Need help understanding my self-absorbed mother and what to do about her
September 26, 2016 3:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm a 38F mom and my mother is 61. She "raised" me as a single mother-- bio dad is a true narcissist (I met him when I was an adult and we are NC now). Raised is in quotes because my grandmother did most of the raising. She is also probably NPD or BPD, I'm not sure.

My whole life, my mom has been very temperamental and fiery. She routinely yells at people-- if we are at a store or restaurant and something's not to her liking, she yells at the poor clerk/server. This mortified me as a child and I'd usually try to hide, if I could. Her reasoning was that customer service was very important to her. (my thinking-- like it isn't to anybody else?)

She has had relationship after relationship with NPD men. The more money and status they have, the better. She lives in a very rich area of California. Most of her friends have always come off as flaky and fakes, just like my mom.

I could write a novel about all the things that bother me about her: she seems very un-maternal for one. When she visits my children, when my children cry, my mother will laugh! Not a cruel sort of laugh, but an amused laugh. I've always found it very odd and I don't like it at all. She has always pushed me to do the cry-it-out method with my kids, and probably because of the way she raised me, I have done a 180 and was always very pro-attachment parenting. (side note- it's hard to do that 100% of the time and I feel awful anytime my kids cry, or when I do need to put my baby in her crib and her cry-- I feel like I'm traumatizing them!). Back to my mom: she always has to be the center of attention. She thinks she deserves the best.

Even when I was a child, I think she spent a lot on herself but not much on me. She does that to this day. Presents to me are things she would like (like an orange funky looking purse-- orange being her favorite color, and my least favorite color). I live a state away from her and she bought a condo in the town next to my town! Yes, I am very anxious about her moving here! In fact, I wrote her a detailed note a couple years ago about it as well as an honest list of things about her that bugged me. It didn't go over well, and ha, of course she didn't change! She's exactly the same! I don't know what to do. She invited herself up here for thanksgiving, by text: "Kids will be gone with their dad at Thanksgiving. I may come up if ok with you. Let me know since I need to book soon before the rates go up. Thanks!" I have a very hard time saying no to her. It gives me a lot of anxiety. But I get more anxiety by being with her. I was an only child growing up but have a half-sister and half-brother, in college and in high school. As soon as the high schooler is in college, that's when she plans to move up by me! I dearly wish she would remarry and have someone else be the focus of her life, not me.

I know I need to put my foot down, but I don't know how. Please help! Pep talks appreciated.

She is a bully. Me and my husband agree on this. She even had a bone to pick with him once and said she wanted to discuss it with him. I was worried about how she would handle it and she assured me she would just "talk" to him. No, she ended up yelling at him in public and making him cry! He's 38 years old ffs.

She doesn't ever help when she comes to visit me. She sees it as a chance to check out new restaurants and go shopping. Sometimes she'll promise to make dinner, and part of me wants to believe her. Last time she was here (and my half-bro and sister were here too-- all underage), not only did she not make dinner, but she made drinks (I forget what-- I don't really drink. some kind of tropical drink. mai tai?) and she even gave some to my 15 year old half-brother! I was livid! But no, my doormat self didn't say anything. Partly, I was so in shock (but also, not in shock. Honestly, was I really surprised? It's very fitting for her character. She's very irresponsible, texts and talks on phone while driving for instance. Doesn't feed them enough to eat-- I think she has an eating disorder too). Then finally she went to get McDonalds at 8pm-- well, my kids are little and I'd already had to make them dinner at 5pm like normal.

So I really dread her visits. I find I don't really like her at all as a person. She's very materialistic-- for herself only! She loves to shop, especially at high-end stores. And she'll give me (on rare occasions) her old fancy purses, but something will be wrong with them, like the zipper won't work. But she'll think it's the most wonderful gift anyone could possibly receive! She rarely will give things to my kids, and again, they're things she'd like. Slightly age-inappropriate clothing, things that are too dark or edgy. One shirt from France (oh lala-- I was supposed to be wowed by that) still had the security tag attached so I couldn't even use it.

