Maternal Narcissism: Trapped in the Role of ‘Good Daughter’

Rear view of mother and daughter hold hands at sunsetWired for connection, baby daughter looks into her mother’s eyes needing to see delight reflected back to her. What if, instead, baby’s gaze is met with emotional emptiness? Lights out. Nobody home.

And what if this blank stare isn’t the manifestation of a temporary hormonal condition but instead indicative of something more troublesome? What if mom’s emotional tank is perpetually low and she has little or nothing to give her daughter?

If mom didn’t get the love and affirmation she needed when she was young, then her daughter, in the role of the “good daughter,” learns quickly that mom’s needs—and not her own—are at the center of the relationship.

The emptiness mom feels inside can threaten to swallow both mother and daughter. There simply aren’t enough good feelings to go around. And like a bucket with a slow leak, the narcissistically defended mother’s good feelings about herself are in constant need of a refill. In response, the daughter learns to put her own needs on the back burner as she works to fill mom up.

Many a “good daughter” learns making mom happy is necessary for their own emotional survival. To this end, the “good daughter” manages to subvert/suppress/deny her own needs to take care of mom.

The “good daughter” learns to:

  1. Look good for mom: The “good daughter’s” demeanor, appearance, and accomplishments must reflect well on mom.
  2. Act happy for mom: The “good daughter” acts cheerful, enthusiastic, and puts on a positive face so as not to overwhelm mom. Bad moods, setbacks, and struggles must be short-circuited, if not hidden.

The Cost of Being the ‘Good Daughter’

In the normal course of development, the “good daughter,” attuned to her mother’s needs, may bury her own needs for the mother’s sake. Understandably, these needs and feelings do not disappear. When these repressed needs surface, the “good daughter” may feel like a fake.

Sadly, when the “good daughter” of the narcissistically defended mother needs support from mom regarding loss, disappointment, or struggle, she may find that mom has little to give.

Mom isn’t evil, although her actions are frequently destructive. Simply put, a mother who is narcissistically injured is consumed with preserving and replenishing her impoverished sense of self. Her emotional tank is empty. The narcissistic defense means mom is forever in a relentless pursuit of the emotional supplies she did not get during pivotal times in her own development. Additionally, mom may feel the need to disguise her neediness, which may result in denial, defensiveness, and manipulation of her daughter.

When mom experiences deep insecurities, her parenting may be slightly or profoundly impaired.

Healthy functioning is restored when both mother and daughter are free to be themselves and no one needs to “be good” for anyone else.

Because the daughter has subverted her own needs, she runs the danger of becoming disassociated from those needs. She becomes “good” at the expense of being real. This can result in the “good daughter” feeling like an impostor, a fake, just waiting to be found out.

Because she is disconnected from her authentic self, the “good daughter” worries underneath it all that she isn’t good enough.

Since her sense of self is rooted in making another person happy, she is at risk for codependency in her relationships. And because she is used to making another person’s happiness the basis for her feelings of self-worth, she may base her sense of self-worth on her own daughter’s successes.

This is how being “good” for mom isn’t necessarily good for daughter. Or daughter’s daughter, for that matter.

Healing is possible, however. The “good daughter” must get in touch with her authentic self and start to mend the places within that she has long denied. In doing so, she enables herself to parent from a place of wholeness and confidence, and to empathize and accept both her own needs and her daughter’s. By becoming aware of and reclaiming forgotten parts of herself, the daughter of a mother with narcissism can end the cycle of maternal narcissism.

Healthy functioning is restored when both mother and daughter are free to be themselves and no one needs to “be good” for anyone else.

Note: The generalizations above may not apply to all dynamics in a family affected by parental narcissism. Also, although this article refers specifically to a mother and daughter for the purpose of narrative cohesion, any gender combination of parent and child can be similarly touched by narcissism.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Katherine Fabrizio, MA, LPC, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Connie

    July 28th, 2016 at 7:02 AM

    It leaves a little hole in your heart when you are missing out on that kind of love and support from your mother though.

