Why you can’t please her, why she withholds love and affection, and why nothing you do is good enough. Why you can’t win.
Have you ever felt apprehensive about interacting or talking with your mother? That could be a signal that you feel unsafe to some degree, emotionally or physically. Remember, you have intuition, and it’s there to protect you. It’s important to acknowledge what your intuition suggests without judging or assigning any value, like “bad” or “wrong.” Affirm yourself by accepting the feelings you have about talking with your mother and acknowledging that you have reason to feel the way you do. Recognize that what you are sensing is valid, and honor that. Don’t lie to yourself, and don’t gaslight yourself. This could be a turning point for healing. It’s time to be real.
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If your mother has narcissistic traits or is a narcissist, then it’s improbable that you’ll be able to have that heart-to-heart connection with her that you’ve always longed for. You know: where you can just visit peacefully, enjoy each other’s company, and relate. In your fantasy, you feel lighthearted, and being with her feels easy. You laugh, and you feel safe and comfortable. In your imaginary time together, your mother doesn’t judge you, criticize, or make barbed comments, and you don’t have to justify and defend your every thought, feeling, or choice. In your fantasy, your mother accepts and supports you; she hears you, she sees you, and you feel as though you matter a great deal to her. You feel secure in knowing she’s got your back.
Yes, those of us with narcissistic mothers have those kinds of fantasies. And in recovery, we learn to accept that she’s simply not capable of this kind of emotional connection, and we begin to let that idea go so that we can get unstuck and move forward. In healing, we come to realize that there are and always will be others who want an emotional connection with us, and we nurture those relationships. Some of us may even be fortunate enough to find a mother figure who meets our needs.
No, you won’t have that heart-to-heart connection with her, but you can learn to interact with her without getting hurt or frustrated. You can learn how to protect yourself and minimize the severity of the usual painful exchanges. Of course, you have the choice to go “no contact.” For me, “no contact” felt extreme, binary, and “all or none.” I wanted to try something different that would allow interaction while keeping me safe, remaining in my power. So I developed a method that, over time, worked to protect me during our interactions.
Narcissists live by their emotions, and their emotional state dictates how they respond. By the way, there is no scientific consensus on a definition of emotion. In my books, I define emotion as a feeling which has a chosen meaning attached to it. So, a feeling + a chosen meaning = an emotion.
As we know, emotions are not data, and they’re not factual. Emotions are chemically driven and are affected by a myriad of variables like environmental stimuli, physical health, age, worldview, self-talk, sleep quality and quantity, stress level, personal experience, food choices, beliefs, memories, thoughts, and much more. Narcissists may understand this, but they can’t relate to it.
For example, can the weather cause you to feel an emotion? Well, maybe. If you’re inside today, cozy and comfortable, and it begins to storm, do you feel any emotion about it? Some will say yes, and some will say no. But if you’re getting married today and it begins to downpour, will you have feelings about it? You’ll likely have strong feelings; disappointment, anger, sadness, or others. If you’re a farmer during a drought, you’d be elated about the drencher. In each example, the meaning each person gives to “rain” is very different, and the resulting emotion will align with that meaning. As they say, “perspective is everything.”
Narcissists have a self-centered perspective, and as their emotions change, their reality changes along with it. They view the present moment however their emotional filters are presenting it, and they’re usually going to be a victim. Discussions with a narcissistic mother are frustrating. If your mother is a narcissist, conversations seem futile and pointless. You’re not heard, much less understood. Your thoughts, feelings, and opinions are invalidated or mocked. You might even be called names or shouted at.
“You won’t have a heart-to-heart connection with your mother, but you can learn how to interact with her in a way that feels empowering.”
