The Narcissistic Mother’s Game
By RICHARD ZWOLINSKI, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. ZWOLINSKI
Dear Therapy Soup Reader,
A woman in recovery from PTSD found that learning about her mother’s belated diagnosis of Narcissistic and Histrionic Personality Disorders freed her from much of her life-long guilt and shame. We’re sharing some of her thoughts she wrote down for you (with a bit of our editing).
Have you had a bizarre history of an on-again, off-again relationship with your mother who makes it truly impossible for you to maintain any self-respect because she uses and maybe abuses you? Even if you’re the kind of person who believes that both people in relationships need to take responsibility, it really may not be your fault. See if any of my questions resonate with you.
Does your mother ask how you are (and barely listens to you) just to get your stuff out of the way so she can talk about herself?
Do you feel a strange disconnect from her/with her?
If you have a cold, does she have the flu? If you dented the car was she in a six car pileup? If you got promoted did she get an Emmy? If you’re having a baby, did she invent a cure for botulism?
Does your mother seem phony or overly dramatic?
Do people who’ve never seen the two of you together find her charming?
Does you mother try to get your friends, spouse, associates to collude with her against you? Do the people in your life now “get it” and don’t find her charming any more?
Does your mother give your friends, her friends, doctors, even strangers, inappropriately expensive gifts and give you her hand-me-downs?
If you reject something she does she have hysterics, crying about how cruel and thoughtless you are and how she tried do hard to do good?
Did your mother ignore you as a child to the point where she would “forget” to buy you clothes, pick you up from activities, or feed you?
Does she say really hurtful things to you that land just under the radar—viciously cruel (perhaps even evil), but virtually no one else but you understands that it these are intentional put-downs? Does she generally do this when there are no witnesses or when there are witnesses that are “on her side”? Does she sometimes do it in front of your friends or spouse in order to gauge their reaction and see if they’ll align with her?
Does your mother deny your memories of events, even denying physical abuse? Does she employ several tactics to invalidate your memories, including dismissal of the importance of the memory, denial that the event occurred, breaking into hysterics and histrionics that effectively shut down all rational discussion, etc?
Does she “set you up”, promising you the moon (her love, a vacation together, a gift, a joint therapy session, a new car), reel you in with the bait, and then say that you misinterpreted what she meant and that none of that was going to really happen?
Did your mother leave you in dangerous situations—outside in storms, at home alone with known abusers, locked in basements, etc., when you were a child?
Did your mother ever take you shopping as a child and ask you to pick out your favorite stuffed animal or toy, then buy it, wrap it up with bows, and give it to the neighbor’s kid, watching closely to see (and enjoy) your pained surprise?
Does your mother almost always lie, even when it would be in her best interests or simply easier to tell the truth?
Does your mother usually forget your birthday or send you a wildly inappropriate and unwanted gift?
Did your mother ever move and not tell you her address for a while, a week, a month, years?
Did your mother indulge her every whim and fantasy, having the house feng shuied, getting in-home massages, buying expensive antiques, jetting to Europe to get her hair cut, but felt it it unnecessary to buy you clothes, shoes, books, toys or other basic things a child usually gets?
Is everything always about her?
Does she blame everyone else for anything and everything and never, ever takes responsibility for the emotional (and sometimes physical) wreckage she leaves in her tracks?
Did your mother ever try to get you kicked out of college, a job, a group? Did your mother ever get you fired from a job?
Did your mother ever come to your elementary/middle/high school/college/performance and laugh at you or pretend she didn’t know you? Did she tell other performers (and their parents) how wonderful their performance was, but say nothing about your performance or talk about you dismissively?
Did you ever run into your mother’s arms as a toddler, only to be pushed away in disgust?
Do therapists not believe you, until you show them letters and emails from from your mother or they get the chance to meet her?
Did your mother triangulate the family, demanding that her parents, your aunt, your cousins not have contact with you because it “upset” her? Did she do the same with your siblings? Does she create a web of lies and manipulate circumstances to keep people separate so they don’t figure out what’s going on?
Did your mother shower “love” and overwhelming attention on one sibling and turn the others into the scapegoat?
If your answers are “yes, repeatedly” to more than a couple of these questions, your mother might have narcissistic personality disorder and/or histrionic personality disorder ( she also may be struggling with some painful traits of borderline personality disorder or have traits of sadistic personality disorder* or maybe even anti-social personality disorder or a combination of these).
You may feel blind with rage and at other times that life just isn’t worth living. In some cases fathers can be enablers or were abusers, too. It can be hard because sometimes people who hear a story like this, even therapists, and they either don’t believe it or think you are exaggerating.
When you have a mother (or father or other caregiver) like this, your sense of reality is never really sure. That’s why I call it a game. And it is a game to someone with Narcissistic or Histrionic PD. The game is “Me Against the World”. The goal is to get everyone to watch me, need me, focus on me, be kept off-balance by me, be controlled by me, be destroyed by me.
In a way, mother is like a black-hole, empty as eternity. She is also a vacuum (yes, nature abhors a vacuum and mother’s constantly trying to be filled). But I also pity her—more than that, actually. I feel such sorrow for her suffering, because I believe she must be suffering. And I see glimmers of hope. Sometimes, I sense a pause in her emptiness as if her soul is trying to infiltrate the emptiness. Sometimes I sense genuineness. These moments are precious to me and I try to encourage them now that I am strong enough to not feel the arrows she slings at me.
What really helped the daughter, above, on her healing journey was information and meeting others who’d been through what she had been through:
About NPD here at PsychCentral
About HPD here at PsychCentral
About Personality Disorders here at PsychCentral
A brief video about how parents with NPD often divorce, and how their children can be victims of abuse, parental alienation syndrome, and suffer from mental illness and/or addiction, co-dependency and personality disorders including NPD, HPD, BPD, and other problems.
We love these brief YouTube videos by Toronto therapist Victoria Lorient-Faibish. She really addresses so many of the problems that people with parents who have PDs face, including co-dependency and parental alienation syndrome.
Note: Yes, of course a father could also have one or more personality disorders. Some personality disorders are more prevalent in males, some in females but in no way is this post aligning with bias or prejudice. Please remember that we are sharing a specific person’s story at her request and we did not choose the sex of the people involved.
*The diagnosis of sadistic personality disorder is no longer in the DSM and the upcoming DSM is apparently going to eliminate more personality disorders. However, the umbrella “personality disorder not defined” might still be used when multiple traits from more than one personality disorder are found.