  • katherine f

    katherine f

    July 28th, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    As I read your words Connie, I place my hand over my heart and honor your pain- as one daughter to another. And to be truthful, I think there is nothing that ever completely fills that hole in your heart. However a choice I have seen some brave women make in psychotherapy is this- They learn to honor that loss, tend to the wound, be gentle with themselves and give to their own daughters the love they, themselves, have never received.

  • Lisa

    July 28th, 2016 at 1:34 PM

    I was crying by the time I got to the end of this article. I experienced most of this. I love my mother and I know she really loves me. But it broke my heart the day I realised that, for the sake of my sanity, I had to stop hoping for emotional support from her. Her problems were always going to be more important than mine.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 29th, 2016 at 3:39 PM

    I hear you Lisa. Sometimes it takes a long time to realize that even though your mother loves you, her limitations have deeply hurt you. Good for you that you had the courage and insight to stop looking for support that she just couldn’t give. I see “good daughters” spend a lifetime looking for the love they will never get. There is honor and freedom that.

  • Lindsey

    July 28th, 2016 at 1:37 PM

    I will admit that this leaves you constantly searching for that something that you know should have been there when you were a little girl but that wasn’t. I did not want things to ever be that way for my own children so I guess I have taken things to the other extreme being there to do everything for and with my kids, things that my own mother never seemed able to provide to me… I am not sure that they can appreciate how much I give to them at such a young age but I never want to have those feelings like their mother could have done more like I always seemed to have.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 29th, 2016 at 3:46 PM

    Lindsey I understand how much you want for your children to have a different childhood and never to feel the way that you have felt. What a brave heart-felt thing that you are doing. However, I have noticed some mothers in your position who literally exhaust themselves because they don’t know what will be enough. Remember that you are a role model for treating yourself well at the same time you are giving your children a loving childhood. Remember to value yourself more than your mother valued you. My hat is off to you for turing this around.

  • Marilyn S

    July 30th, 2016 at 8:26 AM

    Lindsey and anyone else who feels wounded by one’s parent,
    I hear and feel what you’re saying, yet doing everything fior your children and not letting them learn to be independent can do much more harm them good. I”ve seen that gives children the message that they aren’t capable to take care of themselves. It can be so rewarding for them to learn skills, to be aware of their strengths, and to have a strong sense of self. We have to encourage our children by liifting them up to be their own authentic-self who can make one’s own healthy decisions. If we as parents are wounded we can’t look at our children to heal us since that’s not their role and it’s way too much responsibility for them. We have to re-parent ourselves and be good role modlels to help our children learn to depend on themselves. Just deep breathing 3 times an hr can help us look in and become aware of our breath, feel stillness to get out of our head, and start to heal wounds and triggers..
    Take good care and be mindfully compassionate to ourselves and others,
    Marilyn
    Authentically U Counseling, LLC

  • KATHERINE K

    July 28th, 2016 at 4:18 PM

    I have discovered Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome recently. This article is good, but is way too kind for the description of my late mother. She too, I have heard from others, didn’t get the love and attention from her own mother. Instead of breaking the cycle, she just repeated it at the expense of her children, mainly me, her third youngest daughter out of five children. The one thing that my mother differs is that I know she intentionally hurt you with her mental and emotional abuse to make herself feel better. She would deplete you of any kind of self that was a possibility due to her narc supply. She took any good energy if it existed and if it didn’t, she would take whatever was there too. She got her claws into me at such an early age, I never had a chance to develop any sense of myself. My purpose and very existence was to make her happy, be responsible for when she wasn’t and struggle with a life full of depression, self-hatred, worthlessness, and sometimes wondering why I was even born. The self-hatred can be so powerful that I can’t bare to even look at myself in the mirror. Trying to please people to make them approve or like me. Shame, pain, and no self-esteem was all I knew. I have struggled with narcissist all my life and until my mother died 8 years ago, I came to the realization that I am not at fault like I always thought. I would wonder what I did to make the narc not like me. It was always my fault. When she died, I felt a sense of peace not only for her because I do understand her own pain and hopefully she was at peace, but for me, I knew she could never hurt me anymore. It is an every day struggle to try to undo what she has done. To change that critical internal voice that can beat me to a pulp. Trauma work has helped but I still have a long road ahead of me.

