[There are two basic types of narcissistic mothers, the ignoring type and the engulfing type. These may—and often do—overlap but most NMs have a basic style and will be primarily one or the other. Some of the following points may not apply to your NM simply because they describe an engulfing characteristic when your NM is an ignoring type—or vice versa. But our mothers are not the only narcissists we will encounter in our lives. In fact, being raised by a narcissistic parent actually sets us up to be prey for more of the self-centred emotional vampires as we go out into the world, from girlfriends who are anything but friends to lovers who love themselves best to husbands who are the mirror image of dear old mom. So, whether something looks like it applies to your NM or not, read and consider it carefully—it may give you the awareness necessary to avoid the predator lurking around the next bend. As ever, my comments are shown in violet. -V]
It's about secret things. The Destructive Narcissistic Parent creates a child that only exists to be an extension of her self. It's about body language. It's about disapproving glances. It's about vocal tone. It's very intimate. And it's very powerful. It's part of who the child is. ~ Chris
4. She undermines.
Undermine: weaken, dent, chip away at, challenge, destabilize, demoralize, undercut, damage.
Your accomplishments are acknowledged only to the extent that she can take credit for them. Any success or accomplishment for which she cannot take credit is ignored or diminished.
When I was in the second grade, it was discovered that I was bright. I was completing my classroom assignments so quickly, the teacher was giving me workbook pages she hadn’t even addressed in class yet, and I was completing them quickly and accurately. Unfortunately, she told my NM which precipitated a bit of an educational crisis…the second grade was too “slow” for me, so somebody (I wonder who?) suggested I be promoted to third grade in the middle of the school term.
NM had bragging rights on this one. her kid was brilliant, advanced, skipped a grade…the fact that I was struggling with math concepts like multiplication that nobody bothered to teach me elicited no sympathy in her—I was smart, I should just do it (maybe why I just hate that phrase!). Like owner of a race-winning horse or prize-winning dog, she was proud that she was the parent of such a child. That pride, however, did not extend to me or to helping me…I was expected to stay smart and continue bringing home brag-worthy grades no matter my private academic difficulties. This actually shaped many of my class choices in high school, leading me away from math and science and anything I thought might be difficult because I feared her reaction to my possible grades. I stuck with things required by the State for graduation credits and made sure my electives were, in my estimation, easy. I even refused to be in the Honours classes my senior year because I knew that the classes were harder and I might not make the grades that would keep my NM from sneering, berating, and punishing me.
Even so, my senior year of high school brought a string of straight A report cards that earned nothing for me in acknowledgement from her: nothing less was expected and anything else was worthy of punishment…anything less was not brag-worthy.
At about the same time I was uprooted from my second grade class room and flung, unprepared into the third grade, it was discovered that I could sing. Really sing. Suddenly, although I retained my role as ScapeGoat child, my mother turned from largely ignoring to engulfing. I had always considered a lot of attention from my mother to be a dangerous thing—the longer I was around her, the more likely she would think of something for me to do or a reason to punish me…seriously, by the time I was seven, I knew that out of sight was out of mind, that my greatest chance of safety lay in being quiet, unobtrusive, and invisible to her.
But finding out I could sing changed all that and I was suddenly the Golden Goose—with my voice and her management, I would be famous! (And she would be rich.) I didn’t want to be famous, but my big voice got me a lot of (unwanted) attention, which she basked in. I don’t think she ever forgave me for screwing up her dream by refusing to cosy up to smelly, disgusting old men who were casting movies and for finding ways to get out of singing engagements with fake sore throats and an inability to stay on key (which, since my singing teacher said I had “perfect pitch” was obviously fakery on my part). But while she viewed me as “the next Shirley Temple,” NM fairly glowed as the person responsible for my talent and my cuteness—and my clever little costumes and custom-made audition outfits made and designed by her.
Aside from my brief stint as a potential generator or riches, NM was pretty much uninterested in me except in ways I could be of service to her. I had chores well beyond what is reasonable for a child of my age (would you expect an eight-year-old to bake a cake twice a week with no adult supervision, in a gas oven that required a match to light?) and I was expected to perform in such a way as to reflect well on her (perfect grades, become a famous singer/actress) all with no regard to the costs to me or what I might want or be interested in.
