From as early as 4 or 5 years old, I had an inkling that my mother wasn’t quite right. She asked me questions that made my stomach hurt. She asked if I was afraid of people I trusted. Her emotions seemed to exceed the demands of every situation.
As I grew older, her influence grew more pernicious. “I know you better than you know yourself,” obliterated my identity. “You have a very vivid imagination,” challenged my perception of reality. “He likes you because you have big boobs.” Really.
If you’re reading this, chances are your mother was a narcissistic, soul-crushing harpy. She smothered your identity, made you question your relationship to reality and doubt yourself all while expecting gratitude and adoration in return.
Hopefully you’re managing your relationship, either with limited contact or no contact. You can read about that process here, here and here. Hopefully, a counselor or spiritual director is your ally on the journey, helping you set boundaries, tease out truth from narcissistic abuse, love from toxicity.
But now? But what about you? About us? How do we manage they myriad requirements of healthy social interaction when we’ve been raised in a dark rabbit warren of double speak and mental abuse?
We’re quirky, bruised and broken and we need to look inward and examine how we are interacting with the world. This is best done after some healing, for me after I had gone no-contact. Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote,
The examination of conscience never induces despair, always hope…Because examination of conscience is done in the light of God’s love, it begins with a prayer to the Holy Spirit to illumine our minds. A soul then acts toward the Spirit of God as toward a watchmaker who will fix our watch. We put a watch in his hands because we know he will not force it, and we put our souls in God’s hands because we know that if he inspects them regularly they will work as they should….
The following is an examination of conscience for adult children of narcissists.
1. Do I presume everyone dislikes me?
Children whose mothers never offered basic nurturing, acceptance and love presume no good will from anyone else in the world. How could we? The person nature charged with our care defied all that is natural by withholding the love and approval we needed to function. Why would we presume anyone else likes us?
We presume, sometimes subconsciously, that others dislike us until proven otherwise. Tough gig for people who cross our path every day.
Try to notice this tendency and how it affects your interpretation of events. Try and approach people without preconceived ideas.
2. Do I chase friends?
We presume we are unlikable and that friendship must be earned at great effort. We have a keenly developed radar for disapproval, condescension or dislike. We read a lot into a glance, a micro-expression. When we detect rejection, we try harder to ingratiate ourselves. “If only she knew me, my pure intentions, how kind I can be.” We end up chasing friends. It’s humiliating.
If a relationship starts to feel unbalanced, as if it’s existence is wholly dependent on your effort, step back. Reassess. See if there is reciprocity and mutual esteem. If not, let things rest.
Continue with counseling, excavating your healthiest self, the self that will attract other healthy people, no chasing required.
3. Am I so consumed with my own emotional survival, so sad/anxious/insecure, that I fail to see the needs of others?
Everything is hard. Really hard. Self care, grooming, social interactions. (Tip from the school of hard knocks: once you go low- or no-contact, all this gets easier.) It’s all so hard, we forget everyone faces difficulty, everyone has weaknesses.
Other people get tired, other people get hurt, struggle with relationships, discouragement and loss. Try to look outward, to be a source of care, encouragement and joy for those around you.
4. Do I seek perfection (in my appearance, my home, my work, my cooking) in an effort to be accepted?
An obsessive concern with appearances is an attempt to mask our brokenness. If everything looks right, no one will know we’re confused as hell about maneuvering through this life.
This drive for perfection can lead to materialism and self-centeredness. Looking right—a perfect home and car and perfectly dressed children and a groomed dog—is expensive and time consuming. And all the focus on exteriors can prevent us from focusing on our interior life.
5. Do I feel guilty for saying “No,” or setting boundaries?
Sleep when tired, eat when hungry, bathe when dirty and say “No” to activities when you lack the time, ability or interest. We can’t prioritize the good without setting boundaries.
If you’re religious, as I am, setting boundaries with an abusive parent is fraught with guilt and misgivings. I wrote extensively on that issue in Honor Thy Narcissistic Mother.
Once you set boundaries with your mother, the emotional detritus that has been smothering your inner voice is cleared and you will be able to make better, more authentic decisions.
6. Do I apologize too much?
Yes, please, apologize if you forget an important meeting, a birthday, or put your foot in your mouth. Narcissistic mothers do not apologize, at least not if they can help it. Sincere apologies are refreshing and can give an awkward situation a fresh start.
But if you’re apologizing every day, you’re apologizing too much. Setting boundaries with your mother or other difficult people, declining invitations when you’re run down, and having to say “No” to requests for your time do not require an apology.
If you’re invited out to Chinese, and you don’t like Chinese, just say so. If you’re busy on Friday, suggest Saturday. If you need to point out someone else’s mistake at work, do it respectfully, but not apologetically.
7. Do I question my worth?
Of course you do. Counseling, prayer and meditation can help you discern between character flaws to be improved versus noxious self-hatred.
Take time to learn you were fearfully, wonderfully made. Sitting in silence a few minutes a day will reacquaint you with your worth. Silence is a healing form of self-care.
This meditation by Lafcadio Hearn helps me:
To the bamboo lattice on my study window a single dewdrop hangs quivering.
Its tiny sphere repeats the colors of the morning,—colors of sky and field and far-off trees. Inverted images of these can be discerned in it, —also the microscopic picture of a cottage, upside down, with children at play before the door. . .
So that tiny globe of light, with all its fairy tints and topsy-turvy picturings, will have vanished away. Even so, within another little while you and I must likewise dissolve and disappear. . .
But ask yourself what becomes of the dewdrop? By the great sun its atoms are separated and lifted and scattered. . . they will creep in opalescent mists; they will whiten in frost and hail and snow; they will reflect again the forms and colors of the macrocosm. . .
Even so with the particles of that composite which you term your very Self. Before the hosts of heaven the atoms of You were—and thrilled and quickened and reflected the appearances of things. And when all the stars of the visible night have burned themselves out, those atoms . . . will tremble again in thoughts, emotions and memories—in all the joys and pains of lives still to be lived. . .
Your personality signifies, in the eternal order, just as much as the motion of molecules in the shivering in any single drop. . . the dews will continue to gather and to fall, there will always be quivering pictures.
8. How do I handle the continuous stings of motherlessness?
- Friends put plans with their children first. (Remember, that’s what nurturing moms do.)
- Climbing out of the pool, one friend holds open a towel for another. “Thanks, Mom,” the wet friend jokes, and you realize your mother never held open a towel for you.
- A sick friend’s mom is doting at her bedside.
Witnessing expressions of maternal love can sting, and can sometimes set us back into self-loathing and feelings of worthlessness, and the repeating mantra, “No one ever did that for me.”
Gestures of effortless maternal love are often totally outside my frame of reference. When I witness great mothering, I try to take it as a lesson to love my children more and to practice more attentive kindness with my husband and my friends.
When I’m really right with the world, I try to see everyone I meet, no matter their age, as someone’s child who needs the same reassurance and approval I seek.
Perhaps none of these apply to you. I’m not a therapist, just a fellow survivor. The only advice I ever give is to find a counselor or spiritual director to help you mend the broken bits.
And love one another.