcissistic Mother is complex, nuanced, and she doesn’t fit into any one, single mold. 

She could be the CEO of a 9-figure company or she could be a stay-at-home mom in middle America. 

She could have advanced degrees, Chanel in her closet, or spend her time at bake sales, soccer games, and roaming the aisles at Target.

(She could also be all of these things.)

She may be White, Black, Brown, or other. Rich, poor, somewhere in between.

Class, race, education, location – none of this recuses someone from the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

So again, there is not one “type” of Narcissistic Mother. 

She comes in many forms.

If you’ve been a reader of mine for any time, you know I often like to illustrate my essays with pop culture references – fictional models so many of us may have seen on shows and in movies that embody what I talk about – but honestly, I struggled to find examples of the Narcissistic Mother. 

Examples of Narcissistic male/father models liberally abound, but it’s harder to find Narcissistic female examples let alone Narcissistic mother examples. 

This may be due, in part, to the fact that the archetype of a Narcissistic Mother flies in the face of what millennia of Judeo-Christian, Patriarchal conditioning has led us to believe and expect from mothers – selfless and self-sacrificing, undying generosity and devotion, humble and mild-mannered, etc.

Coupled with these strong social introjects, the struggle I found to share examples with you may also be due to the fact that Hollywood continues to deprioritize women in leading roles and fails, too, to showcase a broad-enough spectrum of complexity of character in women and mothers in particular. 

Still, though, in seeking to illustrate the Narcissistic Mother in the media, consider Betty Draper in Mad Men, Caroline Collingwood in Succession, Ellis Grey in Grey’s Anatomy, the Evil Queen in Snow White and Circe in Game of Thrones (although, arguably Antisocial Personality Disorder (aka Psychopathy) would be a better fit for both given their murderous tendencies). 

Again, there is no one, singular mold for the Narcissistic Mother. She comes in many forms.

What Does Growing Up With A Narcissistic Mother Feel Like?

“When I was with my mother, I sometimes thought of myself as a trophy—something to be flaunted before friends. When out of public view, I sat on the shelf ignored and forgotten.” ― Joan Frances Casey, The Flock: The Autobiography of a Multiple Personality

No matter the character composition and demographics of the Narcissistic Mother, what might it feel like to be her daughter?

Your childhood and experiences with her might be colored by some or all of the following:

  • Feeling “one-upped” by her. Constantly. “Oh, you’re on track to be Salutatorian? Well, in high school I was Valedictorian. My old high school teachers still talk to me about my speech.”
  • You felt like an extension of her. An asset to advance her career or social goals. Like her accessory versus her focus.
  • You felt controlled, cajoled. Taught and told implicitly or explicitly that her agenda was the priority.
  • You experienced shaming. Not once. Not twice. But repeatedly. “Maybe you shouldn’t have those mashed potatoes tonight, honey. Your jeans are getting a little snug.” Sugar-coated shame.
  • She had impossible standards. “Of course you’re going to get into Harvard! I mean, you’re my child, after all, right? The UC’s aren’t good enough.”
  • You can’t recall when she ever genuinely apologized or took responsibility for her actions or impact on you. See the quote at the top of this essay section and please bear in mind an apology does not look like “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
  • Your relationship with her feels fraught, brittle, like “walking on eggshells,” and you know that your connection can’t withstand disagreeing with her or disappointing her without some steep costs.

And, look, this list is the tip of the iceberg. 

So much of your experience may not be represented on this list. 

For instance, maybe she didn’t look like the “rejecting mother,” the one who couldn’t be bothered or was under her covers, laid low by depression, and uninterested in mothering. 

She could have been the overly involved mother, the outward perfect picture of a mother, engaged, sending you – her kid – to private schools, etc., but what transpired between closed doors? 

What was the flavor and texture of that attachment, those love actions? 

Was it freely given? Did her love feel transactional? Did her care for you feel weighted with expectations?

Like there is no one single portrait of a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, likewise, there is no one single list of ways being her child may have felt. 

And so, too, the attendant impacts of being raised by a Narcissistic mother are commensurately complex.

What Are The Impacts Of Being Raised By A Narcissistic Mother?

“Recognizing the difference between power and love is difficult if we were raised in a home where power was disguised as love.” ― Marion Woodman

First, let me say that based on decades of research, we know that children have core developmental needs that include good-enough consistent attachment, mirroring, attunement, and positive regard from their primary caregiver(s) in order to help them establish a stable, cohesive, and positive sense of self and to help them learn secure relational attachment.

