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. 


  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

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • 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

    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.

  • Leila

    March 28th, 2019 at 8:26 PM

    The bit about covert narcissism through the life stages sounds more like the engulfing type of narc mother as opposed to the ignoring type of narc mother. I read about each of these types here: daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com/engulfing-mother/ …and here: daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com/ignoring-mother/
    Hopefully this is helpful to someone else because recognizing the difference has helped me.

  • travis

    April 3rd, 2020 at 2:06 PM

    I am so sick and tired of seeing maternal narcissism only expressed in the context of mother-daughter relationships. same thing with borderline personality disorder. are we just disqualified from experiencing these things? why are mother-son relationships NEVER included in this articles.

  • P

    August 2nd, 2020 at 5:15 PM

    Katherine, thank you for this essay. Very serious topic and very rarely touched. This was the nightmare of my life – and I reliazed it so late. Also, coming froma culture where mothers are always on the pedestal – going against it is like declaring war.

  • KEN

    August 4th, 2020 at 9:55 AM

    My wife is a covert narcissist who has destroyed our youngest son . He is 31 , on Heroin and Meth since high school and living at home still . Mom pays his drug bills , court fines , buys his cigs , makes him koolaid , cleans his room , does his laundry , buys his favorite junk foods , acts as his alarm clock , and bonds with him blaming Dad for all of their perceived slights . There is non-stop drama on a daily and hourly basis . Every little issue is a crisis that gets repeated to her family [ the flying monkeys who also were raised by a covert narcissist mother ] and her bamboozled friends who can’t resist this charming beautiful blond who believe her horror stories of her cruel selfish husband . Her sense of entitlement and aura of self pity are off the charts . Her manipulation of how others see her is unbelievably clever and sophisticated , almost as if she was highly trained at it . More likely generations of female narcissists in her family tree [watching Mom who watched Grandma ] have honed her skills at creating situations on a daily basis that can appear to the casual outside world as an abused woman , but in reality she is the abuser . In private , the silent treatment for weeks at a time , shaming , laying guilt trips , withholding sex for months and years , outbursts of rage then squealing to the world after she has driven her husband over the edge and he reacts . Constantly crying Wolf but getting believed because she never gives any context to her lies and it does not hurt to have charm , good looks , long blond hair and a rear end to rival Kim Kardashian . And 6 brothers and sisters to be her Flying Monkeys , whom were also raised by a Covert Narc Mom and who may have driven their Dad [ the original Scapegoat ] to alchoholism . It is and has been a nightmare . Now she has cancer which is resistant to Chemo and is in full time rage mode against her husband and even a bit to her sister who has come to visit . Her lifetime drama act is beginning to unravel along with her looks and she is more monstrous than ever . I’m looking for a therapist for myself to handle her coming death , which will free me but how can I mask this relief while our children and family [ who already believe to some extent that I was always the problem ] gather to grieve their dying Mother [ while she disparages me to her dying last breath ] .

  • JT2

    October 18th, 2023 at 12:43 PM

    Reading this article as I have recently broken free from a VN wife. However, she is still the mother of my two children, one son, one daughter. And I am having issues with my daughter and wondering if she is similarly afflicted as her mother. What I have found is that the first thing one must do is realize what is reality and what is a product of the VN in your life. I had often told my children, don’t listen to your mother. I am now realizing that is great advice, but very hard to follow. I am asking myself daily if this particular situation is reality or just made up by the VN. Often times, I find it is just totally made up and NOT my reality. Anyone who has spent more than 10 years living with a VN needs to seriously question everything. The sooner you can remove yourself from their influence, the sooner you can start to see things for how they truly are, and not how the VN wants you to see things. This is how they control you. Separation is the only way to heal. But now I have to wonder how I can help my daughter, who is now about to separate from her loving VN mother.

  • Donna

    October 22nd, 2020 at 10:16 AM

    OMG this is exactly like watching a movie of my life with my mom. I’m crying. It’s a complete description of her. But she thinks she’s perfect and doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with her. When I asked her not to control my daughters and let my husband and I take care of important decisions,she ,in a manipulative move went no contact and moved and didn’t tell us where she went. I didn’t try to look. I’ve been no contact for over 20 years . She’s told some of our friends terrible things about my husband. But the peace I have now is beautiful.

