Understanding Maternal Covert Narcissism: When Mom Can’t Let Go

Young adult with hair pulled back stands with palm on windowed door, looking outCovert narcissism, which tends to be expressed in passive or indirect ways, differs from what most people might imagine when they hear “narcissism.” Those with traits of covert narcissism may seem shy or overly sensitive, but this apparent self-effacement typically masks grandiose thoughts and an internal sense of superiority, or belief that one is better than others. This form of narcissism may be more subtle and less easy to recognize.

Along these lines, a mother who has traits of covert narcissism may appear, on the surface, to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing. Everything she does is for the benefit of her children. The community sees a parent who is room mom, PTA president, or sanctified Sunday school teacher. Her social media presence may rival that of a minor celebrity! At every game, activity, and lesson, Mom is involved in her daughter’s every decision—so involved, in fact, that Daughter is never allowed to make any decisions on her own. This level of intimacy between mother and daughter is seen by most as something that is “all good,” but a more careful look reveals this is not the case.

The apparent closeness of the mother-daughter relationship can obscure the reality of the situation—Mom is relying on her daughter in ways that are unhealthy for both of them. In this case, it is the needs of the mother, not the daughter, that are the central driving force in the relationship.

Covert Maternal Narcissism Through the Life Cycle

When a mother-daughter dynamic is affected by the mother’s covert narcissism, the impact of this can be seen throughout the daughter’s life. A mother who is narcissistically defended experiences her daughter’s growing independence as a threat. Her defenses make it hard to take the losses and incorporate them at each developmental stage. Psychologically, she cannot withstand the losses involved in allowing her daughter to become more independent.

To counter this independence, Mom establishes herself and her own needs as primary, thus making it more and more difficult for her daughter to find her voice and claim her life for herself. In other words, the mother can be said to appropriate her daughter’s right to live her own life at each developmental stage. She isn’t doing this with “evil” intent. She is simply unable to let go of her daughter.

Here is how this dynamic can play out at each developmental stage, with the mother’s needs centered to forestall the daughter’s individuation:

  • Infancy. Mom guards her role of primary caregiver jealously and has a hard time letting anyone else, including Dad, become special to Daughter.
  • Toddler and preschool years. Daughter begins to exert independence, and Mom is displeased. She tends to resort quickly to punishment and is likely to shame any behavior she considers rebellious. When Daughter enters day care or preschool, Mom sends mixed messages, signaling to Daughter that she isn’t safe with anyone but Mom. Daughters usually have major separation anxiety at this juncture.
  • Adolescent and preteen years. Mom inserts herself in all of Daughter’s friendships. She evaluates harshly any friend or friendship interaction, frequently forbidding her daughter to remain friends with anyone she doesn’t approve of. Different tastes in hair, makeup, clothing, and even music are all experienced as an affront to Mom. Major battles often are the result. There is no agreement to disagree, only discord and major standoffs.
  • Teenage years. When Daughter begins to date, Mom sees boys as a major threat. What is normally a difficult time between mothers and daughters may escalate into a full-blown Armageddon.
  • Marriage. When Daughter marries, Mom’s needs, taste, and preferences often dictate wedding plans. Decisions are likely to be mother/daughter decisions instead of decisions made by the couple, and Mom’s opinions usually prevail.
  • Daughter’s first child. Mom’s first grandchild is a major event in her life, and she works hard to establish her importance as doting, adoring grandmother. She gives unsolicited advice and frequently demands she be included in important family decisions, acting as a partner to her daughter. As a result, the child’s other parent is frequently marginalized. Daughter may frequently hear from others, “What a saint your mother is. You are so lucky to have her help!”

In a functional mother/daughter relationship, it is normal for each of these stages of development to involve losses for both mother and daughter. However, mothers with narcissistic defenses often cannot take the normal developmental loss that would allow their daughter to individuate and separate in a healthy way. The daughters of these mothers often feel trapped in the role of “Good Daughter,” acting to fulfill an obligation they may not be fully aware of: filling the sense of emptiness Mom experiences. Daughters may not have the language to fully describe covert narcissism, or the behavior of their mothers, or how the dynamic affects them, but they may know “If Momma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy”—if Mom doesn’t feel happy and fulfilled, no one else can, either.

