“Whatever the situation may be, in order to fully achieve peace within yourself it is necessary for those who have been victims of narcissistic personalities to complete all the stages of acceptance and learn to grow beyond their previously fabricated reality.”—Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC
What is Narcissistic Awareness Grief?
“Narcissism awareness grief” is a term coined by Dr. Christine Hammond. It’s a real “thing,” and I remember very clearly what it was like to experience it.
Before I knew exactly “what” I needed to recover from, I focused on issues of low self-confidence and self-esteem, always second-guessing myself, and I had a myriad of codependency symptoms. A therapist suggested that I “presented” much like an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACoA). But there had been no substance abuse or alcoholism in my family of origin. At that time, “Maternal Narcissism” was virtually unheard of, and my symptoms were so similar to those of an ACoA, that we agreed my treatment plan would be as if I was an ACoA. Turns out I needed to heal from the effects that my mother’s narcissistic characteristics had on me as a child.
If there’s a pattern of ongoing power struggles, manipulation, gaslighting, or cruelty in your relationship with your mother, and it causes you to doubt your memory, judgment, or sanity, your relationship probably feels hurtful, stressful, or harmful to you.
If this is the case, you’re probably beginning to (or have recently) become aware that your mother’s perspective of you is causing you pain. You’re likely blamed or found to be responsible for her unhappiness. When you see this for yourself, you’ll likely feel a colossal amount of conflicting emotions about this realization, and you may not understand why you feel these conflicts. As you begin to accept that your mother’s perspective, thought patterns, and behavior could be dysfunctional, you will also realize that there is nothing, and there never was anything wrong with you, as she may have led you to believe. You may be coming to terms with the idea that her thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and behavior never had anything to do with any shortcoming within yourself.
When we first become aware of our mother’s narcissistic traits, and we start to see the many ways those traits have negatively impacted us, we enter the process identified by Dr. Christine Hammond as “Narcissism Awareness Grief.” How this realization affects us, becomes a journey undertaken to heal the emotional pain of Narcissistic Victim Syndrome.
You cannot change or control your mother’s behavior, or anyone else’s, for that matter. You can only control your own. When you fully understand and accept this, you’ll be able to move forward with a strategy to emotionally detach and begin putting your focus on taking steps to recover from the trauma, scapegoating, blaming, shaming, and other mistreatment.
It’s important to understand that the process of going through Narcissism Awareness Grief means spending time in each of its six stages. These stages are not linear, meaning that they’re not experienced in any particular order. In fact, it’s natural to go back and forth between the six stages throughout the entire process. It’s also possible to become stuck in any phase for any length of time. But the first five stages must be experienced in order to arrive at the last stage, known as “Acceptance.” In this final stage, we accept that our mother is who she is. We accept that she will not change. We accept that we did not cause these narcissistic character traits, that we cannot control them, and that we cannot cure them. We accept that “it is what it is.” Acceptance feels very freeing because we understand that we don’t have any responsibility, or the ability, to change our mother! We can stop focusing on her and start focusing on our own life.
When we reach “Acceptance,” it does NOT mean we accept her hurtful actions or words. Let me say that again. ACCEPTANCE has nothing to do with accepting hurtful behavior or words. Instead “Acceptance” is about US, NOT about our mother. Acceptance means that we are able to let go of wishing and hoping that our mother will change. We stop hoping that she will treat us differently or that she will one day become a loving, kind, compassionate, affectionate, accepting mom. We let go of fighting against who she is or spending time wishing and hoping that she was different. We stop focusing on her altogether. Acceptance means that we let go of the idea that she will finally see us for who we are, that she will love us unconditionally, want to spend time with us, enjoy being with us, stop trying to change us, stop manipulating and hurting us, and that someday it will feel good to be around her.
When ACCEPTANCE happens, something wonderful changes in our perception: it’s as if we wake up and see things exactly as they are for the first time. We see our childhood hurts and traumas in a different way; we can now see that there was never anything wrong with us as children, we are able to clearly see that we were lovable and acceptable exactly as we were. We see and understand and accept that children aren’t supposed to change or become someone different in order to earn their mother’s love, affection, or acceptance. If a mother cannot love her child, it is because of a shortcoming within HER, not the child. In the Acceptance stage, we are able to see this truth and embrace it. We stop beating ourselves up and trying to change ourselves to please and appease her. We realize that it will not work and that it never has. Within Acceptance, we are able to see that the problem is hers and it always was; the problem is the dysfunctional way in which she thinks and perceives. We can finally acknowledge that we have no control over those things and that we couldn’t have changed any of what happened in the past, or made it happen any differently.