  • belle

    December 15th, 2020 at 9:26 AM

    This description was spot on, almost too accurate and it definitely brought me to tears. I am 17 years old and I’m glad I’ve educated myself about this topic because for the longest time, I would wonder why my life is the way it is. Why I react and emote the way that I do. I become so emotionally dependent on ANYONE who gives me a second of their time or love. I am definitely the rebellious one out of my siblings, and I believe I have received the most emotional abuse. The fact that we are a conservative muslim family doesn’t help. She portrays herself as a “perfect muslim woman”. Constantly using that to her advantage. She always ruins important events when they don’t include HER. She has so much trouble letting my older sister and I become adults. I am 17 and have never had a job, I can’t drive, I can’t go anywhere without her knowing or controlling it. She hates all my friends, and tells me that I dont need friends in my life. “You only need your family”. I am getting so sick of this and I know Im going to burst one day. She also constantly uses the idea of death to get her way and manipulate us. “When I die one day, then you’ll see how right I was and you’ll regret everything”. anyways wish me luck on dealing with this woman for the rest of my life

  • Llewellyn

    January 4th, 2021 at 9:01 AM

    I have a girlfriend who has the same problem. Her mother passed away and I could see the effects her passed had on her.. She left me now and I can only assume she has been taking on this role of narcissist herself. I did Alot of research on this topic and everything points to this drama she had to endure growing up. I wish to help her regain her authentic self.. The person she opened up to me in the first phases. I tried speaking to her about it and even gave her the info I had on this but she is under the impression I am attacking her. Please help me to help her a

  • J

    January 30th, 2021 at 8:10 AM

    I need help. I work very hard not to repeat this with my daughter, and so far so good I think. Also, I’m in a healthy marriage. That said, I have a lot of intrusive thoughts throughout the day about what mom did to me or what she would think of my current thoughts and actions, and it’s continually difficult to get in touch with what I really think and feel. I did try codependents anonymous. My issues is that no one seems to think I’m representing my relationship with my mom accurately (except my husband, and a childhood friend, who see the truth)- I’m afraid a therapist will think I’m just being negative or over-reacting. Even in codependents anonymous, folks would minimize it because their own parents drank and abused them, whereas mine spoiled, controlled, and took over my life. To them I have nothing to complain about. I miss who I might have been and feel like she is a dementor from Harry Potter who sucked out a lot of my soul. That said, I try to stay in the present and take responsibility for my life. It’s just hard. Where do I start or go now? Literally my 5 year old is treated more as a competent individual then I ever was by my mother. To see her confidence and blooming is one of the greatest things in life. So I don’t think I’m perpetuating the cycle (unless I have a blind spot), but I do think I need to get more in touch with myself, self-love and acceptance, and find a way to forgive and let go of the past- while setting healthy boundaries with my mom.

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    August 7th, 2021 at 4:39 PM

    Thanks for the comment P. I hear what you are saying about it being a cultural expectation of mothers. Cultures where women are afforded little power they are often “given” power over their daughters as compensation. It’s a destructive system in my opinion. I’m so sorry you have been a victim of such a system. I know there are many out there who can relate.
    Take care,
    Katherine Fabrizio

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    August 7th, 2021 at 4:42 PM

    Thank you for your comment. And thank you for the example of someone who got out. I’m sure your example will speak to many.
    Take care,
    Katherine Fabrizio

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    August 7th, 2021 at 4:49 PM

    Dear Llewellyn,
    It’s so hard to be the one to speak the truth only to lose your relationship because of it. ” Shooting the messenger” so to speak. I would guess if she weren’t able to face the truth about a significant parental figure in her life there would be limitations in how healthy she could be in an intimate relationship. I imagine this is cold comfort if your heart is broken but after some time… looking back you may reflect that you’ve dodged a bullet.
    Katherine Fabrizio

  • Katherine Fabrizio

    August 10th, 2021 at 7:31 PM

    Dear J,
    First congratulations on breaking the cycle for your daughter and maintaining a healthy marriage. Those are great accomplishments and a good solid base of support for making the further changes you’d like to make. It sounds like the internalized mother is the one giving you problems currently. And this is exacerbated by a lack of understanding you have encountered in the groups you have looked to for help. I do understand that frustration. However, if you research a therapsist who specializes in daughters of covert narcissistic mothers, I think you will find a therapist who can understand where you are coming from.
    Also Yoga and meditation are effective avenues for reconnecting with yourself as well as other somic therapies. The help is out there, You have come a long way. Best wishes for you on the rest of your journey.
    Take care,