I have friends whose mothers help them out immensely! Babysitting, cooking, cleaning on occasion... I find myself a little jealous, and very sad. I keep wondering what is wrong with my mom. I read all these books trying to understand her, as if understanding her would help me. Yes, I've been seeing therapists for a long time and they all (3 of them over many years) agree she is self-absorbed.
posted by ladybugmom to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry to hear about this -- I had a difficult relationship with my mom (different reasons, but still hard) and I know how hard it can be. For setting boundaries, I like Emotional Blackmail.
posted by elmay at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mom is like this. It is really hard. I absolutely feel you on all of this. What's worse is that it often feels like there's nothing I can really do. My typical response is to hold her at arm's length, but for family reasons I won't go into here, that isn't a real solution. Though I do think that living across the country from her is a huge help. I don't have kids, and yes, I do worry about how she'll do as a grandmother. Especially since she's really not interested in anything that isn't directly about her.

One thing I've known my whole life -- like literally from toddlerhood -- is that my mom is just never going to help me with anything. This is something I am not ever going to have. So I've largely moved on from it. But it is hard to watch other people interact with their mothers and get the kind of support I wish I could have.

Sorry I don't have any concrete advice. But know that you're not alone, this really sucks, and you don't deserve this.
posted by Sara C. at 3:57 PM on September 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

My mom is like this, too.

If you've read the books then the logical next thing to do is just start drawing boundaries. Unfortunately, borderlines and narcissists do not take kindly to your boundaries and will do everything they can to make your life hell because of it. But you still have to draw the boundaries, for your own sake. Continuing counseling can help teach you how to do this. Try asking for specific advice on this. Your partner may also want to come to counseling with you to learn how to deal with mom.

So sorry you have to deal with this. Unfortunately it doesn't get any easier, even when you get more comfortable with drawing boundaries. Like Sara C says, you don't deserve this.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 4:03 PM on September 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Boundaries are great! I have a similar mom who just can't really get outside her own head. She's a truly interesting person and a terrible mom. And she wants credit for being an interesting person while being a terrible mom. Frustrating!

So a few things that were helpful to me

- Giving up on having a mom, just not trying to make her into the sort of mom I may have wanted, that she could never be. Self-talk to myself "Mom has some sort of mental illness, I'll try to enjoy the good stuff and not take the bad stuff too hard"
- Not having it be your private shame. It's not your fault! And I am sorry! It sucks to have a sort-of-mom sometimes. Worse yet, I think my mom really thinks she's a pretty good mom and that I'm just ungrateful and basically broken. Oh well. So feel free to open up with people, not in a bitch.mope session but just in a "Yeah my mom is not a very good mom and doesn't really help with that sort of thing"
- Boundaries. I feel like it's patronizing sometimes but basically you are a grown up and she literally can not make you do anything. So if she moves near you, okay. You have limited time available to be with her and you enforce those boundaries. She can do whatever she is going to do but she doesn't need to do them all with you. Positive self-talk to yourself "You don't have to hang out with her when you don't want to" Talk to mom "Mom, I'd like to see you this weekend but I'm busy with (thingsyoudon'thelpwith) before then. Let's talk Saturday." Because honestly, she did not invite herself up for Thanksgiving. She said she wanted to come up if it's ok. That is your opening to say no it is not ok!
- No more debates. The best part about "my mom has a mental illness" is that you don't have to debate things with her. She is not going to learn. You don't have to tell her you hate orange and that you don't want to go shopping with her. You just ... stop going shopping. You say you have to go when she starts berating you. You go all Miss Manners on her "I'm sorry that won't be possible" repeat repeat repeat.

Sometimes N-Moms can learn to chill a bit more. But basically it's worth understanding that they are looking for attention and whether it's positive or negative that's what they're angling for (not consciously I don't think) and so you just ... turn off the attention hose. Text and call back more slowly. Be unavailable for things. Don't explain and don't argue just ... fade into your relationship with your chosen family and she can either do some work and act appropriately or... not. Therapists might be able to suggest some strategies specifically for boundaries for you once you've decided it's a thing you'd like to do. Goodluck.
posted by jessamyn at 4:06 PM on September 26, 2016 [28 favorites]

