If your relationship with your mother is typically full of pain and heartache, this article is dedicated to you.
When Mother’s Day Hurts
Every April and May of every year, we are urged by all manner of media to remember our mothers on the second Sunday of May. These pre-Mother’s Day messages often portray sweet, heartwarming, sentimental interactions between mothers and their children. Viewing those ads has always been difficult for me because I have longed for those kinds of interactions with my own mother for my entire life.
Suppose your mother is self-important, seeks admiration, believes she’s superior, lacks empathy, manipulates and uses her children, puts others down to elevate herself, is hypersensitive to criticism, and believes she deserves special treatment. In that case, she may be on the narcissism spectrum, and you will likely experience mixed feelings about Mother’s Day.
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Daughters and sons of narcissistic mothers are out there and they feel alone and misunderstood.
An emotionally healthy mother’s love is a powerful, lifelong theme for most children; her kindness, compassion, validation, and the loving bond that they share. For those of us who don’t have that kind of mom, memories, or relationship, we are keenly aware of those who do. And we wonder why we don’t. Because surely if our mothers can’t love us, it must be our fault. We must be unlovable, right?
American culture views motherhood as a saintly paradigm, promoting that mother love is instinctive, unconditional, and spontaneous; and that all women can love, empathize, and nurture. These myths and inaccuracies are detrimental; they harm unloved children’s spirits, holding them in a state of self-doubt and cognitive dissonance.
When a mother and adult child relationship fails, it’s the adult child who’s usually held responsible. These kinds of cultural perspectives can keep an unloved daughter or son stuck in the place they’ve been since childhood—knowing that something is wrong and blaming themselves. They wonder who will be able to love them if their own mothers can’t.
But mothering is a learned behavior in human beings. A spectrum of maternal behaviors exists, from healthy to toxic. Acknowledging this may be helpful when we think about Mother’s Day.
I used to spend a huge amount of emotional energy just selecting a Mother’s Day card. Today, there is more awareness and sensitivity regarding family dysfunction and the understanding that not all mothers are loving and kind. These days, it’s easier to find a more realistic card sentiment. But years ago, it was extremely difficult to find a card that didn’t boldly announce “Happy Mothers Day to the Greatest Mother in the World!” or “I’m So Blessed That You’re My Mother” All of them gushed with sentiments that I didn’t feel and all of them felt like lies. While I dealt with that, others dealt with decisions like: “Should I even send a card?” “Should I call?” “Should I see her?” “Should I ignore the day?” “What should I do?”
The thing is, if we’re still attempting to please and appease our narcissistic moms, we’re in a no-win situation. Whatever we do will not be good enough because it never has. Like others in this situation, every year I went through emotional pain and turmoil: on Mother’s Day, I was forced to face the stark and demoralizing humiliation of our one-sided relationship for the entire day. I was actually a mother myself, yet I was focused on making this day all about MY mother. I wasn’t able to enjoy what the day meant for me as a mother. I missed out on feeling connected with my kids and letting them focus on me, celebrating me. Instead, I expected them to focus on her too. The entire day was about my mother and making her happy. But of course, she never was. She spent the day criticizing the weather, the restaurant, the food, her gifts, and other people. For decades this continued and I didn’t see it because I was supremely codependent, unaware, and unhealed. Eventually, I awakened and realized that something needed to change. I finally accepted that she wasn’t going to change. I needed to change.
Experts say that with a narcissistic mother, you have two choices: live on her terms (focusing on her, chasing after her withheld love, acceptance, and affection) or go “no contact.” This feels like black and white (all or none) thinking to me, and I’ve never been a big fan. I prefer to see all the shades of gray. So I created a third option for myself: I identified my cognitive dissonance and C-PTSD symptoms and prioritized healing them with various forms of therapy. I refused to be gaslighted, I set enforceable boundaries and started trusting my mind and my memories. I no longer focused on what she did, said, wanted, or expected, and as a result, I no longer felt humiliated, unloved, invalidated, and rejected. Our relationship was finally on my terms.
Confusion and Cognitive Dissonance
As children, if our need for love and connection to our mothers was not met, we simply blamed ourselves. And then we began forming beliefs that we are not good enough and that we don’t matter.
If you are an empathetic person, you are naturally sensitive to others’ emotional needs. Trying to understand that narcissists don’t have the ability to feel empathy is difficult to understand or believe. As children of narcissists, we keep returning to that parent, again and again, hoping and wishing that it will be different this time. We focus on gaining approval, validation, acceptance, and love. We jump through any hoop offered. When nothing changes, it triggers more pain and confusion and a continuation of the “I’m not-good-enough’s” and “I-don’t-matter’s.”
