Help me understand my mother.
May 3, 2011 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Conceptually, I need a way to think of my mother’s behavior so I can better understand it. I am looking for a label. Is she narcissistic? Manipulative? Histrionic? What? Please help me try to figure this out.

Conceptually, I need a way to think of my mother’s behavior so I can better understand it. I am looking for a label. Is she narcissistic? Manipulative? Histrionic? What? Please help me try to figure this out.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My father went to work came home and did his own thing. My mother was marginally more involved.

My mother has a long history of using my and my siblings experiences to, I don’t know what to call it, minimize our experience and play up her role in the suffering? Make it all about her?

Example: Sister has a genetic disease. Mother has for years told friends and relatives about how difficult it was for her, being the mother, always emphasizing her pain, her suffering. My mother has this narrative where she barely acknowledges her daughter has the disease; it is always about my mother. My sister has said it has never been possible to talk with mother about the disease because of this so as an adult she simply stopped.

Likewise, I had to endure things that no child should have to while I was in elementary school. My behavior really went down hill as a result. I was in fights all the time and made a lot of trouble at the school.

The only reason I escaped that school was because a cousin, who heard about all the “trouble” I was making from an aunt, took it upon herself to visit and was disturbed enough by what she saw that she took a leave of absence from college and moved half way across the country to my house to make sure I was taken out of that school and oversaw my transition to a new one and brought me to therapy and stuff.

So years later, when my mother recounts that time, the narrative is, “Anonymous was a really difficult student at that age, cousin even had to move here to help me out with him! You have no idea how difficult he was!”

Is she narcissistic? Manipulative? Histrionic? What? Please help me try to figure this out.

Making things more difficult. No one, except my cousin and my sister, acknowledges what I went through, though my cousin has told me she thinks my mother has paid a terrible price as she grows older because she now realizes what was going on and that she was too much of a drunk at the time to do anything about it. Cousin thinks mother is haunted by guilt.

Part of me wants to tell my mother how badly I am hurt by what I went through and that she should have been there to stop it. At the same time I think that this would be a cruel thing to do to my mother.

Given how she has exploited my suffering for her own gain for years, why do I still feel protective of her?
posted by Francophone to Human Relations (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hand-wringing? In need of a fainting couch? Histrionic seems to fit in the definition of the word, but some days the only diagnosis is "asshole".

Can you get away from your mother? I know that isn't the question, but sometimes the answer is to quietly fade away. You feel protective of her because you grew up reading fairy tales, and hearing everything will be great, and that mothers always want what is best for their children. Unfortunately, mothers sometimes aren't so great.

It's ok to have a relationship where you realise she is not so good with reality, as long as it doesn't hurt you. It will take a lot for most people to get to that point though, the whole diaper-guilt may get thrown back to you several times. Many people feel protective of not so good moms.

Once again AskMeFi thinks therapy is the answer, I bet =]
posted by kellyblah at 8:07 PM on May 3, 2011 [6 favorites]

Given how she has exploited my suffering for her own gain for years, why do I still feel protective of her?

Maybe because, in addition to simply loving her because she's your mother, you also want to play your role in a "loving son of a loving mother" scenario--kids don't just sit there and soak up love, they enjoy returning love to their parents. She may be too wrapped up in addiction and mental illness to have played her role in the healthy relationship you crave, but part of you wants to fulfill your role anyway. (I mean, maybe. This is a guess. I could be completely wrong.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:08 PM on May 3, 2011

You feel protective of her because you are a human being with a heart and she is your mother.

Your experience is not too different from my own. My mother has displayed similar behaviors all my life. The essential demonstration, for me, was when she failed to protect me, as a child, from a neighbor who was a child molester and has made it since about this stressful thing that happened TO HER.

So yeah, it is immensely hard to understand.

My suggestion is to just stop trying.

You don't say how old you are are what you living situation is right now. Do you have to deal with her daily? Does she talk about the past a lot? If this is daily (or frequent) stressor from you, find a way to get away from it.