  • Mickey

    July 29th, 2016 at 3:54 AM

    I can relate and through the years seen some progress. Hang in there and do what you want and need to do to help yourself. I think we are always a work in progress and I find books that get me thinking and friends that just click. Idk if we ever get there and occasionally the search continues and or the running starts with over commitments. A work in progress. Thank you for sharing nice to know someone else has similar experiences.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 29th, 2016 at 3:57 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story. No matter her reasons, no child should ever have to suffer the way you did. The cruelty you suffered at her hands is mind blowing. To try and crush your very sense of self is unusual but not unheard of. And the lingering inner voice that continues to dole out self-doubt is many times crippling. Kudos to you for all of your healing efforts. I imagine you have touched some hearts today as you have shared your story letting others know they are not alone.

  • Roy

    July 28th, 2016 at 4:29 PM

    I have watched my own wife struggle with this very issue for years. She sometimes feels like she has been abandoned by her own mother because what her mother experiences, no one else will ever have anything that can be more serious or touch what she has faced.
    In other words she has this need to make everything about her and no one else is allowed to have anything t hat could remotely take the spotlight off of her.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 29th, 2016 at 4:08 PM

    Roy- It sounds like you are a sensitive husband. How lucky for your wife that she has such a witness in you. I will tell you that I have seen many a marriage be subtly torn apart as the “Good Daughter’s” unhappy, but “close” relationship with her mother that crowds out the husband. I wrote a blog post about this on my website Daughters of Difficult Mothers. “How Your Relationship With Mom Is Secretly Crushing Your Libido & Why You Need To Turn This Around Before It’s Too Late”. You actually have an opportunity to call your wife into deeper relationship with you and pull her out of the unsatisfying relationship with her mother. You might just be really glad you did. :)

  • Liam

    July 29th, 2016 at 7:39 AM

    But if it is the father who is like this does this too not have an impact on the children?

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 29th, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    Liam, you have a good point. Certainly fathers who are narcissistic have a negative impact on their children, no argument there.
    In my psychotherapy work, however, I have found that sometimes the narcissistic mother is harder to spot. And the daughter in the role of the “good daughter” may not even know she is in a dysfunctional role with her mother. All she knows is that she is never good enough to satisfy mom. On my website Daughters Of Difficult Mothers I wrote a blog post called “Did Your Mother Cast a Spell of Self-Doubt on You? – Why You Need To Know To Break The Cycle! “. In it I talk about the ways narcissistic mothers send mixed messages to their daughters. How she says one thing but means another. Messages that seem to be supportive but are in fact laced with a hostile subtext. The daughter in the role of the good daughter is most likely to blame herself. That is what makes this so tricky. Awareness is the first step to breaking the cycle.

  • Sandra H

    July 29th, 2016 at 5:15 PM

    Exactly what I went through, not to mention a serious eating d/0 A/N. I’ve been in therapy but haven’t found the right therapist to treat this. I have made great progress but cuts in insurance programs haven’t helped! When I try to separate from the family I meet with great anger and lonliness! This shut me out of there lives totally! Then I tend to resort to old patterns!

