DISCLAIMER: The writer is not a mental health professional. The content in this article and on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have.
The term narcissism has been quite the buzzword in recent years. Usually used to describe an abusive ex or boss, it refers to people with a grandiose sense of self, lack of self-reflection or empathy, and abusive behavior towards others. People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) thrive from drama, seem completely unaware of their faults and behavior, and put their needs above others.
But Narcissistic Personality Disorder has two subcategories – overt and covert. While the overt narcissist answers to the classic definition of NPD, covert narcissism is much harder to trace – and quite possibly, more prevalent. “Covert” doesn’t refer to hidden narcissists- but to people who tend to play the victim, blame others for their problems, and employ shaming tactics to maintain control. Covert narcissists share the same feelings of self-importance as their overt counterparts, yet their self-pity makes people see them as victims rather than abusers. Furthermore, they tend to be verbally and often physically abusive toward their spouse and children, yet friendly and attentive to other family members and strangers – making people support them over their victims.
Covert narcissism is quite common and has devastating effects on the immediate family. It is often a hidden form of abuse, where children are subjugated to recurring physical, verbal, and economic abuse, as well as gaslighting and parentifying.
Identifying Maternal Narcissism
The intricate nature of covert narcissism makes it extremely difficult to diagnose, and children of narcissistic parents often grow up thinking they are the ones at fault. That is especially true when the abuser is the mother, as many see mothers as innately warm and loving. When sharing details of their abuse with others, children of narcissistic mothers will often hear remarks such as “all parents make mistakes” and “you only have one mother,” further invalidating their experiences. Furthermore, some narcissistic parents neglect their children’s emotional world but fulfill their physical needs (e.g., food, travel), making the children feel guilty and ungrateful for their parent’s care.
Narcissistic mothers share a surprising amount of traits and behaviors. However, the extent of their abuse depends on their background and surroundings.
Here are a few signs that your mother might be a covert narcissist:
She plays the victim. The narcissistic mother creates a family dynamic where her children must cater to her emotional and physical needs, while theirs are overlooked and played down. She sees herself as a victim of an unjust world, blaming everyone else for her misfortunes, life choices, or relationships with others. She might have health issues or a traumatic childhood that she uses in order to depict herself as a powerless victim. However, narcissistic mothers seldom actually DO anything to change their situation. They might even engage in self-sabotage – e.g., refuse medical treatment or get into situations that will further make them seem like a victim of circumstances.
She’s violent and has anger outbursts. The extent and type of violence varies, but narcissistic mothers verbally and sometimes physically abuse their children. Their lack of emotional regulation leads to extreme mood swings and swift anger outbursts. Children of narcissistic mothers learn from a young age to read their mother’s emotions and walk on eggshells.
She’s two-faced. Driven by shame and external gratification, narcissistic mothers have two different personas: one for the inside circle (usually immediate family), the other for ‘outsiders.’ They can be kind to strangers yet mean and demeaning at home. Some even work as caretakers or educators and might be known for their kindness – yet their children experience an entirely different person. Narcissistic moms can publicly rave about their children – while scrutinizing them in private.
Has little to no insight into herself. The hallmark trait of narcissists is that they lack the ability to reflect upon their behavior, making their self-perception distorted. A narcissistic mother may go around “declaring” her self-perceived qualities and achievements (“I was a great mom!,” “I got your father that promotion”). When faced with allegations regarding her behavior, she will deny them and shift the blame to someone else.
Sees the world in black-and-white and changes reality to fit her worldview. Narcissists tend to see the world in a very stereotypical, black-and-white way. There are “good” people and “bad” ones, villains and heroes. If a complex event occurs – or one that doesn’t fit their view as a victim and a saint -they will reshape that event to fit the mold and recover their sense of control.
Gaslighting and self-gaslighting. Narcissistic mothers employ gaslighting tactics on their children to ensure they come off as the victim and not the abuser. They also gaslight themselves to escape an inconvenient truth – making it impossible to hold them accountable for their actions. They often fiercely deny saying something minutes after an outburst, leaving the victim angry and confused.
Parentification. The mother’s immature emotional state and constant need for appraisal often lead to parentification – i.e., the children become the parent’s emotional support, take over the parenting role for their siblings, and are responsible for household chores from a young age.
Sees her children as an extension of herself. A narcissistic mother doesn’t see her children as autonomous beings. She attributes their skills, talents, and ‘so-called’ flaws to herself or the father (e.g., “You’re a great listener, you got that from me; you’re so disrespectful, you got that from your father). She believes her children’s behavior, talents, and life choices reflect on her, and tries to control them even as adults. That could include approving or disapproving of friends, partners, or plans. They can be especially shaming regarding appearance – weight, clothes, makeup – and may force their children to put on a “perfect family” act for family events and visits. They have little interest in their kids’ inner world, hobbies, or social life, unless they can use it to earn praise from their surroundings.
Labels her children from a young age. Their need for order and structure makes narcissistic mothers put labels on their kids from a young age: one may be the “troublemaker” (the scapegoat), while the other is “the good one” (the golden child). The children’s character and behavior are seen as fixed traits from birth rather than a result of current events or an unsafe home. (e.g., “you were always too emotional,” “your sister was always the responsible one”). The mother will gossip about her children and may actively throw a wrench in the siblings’ relationship.
Enmeshment: Doesn’t respect boundaries or personal space (physical and emotional). Narcissistic mothers see boundaries as abandonment and betrayal. They refuse to acknowledge their children’s autonomy and force intimacy and enmeshment on them. That could come in the form of walking into their room without knocking; forcefully entering the bathroom or shower; forcing conversations on sensitive topics, including sexual content; Appearing in their adult children’s home unannounced, etc.
Maternal narcissism is a silent form of abuse with devastating effects. Growing up with an emotionally immature and inconsistent parent, children of narcissistic mothers often showcase signs of C-PTSD and suffer from emotional and physical issues related to complex trauma. They often grow up to become self-critical, high-achieving adults. They tend to be highly empathic and take care of others, while pushing their own needs and emotions aside.