You can confront her if you think you will benefit from that, but in my experience, you are never ever going to make her see the light. Let it go. Enjoy the wonderful people in your life now -- they will support you in ways she can't and won't. Find a good counselor. You may never get recognition of the crap you lived through from your family, but you will get it from other places. Random people on the internet here will tell you THAT WAS NUTS...and it will kind of help.

In short, give yourself time, fill you current life with good people of your own choosing, and just let her go be her own crazy self.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:17 PM on May 3, 2011 [11 favorites]

I don't know the official term, but I've known a parent like that, and seen her relationship with her adult children. Her behavior never got better.

The best solution was for the adult children to fill their lives with good, stable, reliable friends and family, building a positive life with relationships based on mutual respect -- and insulate themselves as much as possible from the parent, including moving cities. The adult children have had to make various arrangements for the aging parent, and they've done their duty in that regard, and visit a few times a year, always maintaining firm boundaries. The good news is, the adult children are all doing well. They survived and built good lives despite their bad childhoods; they were able to stop the patterns of bad behavior of their parents.

It's compassionate of you to want to extend the benefit of the doubt to her - to think she can change. Maybe she can. But you are under no obligation to keep opening yourself up to being hurt by her. You can build positive adult relationships now, which will give you a better framework for keeping her bad behavior at a distance.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:29 PM on May 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your mother's tendency to make it all about her and her pain is because she can't accept or can't acknowledge the level of pain she's caused you and the rest of the family by her direct or sideways neglect. As long as HER problems are the worst then it's okay that she drinks because her pain trumps all.

I call it Centrifuge Behavior & your protective instinct is just a symptom of the environment you were raised in. You've spent your whole life as one of her moons and although your brain knows her attitude is complete and utter bullshit, you've internalized it anyway.

It's really hard to get out of that orbit but you're halfway there. Saying something to her about her deceptions probably won't change her but you'll feel better about yourself if you can do it.

Granted the only time I confronted my father about his alcoholism, I ended up being left 7 miles outside of town in the desert and spent 3 hours walking back into civilization so I'm not saying the discussion will go well and there won't be repercussions. That was almost 20 years ago and my father died soon after that incident so I'm glad I got a chance to stand up to him.
posted by jaimystery at 8:29 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Although labels aren't necessarily helpful on their own, they can give you an avenue for more research. You also shouldn't try to give your mother an official diagnosis by reading some stuff on the internet, which I'm sure isn't your intention. With those disclaimers, I might suggest that you read up a little on borderline and see if it fits. (There are some good threads on metafilter like this one that might be a good place to start reading.) If it is BPD there are good resources for dealing with being the child of a parent who suffers with it.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:33 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with jaimystery. I encounter something similar in my family, where my mom is basically unwilling to realize or accept the immense pain she's caused her children, rather twisting the story into one of her own pain and our misdeeds.

I think this is a self-protective measure on her part--perhaps the most vilified character in our culture is that of the Bad Mother. You can be a Bad-Father-Turned-Good or a Reformed Racist or any of those other characters, but you can never escape the title of Bad Mother. To accept that you've been responsible, whether by action or neglect, for your children's misery is to acknowledge that you're a Bad Mother and that's a title few people are willing to bear. Even if refusing to admit your mistakes means you're causing your kids even more pain and driving them further away, for some people it's preferable to maintain the self-delusion.

If you are not pursuing therapy, I would do so. In your position, I did lay bare to my mom about the pain she caused me, but it changed absolutely nothing about her behavior towards me. So if you do it, do not necessarily expect reconciliation.
posted by schroedinger at 8:36 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Two other things you may already know about --

There is the group Al-Anon, which is different from AA. Al-Anon is for family members of alcoholics. They have meetings in most places, which you can probably find in the phone book, if you want to go and hear stories of other people who might have had similar experiences.