When emotionally healthy adults disagree with each other, they still speak politely to each other. They use logic, intelligence, good judgment, and skill sets like negotiation and compromise. In conversations with emotionally immature people like narcissists, this isn’t possible. A narcissistic mother talks at you and doesn’t hear what you say. She’s preoccupied, thinking of her next response and reviewing the list of ways that you’ve “wronged her.” Because she’s driven by emotion and the need to feel admired, correct, and superior, she challenges every point you make.
Emotionally Exhausting Discussions
Narcissistic moms enjoy having pointless arguments. They love it when we keep explaining, keep trying, and keep showing her that we’re emotionally invested in our relationship with her. They love that we care about what she thinks of us. These are forms of narcissistic supply for her. Have you ever had a long argument about nothing? That’s a form of supply; she was rejuvenated while you were being drained.
To minimize the possibility of a time-wasting, emotionally exhausting discussion, particular actions need to be taken before, during, and after talking with your narcissistic mother.
End Frustrating Conversations
From now on, conversations with your mom need to be planned. You’ll need to strategize. This sounds ridiculous when you consider you’re going through all of this trouble just to have a conversation with your mother. It shouldn’t be this difficult, right? You might even feel anger or resentment because of all the extra time and planning it will take to have a civil conversation with her. I get it, and it’s OK to feel that way. I did too.
What you’re doing here is taking back your power. Based on past experience, you’re thinking about the different scenarios, twists, and turns the conversation could take, and you’re preparing to handle them with grace and dignity.
You’re attempting to maximize the possibility of a drama-free discussion, which is a respectable goal. This is not about your mother; it’s about you. You’re going to take back your power and run this show. Focus on what you want that to look like and use the tools available. These tools include limiting your expectations, setting personal boundaries, and knowing and controlling your emotional triggers.
You need to be comfortable setting your expectations and boundaries for this conversation. Don’t try this until you’ve done the work regarding expectations and boundaries.
You need to be aware of your emotional triggers and have a plan for what you’ll do if you get triggered. The last thing you want to do is lose control of your emotions. Remember—your emotional outburst is her narcissistic supply. If you lose control of yourself, that will be a reward for her. Do not reward her. The whole idea here is to deny her any narcissistic supply so that you can have a drama-free conversation.
At first, you might feel anxious about setting the “rules of engagement” for your talk. With practice, it becomes more comfortable each time, and you’ll want to continue doing it because it works.
Here’s a general outline for preparing for a conversation with your narcissistic mother. I developed this strategy and tweaked it over the years, and I’ve had great success with it:
- Set the date. Choose a day and time when you’re likely to feel confident and centered. The more you practice mindfulness, becoming aware of your moods, triggers, cycles, etc., the more self-aware you’ll become.
- Set start and end times for the conversation. Be prepared to stick to the time frame.
- Limit the length of contact and keep it brief. Estimate how much time this conversation would typically take with someone other than your mom and aim for that amount.
- Set ground rules (boundaries) around how you’d like the conversation to flow.
- Notify your mother (or not). If her schedule fluctuates or you’re meeting at a designated spot, you’ll need her cooperation to schedule a get-together. If you interact with her regularly, you won’t need to set a formal date unless you feel strongly that you should. (Personally, I wouldn’t give any indication that something different or unexpected is about to happen.)
- Be ready to end the conversation early. It’s OK if that happens.
Before you meet:
- Strategize: know what you want to talk about and the points you want to make. Have your facts ready.
- Examine and understand your expectations for this discussion and revise them where necessary. I’ve heard expectations defined as “premeditated resentments.” Try not to have expectations. If you don’t expect a particular outcome, you can’t be disappointed.
- Set personal boundaries regarding the behaviors you will and will not accept from your mother. Have a plan for how you’ll respond if she exhibits unacceptable behaviors.
- Know what activates your emotional triggers. Have a planned response for when your mother starts pushing those buttons so you’re not caught off guard and succumb to the attack.
- Practice the conversation alone or with a trusted family member or friend, but practice!
The day of:
- Understand your topic of conversation and why you chose it. Review your expectations and your boundaries again.
