Narcissistic Mother

The Narcissistic Mother or Father: Why they make their children suffer

Today I would like to focus on the psychology of a narcissistic mother or father and why it is so likely to end in abuse for their children. Life can feel confusing for a child born into a family headed by a narcissistic mother or father. Particularly if that child was the family scapegoat, it can seem like everything they do is wrong and everything the narcissistic parent does is right. In recovering from a childhood of narcissistic abuse, it can be very important to understand the psychology of the narcissistic mother or father. Doing so, can allow survivors to finally know the truth of who they actually are in relation to their abusive parent.
 

The Narcissist’s Core Sense of Worthlessness

 
Narcissistic mothers and fathers suffer an unbearable sense of low and fragile self-esteem. They believe they are worthless. Worse, they are so convinced of their wretchedness that they cannot acknowledge it. Doing so feels like it would end in their – psychological – destruction.
 

Antidotes to the worthlessness

Grandiosity: Artificially inflated view of themselves

A narcissist tries to solve their feelings of worthlessness by keeping them out of awareness. The first tact in this solution is to adopt a conscious belief of their own superiority and specialness. In psychology, we call this ‘grandiosity’. Put simply, the narcissist believes their feelings, capabilities, thoughts and needs are more important than others’. Most importantly, all of these positive views of themselves are antidotal to their sense of worthlessness. Their grandiosity is achieved through denial and force of thought. They have to constantly renew this antidotal self-conceit or risk the breakthrough pain of their inner wretchedness. So, the equilibrium they achieve is always fragile and vulnerable to disruption.
 

Entitlement: Expectation that others will comply with their inflated view of themselves

The next step involves their expectation that others will comply with their grandiosity. They unconsciously expect and demand that others reflect back to them how special and full of worth they are. In other words, they feel entitled to others’ constant admiration and prioritization. Children and passive relationship partners are common targets of this function.
 

Disruptions of antidotes lead to ‘breakthrough’ worthlessness

These two antidotes are temporarily effective in alleviating the narcissist’s immediate sense of worthlessness. As in all band-aid approaches, however, they must be in constant operation to achieve the protective effect. The narcissist must avoid disruptions of his grandiosity and entitlement otherwise his sense of worthlessness could ‘breakthrough’ to his awareness. Such disruptions often come in the form of other people’s needs, differences of opinion, or just failure to notice how ‘special’ the narcissist is. 

Disruptions of the narcissist’s grandiosity

 When someone else expresses a need the narcissist does not see it as an opportunity to attune to that person and strengthen the bond between them. Instead she sees the other’s need to mean that hers are not as important. As such, the narcissist may avoid people with enough self-worth to feel deserving of having their needs met. If the narcissist cannot avoid someone else with a need – such as their own child – then she will employ other devices to coerce that person to stifle himself. Common tactics used to punish another with needs include: shaming him for being ‘needy’ or ‘selfish’, outright neglect, dismissing his needs as illegitimate, and/or accusing him of seeking attention. The goal for the narcissist is to make the person feel worse after expressing a need to her than if he kept it to himself. Once he refrains from expressing his needs, he no longer challenges the narcissist’s belief that her – grandiose – needs are all that should matter in this world.
 

Disruptions of the narcissist’s entitlement

 
The other component to the narcissist’s antidotal self-conceit is their expectation that others comply with her grandiosity. She requires that others be willing to abandon their own interests, pursuit of happiness, even their sense of themselves to prioritize hers. Any indication that someone else is not willing to do this can be met with indignation, retaliation, and rage.
 
In this clip, from ‘This Boy’s Life’ Robert DeNiro plays a narcissistic father named ‘Dwight’. This scene illustrates what a narcissist will often do when his sense of entitlement is interrupted:
 

Dwight is enjoying the record and experiences the voices of other family members as disruptive. I suspect that he believes his desire to listen to the music should be everyone else’s priority too. Their obvious involvement in and enjoyment of activities unrelated to him, do not comply with his entitled belief. Dwight meets this noncompliance with indignant rage meant to punish them.
 

Hiding the narcissist’s selfishness

Grandiosity and entitlement require ongoing self-absorption and self-inflation. Two attributes that are unflatteringly selfish. Nobody is going to announce that they deem themselves better than everyone else and expect consensus on that point. Doing so, would risk rebuke from others. Such a reaction would compromise how the narcissist has to see herself and be seen by others.
 