There is also the group ACOA, Adult Chlidren of Alcoholics which similarly has meetings in many places that you could try going to. They have one line on some common problems experienced by ACOAs
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:38 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would like to suggest a book: The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Walker. It's about narcssitic family systems and the damage they do to children. Sorry I can't link to it from my phone. (Well I probably could but it would be a real pain).

My experience is similair and I felt a huge sense of relief when my therapist loaned me the book. It put things into perspective.

In my experience, confrontations with my mother have never worked in my benefit. It just seems to give her more logs for the fires of martyrdom.

Hang in there. As adults we get to rebuild our families from people of our choosing. Seek reciprocity in your emotional relationships.
posted by dchrssyr at 8:52 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thank you for all of the answers so far. Just want to thank the two mefites who wrote to alert me that I used "Anonymous" in my question. I thought about posting anonymously but decided not to.

As to other questions, I see my mother about twice as month.
posted by Francophone at 9:13 PM on May 3, 2011

If it's important for you to "diagnose" her in order to understand your childhood and your current relationship with your mother, you should read the BPD Family forum and see if you recognize her in the posts. Last year I stumbled upon that forum while, like you, trying to understand my mother and it was then I finally felt less guilty and less alone. Learning about Borderline Personality Disorder helped me understand my mother's behavior and cognitive distortions had little if anything to do with me, and it helped me to understand why no one (with the exception of my brother) believed I was abused and neglected.

I'm protective of my mother too. I think it's because she made me the parent--of myself and of her. She will, of course, remember the past differently. If her narrative of events are challenged, she'll usually twist my words, guilt-trip me, make threats, focus on one word out of a whole entire sentence and go on a tangent about what that word reminded her of and not even address what I was actually saying, and then proceed to gaslight me until I doubt my own sanity. Sometimes I think my mother feels too guilty to acknowledge the truth, other times I think she's incapable of seeing it. Does most of that sound familiar? If so, don't bother confronting your mother with the past unless you plan to cease contact with her and you want her to know why you're doing so. I think you'd feel much better talking to someone about your childhood (even if it's online), focusing on your own thinking and behavior, and moving on with your life knowing it was never your fault and yes, it really did happen. That's what I'm doing.

Good luck, Francophone.
posted by Sara Bellum at 9:43 PM on May 3, 2011 [17 favorites]

Likewise, I had to endure things that no child should have to while I was in elementary school.

I don't know what you went through in school, and you don't have to say here, but it was obviously an incredibly traumatic experience for you. I'm so sorry.

Does your Mom know what happened at that school, and did she just ignore it? I don't mean the fighting, I mean what led you to go down that path in the first place. Could she actually just have been so tuned out that all she remembers from that time was you getting into fights? It might be that she really believes this narrative she has created, of your behavior being the problem rather than the result of what you were going through.

Doesn't *excuse* her neglect of you or your sister, but it might help explain why she makes it all about her--she just remembers your cousin coming in to take over and being overwhelmed by it all.

Frankly, I don't think it would have taken much to overwhelm your Mother, from your description of her. I find myself wondering if your Mom was very young when she had you and your sister; she certainly seems to have been immature and unprepared for the reality of parenting two girls!

Given how she has exploited my suffering for her own gain for years, why do I still feel protective of her?

I think this is a sign that you are more mature now than your Mom has ever been. You can recognize that she is a human, with human flaws, and feel nurturing and protective for her because of those vulnerabilities. In a way, you have become the parent and she the child in this relationship.

To answer your question about what to call your Mom, she is kind of a serial bully with attention seeking behaviors. Consider this:

Munchausen Syndrome* is an attention-seeking personality disorder which is more common than statistics suggest...a predominantly female disorder in which an emotionally immature person with narcissistic tendencies, low self-esteem and a fragile ego has an overwhelming need to draw attention to herself and to be the centre of attention...The opportunities for being centre of attention can be increased if feigning victimhood through alleged victimisation, isolation, exclusion or persecution is added to the equation; the Munchausen person can then depict another person (often a family member) as a victimiser or persecutor and herself as the victim. Presenting herself as a false victim is also a Munchausen trait.