Most of us DoNMs didn’t have stage mothers but we have all lived the disheartening experience of not being good enough as ourselves, as children, but only worthy of note because of our accomplishments. What you did was what was important, and what you did was important only if it gave NM bragging rights (made her look superior because she had a kid that did something worthy of remark) or, perversely, your behaviour was so bad as to bring her sympathy for being your parent. Otherwise, you weren’t worthy of her interest. It is hurtful, demeaning, damaging, and if we internalize it (and most of us do) it haunts and harms us for the rest of our lives.
Any time you are to be center stage and there is no opportunity for her to be the center of attention, she will try to prevent the occasion altogether, or she doesn't come, or she leaves early, or she acts like it's no big deal, or she steals the spotlight or she slips in little wounding comments about how much better someone else did or how what you did wasn't as much as you could have done or as you think it is.
I was fortunate enough to spend my sophomore year of high school (10th grade) with my father and stepmother. Away from NM, no longer afraid that if I sang around the house she would hear me and try to take my life away from me and make me into a painted puppet to earn her a fortune, I began singing again. I joined the school choir and was quickly put in a place of prominence.
The following year I returned to NM’s to live and I joined the choir there as well…and quickly became the “go to” soloist for my vocal range. During those two years of high school, in every concert we put on, my NM did not attend a single one, even though I was a featured soloist in almost every concert. And when my choir made the All City competition, at the last minute she rescinded her permission for me to attend the event, leaving the choir without one of its soloists. As much as she could have had bragging rights (“I made sure she had professional singing lessons when she was little—just listen to that voice”), I suspect the fact that there was no prize money, no payday for her at the end of my performance made her angry and she refused to go partly as punishment to me for thwarting her, partly because, without money to collect, she had no motivation to go. Go to see me excel, go to give me moral support, go because she was proud of me? Not a chance—and I knew it. There was nothing in it for her, and nothing else mattered.
Likewise, my academic award presentations were ignored, and my having an after school job was not countenanced until she figured out a way to pocket half my paychecks.
This is typical of NMs and the typical DoNM comes away from the experience feeling that no effort put forth is ever sufficient. Even engulfing NMs who attend every function can impart the same message with competitive commentary: somebody got more awards, you didn’t get the highest award, or if you did, how your appearance or your acceptance speech or even your posture or how you walked in high heels are all fair game to bring you down a peg, to keep you from feeling too “full of yourself,” to keep you humiliated and humbled,
She undermines you by picking fights with you or being especially unpleasant just before you have to make a major effort. She acts put out if she has to do anything to support your opportunities or will outright refuse to do even small things in support of you.
If you have ever caught yourself holding back from trying something you really wanted to do because you feared failure, you probably had an undermining parent. Rationally speaking, we all know that nobody is going to everything right the first time. We didn’t learn to walk with our first step, we didn’t learn to ride a bicycle or roller skate the first time we tried…but somehow, over time, we internalized messages that we have to do everything we attempt perfectly on our first outing. No mistakes allowed.
Once we have internalized that message, nothing is easy, especially if you have an NM because now you carry her with you in your head, everywhere you go, everything you do. Once you have internalized her unreasoning perfectionism, the criticisms that say you are going to screw this up, you can’t handle the stress, you never follow through, or whatever her undermining tactics tend to be, she becomes right…because you stress yourself out listening to her and worrying about yourself, her prophecy becomes fulfilled. You choke up, you fail, and eventually you may ever stop trying.
If you think you need help with something, you may find she intentionally withholds it, from giving you consent to do something to prying a few of her precious hours away from the TV or whatever her particular addiction is, and donating those hours to helping you to succeed.
You see, she doesn’t want you to succeed. You are supposed to fail and all of her undermining and refusal of support and help are for that reason. If you succeed, you get the glory, the attention, the kudos—not her! Depending on how malignant she is, she may even intentionally set you up to fail, just so she can read the good inner feeling of being right.
And don’t think for one minute that this kind of behaviour is limited to our NMs. Those of us raised to be Scape Goats somehow give off some kind of signal detectable by narcissists of all kinds, like a sick or injured animal gives off a scent detectable to the local predators. If you were raised as a Scape Goat by a narcissistic parent and you haven’t attracted narcissistic “friends,” lovers, even husbands, you are one seriously lucky person!
In my case, I managed to attract Jack, a particularly malicious specimen. Because I had no idea, because he was sooo nice to be in the beginning (or so I thought), because his narcissistic abuse of me was insidious, I didn’t really catch on to what kind of person he was for many years…years in which I increasingly thought I was losing my mind.
