“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 what exactly I needed to recover from, I was focusing on issues of low self-confidence and self-esteem, always second-guessing myself, and 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.
I’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating: If you think your mother’s a narcissist, you don’t need a “diagnosis” or a label for you to determine that your relationship with her is unhealthy. If there’s a pattern of ongoing power struggles, manipulation, gaslighting, or cruelty, and it causes you to doubt your memory, judgment, or sanity, your relationship is most likely toxic. The best course of action is to accept that you cannot change or control her behavior. You can only control your own, and when you understand this, the ball is truly in your court. The next moves are up to you.
During this particular course of therapy, I was encouraged to read the research done in the late 1970s by Dr. Claudia Black, Ph.D. Her line of inquiry concerned how children are affected by a parent’s substance abuse. It was she who started the “adult child” movement and who identified the rules that dysfunctional families live by: “Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel.” I learned that, indeed, I had many of the same issues as ACoA, even though my mother was not an alcoholic. I discovered that, much like my own childhood environment, ACoAs grew up in an unpredictable, often chaotic atmosphere. Inconsistency, irregularity, lack of supervision, no personal boundaries, and little to no parental involvement are the norm in an alcoholic home, just as they had been in my own. It seemed that the ACoAs and I were all preoccupied with our mother’s dysfunctional and irrational behavior. We felt like we were always in fight or flight survival mode. We frequently took our parent’s “emotional temperature” and adjusted our own moods and conduct accordingly.
Because they were so busy emotionally and sometimes physically taking care of their mothers, ACoAs’ emotional needs went unmet, just as mine had. As adults, we had difficulty identifying our feelings and caring for ourselves. It was an astounding discovery for me to learn that other kids grew up in households like my own and that we shared some of the same challenges as adults, seemingly related to our upbringings.
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 illness 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.
For those of you who are beginning to (or have recently,) become aware that your mother’s worldview is the major problem, not any shortcoming within yourself, you’re likely feeing a colossal torrent of conflicting emotions, and you may not understand why. As you begin to accept this new way of perceiving and understanding your mother, you may have the dawning sense of awareness that your mother’s perspective is dysfunctional and that there is nothing—and there never was—anything inherently wrong with you, as you may have been conditioned to believe. You’re most likely starting to experience Narcissism Awareness Grief (NAG).
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 illness and how it impacts the people in her life.
- Anger. The anger that follows can be intense. You may be angry with yourself for not seeing the narcissism before; you may be fuming with previous therapists who did not see it. You may be irate with family members who encouraged you to listen to or believe your mom and furious with anyone who believed in your mother’s false face. I believe that what we are feeling in this stage is righteous indignation, which is a natural response to mistreatment or abuse. If we witness injustices like someone being mistreated, bullied, or abused in any way, we automatically feel righteous anger. This kind of anger is hugely motivating for change.
- Bargaining. This is a way of regrouping, a kind of reboot. You may question your reality and wish your childhood had been different. I remember wondering, Why did I have to get her as my mother? What would my childhood have been like if I’d had a mother who was able to truly love and care for me more than her own image? You may have these kinds of thoughts too, or you might even shame yourself with ideas like, Why didn’t I see this sooner? I’m so stupid. I’ve wasted so much 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 you actually need to go through this dark period so you 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 worldview, I became very, very sad. When it began to dawn on me that she would never change—that she was incapable of change—my sadness turned into depression. I had formed a rudimentary understanding that I would have to live with this new information from now on and that I would have to change the way I interacted and related to her for my own protection. I saw that I had missed multiple unrecoverable opportunities in my life because I had internalized 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. I was working 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, blame, and intimidate me and that she would never feel a bit of remorse, let alone apologize to me. 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 while my mother felt no accountability or responsibility for what she had done.
- Rewriting/revising: This stage is exclusive to NAG, and it’s where we can really do a lot of healing. It’s about taking this new understanding of maternal narcissism and applying it to our past. When we begin to accept our mother’s narcissism, we begin to understand how seeing ourselves the way our mother saw us has negatively impacted our lives. So now we begin to see things differently. We form new ideas about ourselves from this new information about our mother’s illness. We can think new thoughts like, My mother was not capable of feeling maternal love because of her illness. It had nothing to do with me. I am and always have been lovable. My mother wasn’t capable of feeling empathy. It wasn’t that I didn’t matter. I always mattered, but she couldn’t see it or acknowledge it, and I have flaws, and that’s absolutely OK. Everybody does. There is no such thing as perfection, but my mother continues to chase this false ideal. Too bad for her. When we update our historical view of ourselves by using this new information about narcissism, we can transform ourselves. We can begin to see ourselves in a whole, fresh, healthy light. For many of us, this is the beginning of discovering that we are likable and that we like ourselves and that we matter. We start prioritizing self-care and begin setting healthy personal boundaries, quite possibly moving into the happiest time of our lives.
- Acceptance: Once we work our way through the stages mentioned above, this final piece comes pretty effortlessly. We finally accept our mother’s narcissism as the permanent disability it is. 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 are finally able to let go of the workings of our dysfunctional childhood and welcome the knowledge that narcissists don’t change, which makes them very predictable. Now we can anticipate her behavior and using this knowledge can make engaging with her feel safer, or at least more tolerable. As our expectations change, we may experience the serenity 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, when my mother starts to belittle or humiliate me, I will end the conversation, leave the room, etc. In other words, we can now determine which of her behaviors we are willing to put up with, and for how long. Isn’t that amazing?
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
Learn about codependency
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
Learn about expectations
Lemon Moms: Resources to guide you in healing from childhood trauma, abuse or neglect. Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. (Kindle, Audiobook and paperback format.)
About the author
Diane Metcalf earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology in 1982 and a Master of Science in Information Technology in 2013.
She has held Social Worker, Counselor and Managerial Positions in the fields of Domestic Violence and Abuse, Geriatric Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Reproductive Health. She is an experienced Advocate and Speaker on the topics of Domestic Violence and Abuse and has been a guest on Lockport Community Television (LCTV), sharing her knowledge and experience regarding Domestic Abuse with the local community. In addition, she experienced Maternal Narcissistic Abuse and has been involved in other toxic relationships. She purposefully learned (and continues to learn) appropriate coping skills and strategies to live happily. She shares those insights here.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about emotional healing and has authored three books in the “Lemon Moms” series. Visit her author’s website here.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.