When I listen to some of my clients talk about how their mother treats them, I sometimes hear an almost textbook description of the classic Exhibitionist Narcissist. Usually my clients have no idea that many of their terrible childhood memories and their low self-esteem are probably due to their mother having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
What Is a Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
One can think of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as an adaptation to a childhood situation that left the person with unstable self-esteem and low empathy. These children grow up to be adults who lack what psychologists call “Whole Object Relations.” This means that they are unable to see themselves and other people in an integrated and stable way as simultaneously having a mix of good and bad and liked and disliked qualities. Instead, they alternate between love and hatred or idealization and devaluation.
As parents, when the child is making them feel good about themselves, they will have only positive feelings toward the child. When the child displease them in any way, they will have only negative feelings towards the child. As their feelings shift, their view of their child shifts as well. Narcissistic parents also see themselves in this limited and binary way: Either they are special, unique and perfect or they are worthless, defective garbage.
Child Abuse and Object Constancy
Narcissistic parents also lack “Object Constancy.” This means that when they feel disappointed, hurt, or angry with their child, they immediately lose touch with all their positive feelings for the child and now see the child as all-bad and deserving of punishment. A great deal of the child abuse that we read about is due to the lack of “Object Constancy.” If parents have “Object Constancy,” this helps them manage their angry, punitive impulses. They can remember while they are angry or disappointed with their child that they still love the child and do not want to cause harm.
The Effect of Parental Narcissism on the Child’s Self-Image
If you are raised by Narcissistic parents, you are unlikely to be able to develop a stable, integrated, and realistic self-image. This is because we are biologically programed to develop a great deal of our self-image from how our caregivers treat us. This is similar to the way we learn to speak whatever language the people around us are speaking. The Narcissistic parent can only mirror back to the child the distorted and one-sided views of how they see the child—and these views of the child can shift rapidly as the parent’s mood changes. This influence can be mitigated if there are other loving and stable adults around who see the child in a realistic and positive way. This can be a non-Narcissistic father, loving grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even close friends of the family.
7 Signs of the Exhibitionist Narcissist Mother
After listening to hundreds of my clients talk to me about their mothers, I realized that those raised by Exhibitionist Narcissist mothers were describing the same seven types of issues over and over again. If you can relate to the following examples, and these seven issues played a big role in your childhood, this may be a sign that you too were raised by an Exhibitionist Narcissist mother. I hope that you do not recognize too many of them.
1. She Needs to Be the Center of Attention
Like all Exhibitionistic Narcissists, the Exhibitionist Narcissist mother craves attention. Somehow, no matter who is talking or what else is going on, she will always manage to find a way to make it about her. She may do this gracefully with humor and a funny story or by abruptly interrupting the ongoing conversation and changing the topic to her.
An Example: One mother like this visited her daughter in the hospital. Her daughter was recovering from major surgery. Instead of focusing on her daughter, she began flirting with the doctors and talking to the people visiting the patient in the next bed. She was shocked when her daughter later told her how hurt and abandoned she had felt. The mother was so focused on the good time that she was having that it never occurred to her that her daughter might feel differently.
2. She Is Low on Emotional Empathy
One of the interesting characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (or “Adaptation” as I prefer to call it) is that the Narcissistic person does not usually “feel” what other people are feeling. The Narcissistic mother may have “Cognitive Empathy” (i.e. she may be able to intellectually understand that some behavior of hers might cause her child pain), but without “Emotional Empathy” she has little incentive to care. Her emotional pain perception only goes one way. If you accidently cause her even the slightest bit of emotional pain, she is likely to react in a highly exaggerated way, while completely ignoring the pain that she is causing you.
An Example: When John’s mother Carol had a birthday, she expected everyone around her to make a fuss: give her thoughtful birthday cards, buy her presents, take her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant, and in general make her whole day extremely special. When John turned ten, he woke up very excited, wondering what special surprise his mother had planned for him: Would he get the bike he had been asking for? Would there be ice cream cake? Unfortunately, Carol had been very busy all week and had completely forgotten about John’s upcoming birthday and had not even gotten him a present or a card. When John acted disappointed, his mother felt criticized and instead of apologizing, she attacked him and said: “Stop acting like a baby! You’re too old now for special presents anyway.”
John’s father David (who does have “Emotional Empathy”) had assumed that his wife was doing the birthday planning. When he saw how hurt and disappointed John was, he quickly stepped in to try and save the day for John. He took John and his sister to a local amusement park and out for ice cream, while his wife stayed home sulking. That night after the children were in bed, Carol berated her husband for making her look bad.
3. She Dominates the House and Uses Devaluation to Get Her Way
The entire household tends to revolve around the Exhibitionist Narcissist mother’s wishes. Everything has to be the way she wants it to be, because she feels entitled to it. People do what she wants because when they do not, she flies into a rage, devalues them, and generally makes life miserable for everyone until they give in. She will continually belittle anyone who challenges her and when she does, she hits below the belt. It is not uncommon for the child who displeases this type of mother to be told: “No man will ever marry you because you are so fat.” Or, “You will never amount to anything because you are a worthless, stupid idiot!”
Because the Exhibitionist Narcissist mothers sees her surroundings as reflection of her status in life, it may be extremely important to her that the house be decorated the way she wants and cleaned and maintained as perfectly as possible. Conversely, if she is the type of woman who does not particularly care if her surroundings are clean and organized, she will be indifferent to the pleas of her family to take more of an interest in the home. Usually she has managed to marry a man who will let her run the house and children however she wants.