Then we grew up, and we may have started to realize that the problem is not us! There is nothing—and there never was—anything inherently wrong with us, as we may have been led to believe.
You do not need a formal diagnosis to determine that your relationship is unhealthy. If it is, you can do something about it.
There’s a Name For It
“Narcissism Awareness Grief” (NAG) is a condition coined by Dr. Christine Hammond, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. She teaches that the loss of a mother’s love, warmth, interest, and connection is a momentous loss that must be consciously grieved.
Narcissism Awareness Grief acknowledges that our mothers’ narcissistic traits have negatively impacted us. When we begin to come to terms with how they have impacted us, we can break through the denial and start working through six stages of grief, to finally arrive at the final phase of Acceptance. When you fully understand and accept that you cannot change or control your mother’s perception of you, the ball is truly in your court. It’s from the point of Acceptance that your life can and will change. Remember, acceptance does not mean liking or agreeing. You can accept that your mother has narcissistic traits, but you don’t have to like it. Accepting and liking are two separate things.
I remember very well what it was like to experience Narcissism Awareness Grief. As I slowly became aware of how my mother’s narcissistic traits affected me, I felt a mixture of denial, disbelief, and a sense of overwhelming sadness. You see, when we discover that the dysfunction and trauma we experienced as children has an actual name, there’s an initial rush of validation. We suddenly realize that we’re not alone, that we’re not crazy, and that we haven’t imagined it. Narcissistic mistreatment, trauma, and abuse are real things, and we can recover from them.
What can we adult children of maternal narcissists do to feel better on Mother’s Day?
Like most days, you can make the day into whatever you want. Here are a few suggestions that can help:
- Question the card. Search for a generic Mother’s Day card, if you want to send a card at all. Giving a card that says “Best Mom in the World” is an act of denial. The first step to healing is admitting how you feel about your relationship. NO MORE DENIAL. It takes courage not to buy that lying card. If you want to give a card, find one, or make one, that better acknowledges how you feel.
- Eliminate expectations. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t expect anything to be different this year. Learn to drop expectations.
- Make new traditions. Do the day differently. Celebrate yourself! Do something you enjoy, whether solo or with a friend. Focus on self-care.
- Feel and express your feelings. Give yourself permission to feel and express whatever you’re feeling. Give yourself space to cry, be angry, feel unloved, or grieve. Acknowledge that you have reason to feel these feelings, and validate your childhood memories. Write it all in a journal to get it out of your system in a healthy way.
- Shift the focus. Practice gratitude, speak healing affirmations or do something nice for someone else.
- Make an appointment. If Mother’s Day annually triggers anxiety or depression, give yourself the gift of scheduled time with a professional to start the healing process.
- Seek support. Find support groups in your area or online. Talking with others who understand narcissism dynamics can help in your healing journey. And as always, don’t try to explain it to those who don’t. Others who don’t understand narcissism may unknowingly invalidate you, causing further pain or trauma.
- Express gratitude to the mothers you know who are loving and kind. Honor other women who have given you motherly love, perhaps a grandmother, aunt, or friend.
- If you are a mother, work to end the legacy of one-sided love. Acknowledge and be grateful for your ability to love.
- Start working on a recovery program so you don’t pass the legacy down to your children. If you are already working on healing, good for you! Do the work!
On Mother’s Day, let’s all honor the mothers who have given their children the gifts of love and nurturing. Let’s applaud the mothers who are working on a program to change the family legacy of narcissistic mistreatment or abuse. And at the same time, let’s acknowledge the truths of the daughters and sons of mothers who cannot show love to their children.
You’re all in my thoughts,
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
from Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism
Tools for Healing
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Learn about Narcissism Awareness Grief
Learn to set boundaries
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Understand trauma bonds
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn to drop 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, author Diane Metcalf developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those with others who want to learn and grow.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on family dysfunction and narcissism. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology. She has worked in numerous human service fields, including domestic violence and partner abuse.
She has authored four transformational books about healing and moving forward, including the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains maternal narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
The Lemon Moms series, as well as her other books and articles, are an aggregation of education, insight, and personal growth resulting from childhood experiences and her subsequent recovery work.
She writes about strategies for recovering and moving on from hurtful people and painful, dysfunctional, or toxic relationships on The Toolbox blog.
See what’s happening on her author’s site: DianeMetcalf.com
Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.