We also know that when children don’t consistently receive this, or when they instead receive consistent invalidation, frequent ruptured attachment experiences, a lack of empathy, or outright hostility from their caregiver(s), this will impact them in myriad ways.

Unfortunately, mothers with NPD possess character traits that are almost antithetical to being able to provide their children what they need to emotionally and mentally develop and thrive.

And so, the children of Narcissistic Mothers may struggle. 

They may struggle with:

  • Feeling securely attached. 
  • Understanding what a healthy, functional, and reciprocal relationship looks like.
  • Esteeming themselves from within and knowing themselves accurately.
  • Knowing what healthy boundaries are (let alone setting them!).
  • Knowing what assertive and responsible communication looks like. 
  • Understanding what healthy conflict resolution looks like.
  • Accessing and regulating their emotions without compulsive or addictive substances or behaviors. 
  • Trusting themselves and their perceptions about the world.   
  • Finding and keeping safe, healthy, functional romantic relationships and friendships. 

This list is, by no means, exhaustive. 

The impacts on a child raised by a Narcissistic Mother will be as complex as the individuals who move through the experience and informed by a multitude of variables.

However, it’s clinically sound to say that there will be some biopsychosocial impacts for anyone raised by a Narcissistic Mother. 

So then, the primary question becomes: And how do we heal if we were raised by a Narcissistic Mother?

Healing Tasks For Those Raised By Narcissistic Mothers

The healing work required by adult children of Narcissistic Mothers will likely include the following tasks:

  • Educating yourself. Understanding what Narcissism is, how it presents, what the multitudinous impacts of this were and are, and what, from a more healthy, functional place, you can expect instead for yourself, from others, and from life. In seeing yourself and your past more clearly, you can greatly accelerate your healing work.
  • Building critical skills. When we are raised by Narcissistic parents – be they mothers or fathers – we come from relational trauma histories. And as part of this, we may waste our precious life energy just trying to survive, to cope, and get through. Often, then, we will have missed the opportunity to address the age-appropriate developmental tasks of a child and adolescent and we fail to learn the bedrock psychological skills that can add up to a whole, healthy, rooted-in-reality life. Part of your healing work must include learning and practicing any skills and developmental milestones you may have missed out on. 
  • Processing, grieving, and making meaning of your experiences. Trauma-informed processing is, at its core, grief work and sense-making which is integral to our recovery if we were raised by a Narcissistic parent. But we must do this work in phased, titrated ways, first ensuring you are stabilized enough to turn back and recall your memories, then we help you process them both cognitively and somatically, making sense of your personal history, yes, but also helping your brain and body (which are both hardwired for healing) metabolize your experiences fully so the past is no longer present cognitively or somatically. 
  • Seeking out (and letting in) reparative relationship experiences. I firmly believe that, when our early wounds take place in the context of relationship, it’s through relationship – a certain kind of healthy, attuned, deeply caring relationship – that the biggest healing happens. A healing task for the adult children of Narcissistic should and must include seeking out and cultivating healthier, more functional relationships – be it with a therapist, a partner, good girlfriends, the neighbor next door, your yoga teacher, etc. Seeking out healthier relationships, learning and re-learning what’s appropriate and normal, and resetting your expectations for yourself and what kind of treatment you’ll allow is a crucial part of the healing journey. 

And if you would like more supports and resources for your healing journey, here are a few of my other essays that you may find useful:

In Closing.

“All strong souls first go to hell before they do the healing of the world they came here for. If we are lucky, we return to help those still trapped below.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D.

Believe it or not, this post is not meant to demonize the Narcissistic Mother.

At the end of the day, she likely developed because of her own trauma history in her own childhood and being raised in this Patriarchal, Capitalistic, Earth-destroying global culture. 

She is a product of her experience as you are a product of your experiences. 

So, my hope is that if you saw yourself in this article, whether as a child of a narcissist or possibly as a narcissist yourself, that you will choose to invest in yourself and your healing for yourself and whatever family or legacy you create and leave behind.

If you would like support in doing this, and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.

Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself.

And finally, I want to leave you with some words of hope – particularly if you worry that your own past and upbringing are impassable and you suspect you won’t be able to raise a healthy family of your own. Read these words, and take hope.