The narcissist is in a dilemma. His only way to remedy feeling worthless risks him feeling even more worthless if his remedy becomes widely known. He now must hide his grandiosity and entitlement from himself and others.
 
The process of hiding their antidotal strategy involves ‘finding’ the self-absorption and self-inflation in another person instead of herself. This all happens unconsciously. Since the narcissist cannot bear to acknowledge how worthless she feels nor how self-absorbed she is, she must convince herself that these attributes are in others – not her.
 
Victims of narcissistic abuse are no strangers to being called ‘selfish’. This is because a narcissist is quick to identify and distort others’ healthy senses of entitlement as ‘selfish’ or evidence that they think they deserve special treatment. In essence, a narcissist accuses others of being exactly who he is.
 
In this clip, we see how Dwight relocates his own sense of grandiosity and entitlement in his stepson ‘Toby’ (played by Leo Dicaprio):
 

 
Dwight distorts Toby’s healthy & reasonable sense of entitlement to eat a few candies into being a ‘selfish hog’. Dwight’s goal is to get Toby to think of himself as worthless so that Dwight doesn’t have to think of himself that way. Toby catches onto this and confonts Dwight that he despises him for existing. Dwight artlessly doubles down that it’s only because Toby’s a ‘hog’. Dwight demonstrates the rigidity, lack of empathy, and remorselessness of the narcissist.
 

2 deficits needed to be a narcissist: Lack of empathy and remorse

 
Narcissist’s are unwilling to care how their coercive actions impact others. Research has shown that they consistently lack in empathy for the feelings of others. They may be able to read and use others’ feelings for their own purposes. However, they will not unconditionally care about the emotional well-being of someone else – particularly if it interferes with securing their own emotional needs.
 
Second and relatedly a narcissist is remorseless in whatever they do to prop up their antidotal self-conceit. Many of my clients with narcissistic parents have had the experience of getting blamed all over again when they’ve tried to confront that parent about their abusive treatment. The narcissist would rather claim that their child deserved the abuse than take accountability for how they hurt him or her. We saw this in the clip above when Toby confronts Dwight about just hating him for existing. Dwight then insists he’s only acting that way because Toby is such a ‘selfish hog’. This scene reflects how a narcissist will commonly meet the protests of people who see what he is really all about.
 

What happens when a narcissist becomes a parent?  

 The child of a narcissist is almost doomed to interrupt their narcissistic parent’s antidotal self-conceit. A young baby is a bundle of needs – by design. They are entirely dependent on their caregiver and can only offer their continued existence as thanks. For most caregivers this is more than enough. It is, in fact, why they had a child: to experience the gratification of meeting the needs of someone they love.
 
For a narcissistic parent, the child may be welcome so long as he reflects back the parent’s self-importance. The kid has to orbit the parent. This is unnatural, since children have appropriate developmental needs to experience themselves as the center of the universe and their parents as their satellites. If a child shows that he expects the narcissistic parent to orbit him, the narcissist will take this as a blow to her inflated self-esteem. This kind of parent expects her child to keep her at the forefront of his mind, so when he attends to himself he is violating her pathological sense of entitlement that her self-importance should always be mirrored back to her. As discussed above, such violations can evoke the sense of worthlessness the narcissist is always working to deny. These violations are inevitable so long as the kid tries to hold onto his own perspective and needs. The attributes of the narcissistic parent described above will coerce the kid to relinquish his connection to himself and find a way to orbit the narcissistic parent. And here is how that process often unfolds*:
 
1) The child interrupts the narcissistic parent’s sense of superiority and entitlement that others reflect it. This may happen by the child being proud of himself, focusing on himself, failing to show ‘enough appreciation’ to the parent, etc.
 
2) The parent must restore their antidotal self-conceit but must do so while hiding the selfishness of this motive.
 
3) The narcissistic parent unconsciously re-locates her own selfishness in the child. She may distort a benign act on the part of the child to ‘prove’ how inordinately selfish that child is. Just like Dwight distorted Toby’s act of eating a few of his sister’s candies into proving he was the selfish one.
 
