Loving as an adult, after maternal narcissism, was problematic. My choices of partner were made out of an unconscious desire to heal my wounds. They fell into two camps, maybe yours have too. The narcissist...or the doormat.
Dating the Narcissist
My mother's 'love' was always an extension of her own need to improve her self-image (woe betide me if I made her look bad). One of the biggest dangers of growing up with a narcissistic mother, is that you will believe that the relationship you have with her is a loving and rewarding one. And even if you don't it's the original relationship which created your idea of what a relationship should look like. And that's buried in your subconscious, which means that one day soon, you'll be going out with a narcissist yourself (and believing it's love).
'Why do we always go here on our dates?' I said.
We were sitting at the corner kebab stall called Mr. Goodfast eating slices of pizza on our regular Saturday night out. It was neither good (or as it turned out, fast).
'Well I'm not ready to announce you to the world yet.' He said. 'You've made a lot of progress but to introduce you to my friends, you'll need to lose some more weight and stop wearing those awful leggings. They make you look like a hooker. I'm the best bouncer on the block, and I'll be damned if anyone is going to criticize my girlfriend. '
'Apart from you, you mean.' I said.
'Oh baby, you know I'm only trying to help. I have to be honest, it's the only way. Look how far you've come already.'
It's a terrible tragedy because it's almost an inevitability. Going out with a narcissist when you were raised by one is the first and sometimes the only opportunity that many have to recognize their original trauma. Because this time it happens when you're an adult when you can think more clearly. Or can you...
He was right wasn't he? I thought. He had helped me. But two years and after extensive abuse I finally managed to break up with him. He said bitterly,
'All this work I've done to turn you into a princess. And now you're going to fuck someone else. Everything I've achieved and someone else will get it.'
Less than 5 years before my (adoptive) mother had said more or less the same thing when I found my biological mother.
'I've suffered and saved to bring you up right. And now you're going back to her. It's like serving her a ready made meal on a plate. She gets it all without any of the hard work.'
It was by recognising these same words, among other things, that I recognised my partner had been psychologically abusive, even before he started to hit me (although it was only this which gave me the justification I needed. Later I read up on it. Apparently we are all destined to be attracted to people who tap into our emotional needs. But when you live with unhealed wounds due to maternal narcissism, your emotional needs stem from your childhood trauma. The first pattern we will follow is when our wounds are still unconscious. When we are not aware of them.
As long as we are not aware that we are suffering the long reaching effects of maternal narcissism, you may, like me, be destined to try and find a narcissist and hope that they love you, because your mother did not. They will not because they are incapable of it. You are - as hard as it may be to hear - pushing at a button where there is nothing. If you recognise yourself in this patterning, you will need validation that your mother was a narcissist. It is the only way that you can finally accept that there is a wound to be healed otherwise you remain in denial. Affirm and grieve the relationship with your mother that you thought you had. She didn't love you, even if she was convinced otherwise. And even if it's horrific to accept. But you are worthy of being loved and this person isn't capable of loving you.
Dating the Doormat
But let's say you've realized that somewhere down the line there was something terribly wrong with the relationship with your mother. What is it you want then? The desire to be accepted exactly as you are, the desire to be praised, the desire to be loved. On the surface this seems healthy. Who wouldn't want to be loved exactly the way they are? Without judgement?
We all want it. But if you 'need' it, then you're headed for danger.
'Needing' to be loved exactly the way you are so that your very existence depends on it, and finding such a person who does so, doesn't help you heal the original wound. Moreover there are very few people who are capable of loving you the way you are unless they themselves are feeding into their childhood wounds (we all have some, but some are healthier than others). Most healthier people will push back with their boundaries and these will inevitably clash with yours.
If you can't take this maybe because you are hypersensitive to criticism (again, like me), you may end up in a relationship with a doormat who doesn't criticise you for anything.
Your doormat will initially make you feel in control - something you never felt as a child. It will make you feel good. But somewhere down the line you will realize that you are terribly alone. You will start to resent them. And your doormat will start to resent you. You who have all the power. They are dependent on you for their security and self esteem...a terrible position to be in. I married mine.
It wasn't our fault of course. But we were both responsible for the situation we found ourselves in. We both sought someone who was a 'need' fulfilment machine and not as a person in their own right. We were both dependent on each other to make ourselves feel good.
The biggest risk, I believe, is that you will think the doormat simply doesn't serve your needs anymore and go off to find someone else who will. But I also believe that most people, if not locked in their cage of denial are looking to grow and heal. It is entirely possible that the doormat too, can grow and heal just as you can. As opposed to the first scenario, I think this relationship is salvageable. But it will need enormous self-awareness and work. I didn't manage to salvage mine, but in trying to heal my words we moved in different and healthier directions (that's a whole 'nother story).
