So My Mom's A Narcissist... Why Does It Hurt So Much?
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
As a 44-year-old adult daughter of a narcissistic mother, and as a student of psychology in graduate school, I find myself mesmerized by the literature describing exactly how and why the mother-child relationship is so important to human development. I always knew this intuitively. However, digging into theories of human development has given me a deeper appreciation for the mechanics of what happens within the mother-child relationship, and why it matters so much for psychological and emotional well-being. For the adult daughters of narcissistic mothers, this information can be a tremendous source of relief when we are ready to begin our journey of recovery from narcissistic abuse. It’s a relief because we begin to deepen our understanding of what happened between us and our mothers, the wisdom and sanity of the choices we made as children, and our ability to make different choices and learn new skills as adults.
In this paper I will explain how and why the mother-child relationship is so important to human development by introducing attachment theory and attunement. I will then provide examples of how the mother-child relationship is important within the specific theories of human development presented by Piaget, Vygotsky and Erikson. Throughout the paper I will describe the mother-child relationship within narcissistic parenting, and how it fails to produce the necessary conditions for psychological and emotional well-being in children. My intention in writing this paper is to support the adult daughters of narcissistic mothers in their recovery process by validating their experiences and by furthering their understanding of the psychological and emotional impact of being raised by a narcissistic mother.
For most of my life I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a machine. I’ve viewed myself as separate from others, having to solve problems on my own, and weak for needing help. It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to understand myself as a human being. I’ve learned that human beings are pack animals, social creatures meant to be in relationship, and in need of other human beings in order to grow, develop, heal and thrive. In other words, relationships are everything in this experience of being human.
The first relationship we encounter in life is the relationship between ourselves and our caregiver. In this paper I am focused on the relationship between mothers and daughters and so I will refer to this first relationship as the mother-child relationship. According to attachment theory, “the emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development” (Sroufe and Siegel, 2011, p.1). That emotional quality is also referred to as attunement or “the sensitive responsiveness to the infant’s cues” that “requires that the caregiver perceive, make sense of, and respond in a timely and effective manner to the actual moment-to-moment signals sent by the child” (Sroufe and Siegel, 2011, p. 2). According to attachment theory, the child’s experience in her first relationship with her mother creates an imprint for how she understands herself alone and how she understands herself in relationship. This imprint will impact her sense of self and the way she experiences relationships with others for the rest of her life (Sroufe and Siegel, 2011, p. 5).
For the adult daughters of narcissistic mothers, this can be a profound statement. In order to survive childhood, we learned how to repress our needs, or in the language of Sroufe and Siegel, to not send cues or give signals. Through experience we learned that our mothers are not reliable, and we forged ahead on our own. Over a lifetime this survival technique can morph into a view that mothers don’t matter. Attachment theory suggests otherwise – that mothers matter enormously, and that many of our struggles to be in relationship with ourselves and with others can be traced back to this first relationship.
Looking through the lens of attachment theory, the defining characteristic of the mother-child relationship within narcissistic parenting is a lack of attunement. Because a narcissistic mother does not provide an appropriate response to the child’s needs enough of the time, the child does not develop trust that the mother is reliable. As a result of this lack of trust in the mother, the child does not develop trust in herself or in others. According to Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman, this predicament consistently manifests in adulthood as “denial of feelings, a sense of emptiness,” and “recurrent ineffective patterns of personal interaction” (1997, p. 4). This is a tragic way to live, especially before entering recovery, when there is a vague sense that something is not quite right without any real understanding of what the problem is. Daughters of narcissistic mothers tend to resolve this lack of understanding by concluding – often subconsciously – that the fact of their existence is the source of the problem. Within the framework of attachment theory, the mother-child relationship within narcissistic parenting fails to produce the necessary conditions for psychological and emotional well-being in children because the mother is not able to provide the child with attunement.