4) The narcissistic parent then works to control the child so that he accepts her claim of being the selfish one. In a parent-child relationship the parent holds all the real power. If the parent reacts to the child as though he is selfish, the child can fairly easily buy into this. The child’s need for her to be willing to care for him dooms him.
 
Once the narcissistic parent has successfully relocated her inherent selfishness in the child, she can then work to put her own worthlessness in him too. If the child is branded as selfish, it is not a far leap to treat him as though he is worthless too. The narcissistic parent can convince herself and the other family members that the child deserves such maltreatment given how selfish he is. Just like Dwight argues to Toby that it’s not that he hates the fact that Toby exists, it’s just that Toby is a ‘hog’ and must be taught to be better. Such claims of selfishness almost always undergird the narcissistic parent’s attempts to make the child feel worthless. In the ultimate act of ‘better than you than me’ the narcissistic parent finds some relief from their own worthlessness if she sees her child as the worthless one. If this attitude persists, the child may adopt it as his own and find various ways to comply with the narcissist’s insistence that he is worthless.
 

Therapy to recover from the narcissistic parent’s re-located selfishness and worthlessness

 
A child who survives these kinds of systematic abusive tactics and finds themselves functioning in the world has already beat the odds. They have managed to defy – in their continued existence – their narcissistic parent’s re-located claim that they are selfish and good for nothing. I’ve mentioned this before, but therapy involves helping clients dislocate all of the falsehoods their narcissistic parent worked to convince them of and putting them at the parent’s doorstep where they have always belonged. I will write more specifically about the process of therapy in coming months.
 
*This process is also known as ‘projective identification’.
 
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you are considering therapy to recover from narcissistic abuse please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Comments 9

  1. This is my mother exactly. I was/am the youngest of 4 and the scapegoat. My oldest sister is a clone of my mother. She is abusive to her children. When I stand up for my nieces, my mother defends my sister and denies any wrong doing. My sister does no wrong ever in her eyes but in reality my sister is a terrible person. Then, she tells everyone I am crazy. Her favorite thing to do is tell anyone and everyone that I belong in a mental hospital. Does she defend my sister, because if she were to admit to abuse, she would be admitting she is also abusive? Is it possible that my mother enjoys abusing or seeing others being abused? She would smile anytime I was being tortured by her and my father.

    Luckily, I helped both of my nieces on their 18th birthdays, leave in the middle of the night and move into their own apartments. They no longer have to be around the abuse., and I am no contact with my mother , however, she and my father, non stop stalk and harass me. If I am so crazy and so bad like they have always told me, why are they so obsessed with me!!?

    Sorry, I have so many questions

  2. What about the children of the scapegoat? The narcissistic mothers’s grandchild. Before I went no contact, my mother made my first born her “golden” grandchild . I know a attempt to turn my child against me. She would call herself my daughter’s mother. She even made false allegations to CPS to try and get her taken away from me. Was this a way for her to continue abusing me, through the one thing I love the most? I know my mother hates me, she wouldn’t have done the things to me if she hadn’t, bc she didn’t do it to my siblings. Why do you think she hates me so much? I am a very kind and loving person , I don’t understand

  3. Amanda, I can empathize with you to a degree even though I don’t have siblings. I was the only child and scapegoat. My mom treated my own daughter as the golden child and almost from the beginning worked to undermine our relationship. She also lied about me to CPS. When that failed, she sued me directly for custody. Just of my firstborn, she didn’t care about her other grandchildren and left them with me. I couldn’t afford to fight, especially when I knew they were in it together and would back each other up. I deeply regret not cutting off my mom before the damage became deeply rooted. I hope you still have a good relationship with your child.

    I wish people saw behind my mom’s mask, because she is not what she portrays herself to be. If only they knew. But nobody was interested in hearing my side, either as an abused child or adult. Her supporters follow her blindly.