- Review your triggers and what you’ll do if you get triggered.
- Take a deep breath, meditate, or do whatever makes you feel grounded.
- Visualize the conversation going the way you want it to. Envision your personal power as an interior ball of energy. Imagine a control panel to vary the level of power and crank it up until it’s radiating brightly, enveloping you. Keep this image with you throughout your meeting.
- Go over the ground rules (boundaries) with her. Do this calmly, respectfully, and firmly whether it’s the first time or the hundredth. Your mother needs to be aware of the requirements necessary for the conversation to continue. She needs to know that if she doesn’t adhere to them, the discussion will end immediately when the boundary is broken. She doesn’t need to agree with this. This is your boundary, and it’s for you, not her. For example, to state your boundary and the consequence for breaking it, you can say something like: “I know in the past when we’ve disagreed, it ended badly. I don’t want that to happen again. It’s important to me that we listen to and hear each other and respect each other’s feelings, so if we can’t maintain a calm and respectful tone, I will leave.” This is not a threat; it is a boundary that you have set to keep yourself safe. A boundary is a form of personal power, something you do for yourself in response to someone’s inappropriate behavior. A boundary allows choices, including the choice to break the boundary and experience the consequences, whereas a threat takes away choices. A threat is a form of manipulation with the intent to control.
Now, this is really important: if you say you will leave when the boundary is broken, then you absolutely have to leave. Don’t argue back. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t explain. When that boundary of calm and respect has been broken, you just get up and go. There is no explanation necessary because you already gave it before the conversation started.
It’s important to honor your boundaries; otherwise, you’re teaching your mother that you’re “all talk but no action.” It hurts the first time you enforce a boundary. It hurts the next time too. But here’s my point: if you’re consistent, your mother will learn that she can’t treat you poorly anymore. Whether she likes it or not, she’ll learn that she must honor your boundaries if she wants to have any interaction with you at all.
Training your mother to behave differently when she’s with you will take time and repetition. There’s nothing more frustrating to her than pushing your buttons and getting no response, getting no supply from you. It’s not going to happen on the first attempt. To make her understand that you’re serious, you’ll need to enforce your boundaries repeatedly. Keep in mind that she’s not becoming empathetic, more understanding, or more emotionally attached to you. No, those are complex changes that she’s not capable of making. What’s actually happening is much more straightforward: she’s learning that her source of supply (you) goes away when she does x, y, or z.
During the conversation:
- Be direct. Speak assertively.
- Make factual statements. Do not explain your feelings or your choices. Explaining yourself only serves to feed your mother’s ego and give her more attention and supply.
- Do not defend or justify. Do not provide any supply. Use the gray rock method if you know it.
- Maintain your boundaries.
- Stay in your power. Remember, you will act with dignity and grace in your personal power. It does not matter how she chooses to act.
Don’t forget; that your mother has a right to her own thoughts and perceptions of you. This isn’t about trying to get her to see you or accept you. That’s not going to happen. This is about sharing information and feelings authentically.
Having a conversation with a narcissistic mother feels like a game of emotional tug-of-war. But when you drop your end of the rope, the game stops. It can’t continue unless you pick up your end and start pulling again. So, no more games. You don’t have to explain that you’re no longer playing or why. Your actions speak loud and clear: when you drop the rope, you’re demonstrating that she no longer has control over you.
If you haven’t tried this, I can tell you from experience that it’s very empowering.
After the conversation:
Take some quiet time alone to review how it went and how you feel. Journal about the conversation’s pros and cons. Talk about how it went well and how it didn’t. Write about what you’ll need to do differently the next time you get together. Write it out, review it, and use it the next time you spend time with your mother. Doing these will build the consistency that it takes. Each time you interact, you’ll make those little tweaks and changes, and eventually, you’ll have a solid way of conversing with your mom that works for you.
Now, go do something wonderful for your self-care.
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
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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 and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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