The mother-child relationship within narcissistic parenting has a second defining characteristic that lies outside the parameters of attachment theory. While attachment theory speaks to how the child’s needs are not being met by the mother, research on narcissistic parenting explains that in addition to the child’s needs not being met, the child is manipulated by the mother such that the child is used to meet the mother’s needs. Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman provide the following observations from their fieldwork to describe the manipulation of children that takes place within narcissistic parenting: 1) “the needs of the parent system took precedence over the needs of the children;” 2) “the responsibility of needs fulfillment shifts from the parent to the child;” and 3) “instead of understanding, recognizing, and validating their own needs, these children develop an exaggerated sense of their impact on the needs of their parents” (1997, p. 4).
Thus, there are two primary reasons why narcissistic parenting fails to produce the necessary conditions for psychological and emotional well-being in children. First, the child does not learn how to identify or express her needs. This is the result of the mother’s lack of attunement. Attunement points to the fascinating truth that it is through relationship to others that we come to know ourselves, including what our needs are, which is critical to well-being. When the mother appropriately and reliably responds to the daughter’s needs, the daughter comes to understand her needs as real and valid and worthy, precisely because those needs are being met by her mother. Second, what the child does learn is how to meet the needs of her mother in lieu of getting her own needs met. This results in the daughter subconsciously repressing her true needs, which makes her well-being impossible to obtain.
Central to Piaget’s theory of human development is the ongoing process of differentiation and integration (Kegan, 1982, p. 43-44). A key concept in Piaget’s theory is subject-object balance, defined as “the notion of development as a sequence of internalizations” (Kegan, 1982, p. 31). I understand subject-object balance to mean that at each stage in development we gain additional perspective on our experiences. This new perspective allows us to be one step further removed from the experience itself. In the language of subject-object balance, we are ‘subject’ to the experience before we gain perspective on it. After we gain perspective, the experience becomes an ‘object’ of our awareness.
Considered in the context of Piaget’s theory, narcissistic parenting fails to produce the necessary conditions for psychological and emotional well-being in children because the child becomes ‘subject’ to the harmful beliefs and ideas imposed upon her by her mother. These harmful beliefs and ideas exist to serve the needs of the mother. Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman speak to subject-object theory when writing, “the child does not have a problem, he is a problem,” and “the child does not have a need (the treatment of dyslexia, anxiety, developmental delay, depression, and so forth), but rather is a label (lazy, stupid, class clown, screwup, or something similar)” (1997, p. 5). Until the child gains perspective on her experience, the child will believe these things about herself to be true. Mothers have such a significant influence over daughters that it is usually not until middle to late adulthood that daughters enter recovery and are able to gain this perspective. For the adult daughter, a key aspect of the recovery process is transforming her childhood experiences, and her relationship with her mother, from ‘subject’ to ‘object.’
Vygotsky’s theory of human development emphasizes the importance of social and cultural context by stating that development takes place in an environment of help, support and encouragement from others (Miller, 2016, p. 163). A key feature of Vygotsky’s theory is the zone of proximal development, which is “any situation in which some activity is leading children beyond their current level of functioning” (Miller, 2016, p. 167). Within the zone of proximal development, the positive benefits to the child are directly related to the mother-child relationship, specifically the mother’s level of attunement to the child’s current capabilities (Miller, 2016, p. 164). Vygotsky’s theory also makes an important point about the collaborative nature of development insofar as “the child’s behavior affects the adult’s behavior as much as the adult’s behavior affects the child” (Miller, 2016, p. 167).
Viewed from the perspective of Vygotsky’s theory, narcissistic parenting fails to produce the necessary conditions for psychological and emotional well-being in children because there is a malfunctioning within the social group formed by the mother and daughter. The mother’s childhood wounds are the source of this malfunctioning, which manifests in two ways. First, the mother is unable to provide the daughter with attunement because she never experienced it herself. A defining characteristic of narcissistic parenting is “a mother who at the core was emotionally insecure” (Miller, 2007, p. 7). Second, the child’s behavior affects the mother in a way that is explicitly detrimental to the child’s development. In other words, the child’s behavior does not produce attunement in the mother; rather, it produces manipulation of the child and her experience for the purpose of getting the mother’s needs met. Mothers who did not receive attunement during childhood, and who do not undergo recovery, will continue to seek attunement throughout their lifetime (Miller, 2007, p. 6-7). Unfortunately, “the most efficacious objects for substitute gratification are a parent’s own children” (Miller, p.7). When a mother uses a daughter to get her (the mother’s) own needs met, the daughter’s development will be stunted because the daughter learns to focus on her mother’s needs and not on her (the daughter’s) own needs.