*This is NOT the same as Manchausen by Proxy, where a person deliberately makes another person ill or injures them so that she can come across as the grieving caretaker.
posted by misha at 10:14 PM on May 3, 2011

"Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics."

That's all you're really in a position to say. If somebody has a terrible personality, and is an addict, the addiction is enough to explain it. Whether there's another explanation as well, none of us can know.

As for her behaviour, it sounds "neglectful" and "attention-seeking".

I don't think bringing it up to her would help, sadly. For one thing, her memories will be clouded by what is called "euphoric recall" which will literally shield her from any memory of wrongdoing. For another, she's beyond rational discourse anyway. You don't need the flak.

As for the reason why you care for her - she's your mom, and you are a human being with empathy and compassion. Sorry, it sucks to be one of those :-(
posted by tel3path at 10:51 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

My girlfriend's father is prone to having massive seizures that for a point, before he switched medications, were only able to be treated with some self-administered marijuana. Girlfriend's father's ex-partner, when speaking of his seizures, consistently emphasized her troubles in having to deal with them, and what an enormous irritation they were, and how inconvenient. To my regret I only ever (politely) called her on it once and it flew completely over her head. In retrospect I would have been much more forceful, much more frequently. My diagnosis? She was a bitch.

Some people are vile inside. It isn't a medical or psychological condition: it's just their own ugliness.
posted by tumid dahlia at 11:05 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is she narcissistic? Manipulative? Histrionic? What?

How about...a victim?

I've known some perennial victims in my life. They were wounded and dysfunctional and always sought to blame their problems on absolutely anything external they could conjure to fill the role. Usually there was some chemical dependency involved. Grappling with their own demons was The One Thing They Would Never Do. Some of them were so (pardon the expression) hell-bent on avoidance that they were almost perfectly wrong-headed. It was as though they'd managed to reverse the magnetism of an internal compass, so that at every turn they were guided to do the exact opposite of what made the most sense. These were the ones closest to a turning point.

Whether they had become so extreme or not, there was never anything I could do to affect such people's mindset directly, never any way to get them to face reality, since their subconscious will was pretty strongly geared toward not doing so. I tried being brutally honest and being subtle. I pointed out such behavior in others, both with and without mentioning their own parallels specifically. I related my own parallel experiences, such that they were. I reported from the "other side" about how much better life had become after I bested my own demons. I tried everything I could imagine. At best, I think I tenderized a few psyches by beating them up with the truth consistently enough that when circumstances in their own lives made the dreaded self-reflection not just possible, but unavoidable, they had some sense of what it was all about - and that there was at least one person who knew that about them, and didn't reject them for it.

The only thing I ever saw work to any great degree was when a person like that finally painted him/herself into a corner from which the only way out was to climb. (Part of being cornered meant the penalties for continuing the chemical dependency were extremely unpalatable.) The interesting thing was that these people had to victimize themselves so completely that no matter how hard they tried, they could not escape the fact that they, themselves were their own persecutors underneath it all.

Maybe your mom fits this description; maybe she doesn't. Maybe you feel protective of her because you know that she has a mental illness. Regardless, make sure you don't live out an endless dysfunctional drama of your own trying to save or fix her. If you aren't already, become attuned to your own sense of balance, such that you can feel when it starts to slip. when you're around her. When it does, either dig in your heels and tell her your truth (if you're feeling strong enough to take it to the next level), or get away from her. Don't get pulled into her well.

Good luck. Be strong.
posted by perspicio at 12:18 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm giving a pretty long description here of how a third-party person might see your mom. Sorry for the length, but this also helped me figure out if I am handling a situation as well as I can.

I know a woman who sounds a lot like this. I've tried my best to be a good friend to her for years, but I'm about to throw in the towel. No matter what I have done or said, it's always about her and how miserable she is with her circumstances. We started off in somewhat similar circumstances when we met (history of bad relationships, single motherhood, trying to find work, etc), and seemed to have a good bond, but have gone in different directions.