Thank you all already for your responses. Dearly appreciated! I really need to work on setting boundaries. I'm afraid of the backlash (I'm sure there will be one). And that is eye-opening to read that she didn't invite herself to Thanksgiving, but that I did! I have a long ways to go! I mean, I can't even say no! The guilt is tremendous. She's always been very good at guilting me into doing things, but the fault is equally mine in letting her do so.
posted by ladybugmom at 4:12 PM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just a thought about some of the things you mention: it appears to me that one of my own parents developed a few similar behaviors due to, sometime early in life, adopting as a sort of Swiss-army-knife the tactic of just being hostile until he got what he wanted. And it worked so well he never had to ask for anything, or say what he wanted or why he wanted it, and all of his other habits evolved to be complementary to that central approach to interacting with other people.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 4:15 PM on September 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Let me help you out here...

First of all, your mother has a thoroughly miserable inner life. Nobody ends up BPD or similar without significant trauma or abuse in their history IMHE.

Second of all, she's an adult and you should 300% keep her as far away from your own child/ren as humanly possible! Keep her away from you! Keep her away from your husband! Seriously, go NC!!

I'm sorry about your half siblings. Is there any chance for you to establish an outside relationship with them?

You should move and not give a forwarding address. Change your phone number. Go live on the moon...

I'm convinced your mother is toxic and will not change. Why aren't you convinced?
posted by jbenben at 4:23 PM on September 26, 2016 [16 favorites]

I read your update again. Wanted to add that you should skip the war with your mother over boundaries and instead skip straight to no contact + focus on therapy, grieving this loss, and becoming the best gosh darn parent you can be.

Put all of your effort into your family and marriage. Leave this drama behind. It will frighten you how relieved you will be, how much your quality of life will improve. Your children and marriage can not afford the high cost drama your mother brings with her.

(Ask me how I know.)
posted by jbenben at 4:28 PM on September 26, 2016 [11 favorites]

Why do you say your dad is a true narcissist? Sounds like your mother is one, too.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 4:41 PM on September 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm afraid of the backlash (I'm sure there will be one)

Yes there will be. NMom's don't expect to hear "no" from us. Ever. So when you say no, and stand your ground, she will probably lose it. You will calmly end the conversation. After a few times, she'll realize that you're not the kid she could terrorize anymore. You've got nothing to lose, right? If you refuse to accept her abuse, there will be more peace in your life. If she stops contact, you'll survive.
posted by Linnee at 4:44 PM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's what you need to understand: you have been programmed this way by your mother. You will not be able to deal effectively with her until you've successfully reprogrammed yourself, and after that happens you may no longer want her in your life at all. You literally do not have the tools yet, and should avoid her until you gain them. That is 100% okay.

What's not okay is letting her program your kids this way as well, and damaging your relationship with your husband and kids by not putting them first.

In short, stop subjecting yourself and your family to her toxicity. When you can say no to her without anxiety, you can reach out again if you want to. Until then, no contact.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:56 PM on September 26, 2016 [12 favorites]

[One comment deleted. Hey ladybugmom, moderator here. Just to let you know, AskMe's not a space for back-and-forth discussion, and we ask OPs to limit followups only to necessary clarifications. You've asked for advice, now you can check out people's answers and mark whichever ones are most helpful for you. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 4:57 PM on September 26, 2016

I know it's hard, believe me. Been there. Ultimately you need to come to understand that your parent has no power over you. You can say "no" to anything as firmly as you want. My advice is to say "no" to everything. "No" if you move here we will not be spending time with you. If she shows up at your door, say "no" you cannot come in. It will be hard. You will need counseling to figure out how much to explain to her, and how much not to bother.

Now that you have had children, your obligation is to your children, not to your mean parent. And also to yourself, not your mean parent.
posted by sheldman at 5:06 PM on September 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

It is very possible to have two damaged parents, and to have the less damaged one be cast as the Nice Parent and hold on to them more tightly because they're comparatively so much better - I've seen this pattern play out in several families across generations, including my own. It's hard enough having one parent push you away, let alone two.

There are lots of good books about narcissistic parents. I would stay away from the websites and forums and stick to books, as the forums tend to be high-drama situations, and the books have more practical advice. Give yourself time to read through them and think and feel about the ideas in them and then decide what changes you want to make.