Erikson introduces the quest for identity, or “the understanding and acceptance of both the self and one’s society,” as central to the theory of human development (Miller, 2016, p. 137). Erikson viewed human development in terms of eight stages, each with a critical issue to be negotiated (Miller, 2016, p. 139). The outcome of the negotiation at each stage is linked to a new and transformed sense of identity (Miller, 2016, p. 137). Here I discuss only the first three stages of Erikson’s theory which cover birth to age five. In stages 1, 2, and 3, the critical issues are basic trust versus basic mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, and initiative versus guilt, respectively (Miller, 2016, p. 139-141).
Erikson, compared to Piaget and Vygotsky, has more to say about how and why the mother-child relationship matters in human development. For example, in stage 1, “Infants with an attitude of trust can predict that their mother will feed them when they are hungry and comfort them when they are frightened or in pain” (Miller, 2016, p. 139). Additionally, for stage 2, “ideally, parents create a supportive atmosphere in which children can develop a sense of self-control without a loss of self-esteem” (Miller, 2016, p.140). Lastly, how the mother responds to the child during stage 3 will impact her sense of self-worth (Miller, 2016, p. 141-142).
Using the lens of Erikson’s theory, narcissistic parenting fails to produce the necessary conditions for psychological and emotional well-being in children because the child resolves the critical issue at each stage with a bias towards the unfavorable outcome. In other words, for stages 1, 2, and 3 the child develops with a bias towards basic mistrust, shame and doubt, and guilt, respectively. These biases are the result of the combination of 1) the mother’s lack of attunement to her daughter; and 2) the daughter learning from the mother to focus on the mother’s needs instead of her (the daughter’s) own. Additionally, these biases impact the formation of the child’s identity, such that she represses her true self and identifies instead with a false self that is formed with the purpose of meeting the mother’s needs. “Accommodation to parental needs often (but not always) leads to the ‘as-if personality.’ This person develops in such a way that he reveals only what is expected of him and fuses so completely with what he reveals that one could scarcely guess how much more there is to him behind this false self” (Miller, 2007, p. 12).
In conclusion, the mother-child relationship is crucial to human development. The mother’s ability to provide her daughter with attunement is especially relevant because this process allows the daughter to know and trust herself as well as others. Narcissistic parenting is characterized by a lack of attunement, paired with the child repressing her own needs and focusing instead on meeting the needs of her mother. Looking across the theories of human development presented by Piaget, Vygotsky and Erikson, the importance of the mother-child relationship and attunement is central to emotional and psychological well-being. It is possible to take each of these theories and apply them to the specific case of narcissistic parenting. Most importantly, it is important for the adult daughters of narcissistic mothers to know that despite the unfortunate circumstances we grew up in there is still hope. In adulthood we can always make the choice to face the painful reality of our childhoods, allow ourselves to grieve, and learn new skills and new ways of being in the world. Our true selves are still there, waiting to be discovered.
Donaldson-Pressman, S. and Pressman, R. (1997). The narcissistic family: Diagnosis and treatment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Miller, A. (2007). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self. New York City, NY: Basic Books.
Miller, P. H. (2016). Theories of developmental psychology, 6th ed. New York City, NY: Worth.
Sroufe, A. and Siegel, D. (2011). The verdict is in: The case for attachment theory [Online article]. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Verdict-Is-In-The-Verdict-Is-In-The-case-for-Siegel/991d95c765df571d8d23389d83ee214a284df85b
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About the Author
Diana Calvo is a psychotherapist and coach who helps people get unstuck and transform their day-to-day experience of work and life. After 20 years successfully climbing the corporate ladder, Diana experienced her own journey of healing and awakening. She discovered her true calling to guide others on their journey out of suffering and into a life of purpose and joy. Diana left the corporate world to start her own coaching business. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her dog Joey and a beautiful view of the mountains. She works with clients across the globe.