Gaining freedom and peace, despite having a narcissistic mother Tina Fuller’s personal journey points to one possible way of understanding and conceptualizing this commonly seen therapy challenge.
As any young girl, I loved and looked up to my mother. I desired her love, affection and approval. Unfortunately, I received her criticism, disapproval and rejection instead. My mother encouraged me to believe that I was completely inadequate. She claimed that I was slow, which inevitably led to my self-belief of being slightly mentally challenged. My father worked very long hours and had no idea what was going on in the home. Occasionally, several days would pass without my seeing him at all. He worked late into the evening, and left very early most mornings.
Any attempt to please my mother was met with her disapproval of me. All of my accomplishments were quickly dismantled by finding fault in them. If no faults or errors were found, she would accredit the accomplishment to my having her superior genes. This constant berating, mocking and humiliation completely destroyed the possibility of my developing any self-worth. My mother told me that she had to love me because I was her child, but she didn’t have like me. All of her demeaning comments left me feeling unloved, and that I was simply being tolerated.
My mother’s expectations of me were very low. At a young age, she suggested that I learn a skill, and then focus on getting married. College was never an option for me. I was told that I wasn’t smart enough for college. I began to believe every fault, judgment and limitation my mother had placed on me. Growing up in this environment left me feeling completely inept.
This dysfunctional cycle continued well into adulthood. I had a very difficult time with relationships. Since I didn’t believe that my own mother loved me, I questioned how anyone else could. By the age of 19, I had found a job and could support myself so I decided to move out of my parents’ home. The relationship with my mother was completely strained. I thought that my leaving home would have helped the relationship, but it only made things worse. We argued constantly. By the age of 31, I was married and had my first child. The relationship with my mother continued on a downward spiral. Everything I did was wrong in her eyes. This included my husband, house and the way I was raising my child. Two years later while I was waiting for the arrival of my second child, my mother offered to come stay in my home to help take care of my daughter. I really needed the help and thought that it might actually bring us closer. This was a huge mistake. We didn’t get along at all.
I knew something was very wrong, but I wasn’t able to figure out why my mother and I had such a terrible relationship. I felt that I had done everything in my power to improve the situation. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t please her. Everything was always my fault. We had endless discussions concerning all the things I had done wrong. I made several attempts to reconcile with her. I couldn’t get her to take any responsibility for anything she had done to damage our relationship. I always ended up holding all the blame. She told me that I was a huge disappointment to her. I was not acting like a good daughter should. I kept trying to figure out where I went wrong. Once again, I ended up accepting all the responsibility for the failure of our relationship.
I came to discover that my mother was a narcissist around the age of 42. This discovery happened quite by mistake. I was speaking with a neighbor concerning an acquaintance, and she mentioned the word “narcissist” in the conversation. Like many other people I had heard the word before, but never paid very much attention to it. When I arrived home I decided to find out what it meant. As I was reading over the information, I suddenly realized that it completely described my mother. After several hours of reading, I found the description for narcissism in the DSM IV. It said that a person must display at least 3 to 4 of the following characteristics to be considered narcissistic. As I read over all the characteristics, I found that my mother displayed each and every one!
Displays a glorified sense of self (special)
Incapable of empathy or true feelings
Fictitious stories of success
Requires constant attention & admiration
Lack of empathy
Unreasonable sense of entitlement
Takes advantage of others to fill their own needs
Envious of others or believes others are envious of them
Discovering my mother was narcissistic was the first step towards my healing. I realized that I was not the problem, she was! I was not to blame for the poor relationship we had. I felt a huge sense of relief. Obtaining this knowledge felt like I had been drowning for years and just received a breath of fresh air. I had so many questions I needed answers to. I completely immersed myself in every bit of information concerning narcissism that I could possibly find. I wanted to learn how to save myself from receiving any more pain. Was there any way she could change?
I found that I began to experience many different emotions towards my mother and myself. It was like being on an emotional rollercoaster. I thought that it would be beneficial for me to purchase a notebook to keep track of my thoughts and emotions. I then began to feel an enormous amount of anger towards my mother. I wasn’t sure what to do about it, but soon came up with the idea of writing her a letter that I would never mail. I wanted to be able to release my anger and sadness in a safe way.
I came to the conclusion that I needed to protect myself from her continuous verbal and emotional abuse. I imagined that I was wearing a rubber suit and that her demeaning comments would simply bounce off of me. I used this visual tool during any interaction I had with my mother. I wanted to be completely protected during a visit or simply speaking with her on the phone. This was very important during the process of my learning how to stand up to her.
My next step was acceptance. I needed to accept the fact that my mother has a personality disorder. This situation was not my fault, nor could I do anything to change it. No amount of arguing or trying to reason with her was going to fix it. You cannot talk rational to an irrational person. I had two other siblings who were in total disagreement with my findings. I was reaching out to help them, but to no avail. At the time, I couldn’t understand why they were unable to see the truth. I was very confused and frustrated. I hadn’t yet learned enough about narcissism, and didn’t realize where each sibling fits into the family dynamic. Each child has its particular place in the eyes of the narcissist. However, one of my sisters agreed completely with the idea. We became extremely close, and supported each other through our healing. I spoke to my father about my discovery as well. At first he seemed to understand what I was telling him, but due to his own issues he was never able to stand up to her. He was actually enabling her behavior. I came to the realization that I couldn’t help my father either.