An Example: Bob remembers that he was never allowed to have friends over because his mother was afraid that they might spill something on the rug or mess up her furniture. His mother was more focused on the house looking perfect, than the rest of the family enjoying themselves at home. One of his earliest memories is being screamed at and told that he was a “stupid, clumsy fool” when he accidently spilled his milk at the kitchen table.
4. She Acts Selfishly
The needs and interests of the Exhibitionist Narcissist mother always come first. If she works outside the home or is deeply involved in hobbies, everything else in the family will take second place. She may think nothing of leaving her children behind when she takes long trips for work. She does not usually concern herself with planning the details of how they well be cared for in her absence. Her assumption is that she is entitled to go and someone else in the family will do whatever is necessary to make that possible. Or she may go back to school while her children are young without seriously thinking about how her absence will affect them or her husband. She expects everyone to be just as excited about her plans for herself as she is. If anyone in the family objects or points out how her plans negatively affect them, she is deeply insulted and likely to call them the “selfish” ones.
Because the Narcissistic mother is so self-centered, she is often oblivious to her children’s real needs. If she likes seeing them dressed nicely, she may spend a lot of time and money on buying them clothing; while ignoring their pleas to play with them or listen to them practice piano. Her perpetual focus on her own agenda may lead her family to perceive her as being cold or disinterested in theirs.
An Example: Carly was almost 3 when her single mother decided to leave her with her grandmother for a month in order to go hiking in Nepal. Carly remembers being scared that her mother was never coming back. Carly was too young to understand what a month was and cried for days. When her mother showed up suddenly one day to take her back home, Carly started crying and ran to her and clung to her leg. Her mother got angry and told her to “stop being a baby!”
5. She Expects Her Children to Be Perfect
The Exhibitionist Narcissist mother expects her children to perfectly represent her in the world and is disappointed and angry when they don’t live up to her expectations. This is because she cannot separate her internal image of herself (what the object relations theorists call her “self-representation”) from her internal image of her children. As a result, when her child does badly, she feels badly about herself. Similarly, when her children do well, she feels good about herself. It is as if their image and her image overlap in her mind (what the object relations theorists call “a fused self and object representation”) and their boundaries are permeable. This usually leads to her putting a lot of pressure on her children to be perfect and special, and a lot of screaming, punishment, and withdrawal of love when they do not live up to her expectations.
The Exhibitionist Narcissist mother may choose one child as her favorite and devalue the other. In some families, she may change favorites on a whim. Often the children are pitted against each other: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
6. She Is Moody and Will Create an Uproar When Things Are Not to Her Liking
The Exhibitionist Narcissist mother can be quite moody. She may be happy and warm to her family when she is feeling special and the center of admiring attention, then suddenly turn angry and negative the moment things are not going the way that she wants. She is hyper-sensitive to anything she considers a slight and will retaliate immediately in a way that is wildly disproportionate to whatever occurred. She is also likely to devalue anyone who does not agree with her. She cannot grasp that there can be different and equally valid ways to perceive a situation. When her children or husband do not agree with her point of view, she takes that as a personal criticism. She is likely to angrily lash out as if she has been personally attacked. She may try and bully everyone into agreeing with her opinion and they may give in and agree just to restore peace.
The whole family gets used to organizing itself around Mother’s moods: fearfully tiptoeing around to avoid her wrath when she is angry, and coming out again when she is happy. Sometimes one or more children devote themselves to getting mother out of her “bad mood” by focusing a lot of positive attention on her and saying what they have learned she wants to hear.
7. She Can Be Very Intrusive
Because these mothers need so much attention and validation to maintain a positive image of themselves and do not have a sense of their children as truly separate beings, they often insert themselves into their children’s lives inappropriately. Sometimes they get over involved in their children’s projects or homework, doing too much of the work themselves and taking too much of the credit. This can take many forms.
Some Examples: Lydia’s mother took all the credit for her success as a lead in the school play by insisting that it was the costume she made for her that was responsible for Lydia’s success. Another Exhibitionist Mother took over her son Mike’s science fair project and did most of it while he looked on. Her son wanted to do it himself, but his mother told him that it was too important a project for him to do by himself. The message that Mike took away was that he was inadequate to do anything that was really important. He also got the message that honesty was less important than doing well.
As the children get older, these mothers may try and be a friend to their children’s friends—one of the group instead of a mother. They may feel left out if their children prefer to be with their friends instead of with them. Instead of seeing their children’s growing independence as a sign of maturation and health, they may become angry because they are feeling less important. They may try to get the spotlight back by doing inappropriate things, such as flirting with their teenage daughter’s boyfriends. They may also want to know inappropriate things about their teenager’s romantic attachments and get offended when the teen wants some privacy.
An Example: Joshua was starting to date and his mother became afraid that he might get some girl pregnant and ruin his life. She used this concern to justify secretly going through his things to see if she could find any evidence that he was sexually active. When she found some pornography and condoms hidden in his room, she confronted him and wanted to know the details of his sex life. She was unable to acknowledge that Joshua had the right to some privacy.
Punchline: Exhibitionist Narcissist mothers tend to be very predictable. The details may differ, but the self-centeredness, volatility, and lack of empathy stay the same.
Elinor Greenberg, PhD, CGP
Author of the Book: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid Adaptation: The Pursuit of Love, Admiration, and Safety.