Were you raised by a narcissistic mom?
One of my biggest pet peeves throughout the years was listening to someone talk about themselves incessantly, one-upping stories, and twisting every story or situation to be about them. If the story is happy, they need to make it dramatic. If the story is sad, they feed on it and pull on your sympathy. No attention is ever enough. It gets draining, tiring and endless, because there are no solutions to their problems. They thrive on having problems, even if it means resurrecting the same problem over and over. It’s exhausting.
Yet I seemed to attract this type of behavior in many friendships and other relationships. It’s like I was used to being the person who listened, the person who sympathized, the person who nodded and hugged and patted someone on the back. I didn’t expect more and I settled into this role, often a secondary role, not even realizing it was happening.
I fell right into it because it’s how I was raised.
I didn’t realize this until the last year or so, after writing an article on conversational narcissists, that it’s because I was raised by a narcissistic mom. Once I realized that, so many of the things I tried not to be in life made sense. I don’t guilt trip, I hate snide comments, and inflated egos, people who think their opinions matter a lot more than they really do. I worry too much about what people think of me, wasting energy and emotion when the reality is that they likely aren’t thinking of me at all. I also have had a series of friendships from high school onwards where I only was necessary as long as I was filling a need. Why didn’t I see this sooner?
As far back as I can remember, my relationship with my mom was a rocky one. I wasn’t thin enough. I wasn’t pretty. What mom tells their daughter that? I wasn’t encouraged to try new things because I was never going to be good enough at whatever it was aside from drawing. One time in high school, I entered into an award show at the end of a summer program. My mom wouldn’t even come watch me, she didn’t want to have to go out; I insisted that she come, because I was getting an award. I was unusually confident, because I’d worked so hard on this project. Instead of going with pride, she called to verify; she was informed that no, I wasn’t winning a prize, so she didn’t go. I still went, saddened and with lack of interest. Imagine my surprise when I was called up on stage for a new award. Oh, the humiliation, because not only was I the only child there with no parent, but my mom had told people that she wasn’t going because I didn’t get an award, and many knew that my prize was not a real one. Such shame I felt. Go with me if I’m getting an award, but if I’m not? No, couch and TV wins.
Over the years, I was on guard when in public with my mom. Only the best, most positive comments were allowed to be spoken. If I made the dire mistake of saying something that someone, even a stranger, could comprehend in anything less than the best way, I’d get the eye. It was such a nasty look, wherever we were, the event was ruined. I knew it would hit the fan when I got home. My mom won a gift card once in a lottery, something she was forever entering, and in excitement, I shared in front of friends of ours that she’d won. Out come the eye. What had I said? What had I done? I learned quickly, when I was grabbed and pulled aside, and pinched, as she informed me through clenched teeth that she’d wanted everyone to think she’d purchased that item and now I had ruined it. Tears.
Tears came a lot, because I was always on edge. I learned to not speak up, to smile and to never question. I became such a wuss, it’s hard to look back at. I was bullied in high school and what I used to think was cheapness, I’ve realized was her not letting me shine in any way. New clothes? Nope. We had the money, but me looking good, having confidence and feeling better about myself wasn’t part of the conscious plan.
Get up early, clean all the house. Daily. People can’t see the house dirty. My mom didn’t work for a long time there and people didn’t come over, but I had to keep it spotless, all myself. I remember scrubbing the bathroom floor early one morning while being berated for being out the night before. I was 18 and trying to develop a social life. It was tough.
When someone needed a laugh at home, it was usually at my expense. I was an easy target. I’m sure it appeared I was intimidated, but instead, I knew it was pointless and temporary. I believe this gave some the idea that they were able to wield their own nastiness over me, but it didn’t. I just learned to internalize, breathe and remind myself that at some point, I’ll be an adult and away from all this nonsense.
Narcissism is often an inherited trait, if not by DNA, by absorption. Narcissists have an outward love for themselves, but what causes it is up for debate. Childhood insecurity? Feeling unloved? A way to rise up against your own bad childhood? It’s sometimes seen as an actual mental disorder, and I’m not a doctor so I won’t go there. I will say that if you Google narcissistic behavior, it’s illuminating and scary. I just know that I’m thankful I didn’t fall into it myself.
