Often, when I work with daughters of narcissistic mothers – particularly women who have just realised they are DONMs – they question how fair it is to expect more, or better, of our mothers. If, these clients reason, narcissism is a personality disorder, can we realistically blame them for how they behave? By naming their behaviour as a personality disorder, there is an inference that there is nothing the person can do about their behaviour. Pathologizing behaviour that falls outside the cultural expectations of a society purports to be a way of understanding this behaviour, but it often ends up being a way to medicalise people who would benefit from other treatments.
I have heard the argument that blaming someone for being a narcissist is like blaming someone for having depression – but I disagree. To a large extent, people with depression accept that they have a mental health issue that benefits from treatment/s. Narcissists rarely accept that their behaviour is problematic. As a result, any sort of therapeutic intervention is eschewed.
Another significant difference between a narcissist and someone with a mental health illness is that the former chooses to treat their victims a certain way; whereas someone who has a depression (for example), is depressed around everybody. They don’t choose to be depressed around one person and not depressed around another.
Those of us who grew up with siblings will notice that our narcissistic mothers treated others in the same family differently. In our family, I was my mother’s scapegoat: I was the child who was not loved, whom she neglected, whom she abused physically, emotionally, mentally, and psychologically, and whose sexual abuse she facilitated.
I was the child who received no love, affection, consideration, or kindness from my mother (Phil). At the same time, she was (and is) perfectly capable of heaping loving, ‘motherly’ support on my siblings. As a result, they have very different experiences of her; as a human, as a woman, and – most particularly – as a mother. This served the dual purpose of both compounding the hurt and isolation I felt as a child – because I didn’t have an ‘ally’ within the home – and of deepening the divide as we attained adulthood.
Phil was perfectly able to have my brothers’ best interests at heart; to promote their well being; to admire them. She chose which children to bestow her attention on (and she freely admits to having a favourite, and a second favourite!). If she were truly incapable of being a loving individual, she would not have been able to express support for any of us: Succinctly put, if it were truly a mental health issue that she couldn’t control, she would have treated us all as badly as each other.
People can learn how to modify their behaviour if they want to. The problem with a narcissist is that there is no desire to change. They don’t want to change because they don’t see that they are doing anything wrong, and they refuse to accept criticisms. They refuse to accept that any sort of critique is not necessarily a criticism. Narcissists refuse to be in any way reflexive, so they don’t accept that somebody else’s truth is an honest representation of the facts if it differs from the narcissist’s.
When presented with empirical evidence, they will resort to gaslighting you by saying things like:
‘I don’t remember’
‘That’s not how it was meant’
‘You’re taking it out of context’
‘You’re too sensitive’
‘You’re making a big deal out of it’
‘I was only joking’
‘It’s your own fault’
‘You take everything up the wrong way’
If you would like to take part in an eight-week programme for daughters of narcissistic mothers, in January 2022, you can find details here.
Earlier this year, I surveyed 1,722 Daughters Of Narcissistic Mothers, with a focus on their own experiences of motherhood. This post is the first of