Here's an example: We both remarried, but to completely different kinds of men. My guy works hard and is very frugal. Hers plays WoW a lot after arranging to get laid off because of other child support demands. He's even stolen money from her purse to pay for WoW or weed or whatever.

Another example: Getting her kids diagnosed. She has spent more energy getting her kids diagnosed with some disorder than she does paying attention to them. Now, I understand that some children have very real problems, but it's always "oh, so that's what's wrong and not me."

Just this evening, she wanted to come over and hang out with me to escape from her place. I mentioned that I've been working my butt off for the past couple weeks and was just too tired (this was true; I needed to concentrate on my family and being good at work again tomorrow). I also was in the middle of helping kids with homework, making dinner, overseeing chores, etc. What I didn't say was that I didn't want her coming over, drinking any booze she could lay her hands on (we've known each other long enough that I would have had to make the extra effort, again, to put everything in a different location so she didn't just help herself), and whining at me for hours.

This sounds harsh, I know. But the complaining this time would have been about one of her children just turning 18, so she's out the Social Security income (death benefit from the father) and food stamps for that child. The punchline is that she sent that child to live with practically strangers almost a year ago. So yeah, I'll use the word "fraud."

I used to try. I used to encourage her. I've helped her pay for various attempts at some sort of job training because I could afford it without it being a burden on me or mine. I am truly sorry she is in such a state, but I know there isn't anything productive I can do for her right now.

I have learned I cannot possibly have her over on a night when I have to work the next day. If I try, I'm still totally emotionally drained and damn near useless at a place where people are counting on me. So, I've had to set boundaries.

The term I used when discussing this situation with my husband tonight was "emotional vampire" if you want to give it a name.

You have the power here. It's no sin to use it gently. You are not required to answer your phone, for instance. It's ok to say, "Sorry, I am buried up in this other important thing right now." I don't want to be cruel to anyone, but I do have to look after me and mine first.
posted by lilywing13 at 1:05 AM on May 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Diagnosing your parents is an attempt to extract yourself from the pain of the relationship into something more clinical. I find it more useful (but more painful) to empathize with your parents. Why did your mother need to make it all about her? What was she struggling with?

This may look like I've made it all about her again, but siding with your love of her, rather than your hate, you're actually better equipped to understand the family dynamic.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:56 AM on May 4, 2011

You might find something in the forum at DoNM that will put a label on the dynamic. It can be enlightening to read stories similar to your own.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:56 AM on May 4, 2011

Here is a link to Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search For the True Self (mentioned above).

The TV reality show "The Judds" is pretty interesting on this subject. Watch from the beginning. They have a therapist who goes on tour with them!
posted by cda at 6:13 AM on May 4, 2011

I came in here to recommend The Drama of the Gifted Child but I see that dchrssyr has beaten me to it. It's a great book, and I suspect that it will help you to understand the dynamic you have with your mother. I didn't come away with a name for what was wrong with my childhood, but I didn't have the kind of relationship trouble that you did, either. Having a name for a behavior can certainly be comforting, and can give you a kind of power or control over that behavior.

I hope you find what you need.
posted by gauche at 6:19 AM on May 4, 2011

I say Narcissist. I see my own mother very much in what you wrote. But what really triggered a “click” for me, when I first put “narcissist” and my mother together, was when I was reading about narcissism to deal with my father, a diagnosed narcissist (yes, both), and read something about how narcissistic parents do not want to be truly loved, and will often become mean or hurtful toward their children when they try to express love.

I don’t know if your mother is a narcissist, too, because you gave few examples and they could be the result of a lot of things. But I’ll describe my mother a little bit (sorry to make it all about me).