People in relationships with narcissists have to really learn how to cope, if you can’t leave. Obviously, I couldn’t leave as a child, but I did as soon as I was old enough. There were guilt trips but one of the final straws was when my mom gave away all my clothes because I had gained weight. “You won’t lose that weight.” (I did.) Individually, the paybacks for not measuring up were tolerable, if not bizarre, but put all together, they were an extraordinary weight that slowly chipped away at my attachment towards her and others. The pendulum probably swung too far, as I’m not a sentimental person and I probably don’t feel enough, but as a matter of self-protection, it worked.
Now that I’m older and more aware of my own behaviors, I’ve finally hit the wall. I speak up. I solve problems without profanity and guilt trips and I run two successful businesses. I am not a passive doormat any longer. My beaten-down childhood didn’t win. (And I was not physically abused, to be clear. It was rock-solid mental.) I communicate effectively and have a circle of strong friends who all have similar, if not stronger, personalities. Knocking my approach doesn’t bother me because I learned why someone would try to knock it in the first place.
I’ve left the conversation hoarders, those who aren’t really interested in you beyond your listening ear. I’ve thankfully walked away from those who suck you dry, and it’s such a relief. It’s also sad though, because you have glimmers of the good times. Still though, be warned: narcissists get ugly when crossed. They get mean. They shift blame and their crazy comes out. They hold grudges and this all just plays more into their ability to praise themselves. They use these opportunities as ways to make themselves look even more superior, no longer remembering their part in anything but getting inordinately angry at you, the person who just can’t take anymore. You don’t even need to say anything, you can just quietly walk away and find yourself the focus of their extraordinary ire. How dare you make them look less than the perfect facade they put forward? Why don’t you understand them?? And don’t even question them. They seem to have less concern about losing the relationship and more about maintaining their position of power and ‘right-ness,’ and the more they feel their perfect persona is threatened, the worse they behave. It’s mind-boggling.
As a young adult, I got engaged and I remember proudly coming home with my new engagement ring. I loved it, and it was bought with love, yet it wasn’t good enough so my mom had to go out and buy me a more acceptable wedding ring. What would people think of this tiny ring? I should have spoken up but I was still in the throes of being bullied by her behavior. Later, when he was killed in a car accident a few months after the wedding, my mom returned my wedding ring, leaving me with a small pair of diamond chip earrings as a memory while she got the real jewelry. (I was in the military and had left my jewelry at home to be guarded in her care. I didn’t mean that type of guarding, obviously.) I was crushed. Just another case of where I didn’t matter, only appearances did. For narcissists, material objects matter more than they do the rest of us. They feel these status symbols elevate them above the general population, forgetting that it still is the inside that counts more than an expensive bag or how much they earn an hour.
So much of growing up was ‘what will people think?’ Couple that with her enormous belief that her respect mattered to so many people, and she ended up sitting alone many nights rather than attend something because she ‘has no respect’ for them. If you had her approval, you were golden; if not, be careful. I used to not understand why approval mattered more than having friends and years later, I still don’t.
Narcissism is a hard thing to comprehend. Chicken or the egg? Do you get this way because you need to feel good about yourself, or do you feel so good about yourself, this is just an extension? Kids are supposed to generate pride on their own, but the pressure put on kids of narcissists can be terminal. You don’t feel that innate sense of nurturing or unconditional love. You know it hinges on whether you smile at the right time, laugh properly and not say anything wrong, even if you don’t know what ‘wrong’ is today. You walk on egg shells. After you’ve done something wrong and the anger dies down, the guilt trips begin. “I could have gotten invited to xx if you’d smiled and shut your mouth.” There’s nothing like feeling like you’re to blame for so many things entirely out of your control. Instead of getting to be a kid, you’re a liability and a part of the stage setting. It’s not a fun way to live.
I’m not one to say this ruined me or blame my behaviors on my childhood. Instead, it’s one of those things that has helped me to understand the question of why I seem to attract so many people who want to unload on me. The ability to fall back into that role is always there under the surface. I am very thankful for my friends, and I have a couple of groups of ladies now that I feel so fortunate to be a part of. We support each other, we laugh, we talk, and while I am pretty independent in many ways, I’m so glad I have my friends that are low maintenance, fun and drama-free 99% of the time. These are the people that have made me realize the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one. They make me so happy that I finally said enough to the rest, allowing me the time and the energy for the right people.
