I Had No Idea My Mother Was A Narcissist, Until It Was Too Late
Of course, any time post conception would have been too late, but you know what I mean.
I always knew she was unusual. But a narcissist?
She was powerful, but she wasn’t a flamboyant extrovert. She was brittle, sensitive and demanding. In my first post realisation flush, I thought maybe she had BPD. She was emotionally volatile and needy, like people with BPD were supposed to be, but there was something about her use of us which wasn’t in the textbooks.
My mother spent most of her marriage hoping for the miracle of a resurgence of spousal affection. It never came. Depressed and desperate, she started grooming her youngest for a partnership role in feeding her depleted ego.
She was crying, controlling and domineering all at the same time.
Underneath it all she was damn angry.
She had missed out on what she was entitled to, and all of us were to blame. We were a burden and she let us know that. Constantly. Her parenting was performed as a greedy afterthought and our needs were an impingement.
There was something missing in her life and it wasn’t her husband’s devotion. It was her self.
My mother was completely unknowing and in her desperation to grasp any kind of structure, she used those closest to her to support her fragile sense of self. Her children were supposed to make up for her husband’s inattention and her father’s dreadful lack of empathy.
Mum needed assurance, but nothing we could do was ever enough. She was a bottomless pit of needs.
Over the years, in my search for answers, I read a lot of theory. Drawn to books with titles like: Children of the Self-absorbed, Trapped in the Mirror and The Drama of Being a Child, I sought the soothing opinions and experiences of those who had been through dysfunction and come out the other side.
In my thirties, I did a doctorate in visual arts. Most of my reading time was spent trawling through articles on object relations, attachment and narcissism. I pivoted a topic that allowed me to harness my fascination, but it wasn’t easy.
I couldn’t tear myself away from these theories, because they were helping me understand, but they couldn’t change my feelings.
I became fascinated by the relationship between identity and narcissism and what it meant for me — and my mother.
I learnt that narcissism is considered one of the “primary disorders of the self”. I came to understand that narcissism is a lack of ego, rather than too much of it. The pieces of the puzzle started falling into place with reading, and weekly therapy.
Lacking a centre and missing boundaries, narcissists claim the entire world as their ego. Others exist to provide them with supplies and bolster their self-esteem. And the consequences for those who withhold (wittingly or unwittingly) can be dire.
I remember a story about Picasso which hit the mark in my search for truth. The great man gathered others to him, attracted by his magnetism and his gifts. But he had regular fallings out. Sculptor Giacometti made the mistake of wounding his ego with disagreement and was ex-communicated. A close and creative friendship was suddenly extinguished with no possibility for repair.
My mother, of course wasn’t a painter. But she was an ex-communicator.
Trammelled by black and white thinking, she was extremely sensitive to criticism. Anyone who trod less than carefully bore the brunt of her rage. Cold or hot, overt or covert, the anger was inevitable, and inescapable. At times she closed down on us for our childish stumbles and strivings, frustration animating her face with contempt.
Sarcasm was the weapon of choice and she belittled those closest to her with a constant barrage of judgement. Her family was the most convenient and the most vulnerable target.
I remember a friend of my mother’s whispering breathlessly in my ear on an evening out.
She loves you very much.
It cut like a knife.
Instead of feeling gratified, I felt ashamed. Why didn’t I feel loved? Was it that I felt undeserving? It was confusing, and painful.
I started art school in my twenties excited by the creative and social possibilities of my new world. In those heady first weeks, I invited a group of Uni friends to the house I shared with my mother
A male friend rolled his eyes. “Your mother,” he said quietly. She had been disparaging me full bore while I was in another room.
I was used to the constant criticism and judgement. But she always seemed to interpret my failures as a personal affront. She viewed our inadvertent mistakes as barbs designed solely to insult or frustrate her. Most of the time I had no idea what I had done to upset her. For safety I made myself a small target, eventually disappearing into the giant void of her need.
Mum was unpredictable and her moods dictated the domestic atmosphere. We were all hijacked by her internal world. I never knew what the temperature would be when I got home. An antarctic level freeze or a tropical storm. So I learnt to be very careful.
Avoiding the anger and unwanted attention involved contorting my nascent self and ignoring my own needs. I was important to her, but only as an adjunct.
After nine years of therapy, I told my sister that I didn’t love mum. Shocked, she wondered how this could be true. Didn’t mum love us? Wasn’t that what families did best, love one another?
My sister brings this pronouncement back with nearly every conversation we have. But not because she blames me. We are still sorting it out amongst our other life quandaries. But it’s down to the fundamental. None of us felt loved. We lived in our mother’s shadow and we’re still trying to escape.