“Then we must reflect that, if history predicted with fidelity, the human family itself would have long ago been drowned in its own oppressive past. The race improves. And this may be because the largest number of men and women who have known suffering find renewal and the healing of childhood pain in the experience of bringing a child into the world. In the simplest terms – we have heard it often from parents – the parent says, “I want something better for my child than I have had.” And he brings something better to his child. In this way we have all known young parents who have suffered poverty, brutality, death, desertion, and sometimes the full gamut of childhood horrors, who do not inflict their pain upon their children. History is not destiny, then, and whether parenthood becomes flooded with griefs and injuries, or whether parenthood becomes a time of renewal cannot be predicted from the narrative of the parental past.”

Ghosts In The Nursery: A Psychoanalytic Approach To The Problems Of Impaired Infant Mother Relationships

Take such good care of yourself. You’re worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Laura Grolla on  

    Dear Annie,

    I have a wonderful single sentence that my therapist said some years ago that both sums up a narcissistic mother and got me to laugh.

    She said, “You and your mother were one, and SHE was the one you were!”

    I am now 61 and still discovering who “the other one” was in that equation. My mother used to say, “We,” as in “We are highly intelligent and the top 10 percent,” and because her face was looking at my face when she said this, I felt like this was love. But it took me a long time to learn that I was the moon reflecting the sun and was not allowed any internal combustion of my own. It has been extremely hard for me to give myself permission. Permission of any kind. I was never to have my own desires but only to desire what “we” had in common (all her traits) but, additionally, I was to only desire these permitted arenas of endeavor tepidly so as not to outshine her. I was supposed to be the weak, cold moon who only revolved around her and lived to reflect her brightness.

    The fact that she was enormously insecure and required constant propping up followed me well into adulthood. It was until my 40s that I began to process cutting the apron strings.

    Ironically, my father, a much more virulent and obvious narcissist, was the focus of most of my therapy for years because I kept choosing horrible men. But now, in my 60s, I suddenly have narcissistic women to deal with so I am cutting the apron strings all over again. Specifically, I have a very narcissitic and charismatic boss, an alcoholic, who is exactly like my mother and to whom I am in thrall in many ways. I have other friends, too, who are not like my mother, but she is the mirror right now. And she has power over me as my mother did, power I am learning not to give away.

    Does this ever end, Annie? I am so much better than I used to be but I am only now, at 61, healed and grounded enough to be anywhere near functional. It has been such a long haul. I am happy and content and pay my bills but my whole life has been skewed by my childhood. I only now feel like I can launch myself into the world with confidence and clarity. I only now have my own permission–and often, only after some deep looking to see where my true desires are. My first reaction is still to suppress my desires in order to stay “safe.” And safe still means being low and not too shiny.

    I still assume I must reflect my mother first and can sometimes only see what I want after the opportunity to have the thing I want has passed me by. Yet, even a trickle of trueness is better than none at all.

    I love your articles. They help me to be ok with this strange journey to wholeness.

    ~Laura Grolla

    • Arron on  

      Hi laura
      Hello from Scotland
      I read your words and i feel your pain but also your strength.
      My mother recently passed and I didn’t have time to “ square things up “
      My beginning of the healing process starts today.
      I hope you are well

      • Annie on  

        Arron, I’m incredibly sorry to hear of your mother’s recent passing. Sending you all my care, and I truly hope you take extra care of yourself during this crucial healing period.

        Warmly, Annie

  2. Cheri M on  

    I think that Lucille Bluth from “Arrested Development” is a great pop culture example of a narcissistic mother, and her character even helped me realize what was happening in my own life thanks to how often she would call her daughter fat.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Cheri,
      That is really impressive that you were able to identify and process narcissistic behavior through a TV series that you watch. I truly believe that Movies and TV are perfectly legitimate personal growth tools and can be deeply therapeutic. Thank you for taking the time to share. I’m wishing you all my best.

      Warmly, Annie

  3. Agos on  

    It s never too late to heal this childhood wounds so that it will not go on to the next generation instead create a healthy world which will regenerate the planet oozing with joy!

    • Annie on  

      Hi Agos,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I couldn’t agree more, it’s never too late to heal, break patterns and increase joy! Have a wonderful week.

      Warmly, Annie

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