  4. Great article. Watching those clips from that movie sent chills down my spine. I grew up in a family of very sneaky covert “victim-playing” narcs – I always knew something was really wrong with my family but it took me 45 years to learn I was the scapegoated child. My abusive narcissistic mother and sister routinely baited me with cruel remarks about everything from my parenting to my weight and appearance and I ever got justifiably angry, it was evidence as to my “anger” and instability. They were geniuses at making me oook like the bad one, even if they had said or done something extremely cruel. They were working to undermine my relationship with my children and husband and spreading lies to other family members about me. It is truly devastating to have a narcissist in your family and to be the hated scapegoat child. I am fortunate to have realized this toxic dynamic when my children were still relatively young and we all moved abroad and left them in our past. No contact was the only solution to my path of freedom d healing,

  5. Wow. I have never seen this so clearly spelled out anywhere, despite having read so much on the topic to try to better understand what happened in my childhood. What you describe is so true to my experience. Among my mother’s favorite things to say to me were “You think the world revolves around you” and ” you don’t think about anyone but yourself”. She also loved to tell me that while I was nice to people outside my family, it was only the people who knew me well – my family – that saw the real me and knew my true rottenness. She also said “no one but your family will tell you the truth about yourself”. What a psychological mine field. I bought it hook, line and sinker. Amazing how narcissists construct their false worlds and even seal the child’s mind against the influence of outside input. Now I understand why I was always so uncomfortable when an adult tried to show me affection, tell me he/she believed in me, or give me anything. Reading this really helps me to see that she was definitely the sick one, not me.

  6. mother was never a part of my childrens lives. it wasn’t until I was in my 40’s and had a daughter that my new husband had contacted them behind my back ( I found out he is also a narcissit until this happened I was unaware of the family personality disorder I knew what abuse was but did not know it was attached to a personality disorder , how I got to marry one is that I was unaware of the reflags and used to blame myself and think I must have done something wrong,
    no its all the narcissit its not you believe me you are a good caring awesome person it is always the narc.
    my parents both were narcs with psychopathic tendencies. they used to torment me on purpose and laugh and enjoy the tormenting, my older sibling brother was not allowed to be nice to me and they coached him how to beat me up call me names accuse me of things I never did and basically torment me as much as he could .all the while parents say ” we couldn’t stop him what could we do ”
    they poured so much hate of themselves on me and I knew I didnt do anything to deserve it . I was very angry at how I was treated. of course going no contact gave me peace . but then out of nowhere my soon to be ex and parents team up spread a smear campaign of everything but the kitchen sink maybe including the kitchen sink. just like others tell mine involved child protective services too but mine also involved getting the police to protect my husband, she used to call them from five states away after not being around me for literally decades and act like she just saw me that night and was telling them I had been drunk all day and they must come arrest me. she made the whole thing up. for years this went on and I thought it was all my husbands doing. until I found police reports that she was speaking to them telling them about disorders that I do not have and never had. she was actually telling them on the phone to lock me up in a mental hospital that is how much she projects who she is . shes the dangerous one that needs to be locked up and arrested for a life time of child abuse. she inflicted a whole ton of physical abuse if I said something nice about a teacher as a child that meant for months she would beat me over the head before school and this went on and on . she should have been arrested for violence and kept from being around me for life back then, both parents are narcs with psychopathic traits. namely they also hate females and they plan out their abuses on females not just me but anyone that would not give up their life to be mothers best friend she would feel rejected and want revenge. me she saw as her competition and never her child. she always was envious. and thought I was envious of her when she never crossed my mind ever . that she ticks all the boxes as a narcissit and not one single therapist was able to find out until I reached the one that knew about this with personal experience. the legal system the family judges they are often caught up in being controlled by the narcissistic family the scapegoat is neve allowed to be free and have your own happiness they want to destroy you how ever they can, the sad part about it is they can convince so many people to help aid in the devaluation and discard but the sad part is the child has to lose a healther parent one more adjusted for life and giving the child unconditional love with grandparents around that hate females and believe committing crimes such as false police reports its a matter of time if not immediately that she would take my place if they succeeded in ending my life which they did try to do . of course she tried to paint it out as a suicide until she bragged about it and admitted she did this to a doctor . the fact he wouldn’t report it is beyond me but he will face the consequences for not doing the legal thing he was obligated to do .
    there were so many times If I had been told she was sending out an active character murder of me that If I got help she would have a life long restraining order on her.
    another thing is yes I cant wait to move and out of the country I am going to a country they were both born in
    the narcopathic parents will want complete control and wont want to allow some extended family members to get in the way of their abuse.
    overall what they have meant for my evil. God has turned it around and educated to me about the disorders they have they are crazy and still they should be locked up . I am never giving up until I see them dressed out in orange and being in shock . they are dangerous people that attack their own children and grand children,
    they are a total nite mare I want out of my life forever