What Can You Do?
Firstly, both of you will need to be working on your original wounds. You cannot heal his, and he cannot heal yours. And you cannot be his therapist. You both need one and this is what my therapist outlined I should do. It worked for me, but it's (as you might imagine) and ongoing work. Nowadays I use it for any wound I identify (which, as it happens, is how this blog started).
1. Identification of the wound...being sure and convinced that the trauma is there, is the first step to healing. You cannot heal something you do not acknowledge. Put a name to it. Describe it fully on paper (there's a reason that writing works as catharsis).
Narcissism in this respect is doubling damaging. You have been convinced all your life that you are the crazy one (it's a classic sign of maternal narcissism, all that gaslighting). That your mother is doing everything out of love (so why do you feel so unloved?). Stop that now. Write it down....know that you have experienced trauma. It doesn't make you - or her - a bad person. Narcissists for all the evil they do, are not themselves evil. They don't do it on purpose. They are also re-enacting their childhood trauma. This is not a blame game.
2. Understand the impacts and repercussions of the wound...identify areas of your life that have been impacted and the repercussions of these impacts. Write them out in layers. e.g.
- IMPACT: 'Because my mother was a narcissist, I have felt not good enough all my life.'
- REPERCUSSION: 'Because I have not felt good enough, I am a perfectionist at the expense of my health.'
- REPERCUSSION: 'Because I have not felt good enough, I accepted that my partner's criticisms of me were valid.'
- REPERCUSSION: 'Because I believed my partner's criticisms of me were valid, I allowed myself to be hurt by them.'
The key to this exercise is to take responsibility for your feelings. You are in charge of them. Always. But fucking hell that's difficult. Because we still need to feel angry. We're allowed to feel angry.
Yet you were probably taught by your narcissistic mother that you were responsible for her feelings. And that therefore, we are in charge of other people's feelings. It's not true. No one can be in charge of anyone else's feelings. Which means that ultimately the only person in charge of YOUR feelings is yourself.
3. Distance yourself from the negative feelings...You are not your feelings. But if you continue to live in them you will continue to twist the knife in your wound. Wounds heal, like our bodies, without us doing anything. We just have to let them. By distancing yourself from your wounds, you take the knife out. There are two ways of doing this (I recommend both).
A) Think of an experience that still 'hurts you'. Reframe this hurt as something that you are experiencing, not something you are. Instead of saying 'I am hurt by this' say 'I am experiencing hurt from this'. See the 'hurt' in your minds eye. See how it comes and goes. Visualize it coming and going. Now visualize it inside a bubble without the power to hurt you, just as an entity unto itself.
B) Write down the experience that hurts you, in the first person. Everything. Then rewrite the same experience in the third person. Read them both together. Notice how when you tell it as a story in the third person, it loses its impact. You have done this! You have made it lose it's impact! Re-read and re-write your experiences in this way, until you grow tired of them. They have lost their ability to hurt you.
Rinse, and repeat, whenever you come across an experience where you feel hurt.
After the Healing...
The road to recovery carries risks. There are three risks I've identified through personal experience. One, that the relationship you were once so invested in turns out to be built on a trauma bond that stemmed ONLY from the needs created from your emotional wounds. Once your emotional wounds have healed, you may find that your desires in a relationship are entirely different (and the same goes for your partner).
Two, that your partner simply isn't willing or aware enough to be able to do the work necessary to grow. It's not their fault, but it is your choice to stay in the relationship. This is particularly problematic if you have children.
Three that when you are used to being with a person in order for them to fulfil your needs, being with them simply because you want to be with them will feel very strange. Light, unburdened but strange. We are so used to confusing 'love' with 'need' that it will appear to you as if the 'love' has disappeared. Whilst this may also be true, you will have to learn to distinguish between the two...otherwise you will be destined to return back to your comfort zone of 'need' (but that's the topic of another article).
Maybe like me, you will find that when you are healthier, you attract healthier people. I hope it's your partner...but it may not be.
The Maternal Narcissism Trail
Growing up with a maternal narcissist - a mother who views you as an extension of herself - teaches you to suppress your sense of self in order to be loved. It warps you, stunts you, in such a way as you may never recover. It makes you insecure, hypervigilant and highly susceptible to abusive relationships in adult life. It's horrific, but there is hope, recovery and validation together with others who have experienced it. There's far too many of us.