After we reach the stage of Acceptance, our childhood experiences begin to look very different. We can now see them from a different angle, and we acknowledge that they are about her worldview, her thoughts, and her choices and behavior. It was never about who we were or what we did as children. We can now clearly see that we were innocent children caught up in dysfunctional adult behavior that was incomprehensible, confusing, and hurtful.
As we begin to see and understand the effects that our mother’s narcissistic traits had on us, we are able to re-frame our experiences and see that they are only a small part of who we are, and we no longer let our emotional trauma define us. We are more than the sum of our trauma. We are more than who our mothers think we are.
Getting to Acceptance is why it’s important to keep moving through all of the stages and to get help if you get stuck in a particular phase.
What happens when you begin to experience Narcissistic Awareness Grief?
At some point during those years, when I was actively pursuing healing and personal growth, the idea was broached by a therapist that my mother likely had an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, probably a personality disorder. Hearing this news was exciting and validating because I had suspected as much for a very long time. Although I was employed as a mental health professional myself, diagnosing my mother without her knowledge or consent, though fun to think about, would have been unprofessional, to say the least.
As I came to grasp the reality of the impact that my mother’s narcissistic traits had on me, I felt a gamut of emotions—denial, sadness, rage, and everything in between and back.
You see, when we discover that the traumatic lifestyle we’ve endured as children has an actual name, it’s a huge relief at first. There’s an initial rush of validation, and we suddenly realize that we’re not alone, that we’re not crazy, and that we haven’t imagined it. Narcissistic abuse is a real thing, and now we realize that we can deal with and recover from it.
Narcissism Awareness Grief (NAG) begins when we become aware of our mother’s narcissism and begin to realize the ways it impacted us.
The Six Stages
Much like the famous Kubler-Ross “five stages of grief,” there are several stages of Narcissism Awareness Grief. They’re not linear, so they’re not experienced in any particular order. In fact, we can go back and forth between the stages throughout the process of grieving. But every step must be experienced before we can get to the final stage, which is “Acceptance.” It’s possible to become stuck in any phase for any length of time and to never actually enter into Acceptance.
The difference between the two grief models is that narcissism awareness grief has an additional and essential phase called “Rewriting.” This is where healing begins in earnest.
- Denial: After reading, thinking, processing, and talking about maternal narcissism, you may begin to entertain the idea that your mother might actually be on the narcissism spectrum. This idea may be something you’ve never conceptualized before. Thinking it may make you uncomfortable. Even if you’re certain that she is afflicted, you might continue to minimize the impact it’s had on you until you reach the point where you can’t any longer. At that juncture, you’ll begin to become aware of the scope of her narcissistic traits and how they affect the people in her life.
- Anger. The anger that follows can be intense. You may be angry with yourself for not seeing the symptoms before now; you may be fuming with previous therapists who did not see it. You may be furious with family members who encouraged you to listen to or believe your mom, and you might be irate with anyone who believed in your mother’s false face. I think that what we’re feeling in this stage is a kind of “righteous indignation,” a natural response to mistreatment or abuse. If we witness an injustice, when someone’s being mistreated, bullied, or abused in any way, we naturally feel this kind of anger. Now, we’re feeling it for ourselves. This anger can be hugely motivating for change if we use it correctly.
- Bargaining.You may wish your childhood was different. You may feel bitterness or sadness at the unfairness of your circumstances. I remember wondering what my childhood would’ve been like if I’d had a mother who’d been able to truly love and care for me, more than she did for her image. I wondered what my adult life might’ve been like if I’d grown up feeling loved, cherished, and as if I mattered. You may have these kinds of thoughts too, or you might even shame yourself with thoughts like, “Why didn’t I see this before?” or “I’ve wasted years of my life listening to and believing her.” Many of your questions will have no real answer. I cried a lot at first, in fact, any time I thought about it. You may cry too or feel a profound sense of loss and sadness. Like me, you may feel robbed of your childhood and anger at the injustice of that happening to you. It’s essential to see that, in this stage, you may actually be doing what your mother would do to you: insult you, berate you, and question the validity of your thoughts and feelings. But we actually need to go through this dark period so we will be able to enter the rewriting phase of grieving.