I went partial and then full no-contact with my mother after my father's death. We've had very limited interaction with legal issues since but not having to deal with her and knowing my kids are buffered from her damage at last (and it's not in your imagination - trust your instincts, it is sadly possible to have a grandmother who ignores them or finds satisfaction in your child's discomfort and punishment) - that's been so very very freeing and peaceful.

I don't have a mother with her in my life, and I don't have a mother without her in my life, but I m safer and happier without her, if that makes sense.

It took about 7 years from first starting to set boundaries to full no contact, by the way, so take your time. And a therapist can be really helpful if it gets messy in your head. Also - loop in your partner early to be firmly on your team and not trying to be a helpful bridge etc.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:11 PM on September 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm afraid of the backlash (I'm sure there will be one).

What precisely are you afraid of? Physical harm? Property damage? Stalking? If not one of those things, roleplay with your therapist or a friend. You know what she might say, so enlist your therapists in formulating responses. Those might be the standard "I'm sorry, that's not possible" to getting up and leaving the room or hanging up the phone. "I won't be talked to like that" was my mantra during an abusive relationship.

Your anxiety will fade when you have a specific plan on how to deal with the backlash.
posted by AFABulous at 10:08 AM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing yeah, there will be backlash. There's a very similar dynamic in my parents, narcissistic father of the "I'm so awesome everyone loves me... or else they're dumb and worthless" sort, while my mother, while diagnosed BPD back in the days it wasn't so well understood, is someone I would now call a narcissist as well. Her style was more "my life is the only one that matters, you're all here as either Awesome Supportive People To Me or as Horrible Cruel Evil Sick People To Me." My father didn't have any direct trauma in his life, though he had been pampered by two older sisters as the surprise baby my grandmother had in her 40s. My mother had loads of trauma; her narcissism was pretty clearly a defense against having to deal with it. The problem was that all her choices, all the time, were to deify people as perfect and then as soon as they made a mistake, demonize them... and stalk them, and abuse them, and make their lives as rotten as possible. I honestly don't know how she and my father stayed together, but they still are 42 years later.

Anyway. All that to say. I did not have a happy childhood either, and being as I'm the only woman my mother had a relationship with for more than three years, she saw me as her personal punching bag because obviously as a kid I couldn't get away. She does have a lot of qualities. I learned to draft, sew, and read from her, among other things. Then she'd call me a whore in public. *shrug* Eventually she graduated to death wishes for me, and this was once I'd started setting boundaries. So, yeah, backlash, you are correct, there will be one.

Everyone's different though, and who knows, your mother may be the sort who after initial backlash, could be liveable at arm's length. (Don't let her near your kids though. Please. My mother did with her mother, and uh this is how I know firsthand some of the ways my mother was traumatized as a child, okay. And yeah, my mother also knew, and kept saying blabla I won't let her do that, I'll talk to her, I'll cut her off if I need to... and next thing you know we were alone with a woman who thought it was okay to randomly hit kids with kitchen implements.)

Your boundaries need to be very firm. If she escalates and doesn't stop escalating (give her a year or two IF the escalation is livable considering it could die down eventually, sometimes it's really just not, see also: death wishes lol), then yes, keep in mind the possibility of no contact. In my case it's given me a life I never imagined possible, in large part because my mother was so incredibly invasive and destructive that one of my main life goals was just getting out. Not even surviving after getting out, not even having a career or a family... just getting out. That seeped into so many other unasked questions that I wasn't even aware people asked of life. Anyway. Cross that bridge if and when you come to it, I mention it just so you have another person reassuring you that in case of extremity, you're not alone.
posted by fraula at 12:20 PM on September 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think it will help if you have something you're working toward, a goal and an inner strength to rely on when she pushes against your boundaries. Like, decide what you are going to do for a given day or how your schedule looks for the week, and decide that you aren't going to make changes except if certain things come up--maybe if your husband has a request--or unless you have taken some to think about the change. That gives you something to fall back on, something to build your backbone around, since right now you're letting her take all your backbone. You're letting her opinion or desire be the final one with the veto power. The truth is, no matter how overbearing she acts or what she says, she doesn't have the veto power. Your power is yours and you get to wield it to make the decisions that are best for you. I know this can be so hard to realize and act on, but I believe it's true and I believe you can live it out with practice.