  • JT

    September 1st, 2021 at 5:50 PM

    I will also have to echo another posters’ comment regarding the frequency this subject is explored within the context of mother and daughter, but hardly addressed at all with regards to mother and son.
    I have a narcissitic mother and it pains me to write that I would be somewhat relieved to see her just go away. I’ve spent years — decades — trying to communicate with her. She is either incapable or refuses to relent and to have a conversation without judgment. I’ve been robbed of a healthy relationship with a mother.

    As a result, I’m emotionally screwed up and I feel–again–robbed. I don’t even know how it feels to be in a relationship that’s supported by the usual markers of human contact anymore.
    I’m really sick of life and hopes it just comes to an end soon. I can’t see being happy.

  • Julia

    April 22nd, 2023 at 1:19 PM

    I have witnessed many instances of this scenario. But every case is different and 1 factor may be present but not others. I think the generational differences play a role as well. A mother comes from an era that the mother should be treated with respect because she’s the mother and the caregiver. There is a younger generation that wants to disect everything to make themselves a victim. This all comes down to clear communication at the end of the day. The daughter’s responsibility is to move out, make their mark in the world, pursue their dreams, And still respect the family dynamic. There’s so much talk about narcissism these days that everybody wants to declare that they were raised by one. The typical mother sacrifices and does the best that they can to provide and only asks for respect in return. That request for respect does not mean the mother is a narcissist. It means the mother is making a declaration that i’m still your mother and I would appreciate the same courtesy as you give your friends. It scares me how much of the world is declaring to be a victim when there are actual tortured victims out there. Be careful with classifying people as narcissists when there are two sides to every relationship. You have to forge your own path in life separate and apart from who your parents are and not turn around and blame them when you fail Or struggle. Everyone struggles, everyone has to fight the game of life everyday. A lot of this boils down to self awareness, self preservation and communication skills. People have to live in the present and not in the past because otherwise you get stuck in that room. Resolve what happened, identify how it made you feel and then shut the door And move forward.

  • Rick

    October 27th, 2023 at 7:56 AM

    Sorry Julia, you are wrong when you say that “the mother should be treated with respect” and “respect the family dynamic.” These things are not absolutes that are granted, simply because of the superiority of a parent. I will agree that parents “do the best they can,” because we all bring various skills into our relationships. But sometimes that is insufficient. Truly Narcissistic parents deliberately inflict psychological pain onto their children that causes lifetimes of problems. That does make the children victims. How lucky you were to not have had such an experience.

  • Rick

    October 27th, 2023 at 7:37 AM

    Many of above people’s experiences with and described behaviors of their mothers with the exception of “Mom’s first grandchild is a major event in her life” applied to my mother. I never heard of another grandmother who did not give a flying fig about her grandsons (my 2 sons), but why should I have expected anything different from someone who did not give a crap about my well being? For that matter, she did not care about her other 9 grandchildren, except to complain to me in private about them.
    My mother went beyond anything in this article, though. She was sadistic, inflicting pain on me (and I learned after she died, my oldest brother) in such a way that it did not leave lasting marks. She sabotaged her 3 sons’ marriages and career paths. She also let my father die on the bedroom floor because she was angry at him, then lied to cover her tracks. Not surprisingly, I did not shed any tears when she died. Unfortunately, she triangulated her sons, so that my younger golden brother who I so adored throughout my life, has decided that I am a bad person. To call her an evil b**ch is an understatement.

  • Sob

    January 9th, 2024 at 9:56 PM

    If your NM is like mine, you grew up with a list of people who you weren’t allowed to hang around with. It was so bad for me because she would patrol the neighborhood trying to catch me with someone on the list. I couldn’t just be a kid because I would have to watch up and down the street all the time. I wondered why no one else had their mother out hunting around for them. I found myself just riding my bike as far as I could by myself until it was halfway time to be home, then turn around and head home so I didn’t have to stress out about being caught with the wrong people. I was known as “the loner” after a while. No one had any idea of what I had to deal with. I’m now in my 50s and still alone and still afraid of meeting new people. It turns out the one person that I shouldn’t associate with and was a truly bad influence on me was my mother.

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