A Daughter’s Escape from Her Narcissistic Mother

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
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Momma Momma, I fear you reared me wrong ’cause I lift up my head and I can’t tell where I belong Momma Momma Momma Momma, something’s terribly wrong ~ Melanie Safka

Julia contacted me for a therapy consultation, indicating my specialization as a complex trauma therapist who also treats narcissistic abuse syndrome resonated with what she sought. When we met she possessed an impeccable poise and presented as gracious and charming. Her ‘Texas twang’ was delightful. Her polished composure garnered her adulation as a ballroom dancer. She was lauded by her cohorts for being easy to work with and generous with her time. Yet curiously, her graduate degree and her true passion was in philosophy. Overall she seemed lovely, but after a few minutes I began to feel a disquieting sense of bewilderment and discomfort. Julia was so well put together, yet not quite real. She seemed performative, like a well-mannered pageant queen.As we began to explore her relationship with her mother, clarity followed. Her stilted portrayal was a consequence of grooming. She was the daughter of a maternal narcissist.The maternal narcissist views her daughter as an extension of herself, a source of supply that gleans the sort of attention and admiration that she vicariously covets. As a result, the daughter of a maternal narcissist is not in touch with her true self.Since the maternal narcissist cannot offer empathy or mirroring (Kohut), the daughter’s identity is weak and her self esteem is damaged. Signs of complex trauma, such as flooding and dissociation are often prevalent. Intimacy disorders are inevitable as the daughter’s attachment template is mired in power-submissive dynamics.The daughter is merely a tool utilized to fulfill her mother's infantile needs and satisfy her mother’s endless insatiable appetite for complete control. What is not allowed by the mother, the daughter suppresses, represses, and denies. To defy the narcissistic mother would mean prolonged abuse and punishment.Typically an avalanche of recrimination will await the daughter who dares to challenge the narcissistic mother’s edicts. This barrage of accusations will involve an intense whirlwind of devaluation and idealization interspersed with love bombing. This combination heightens feelings of confusion and fear.The maternal narcissist will triangulate other family members into her vitriolic shaming campaign in an effort to divide and conquer. Triangulation involves the NPD mother conveying her distorted version of reality to siblings, the daughter’s father, and extended family. This affords her supply and leverage with diminishing the credibility of the scapegoated daughter.The disordered mother may alternate between combative aggression to more amorphous tactics such as stonewalling and ghosting. To marginalize and devalue her disobedient daughter communication is blocked. The mother’s silent treatment is a form of tactical evasion and punishment that can awaken abandonment panic in her daughter. It sends the message that the daughter can be discarded. It also emphatically decrees that there is no room for a collaborative working through of difficulties.The strategies employed by the narcissistic mother work in her favor to depict her as a well-meaning victim of a problematic, emotionally troubled, ungrateful daughter. Alleged paranoia and unhealed afflictions and flaws are cited by the maternal narcissist as the basis for her daughter’s deplorable behavior and relational difficulties. This sort of twisted thought control is known as gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which false information is manufactured and deliberately manipulated so as to tarnish the daughter's character, as well as to cause her to doubt her reality, memory, and perceptions. This tactic is intended to ensure the mother’s supremacy.When all else fails the disordered mother will usurp resources that were set in place to establish ongoing dependency. Hence, should the daughter have the audacity to stand by her asserted truths, financial support may become a flagrant source of contention. The implied threat is that the daughter will not just be maligned and alienated from family, she will also risk material hardship if she endeavors to individuate.

Consequentially, to survive the onslaught of her narcissistic mother, the daughter conforms and buries her authentic self. Over time she remembers to forget and forgets to remember who she is.

Liberation and triumph await the daughter who reclaims her basic human right to individuate. Individuation, according to the father of analytical psychology Carl Jung, is the quest towards wholeness. It is the journey towards one’s actualized self. The precursor of this grand quest is the developmental task of autonomy and the attainment of volition.

Unfortunately for the daughter of a narcissistic mother, to be a distinct entity, to exist for herself, is akin to abandonment. The narcissist cannot let go. She cannot accommodate her daughter’s inherent need to discover who she is apart from others. This displeasure with separation starts at a young age. From the start, the mother dominates every facet of her daughter’s life, from what she looks like, what she says, how she should act, feel, and think. She inserts herself in her daughter's goals, achievements, and her selection of friends and romantic partners. The daughter of a maternal narcissist is an object to be molded. She is a hostage. A source of supply.

Consequently, breaking free to attain autonomy and selfhood is a courageous radical act. When Julia fully committed to emancipation it was when she was able to fully accept she could never please her mother and never measure up. Most importantly she resigned herself to the harshest reality of all; her mother’s inability to love.

As Karyl McBride wrote in her seminal book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,

“The daughter’s notion of mother-daughter love is warped; she feels she must “earn” a close connection by seeing to Mom’s needs and constantly doing what it takes to please her. Clearly, this isn’t the same as feeling loved. Daughters of narcissistic mothers sense that their picture of love is distorted, but they don’t know what the real picture would look like. This early, learned equation of love — pleasing another with no return for herself — has far-reaching, negative effects on a daughter’s future romantic relationships.”
Indeed, Julia’s romantic pursuits were fraught with fears of engulfment. Having been groomed to exist solely for a mentally disordered mother, the relational trauma Julia incurred from their toxic dynamic made intimacy feel like a trap.

When Julia risked romantic intimacy, a pervasive anxiety of having her tenuous sense of self usurped by another’s needs would consume her. Her reptilian brain would go on high alert, activating the limbic system to the threat of engulfment. Emotional flooding ignited panic and resentment. Ultimately numbness would take over along with antipathy towards the perceived ‘hostage taker.’ A pervasive dread that perspective and control would be lost and that she would be rendered vulnerable to having her reality dictated by another would take hold. In a feeble effort to preserve her sanity, Julia would bolt.

Clearly, Julia’s recovery called for not just going to battle with her mother but dismantling deeply entrenched codependent patterns. Codependence is a term that describes a state of developmental arrest caused by child abuse. When developmental disasters, as opposed to milestones occur, toxic shame and a tenuous sense of self results. Having few internal cues or connection to self caused Julia to externalize all her attention on her mother. Redirecting her focus into herself was the key to cultivating appropriate levels of self-esteem, erecting functional boundaries, owning her personal reality, and responsibly managing dependency issues around needing and wanting.

Fortunately, in spite of the many obstacles Julia faced, she cultivated supportive friends over the years and a love of dance and metaphysics. These relationships and reserves strengthened her resolve to heal and break away from her mother’s iron grip. Likewise, seeing the brokenness of her father and the emotional incest between her mother and brother, intensified her conviction. She was ready to take her life back.

Although the initial juncture with her mother was especially fierce, Julia remained steadfast and determined. As we laid bare the source of her oppression Julia exhumed her instinctual aggression and her authority. She demythologized her mother and shattered all illusions of restitution. No longer obsequious and deferential, Julia reclaimed her right to exist for herself. As to be expected, a period of necessary separation was required. This eventually led to establishing intractable conditions that allowed for superficial engagement.

Although the sacrifice was great the harvest was greater. Free of her mother, Julia had herself, and with that the ability to finally create a life entirely of her own design.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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