A visualization I've used is to imagine that I am a stone and the other person's words and energy are simply water flowing around and past me. Or, I imagine I'm rubber, and hurtful words bounce off; or surrounded by an impermeable aura of love--their hate just can't get in. That is my strength and confidence.

You can also decide that you won't make any commitments to her without first checking in with yourself about what you actually want. I think figuring this out will be really helpful for you--what you want, and the confidence that you are allowed and affirmed to assert and pursue what you want, to the best of your ability.

An example of this would be if she calls you up and wants to have a long conversation. If you have already decided that your evening is going to be spent cooking or watching TV or whatever, then when she calls, you either don't answer or you answer briefly and (write a script in advance if you need to) tell her, "Hi. I'm not available right now but I will contact you next week when I'm available" or "If it's urgent, please send me an email" or whatever. If she keeps talking, say, "I'm going to hang up now" and then do it. Sometimes I feel better about asserting my boundaries with pushy people if I state exactly what's going to happen--then I know that I was clear and they had the opportunity to do what I asked.

In the case of Thanksgiving, you could have heard her request to visit you (I agree it was not a case of her inviting herself, but maybe you know her tone better than we do) and taken the time to check in with yourself to know that you didn't want her to visit. Then you could have responded, "That's a nice idea, but we won't be able to make it happen this year. We aren't going to be available / We made plans already / Hope you have a great Thanksgiving [down in your city]."

Practice saying "no" and asserting your desires in small ways. Just try it out in different settings and see what happens. It can feel really good to say no.

You're allowed to turn off the phone. You can set your ringer to not make noise when she calls. You can give yourself space.

You are an adult and have autonomy over what you do. She is an adult and you can't change or fix her. You are acting like an adult when you maintain your boundaries and let her know what you're okay with in your relationship her. She is acting like a child when she pouts and gives alcohol to minors and behaves sort of wildly without regard for the consequences. So, as an adult who cares for herself, your right is to do what you need to really look after yourself and those around you.
posted by ramenopres at 6:08 PM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

These are some great answers... if you're looking for further reading (and supportive forums) I think you'd find a lot that resonates with your experience over at, e.g. this post about setting boundaries with visiting parents.
posted by blu_stocking at 8:33 PM on September 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Concerning the fear of backlash... think of it this way: if you don't assert boundaries, YOU (and your kids and your spouse) will suffer. If you do assert them, your mother will be unhappy and throw a hissy fit.
Ask yourself this: why are you putting your mother's feelings & wishes above your own? AND the well-being of your children? And your spouse's?
I know you've been raised to always put her in the center of the universe and to revolve around that. But it's not right. And if you can't put yourself first, ahead of her, then at least start by putting your family (spouse & kids) first.

Another thing to keep in mind, when mom throws a fit and tries to make you feel responsible for her absolute misery, you've been trained (very well!) to feel 100% responsible for upsetting her and it's the worse feeling on planet earth. But the thing is, how upset is she, really? Regardless of how she acts, is it the end of the world as we know it? Or is she an adult who will eventually get over it? Spoiler alert: she can and she will. Chances are, without an audience to enable her (aka, care), she'll probably not "suffer" as much.
If someone set the same boundary with you, would you get over it? Yes. Then that's that. Good rule of thumb.
You are being manipulated because that gives her control over you. Learn to not let it get under your skin. Fake til you make it. Pretend like what she's saying or how she's acting isn't affecting you. It'll be quite shocking to her at first but trust me, she'll recover just fine & dandy.

I highly recommend the book "Will I ever be good enough?". Perhaps reading some other books about setting boundaries?

Also: a simple, "hey I'm having some issues with ______ (stress, work, health, whatever) so you visiting for Thanksgiving isn't going to work for me anymore. Sorry about that. I know, right, so upsetting?! "

One more thing: seriously think about your kids here and the example she sets. They are how she treats you and how she treats others. And that's really disfunctional. children are emulators.
posted by Neekee at 8:11 PM on September 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

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