Tell Me About It

My narcissistic mother has ruined my self-esteem

I am 50, and it has taken me all these years to work out why I feel so bad about myself

PROBLEM: I have just become aware of a document about narcissistic mothers that describes my mother perfectly. I am 50, and it took me all these years to work out why I felt so bad about myself and how I kept self-punishing. I would have appreciated it if someone had pointed this out to me a long time ago.

After my first marriage split up, someone very close tried to point it out to me, but I couldn’t quite get my head around it at the time because I was too confused by my mother’s crazy behaviour. Plus, I suppose there was a reluctance to believe that your primary carer could behave like that.

My mother has always had deniable put-downs for me. She has favourites in the family and always took credit for any of my successes. She insinuates that I am unstable, oversensitive and ridiculous when I try to confront her about her behaviour. She is envious of me and has always criticised how I look and interfered in all my relationships, and she twists what I do and say into something undermining. My mother is selfish and self-absorbed to the extent that she will run any party or event to do with me and make it all about her.

If I try to address any of this with her, she flies into a rage or gets upset or sick, so that I look like the cruel one.

I could list endlessly the way she has ruined my life. An article on this subject might help others who have had their lives dominated by a personality disorder that isn’t even their own.

ADVICE: The mother-child relationship is one of such fundamental importance that to have a mother who does not put you before her own life is tragic.

A mother’s love is the closest most people get to experiencing unconditional regard, and it is often the safety net that allows us to go out and tackle the world, knowing that we can return no matter how difficult our experience has been. In Ireland we often wish to shake off this intense regard in mid-life, and that is a luxury that has a history of being on someone’s pedestal. Not having this fundamental stability in your life can be a life-long affliction, but the starting point for healing is full awareness and acceptance of the reality of the relationship.

When we are born, we have not developed any defence mechanisms, so we love whoever is our primary caregiver.

That the caregiver might not be worthy of our love or is actually harming us may take years to recognise, and much of our youth can be spent trying to mould ourselves into something that will meet their approval. The result can be a wariness, cautiousness and lack of spontaneity that cripples our natural expression and development.

On top of this we usually hide this bad relationship from other people as we are both embarrassed and fearful that it is our fault that we are unlovable. The result is isolation and loneliness, and the hope of another reasonable adult intervening recedes into oblivion.

When our primary experience of love is so damaging, it is difficult to form later relationships that are based on trust and dependence. We may have developed an innate fear and self-protection that can create a distance from our partners, and find ourselves repeating patterns that we loathed in our parents.

This is the real tragedy, but it does not have to be a foregone conclusion: once we are aware of it, we have the power to stop it becoming a generational pattern. However, it may take immense courage and support.

You need to accept and see your mother for who she is: a very sad person who no longer has any power to hurt you unless you grant it. She has denied herself the best of what life has to offer: the enduring love of a child for her whole life.

It is not up to you to fix this for her, and your energy should be reserved for your own needs. Your challenge will be to see yourself as worthy and lovable, and to take the risk of truly depending on another human being. You will have to let go of emotional barriers while trusting your intelligence to let you know who is worth taking a risk for. This may occur in friendships as well as primary relationships.