Thing is, I’m not sure that I’ll ever escape entirely from being sucked in at some point. I don’t like confrontation and I have a natural interest in not making waves in friendships. I put myself out there, over and over and over, to just be squashed at will and each time, I shake my head and say “Why did you try again?” I have just enough hope to be stupid. Just yesterday, I responded to a text in a way that was meant to be lighthearted, to keep a conversation moving along; poof, the text ended. I write for a living so I’m pretty sure it’s not what I said. Instead, I’m 1000% sure it was that the person on the other end just doesn’t like to talk about anything but herself. I ended up feeling stupid for again giving her the opportunity to not answer. To quote Pink, “Why do I do that?” I have to remind myself, this is not my fault. This person’s behavior is not my fault. I cannot change this person, and I need to stop trying. I need to stop seeking acceptance and/or interest that’s never going to be there, even in relationships where it should be.
And that’s what’s hard. Narcissists force this type of feeling on you. You feel you have to have their acceptance, and you seek it all over.
I say it all the time: life is short. Relationships built on obligation or guilt aren’t worth the time. Taking the high road isn’t without merit, and it’s easier than it seems. And it feels good. There’s something positive about knowing you could say and do more than you have, but that you have restraint the narcissist doesn’t. Now when I see grandiose behavior, I turn around and walk the other way. Narcissists are frequently charmers. They often attempt to use sex appeal (for lack of a better word) to attempt to persuade, and initially, people don’t see it. Narcissists frequently slide in subtle snide comments that the listener may not pick up on right away. They’ve been pulled in before they even realize it.
Not sure if you’re in a relationship with a narcissist or if you were raised by a narcissistic mom? Google will give you a much better picture, but here are a few things:
- They put others down in order to project themselves as superior.
- They take over conversations. No matter what you say, it turns out to be about them.
- Don’t get in their spotlight; they will make sure to put you back in your place verbally.
- Material things matter, because they are trophies for their stature and importance. They feel others envy them.
- If you disagree with them, you’re wrong and they’ll make sure you and others know it.
- Narcissists love to criticize, judge and make you feel smaller than them.
- They pride themselves on saying what they think, because they have no restraint and have confused ‘honesty’ with ‘rudeness.’
- They see themselves as above the rules and yet at the same time, the leader who is in charge of making the rules and holding you to them, even strangers. This makes them popular at work. Not. This goes hand-in-in with their high level of entitlement.
- Selfies, self-praising quotes/memes and “tell me I’m pretty!” posts are all over their social media feed.
- They are the biggest attention-seekers you’ll ever see. They seem to really think you want to see their selfies and hear them speak. They believe that you really do want to hear their feelings. They require an excessive level of admiration.
- They are master manipulators.
- They are always a victim. Nothing’s their fault.
- They quote forgiveness but are secretly plotting their way to get back at you. If you best them, you stay on their list.
- They have mastered petty and snappiness.
- They lack empathy.
Can a narcissist change? I’m not sure, because I have yet to run into one even willing they need to. I think in today’s social media-heavy society, we’re seeing more and more people with narcissistic tendencies. Social media gives people the opportunity to praise others and be nice, playing on those who really like to be kind…which gives narcissists the perfect opportunity to get the attention they need so badly to survive. They often don’t seem to learn the skills to get by without bleeding others’ emotions dry. This makes me think that we’ll see more and more of this behavior as future generations grow up. The show Black Mirror hopefully isn’t a glimpse into what is to come.
Do what you need to be happy. If you were raised by a narcissistic mom or dad, my thoughts are with you. It certainly can take away from fun childhood memories but it’s also not your fault. It doesn’t have to be something that follows you. I got by this long in life without even realizing it, but now that I know it, I actually understand myself a little more. I don’t have to get peoples’ approval. I don’t need to listen and give people what they want by way of attention and adulation just to have relationships. I can choose to walk away, and so can you.