My Mother had Narcissistic Personality Disorder but she was not a Bad Person

Sylvia Clare

Most people view narcissism as a terrible personality trait to have, based on the notion of total self-love. They are right to do so. Narcissistic personality disorder does make monsters out of humans who are so damaged they are unable to function in ways that work, and their alternative ways are very destructive to others.

But the story of Narcissus, of a young man that fell in love with his own image, and the nature of NPD do not ring true. My mother did not love herself at all, she hated herself and was so full of self-contempt that the only way she could function was to spill that out onto everyone else in order to alleviate her own suffering. It was a classic case of projection onto all others of what she knew to be true about herself but could not face. To do so would be just too painful for her and she was already a traumatised child who had grown up without any healing opportunities.

She saw herself as an idealised centre of the world. She only saw her own needs. Your position in her hierarchy was based on your ability to meet her needs. Woe betide you if you have any needs of your own though, especially if you were one of her three children. I was the eldest, the frontrunner.

Outside the family, she did attempt to pretend she cared about other people by doing things for them, but always at the cost of expecting and demanding gratitude and in some cases indebtedness in return.

I got help, then trained as a counsellor, hypnotherapist, mindfulness teacher, and I got a BA in psychological theory and taught psychology as a lecturer and senior lecturer for sixteen years, and a Master in Science in psychological research. I also went on to work with young adults doing cognitive neuroscience into mindfulness and ADHD, until my breakdown came when my parents both died.

Since then I have written many books on emotional literacy and teach mindfulness, and I love my life. Again would any of this be possible without my mother’s influence? I cannot say.

When I first started reading about narcissists and narcissism on the internet, I quickly realized that much of the information being shared was an absurd vilification of who my mother was, but it was also one which I might have enjoyed and related to earlier in my journey.

There was much processing of my experiences to do first, and until she was dead, even that could not happen as much as I would have liked or wanted to believe I was capable of. I especially, as her eldest daughter and her chief scapegoat and whipping post, was who she liked to ridicule, with my interest in mindfulness and psychology.

But she was never diagnosed formally as far as I know, though it might have been suggested on her medical records. I am confident in my own diagnosis of her troubles however.

People without mental health credentials like to label all sorts of abusive exes, friends, and parents as narcissists without really having a clear idea about what that diagnosis actually means. I went on to have relationships and friendships with other people who I labelled NPD myself, and certainly, they had traits in common with my mother. But I realise I also once had certain NPD type traits and learned behaviours in myself, which I needed to address.

But some descriptions of narcissistic personality disorder are exaggerated and unrealistic, so they make narcissists sound as if they possess some kind of evil superpowers. It can feel like that when on the receiving end though, especially as a child. But they are not evil people. They are deeply vulnerable and damaged people who pass that damage on because they are unable to process it themselves.

I realised that my mother told her own story through me, by projecting it all onto me, making it about me, denying any or all of my own truths and casting me as her evil daughter. But it was the best she could do to get her own story told. She once said to me ‘don’t hurt me with your writing.’ She was afraid of the power I had over her by the time I was an adult and writing, and her only way of defending herself was to reject me even further. Of course that all hurt massively but I kind of understood it by then too, and was largely estranged from her anyway.

A few of the comments that are repeated, over and over again as if they are true, miss the point about NPD or narcissism:

Narcissists are all evil demons who prey on empathic people in order to ruin their lives.

Well yes, I am also an empath, but I was her daughter first and foremost and she preyed on me because she had no one else. Also, she did not prey as such, there was no choice in the matter for her, she could not help herself.

You can’t resist a narcissist because they are all incredibly self-confident, sexy, and master manipulators who will charm anyone into believing they are wonderful people.

Well no, she was clearly not self-confident at all and as a result, hid that behind a certain kind of arrogance and coupled with a kind of people-pleasing tendency which then got turned on its head as I suggested above.

All narcissists cheat, lie or stab you in the back if they can.

True she did this all the time but it was purely defensive, again nothing calculated but instinctive to protect her incredibly fragile sense of self from exposure.

Counselling or psychotherapy does not work on narcissists, they can never be healed or change.

Often this is true because they are unable to admit they have anything wrong with them. To look at themselves is an incredibly painful experience, too much for them to bear — they think. They do not have a robust enough ego to face that journey and so they make it about everyone else being unreasonable. Some NPD diagnosed individuals do undertake counselling and therapy, and DBT (Dialectic Behaviour Therapy) has been shown to work to a certain extent for those brave individuals.

My siblings and I tried a few times to get our mother to go into counselling so that we could improve our relationship with her but she lied, threw temper tantrums and refused — so we gave up. But her refusals to sort it out did send me to find help in understanding myself and her too.

These hostile and negative attitudes do not help anyone to understand who they have been involved with or what they have lived through. Instead, they build up vilification of NPD that can only do more harm, turning people into ‘victims of evil monsters’. They certainly do not help me to heal my relationship with my now-dead mother at all, even though I can understand why people state them or find validation through them for their own aspect of the exchange. But sadly they create victim attitudes that do more harm than good.