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 31st, 2016 at 3:19 PM

    I am glad that you have made strides in this. Good for you. I think it is no surprise that eating disorders and weight problems happen to Daughters of Difficult Mothers. I have come to think that for many of us, the issues around food have to do with mother hunger. In response to your comment about dwindling insurance reimbursement, I feel your pain as a therapist. When I started practice, almost 30 years ago, insurance would pay almost most of my fee. Now, my client is lucky if they pay a fraction! In response I am building an online presence Daughters Of Difficult Mothers. There, I am exploring ways of delivering tools to help women who are struggling with the Good Daughter Syndrome. I plan to expand the offerings to include support groups for women to work through the materials together and come together in community. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  • Sandra H

    July 31st, 2016 at 7:35 PM

    Katherine Fabrizo, I think it is a fabulous idea! I would love to particapate in any way I could! When I entered the field as a patient insurance was no issurence! Then I went on disability Medicare Atena advance State of Me retiree Plan ! Forget it! Decline over & over! When I was working as a RN pretty good coverage in the 70’s great coverage, today poor, next to zero coverage! All I get is a 15 minute med clinic visit! Big deal! As a former Psych RN I know more then the MHNP right out of school! In 15 min how can you even assess client! So I join the NAMI avocacate! Our governor has cut ever social welfare program! It disgust me! I’m intelligent, but I’m stuck in my mind! Thank you!

  • Claire

    July 29th, 2016 at 11:36 PM

    Painful to read and so true. Although I have had years of good therapy and am a reasonably happy and productive woman, there is still so much missing. In a writing class I just happened on an idea and wrote about the mother I would have wanted. I need to write more on it. When I first entered therapy I would not use the world mother. It was a four letter word to me. I wish I could have had a group experience with others experiencing the same issues. It was easy to slip into the blaming myself. It had been so easy to marry an alcoholic and for l5 years have this vague feeling he was my mother as he abused me. When you are denied the right to feel what you think is legitimate anger you are so d*** trapped. Excellent piece. I hope there are more like them. I couldn’t help but wonder if others had had some or the more awful manifestations of this. Thanks.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 31st, 2016 at 2:58 PM

    You have hit on so many good points Claire-
    Firstly, you have touched on the fact that this kind of mothering leaves daughters missing out on something essential. I have found that Just knowing your mother is/was narcissistic isn’t enough. You also wrote about the importance of letting yourself formulate in your mind what it is you wish for. While it doesn’t magically make it happen, there is truth in our needing to name what it is we want in life to manifest it. The field of positive psychology is giving us more tools in that department that were sorely needed. Navigating between working with ongoing grief and making positive changes is a balancing act for sure. I am working on bringing affordable online help to Good Daughters on my new website Daughters of Difficult Mothers. Any suggestions you have would be welcomed. Thank you for your input.

  • Madeleine

    July 30th, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    This is why I am so glad that my husband is so awesome. If there is a mom moment that I need and she can’t give it to me, then he is the one who will always be there.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 31st, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    And good for you that you let him in. Good for you both.

  • Angelina

    July 30th, 2016 at 11:19 AM

    Are you my Mother? – strangely my favourite book growing up.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 31st, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    Thanks for the comment Angela- Since mothers are both attachment and identity figures, is it no wonder that they have such a huge influence on our lives. I reread Are You My Mother with your question in mind. While I can’t be exactly sure why the book was your favorite, I wonder if it had something to do with how vulnerable daughters from the beginning and how you NEED someone to identify with and feel is your very own. Wonder if you were transfixed by the story because you couldn’t fully figure out who you belonged too, if belonging didn’t feel good. What do you think?

  • Angelina

    July 31st, 2016 at 5:59 PM

    I’m thinking that I identified with the little bird – my Mom had a lot of grief in her family – too much emotion for me when I was wee one. Set me up for almost 50 years of aching for what I didn’t know I was aching for. And vulnerable to an abusive marriage.
    One day all these momentary afflictions will pass – God is my anchor.

  • Kim Fredrickson

    July 31st, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    Love this article Katherine! As a therapist of 30 years, and a daughter of a Mom like this I can relate to all you shared. I write about self-compassion and find the journey to become my own kind and compassionate friend has made a world of difference to me as well as my clients. Thanks so much for this wonderful article. I will be sharing it on social media so others can benefit.