The Effects of Covert Narcissism

The impact of covert narcissism in the mother/daughter dynamic can be far-reaching, even when it goes unrecognized. Some of the people I’ve worked with in therapy are completely unaware of the pressure playing the role of Good Daughter exerts on them, though they feel the effects.

Daughters of narcissistically defended mothers typically sacrifice their own emotional authenticity in order to keep their mothers happy. In short, they don’t know how they feel. They only know how they should behave in order to fulfill Mom’s needs and how they should make her feel. 

Daughters trapped in the role of Good Daughter feel an intense pressure to make their narcissistically defended mothers look and feel good. In childhood and young adulthood, daughters may strive to fulfill this need through achievement, performance, and—above all—good behavior. The first priority is making Mom look like a great mom, not the growing independence and needs of Daughter.

As an adult, Daughter takes on the role of making Mom feel needed, relevant, and special. She labors under the pressure to fill Mom’s need to remain primary in her life, as Mom’s narcissistic defenses mandate this to be so.

Daughters of narcissistically defended mothers typically sacrifice their own emotional authenticity in order to keep their mothers happy. In short, they don’t know how they feel. They only know how they should behave in order to fulfill Mom’s needs and how they should make her feel. As a result, they may experience guilt, shame, and self-doubt as they struggle with internal conflict. Often, they may be unaware of the intrapsychic conflict behind their struggle. As they attempt to move toward independence, they may feel guilty or ashamed without fully understanding why. These daughters may also unconsciously sabotage their successes in order to keep their mother relevant.

In short, Mom’s emotions can crush the Good Daughter’s essential self and rule her life. The demands and pressures of the Good Daughter role underlie much of the anxiety and depression seen in women today.

How Can Mother and Daughter Heal From This Dynamic?

A daughter’s yearning—her need—to individuate and grow apart from her mother is in conflict with the competing desire to gain both her mother’s approval and the permission to separate psychologically. In a dynamic where the mother is narcissistically defended, this permission is unlikely to be granted. When a mother’s need to be relevant prevents her from letting her daughter go, her daughter is harmed, and she is also at risk for repeating the cycle with her own daughter.

Through psychotherapy, daughters can gain awareness of their internal conflict. The support of a trained and compassionate counselor can help them get in touch with their healthy striving for psychological independence and explore how to make this separation. By breaking free of the cycle of covert narcissism, the Good Daughter can empower her own daughter while healing herself.

Mothers with traits of covert narcissism can also benefit from psychotherapy, when they are willing to do the hard work it requires. Our culture does little to support mothers as they lose relevance in their daughter’s lives, but through therapy, mothers who struggle to let go can confront this difficulty and learn strategies to absorb, incorporate, and even grow from the losses they experience as their daughters grow and reach adulthood.

Note: This article refers specifically to the dynamic between a mother with traits of covert narcissism and her daughter. Parent-child relationships of any gender combination can be similarly touched by covert narcissism. 

References: 

  1. Payson, E. D. (2009). The wizard of Oz & other narcissists. Royal Oak, MI: Julian Day Publications.
  2. Miller, A. (1997). The drama of the gifted child, revised ed. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  3. Lerner, H. (1985). The dance of anger: A woman’s guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships. New York, NY: Harper & Roy Publishers, Inc.

© Copyright 2018 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.

  • 2 comments
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  • The Dutchess

    The Dutchess

    April 30th, 2018 at 11:44 AM

    I need help. As a mother and grandmother, how do I stop the cycle I’ve continued from abuse from my own mother?

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    Katherine Fabrizio

    May 3rd, 2018 at 8:17 AM

    Dear Dutchess- I appreciate your writing and hear your pain. You might not realize it but you have made a HUGE healthy step in acknowledging that you are at risk for continuing the cycle you have suffered yourself. This is the number one step towards healing. Remembering the pain you felt from your own mother and making the conscious decision not to repeat it will be your guide to breaking the cycle.
    Warmly,
    Katherine

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