Is My Mother a Narcissist or a Person Living With a Deep Wounding?
When I was 27-years-old, I asked my mother a question that had been percolating for years. It was hard to ask. Part of me was afraid of the answer. She’d just flown across the country to spend her 60th birthday with me in Vancouver. So I gave her time to settle into my downtown condo.
As we sat on my new Ikea couch, a few days into her stay, overlooking floor to ceiling windows with a view of the local mountains, I eased my way in. I made her a tea and raised something about my childhood, and the particular year I’d been left with a man they’d known for less than 12-months. ‘I need to ask you something,’ I said, taking the plunge. ‘Did you and Dad know that Fred molested me?’
I won’t go into details, other than to explain that my parents had been running his motel business and he’d taken a shine to me. I enjoyed his visits because I got positive adult attention. But they left me in his care when I was eight-years-old. I didn’t recall the reason, my older sister filled me in that they took a holiday while she was hospitalised, but I vividly remember my time at this house.
To my shock, my mother brushed it off like it was nothing. ‘You seemed fine.’ she said and changed the subject. It felt so callous to me. I’d been suffering from sexual health issues since I was a teenager. But I was used to being controlled, so I didn’t press her. She knew. My father knew. They’d always known but never took me to a doctor, never reported it, never made sure I was okay.
It was as if the author was describing my mother.
Articles about narcissistic personality disorder started popping up several years ago. I finally read one and got a shock. I sent it to my sister, and she had the same reaction. This is our mother. She talks about herself incessantly. Any conversation you have with her always has to be about her — she’s skilled at ignoring anything you say and bringing the focus back to her. She sulks and manipulates, making you feel bad for her so you’ll behave in a way she likes.
She lies all the time, to get what she wants. When I was a teenager, she lied to her employer saying I was deathly ill, to get time off. I wasn’t even living with her. I’d moved in with my boyfriend and was completely independent. I remember feeling bad for myself that I had a mother like that.
She has no friends, and even though she came from a large family, none of them like her very much. You can’t blame them, my mother makes everyone invisible.
Because I was raised by someone who behaves this way, my brain is hard-wired to put everyone before myself.
I’ve attracted a lot of Narcissists. My first boyfriend, who was horribly controlling, was one. So was my best friend all through my 20s and 30s. So was my ex-husband. I’ve suffered in unhealthy relationships, been criticised, belittled, and made to feel I’m the problem most of my adult life. So I have some insights.
Eventually, my older sister gave up on our mother — it’s been years since they’ve spoken. I moved again. This time to Australia. I tried to be a good daughter, and talk to my mother every few weeks, but the conversations were always the same. She’d launch into a story about some new ailment, and I’d spend the call showing care and concern — never receiving any interest in my life. She’s had every health issue imaginable and churned through countless doctors — they eventually realise she’s not sick and they give up trying to fix her imaginary problem.
She came to Australia when I got married, bringing her two sisters who flew with her from Canada and paid her way. But the trip wasn’t about my wedding, it was a chance for her to show off. I marvelled at how her sisters used humour to wind her up. My mother did a lot of sulking over that time. It was exhausting, being constantly aware of her feelings, that she wasn’t getting enough attention.
I didn’t realise the full extent to which my mother had no love for me until I became a mother myself.
The day I called her up to say I gave birth, her reply was, ‘Well I had a car accident.’ We spent the next hour talking about her minor fender-bender and hung up without much discussion about the fact that I was now a mother. When I gave birth to my second child three years later, things weren’t any different.
The last time she visited, my firstborn was 10 months old. I saw how un-motherly she behaved and wondered how on earth she coped with kids while my father was stationed overseas in the Army? I began to ask her questions about her time with us as babies, and about her own childhood. It’s the first time I learned about her life as a kid. That she felt she never got love from her own mother. She’s the third last of eleven kids and said she was raised by her older sister. As she told me this story, I could feel some of the pain she carried.
My firstborn, April, needed a lot of attention. She was the clingy toddler. No matter how much I paid attention to her, it never was enough. It would get exhausting. I wonder if that’s how my mother was as a child? April only had one sibling and that was a struggle. Lucky for us, her little sister’s always been very independent and kept herself busy, so April still kept most of my attention. I always listened and tried to help her feel seen and heard.
If she’d been raised by an absent mother, already busy with so many other kids, I wonder how she would have turned out? Nowadays she’s a confident, independent 11-year-old who occasionally gives me a very sour face — the kind that says, I don’t care about your opinion because I’m my own person.
If my mother never got the loving attention she desperately wanted, has she grown a personality to compensate — that makes absolutely everything about herself? Is her behaviour a constant SOS signal, saying someone very sad lives in here?
Can a narcissist be a human being trapped behind a mask because of their own deep wounding?
I’ve read a lot of articles about narcissists. It’s always from an angle of telling people to avoid them, but how can we understand them? I’m not suggesting that a person should stay and love a narcissist personality through their pain. I don’t even think that’s possible. They will keep doing their self-focused behaviour and make everyone else invisible until they are ready to change. Change only ever comes from within. But I am suggesting that when we write about them, we could be a little kinder because nobody is ever just a static being. Everyone has a history.
It doesn’t excuse the pain and suffering they inflict on us, but I would like to see the narrative evolve to show that they are human beings who have a story — sadly, nobody wants to hear it because of their behaviour. I’m not even sure what it would take for them to want to recognise their own pain or share it with anyone. That would make them far too vulnerable.
They are safer in their pattern of pushing people away and reinforcing for themselves that they don’t deserve to feel love.
A couple years ago, I was moved by a talk I came across on YouTube by a spiritual teacher called Sadhguru. He suggested that we must help our parents, as they age, to invest in their own wellbeing — make them turn inward, so they don’t die in terror but rather gracefully.
I haven’t seen my mother in over 10 years. She is getting old and won’t be around forever. This advice impacted me and I began to behave differently. When my mother would rattle on about her health and how bad life is, I’d agree with her. It was the opposite of what I’d always done. I stopped giving her sympathy. I’d also point out how she was creating her own drama. I was ruthlessly honest.
Things were happening in my life too and because I felt too vulnerable to be made invisible, months would pass between phone calls.
In the last year, I’ve noticed some significant changes in her. I have no idea if I’ve made the difference or the fact she’s been suffering from a real health crisis. A virus-induced condition has impacted her quality of life. She’s always been a hermit, but now she has no choice. She is house-bound a lot. Luckily, she has a partner who retired last year and is home to keep her company.
Whatever the reason, she’s been softening more and more. She actually asks how I am now. She’ll even listen and ask questions about my life. And to my great surprise, she’s made a friend. I hope she’s treating her well.
Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even change her name in my phone book from Leanne to “Mom”.