  • Bea

    July 31st, 2016 at 9:01 AM

    Most of us get who we are from spending so much time with our parents when we are young. So for those of us who have turned out to be a little narcissistic it is probably because of the things that we are taught by those people when we are kids.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    August 1st, 2016 at 8:16 AM

    Sandra- Growing up “perfect” and always working to please…….argggg I hear you. The feeling of “never being good enough” for mom is so hard and can take it’s toll on so many fronts. You describe very well how mom may look one way to the world yet be cruel to those closest to her. Many times these mothers work very hard at constructing an image of themselves that they present to others, while doling out cruel mixed messages to their nearest and dearest. It is certainly a cruel dynamic given how much power a mother has over her young daughter. You have articulated your journey well, thank you for sharing that. I hope some of my online resources might be of help to you.
    Katherine Fabrizio M.A., LPC
    Daughters of Difficult Mothers

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    August 1st, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    Thanks Bea- you bring up a very good point. My guess is though, because you recognize that you might be at risk for narcissism, you are not one! In my experience daughters of narcissistic mothers who really face and deal with the emptiness they feel in productive ways can break the cycle of passing it on to the next generation. I write “Why You Need To Value Yourself Even If Your Own Mother Didn’t” on my blog Daughters Of Difficult Mothers”. Check it out and good luck.
    Katherine Fabrizio M.A. LPC
    Daughters of Difficult Mothers

  • Sandra H

    July 31st, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    I grew up the “perfect” child always trying to please Mom but NEVER able to meet her expectations or gain or approval or love.My dad ways an alcoholic and she left me the middle child to take care of the family, while still getting straight A in school, a cheerleader, then crash the Anorexia. She was an RN but refused to acknowledge my behavior. Like her part in my dads drinking. I did get the help ,she never visited me once! My dad quit drinking and died 4 years later of pancreatic Cancer. She is seen in society as this perfect Angel! The nurse widow, who took over raising her family! A big joke!!!! She was always mean, angry, tight, and we learned to communicate with her non verbally through her facial expressions! My dad, though an alcoholic, was generous, insightful, humorous, and unconditional in his love! I put myself through Nursing school after his death and a lot of therapy and became a Psychiatric RN. I still battle with Mom issues and eating D/O issues off and on. I’m now on disability from such intense anxiety/depression and PTSD. I’m 57 and an advocate for NAMI. I try to keep my distance from my family and mom but they punish me if I do! My mom takes no responsibility for her behavior at all! She is still an angry lonely, empty soul, I feel pity at times for her and at other times I can’t stand to look at her! All she wants is what she can get from you! She triangulates my sisters and keeps in constant turmoil! Too much Drama for me! I live at 57, with my husband and 2 Yorkies & alone for the most part. No real friends, little trust, and Fibromylalgia. I take little medications and rely on meditations and yoga and FB friends. It’s safe for me . Sad and lonely life!

  • Angelina

    July 31st, 2016 at 6:14 PM

    Do you think maybe your Mom was suffering because of your Dad’s drinking? There is nothing humourous about a man and too mu alcohol. I’m thinking you Mom carried a heavier load than you may realize – only because I was married to a drinker and life is chaotic.

  • katherine fabrizio

    katherine fabrizio

    July 31st, 2016 at 1:41 PM

    Thank you Kim,
    Your work is quite and inspiration as well. You have certainly moved through some rough challenges with grace!