Jack was big on winning. I have seen him trounce a 6-year-old at Monopoly with no shame and a lack of understanding why I thought it was a horrible thing to do. What’s so bad? He won—was he supposed to let the kid win? For years I didn’t tip to what Jack was doing to me, but in retrospect I can see it started long before we were married. Jack loved to set me up to fail and when I succeeded he would fall into furious rage.
On one occasion, I wanted a new car. We had only one car and sharing it was not convenient for him. He suggested a second hand car, but I wanted a new car with a warranty, one I wouldn’t have to worry about breakdowns. I was going to school and I had a baby who had to be ferried around to day care and doctors and such.
Jack decided to teach me a lesson and gave me a low budget, $2,500, saying if I could find a car for this price or less, he would buy it for me. This was in 1974, when a new Mustang went for around $3,500. It took me weeks, but finally one morning spotted a new Pinto for $2442 and dragged him out of bed to go look at it. And the end of the day I had my new Pinto and he had a complete meltdown. I was completely confused because I expected him to be overjoyed not only that I had found a car within budget, but a NEW car that would not cost him extra money in maintenance and upkeep and repairs. I could not fathom his rage at all.
Later, it came out. It was a test and I was supposed to fail. I was not supposed to find a new car so cheap, I was supposed to fail and come to him, tail between my legs, admitting I was wrong and he was right and then gratefully accept the second-hand car, the crumb, he wanted me to have. It was the first of many such tests and eventually, like a good little DoNM, I learned to fail, to be less so he could be more, to be dumb so he could be smart, to be wrong so he could be right. My NM’s daughter.
NM was the kind who withheld all kinds of assistance. When I was 17 and pregnant, she wanted me to have an abortion (illegal in the US at the time but she didn’t care); when I thwarted that, she decided to give me a “choice.” It was the famous manipulator’s choice—to make the appearance of reasonableness by giving what looked like a choice but which was, in fact, only a choice between two onerous possibilities. In my case, I could live at home during my pregnancy, provided I agreed to give the baby up for adoption or if I insisted on keeping the baby (an almost untenable choice in 1964) then I would have to go to a maternity home, essentially a locked institution, and be on my own.
Now, you would think that getting married would be one of the options for me but no—that would give me a way to keep my baby and she was not looking for that. No, she wanted the baby gone…and the offer of the maternity home? Well, in those days it was commonplace for the babies to be seized and the young mothers coerced into signing them away…I knew that and if I did, you can bet she did too.
Eventually, however, I got married. She was livid. She told me that I had made my bed and I had to lay in it and not to come to her for help when times got rough. So I didn’t and, even when she could see how much I later struggled as the single mother of two pre-schoolers, she offered no assistance. Why should she? Well, aside from the fact that she was my mother, she and her husband owned four businesses, four houses, and 21 apartments. You think maybe an offer of a job, grandma babysitting and an apartment at an affordable rent might have been the offer of a loving parent, right? All I got from mine was “You made your bed…” and a continued gloating at my failures.
She will be nasty to you about things that are peripherally connected with your successes so that you find your joy in what you've done is tarnished, without her ever saying anything directly about it. No matter what your success, she has to take you down a peg about it.
Fast forward 15 years. I have married Jack, who was a minor executive with a Silicon Valley tech firm. I drive an English sports car, have a corporate job myself, own a large home, wear nice clothes. Jack has a trade show in Las Vegas and invites me to come along…and my NM lives outside of Vegas, so I agree to go…and she agrees to meet me for dinner.
I show up for dinner in a form fitting silk dress, killer high heels, real gold earrings, professionally coiffed hair. Men in the hotel lobby turn their heads as I walk through to the restaurant, a few make appreciative comments. I look like a million bucks and for once in my life, my NM has got to look at me with pride. I look gorgeous and prosperous and successful.
She gets into the elevator with me…she hasn’t seen me in ten years…and the first thing she says to me is “You’ve gotten fat.”
We had a strained dinner, I went downstairs and declined her offer of a lift back to my hotel. I took a cab and cried every second of my way back, only to have Jack look at me disdainfully when I got back to the hotel room and say “your mascara is running and you look like hell.” It’s what narcissists do.
Next: Part 5. Demeaning, criticism and denigration.