  7. I grew up in a house with a narcissistic mother. She unfortunately was the scapegoat with her own mother, and did not learn anything from it.
    In my case I was the scapegoat and was described as the thief and liar in the family, until she passed away. I’ve had to sever all contact with sibling1 & sib2. Their phone numbers & email’s have been blocked.
    Unbeknownst to me, I married a narcissistic wife. I became painfully aware of the problem. I survived three major and many lesser attacks from this selfish woman. The attacks include a stabbing in my sleep, and hospitalization on two occasions. I encouraged her to GTFO, she subsequently married someone else before my divorce to her was complete. She obviously found a new supply. I have since found out he died and was cremated immediately. It could have been me.
    I determined I would never have a child with this woman and unbeknownst to her, I had a vasectomy. I could not imagine a child to have a mother, an aunt(sib2) and a grandmother who were narcissistic.

  8. I think the hardest part of being the scapegoat in an abusive-narcissitic and enabling family dynamic is that it is rarely seen by the outside world. I tried to talk to an ex-girlfriend about it few times, and she’d always tell me she didn’t see it and I should be grateful to my family. Never mind the fact that I was never once ungrateful, just trying to open up to someone that I trusted, but she was literally in the house during a fist fight between myself and my drunk father that started over her being in my room. I was 19! So not only did I feel as though I had to hide the abuse for fear of “shaming the family,” but finally opening up led to me being told I was wrong by someone I deeply respected. This still hurts me 14 years later, and makes me question the validity of my own experiences but also afraid of opening up to anyone. I am now 33, unemployed, having to care for my abuser because his own unhealthy choices led to poor health, living with my parents, unable to have a healthy relationship with another person, and unwilling to get into another narcissitic-abusive relationship as my last relationship was of this type and led to my current situation. I don’t know what to do, I want to get away but afraid of leaving my parents having to pay someone to care for them, they can’t afford it. I’m also afraid that getting away and not having any decent relationships will lead me to contemplating suicide. Or I will just wind up coming right back, unable to live with feeling like I’m not good enough and unworthy of a decent life. It’s a shitty situation, so if you’re reading this and can relate, please just leave and don’t go back. Going back will only leave you stuck between knowing you were abused and questioning if you might have deserved it.

  9. Hi Dan, sorry to hear about your situation. One of my narcissistic parents is also in poor health, and I only realized about all the abuse and mindfuckery *after* I moved back in with them recently. So I’m also trying to process some of the same issues. I’ve been so used to gaslighting and doubting myself all my life.

    A lot of people (including therapists) say that we need healthy relationships / supportive community to undo our early narcissistic conditioning. They are right of course. But the problem is that I have not been able to form long-lasting healthy relationships to any helpful extent. My past relationship partners tended to be codependent, and I forced myself into the role of “taking care” of them because that’s what my family taught me relationships are supposed to be like. So to say that we need healthy support when our whole upbringing keeps us stuck in unhealthy dynamics, seems like a catch-22.

    So I think for now at least, building up self-validation is extremely important. I can’t afford therapy right now and building up a supportive network takes time and skills. But before I have those things, I can at least acknowledge to myself that the abuse was real. I can at least stop gaslighting myself and trying to make excuses for parents who hurt me. Just because I don’t have other people to validate me for now, doesn’t mean that I need my parents’ validation (which they won’t give me anyway).

    I don’t know if this is helpful to you. But I feel that my intuition has always been very strong since I was a kid. I didn’t listen to it for many years because of my parents’ coercion and me forcing myself to ignore/suppress it. But now that I actually listened to myself, I realize that I can trust myself after all, that I’m not any of the horrible things that my parents said I was.

    From the book “Trapped in the Mirror” by Elan Golomb: “The negative introject (i.e. our internalized self-hatred) always feels like a foreign, attacking entity. Its cruelty comes from the unmitigated hostility of the parent as well as the anger of the child at his frustrations.” The feelings that we are unworthy and need to run back to our parents is a feeling that they planted in us. It’s not us, we need to learn to dis-identify from it, and nurture the side of us that care and cherish ourselves – that’s the natural and innate side of us that our parents tried to destroy.

    We didn’t deserve any of their shit, we deserve to be happy like everyone else. Lots of support to you in your healing journey.

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