  • Sandra H

    August 1st, 2016 at 12:00 PM

    My dad certainly played a role in my PTSD and Anxiety disorder with his drinking! However, after he quit mom never went to Alaon because she didn’t like what they were saying( her part in his drinking) but she went to an AA meeting. She never went to one AA Anniversary meeting. I went to them all. Even today after 35 years of his death he is still a legend at AA for his motivational speaking! He took total responsibility and was inspirational and humorous! He only lived 4 years sober but he was a great man. My mom was a cruel women ……he was not! She was cold and critical! He worked hard yet she would limit his food intake so she could make 2 meals out the the dinner. She refused to buy the snack foods he enjoyed. If we wanted to go to a YMCA dance he would give us the money! If he picked us up he would take all our friends out for pizza! If she picked us up we would have panic attacks because she would make angry faces and embarrass us! She didn’t want to drive them home! The kids in the neighborhood loved him! I hated school vacations! They were meant for spring or winter cleaning! My older sister bullied me to do her work and go out, my younger sister was too young so I had to care for her as well as keep up with the daily chores i.e. Laundry, meals, lunches for school, ironing, dusting, etc…She would go next door for coffee with the neighbors. She was the neighborhood. RN! I would have preferred to go to school ,it was more fun! I always felt alone inside and like I was keeping secrets! I was molested but a relative, she refused to believe it and still invites him over! She rested on the couch when I moved out after I got my RN and refused to help out. When I got married she didn’t help out at all! I did everything alone. She didn’t even go with me to pick out my dress, when I showed her the dress. Her comment was ” its too hot in here” ! How long will this take. My husband can’t stand her because of the way she splits the family up. She causes drama constantly! She triangulates and turns us against one another all the time! Sometimes I think she is too mean to die! She has loaned and given lots of money to my sisters but refused me. As far as my drinking goes when he was dying we talked a lot and I learned allot about him! Even after he quit he was never good enough for her! She is religiously preoccupied and always has been! I left the church because of the foolish rituals she put us through growing up! She is scared to death of dying, yet I’m not at all! I’m more spiritual of a person. MY theory of my dad is if I Knew about alcohol as a child, I probably would have drank to live with her too. Kidding…I don’t do drugs or alcohol.( on occasion)! Fear of addiction! I don’t need another problem in my like! My dad had an addiction problem my mom is a Narsisstic Personalty and probably more!

  • Angelina

    August 1st, 2016 at 10:05 PM

    Complex! I hope there is healing for you and your loved ones. So much pain and sorrow because of selfishness. Only in Christ can we be set free from it all and be really healed in His love. Praying many may find rest in Him!

  • Sandra H

    August 1st, 2016 at 11:15 AM

    yes my dad did affect my PTSD as far as increased anxiety! However to be honest after he quit drinking she still was cruel and negative towards him. She liked AA but refused To attend Alaon. Why, because she didn’t want to hear about her role in his drinking! She like hearing him taking all the responsiblity and forgiveness. I went to his meetings and 35 years later he is still a legend in AA through his insightful messagas mixed with humor. I spent a lot of time with my dad before he died. Talking about his life time. It wasn’t pretty darn he choose a wife like his mother. To this day she gets angry if we tell her he gave us money when we went to high school events. He would pick us after and take all of our friends for pizza. She would get furious! If she picked us up, she would make angry faces and all of us girls would get panic attacks if a friend would ask for a ride home. Also every school vacation was dreaded because she made us mainly me do all the spring cleanly……and I mean cleaning! It took the entire vacation! My older sister bullied me to do her work , and my younger sister was too young so I had to watch over her too as well as keep up with daily household chores! All laundry, cooking, and cleaning. My younger sister thought of me as her mother. Mom would go next door or coffee, or be the neighborhood nurse! Always the nurse/ Saint! The abuse and neglect was behind closed doors. It was NEVER good enough! I would like to add. She laid on the couch when I moved out and when I got married she took no part in helping ! Not ever picking out my dress! I did everything alone!!!She was furious! Truly my dad drank for many reasons, but quite frankly if I knew about alcohol then, and married to that cold heartless Women I probably would drink too. She NEVER attend any of his AA Anniversary parties! I went to them all! I Loved my dad and I forgive him! She still sits in my mind and my husbands because of the influence of she has over the entire family! She splits my sisters from me and she is she negative and disapproving! Sometimes I think she is too mean to die! Ps. She is a religious nut! Yet fears death more than I. I left the church because of what she
    Puts us through. I am more spiritual!

  • Sandra H

    August 1st, 2016 at 12:12 PM

    Sorry for duplicated my blog! I didn’t think it went through! Didn’t mean to bore or take to much attention! Sandy I am emotional for everyone blaming my dad for the problems in my family…..I truly feel the true deep pathology relies within my MOM!

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