Does a qualified mental health expert understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of an NPD relationship? Probably not to the fullest extent, but from personal experience I can say it is a dark and horrific journey for many and thus I understand the need for such dire warnings and descriptions. This is why I wrote my memoir about that part of my life and my journey out of it through a deep understanding of both myself and my mother.

The truth is sad and really quite simple. My mother, like most narcissists, lacked any emotional empathy, and could not ever see herself in any honest genuine, or realistic way. You were either on her side or you were the enemy. There was no grey area for her, no human fallibility allowed in others, especially not her children.

We were meant to be an extension of her own ego, status, and power realm. To say she was self-centred is missing the point. Her view looked out on the world and that is all she saw, her perception of anything and everything. She never looked inward. She did not recognise ‘others’. Others did not exist except to serve and bolster her. She only valued achievement and status, and her own ability to make money on the stock exchange. This was the extent of her sense of self-worth.

There was a reason she was like this. She had a traumatic experience of abandonment in her early years at about age three or four. To cope with this she built a story, a shell around herself to make sure she was never hurt again. And from behind these defences she could defend herself and fire on anyone she perceived as a threat, even her own children.

She had coped with and adapted to her early upbringing by developing a narcissistic personality disorder, based on her total distrust of anyone else or of their perspective. She regularly over-estimated her own abilities and status, often behaving as if she was royalty in some distorted royalty way. She either, idealised or envied people who were more successful or of higher status, and devalued anyone who criticized her. If she perceived you to be inferior she would make it known but if she saw you excelled her she would try and find fault with you to knock you down, or else she would simper and court, crave attention and favour.

Her life was one long search for external validation and perfection and that damaged her career as a teacher of primary-aged children, and most of her relationships with others. My own sons would hide, if they could in time when she came to our house. I never knew them to be so quiet at any other time in their lives, so great was their desire to avoid her at all costs. Of course in her mind, I was the evil daughter who kept her grandsons away from her and she was their adored but mistreated grandmother.

So yes, it was tough having her as part of our family and mostly we tried not to include or be involved with her. There were times when we were totally estranged and my sons cut her off completely when they were old enough to. Her three children had four weddings between them and she did not attend any of them. Her other five grandchildren would also avoid and even cry at the thought of seeing her. She was a monster to be with for them too. And she would never accept that she was damaged by her early childhood, that it was always everybody else, and not her, that was wrong, unkind, judgemental, unreasonable, and over sensitive.

The fallout for me has been life long complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We have all paid a price for her part of our lives but we have also grown and gained from it too and to deny that side of it would be a great disservice to her.

She did the best she could with what she knew, and it is tragic that her life was so overfilled with rejection and lack of understanding of her needs. I can only cope with understanding and holding her in compassion now she is dead because she had such power over me when she was alive. She could trigger my PTSD so instantly, and plunge me into dark suicidal spaces all too easily. I had to keep her at arm's length for my own safety and for my existence as a mother myself.

And every so often she would show me a card or letter from someone who had briefly met her and had seen her charming side only, and they were so complimentary about how lovely she was to them. She showed me as if to prove I was wrong in my assessment of her, but never thought to consider how she was wrong in her assessment of me. She seriously never knew me. Her second husband survived because she simpered to him and also he was about as thick-skinned as a Galapagos tortoiseshell, as anyone I have ever met. I think they both knew this was their only chance at companionship into old age.

So I have learned not just to see the behaviours and symptoms which lead me to believe that my mother had psychopathic tendencies and was a full-blown narcissist. Instead, I imagine the small four-year-old child abandoned without any expectation of seeing her parents again, and without any explanation either. I think of the sad older woman who was so repellent to her three children and seven grandchildren and I know from how my loving relationships with both sons and grandson are that this is indeed a deep tragedy. I think of how lonely she was for much of her life and how she filled it with people she could manipulate and look down on so that she could feel better about herself. I think of the saddest loneliest prison that she lived inside of, to protect herself and that in reality actually hurt her even more.

She didn’t want to hurt people, she just didn’t know how to have relationships to trust and let people in. She wanted a happy family life for herself, but she did not have the insight or skills to develop one.

She has been the inspiration of so much of my writing, so much of the learning and searching I have done in this life. I’ve been on a journey to understand why my mother hated me so very much.

She didn’t, and it wasn’t my fault, she just didn’t know how to love and be loved honestly. I have learned that over time and it is an amazing thing to have realised. So thank you, Mum, sorry the cost was so high to you, but you taught me some amazing stuff and the journey you put me on had led me to some amazing places too. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Narcissus are beautiful spring blooms and when viewed in fields they are stunningly fragrant and beautiful. The plant lover in me resents that this spring joy has been labelled as one of the most destructive and pernicious mental personality disorders or conditions around.

Their gently nodding heads looking down is the basis for this link, following the story of Narcissus, a beautiful young man, looking at himself in a pool and becoming rapt with his own image. But nowadays I can love my mother and the humble Narcissus with freedom.

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I write about my lived experiences of relationships, mindfulness, spiritual experiences and aging as a feminist, woman and someone with mental health issues. Happiness in life matters more than anything but how we find happiness is often one of our greatest struggles in life. I have degrees in psychology and prefer to base my writing in verifiable data whenever possible.

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