I had learned that narcissists are unable to change – therefore I needed to change my reaction to my mother. I stopped engaging by no longer arguing with her. This is very challenging because narcissistic parents know, and precisely aim, for their child’s emotional weaknesses. Being that the parent helped establish these weaknesses in the first place, these weaknesses are easily accessible to them.
My change in behavior triggered more rage and an increase in my mother’s attempts to argue with me. Her control over me was slipping out of her hands, and this infuriated her.
I wanted to empower myself in order to break free from my faulty internal belief system. I began working on my self-esteem. This was no easy task. I knew I was not mentally challenged and that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I began setting small attainable goals for myself. I would increase the size of the goals as I became more confident. Building self-esteem is a process that takes time and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
All of the steps I was taking were a fairly long process, but I had a lot of support from my sister and my husband. Seeing my progress in my journal gave me the additional strength and encouragement to continue toward my freedom. I had considered going to therapy, but decided against it. I felt that I was doing well enough on my own at the time. Since I was never allowed any sense of accomplishment, I believe my decision to forego therapy was a subconscious effort to gain a sense of control, to be able to own my healing.
I decided to study the psychological damage of parental narcissism. Knowing my mother was narcissistic was helpful, but it wasn’t going to erase all of the damage it had caused. Once I concluded my research, I combined it with my personal experience. This gave me to a clearer picture of the amount of work I had to do in order to become healed. There was a lot of work ahead of me and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Having learned about narcissism and its effects, I was able to clearly see all the negativity in my life. It had crept into every facet of my being. My attitude, friendships, relationships and general outlook on life had all been infected. I use the term infected due to its correlation to a virus that spreads uncontrollably. As hard as it was for me to initially stand up to my mother, I found it to be even more challenging to rid myself of the negative self-image I had lived with my entire life.
All of my mother’s negative and psychological messages were quite embedded in my thoughts and beliefs. I realized that although I was no longer receiving the abuse directly from my mother, I was continuing to replay and reinforce it in my thoughts. In other words, I was continuing the abuse for her. I became extremely passionate about my healing. I had two young children and I wanted to make sure that they were protected from my mother in every way. I was not going to allow her pass any damage onto to them directly, or indirectly through me. I understood the situation and determined that I had to completely change my way of life. This meant that my whole outlook on life had to change.
After several years of my diligent effort to become whole, I felt obligated to share my knowledge with others who were suffering and experiencing the same pain that I had been through. I remembered how lost and lonely I felt and in desperate need of answers. I had found several good books that clinically explained narcissism but didn’t offer any real answers concerning what to do for myself. I decided to help others by writing a book that not only explained narcissism but also gave real life examples that people could relate to. I wanted to provide ideas and solutions that describe what to do for yourself. By reviewing the information from my journal, I developed a 4-step program I called P.A.C.E. (protect, accept, change and empower).
My book was selling extremely well to therapists, doctors, school counselors and the general public, and I was thrilled to be helping so many other people! However, I realized that there was still one problem that was blocking me from being completely free from my mother’s narcissistic grip. I felt like I had hit a brick wall. I knew my mother (who is a very tiny woman) still seemed to have some kind of superpower emotional hold on me. I was no longer angry with her and actually felt sorry for her. Because of her narcissism, she had completely missed out on life. I came to a place of forgiveness in order to free myself. Forgiving her did not mean that I condone her actions. It wasn’t her fault that she had a personality disorder. She may have been a great mother, had she not been narcissistic.
The hold she had on me was my fear of her finding out about my book. At that point, I realized I had come as far as I could on my own. I needed to get professional help. I found a wonderful therapist who specialized in narcissism. In one of our sessions, she asked me to bring in a picture of my mother. She taped the picture to a chair and placed it right in front of me. I was then instructed to look directly at the picture and speak to it as though my mother was actually sitting there. I was skeptical at first, but then performed the exercise. I had no idea how helpful this exercise would be. It truly made me stronger. I even performed the exercise at home several times. During this process I had no communication with my mother. I believe that not communicating with her added to my strength. As I became stronger, the fear of my mother became smaller. In a relatively short amount of time, the fear was completely gone. I had reached my goal! Ironically, a few months later my mother found out about the book. I felt an incredible sense of freedom. There was no fear. I knew I was completely free, and was finally in control of my life. It truly was my turn!
In conclusion, dealing with a narcissistic parent is never a pleasant situation. I don’t believe that cutting off all communication is the answer to the problem. It may be helpful during the healing process, but is only a temporary solution. The emotional damage is still there, and will remain there until it is faced. Cutting off communication may also put you at risk of losing the other parent. I found that true healing is when you can be around the narcissistic parent and they can no longer harm you, no matter how hard they try.
I feel that freedom and peace can be found despite having a narcissistic parent. If a person is willing to put in the time and hard work that it takes, it’s worth every second.
Tina Fuller lives in the United States, near Washington DC. She is married with 2 teenage children. She has been interviewed several times on radio in the US and in Canada about her book It’s My Turn, available on Amazon. If you have any questions, Tina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Selfish by Siddie Nam