My mother takes every incident of my childhood and turns it into a narrative, about her and what she did and how she felt. Every facet of my personality and every choice I make has its genesis in some action of hers. The reason I dress more conservatively than she is because I don’t feel like I could compete with her in her wacky-hippy-teenager style. The reason that I care too much about other people’s feelings and sometimes play the silent sufferer is because this one time she told me that I should try to think about other people’s feelings. The reason that I don’t let men walk all over me like she does is because she once gave me a copy of The Rules but then I “took it too far.” I have never had a genuine conversation with her about my feelings.

The whole thing about The Narrative (tm) is very familiar to me: how there is no actual remembering or recollecting what happened, but rather a regurgitation of a narrative that she has constructed to fit into whatever reality she wants to acknowledge at that moment. And if I ever try to challenge The Narrative, or present some fact or feeling that contradicts The Narrative, I’ll get an explosion of fantasy and backtracking to support The Narrative, or the silent treatment for weeks or months, or gaslighting. I posted before about how my mother refuses to acknowledge, to me, that she got married a couple of years ago, despite everything pointing to the contrary. When other people that she’s told bring it up in front of me, she later gives me a whole song and dance about why she had to tell that person that she’s married but she really isn’t.

But it extends beyond me and my childhood. Right now she has been tentatively diagnosed with a genetic illness, except she has decided that it’s not genetic but rather is caused by chemtrails (which, if you don’t know, are clouds of “harmful chemicals” that the government is “secretly” having airplanes spew into the atmosphere).

I think it is all about this need of hers to create her own reality and her own explanations for things. I assume there are parts of her life, her past, her actions that she is unhappy with, or even absolutely terrified of facing. And every new person she meets is an opportunity to tell that person a new Narrative where she can be and have done anything that she wants. I assume she has a terrible memory and doesn’t realize when she’s told me five different versions of the same Narrative. If there are any grains of truth in the stories she’s told me about her childhood, she was hurt and treated terribly by her own mother.

My method of dealing with this is to just kind of emotionally pull out. There is no winning in trying to get the truth from her, or an acknowledgement of something that she is unwilling or unable to acknowledge. It’s safer for my own sanity to just be aware of my own truth in my own mind, and go “mm hmm” whenever she talks. I was not put on this earth to help her hold up the foundations of her reality.
posted by thebazilist at 9:09 AM on May 4, 2011 [11 favorites]

You could look up the diagnostic criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder(BPD), Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Bi-Polar. My Mom was pretty similar, and drank to deal with her intense and volatile emotions. She presented herself so well to outsiders, but at home it was another story. My brother used to refer to her Revisionist History; any event could be turned into a story, and the facts got lost. She often didn't hear that the story was kind of mean. One of my sisters confronted her, many times actually, and it led to years of fighting and recrimination.

When things were going well, my Mom could be helpful and fun. She helped me out financially when I wanted to buy a business, and she was really smart, so I could talk to her about the business. I made sure I paid her back, so it wouldn't be one more thing to use to control me.

You can change your behavior. If she is mean, leave the room. If she picks a fight, leave the room, or the house. If she talks about how difficult you (supposedly) were, say "That hurts my feelings." or if you want to push it a little "How do you suppose it was for me?" or "Yes, that was a difficult time for me. I'm thankful Cousin came to help." Over time, you may be able to gently point out some ways for her to see things from a different viewpoint. In my case I moved to another state, and for a while I didn't have a phone, so she couldn't call to manipulate or fight with me. She fought hard to keep me in line, but I learned to opt out. Over many years, we developed a relationship that was a bit more honest, and not manipulative or unkind.

You clearly have a lot of strength and compassion. Those are good ways to Good luck. view your mother.
posted by theora55 at 10:25 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry you're dealing with this. Depending on how you feel and how harsh you might want to be, when she starts the narrative of:

“Anonymous was a really difficult student at that age, cousin even had to move here to help me out with him! You have no idea how difficult he was!”

you might want to respond with, "Yes, your alcoholism caused a lot of damage, it's difficult to grow up as the child of a drunk." She can STFU or realize that the narrative will be challenged Every. Single. Time. Best of luck to you.
posted by cyndigo at 11:00 AM on May 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

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