- Depression: When I understood that I could not “help” my mother to change, or get her to see me differently, or change her victim mentality, I became very, very sad. When it began to dawn on me that she would never change—that she was incapable of change (because she didn’t think anything was wrong with her)—my sadness turned into depression. I’d formed a rudimentary understanding that I’d have to live with this new information from now on. I’d have to change the way I interacted and related to my mother for my own protection. I saw that I had missed multiple unrecoverable opportunities in my life because I had adopted her limited and incorrect beliefs about me. I saw how my relationships, in fact, every aspect of my life, had been negatively impacted by her faulty ideas and opinions of me, which I had accepted and internalized. I worked on accepting the fact that there was nothing I could do to make my mother interested in me as a person or to receive me in my imperfection. I had to accept that she would continue to belittle, shame, and intimidate me and that she would never feel a bit of remorse, let alone apologize. She was going to remain manipulative, critical, blaming, and attention-seeking. It was a heavy feeling to recognize that I had a lot of work ahead of me, to reconcile the past, and to heal myself, while at the same time my mother continued to hurt me and feel no accountability or responsibility.
- Rewriting: This is the stage that is exclusive to Narcissism Awareness Grief, and it’s where we can really do a lot of healing. This stage is for taking this new understanding of narcissistic characteristics and applying it to our past. When we begin to accept that our mother has narcissistic traits, we begin to understand how internalizing our mother’s faulty perspective of ourselves has negatively impacted our lives. We realize that we must start to see things differently. We begin to form new ideas about ourselves. We learn to think in new ways, thoughts like: “My mother was not capable of feeling maternal love because of her condition. It had nothing to do with me. I am and always have been lovable.” And “My mother wasn’t capable of feeling empathy. It wasn’t that I didn’t matter. I have always mattered.”
- Acceptance: As we work our way through the stages, this last piece comes pretty effortlessly. At some point, which can’t be forced, we finally accept our mother’s narcissism or narcissistic traits as permanent. We see her narcissism as a revelation of sorts, and there’s an exciting feeling of freedom when we understand that we don’t have any responsibility, or the ability, to change her! We’re finally able to let go of the effects of our dysfunctional childhood.
We welcome the understanding that narcissists don’t change. Narcissists are very predictable. Now we can anticipate our mother’s behavior, and we can make interacting with her feel safer for us, or at least more tolerable. As our expectations change, we may experience a sense of peace that we never thought possible. Now we can determine what kind and how much exposure we will subject ourselves to, and we can plan accordingly. Some of us may decide to have no contact at all, and some may choose to have limited contact with strict enforceable boundaries. For example, I decided to continue my relationship with my mother, but with limited contact. I had moved to another state when the opportunity had presented itself, and doing this was a natural progression of my continued healing and self-care. When she started to belittle, shame, criticize, judge, or humiliate me, I ended our infrequent phone calls firmly and quickly.
When we get to Acceptance, we can determine which of our mother’s behaviors we’re willing to put up with, if any, and how we’ll deal with them, and for how long. This is when we’ll start setting personal boundaries for ourselves. Isn’t that amazing? We are finally able to focus on ourselves and our lives instead of dwelling on her unacceptance, her hurtful words and behavior, and our pain, or changing ourselves in order to feel accepted or loved.
This is self-care. This is freedom. This is healing.
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions.
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Understand the symptoms of codependency
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control
Learn about expectations
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies for herself. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Her Lemon Moms series and other books and articles are a combination of her education, knowledge, personal growth, and insight from her childhood experiences and subsequent recovery work.
Diane holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She’s worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse, and is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer about family dysfunction. On The Toolbox, she writes about recovery strategies from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships. She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward from narcissistic Victim Syndrome.
Visit her author’s site here: DianeMetcalf.com
Learn about the Lemon Moms series here: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.