photo of Eva, the daughter of a narcissistic mother portrayed in the movie 'Autumn sonata'

You know that feeling you get when you’re visiting your mother for holidays, you bring her gifts and all she says to you is ‘I don’t really know if this shirt will fit me. Couldn’t you get me something else?’ Then, you help her set the dinner table and she controls your every move-you should use these plates and not those or this set of forks, they’re new.

This is how it was for me to be around my mother. Even though, I love her, our relationship was turbulent, much like the one between Charlotte and Eva, the two protagonists in the 1978 movie, ‘Autumn sonata‘.

Charlotte is a renowned concert pianist who comes to visit her daughter, Eva, after a seven-year absence. During the visit, she discovers that her second daughter, Helena is slowly fading from a degenerative disease, while Eva is torn between loving and hating her.

My mother focused more on the family comparing to the famous pianist in Bergman’s movie. Nevertheless, I still felt alone. She was physically present, doing her duties as a mother but, she felt cut off emotionally from everyone around her. It was eerie to see Charlotte’s cold behavior in the movie and her lack of empathy towards her daughter’s pain. It reminded me of my mom.

However, even though the effects of being brought up by a narcissistic parent are long-lasting, it is possible to handle the anxiety that comes from such experience. Here are seven ways on how narcissism impacts adult children negatively:

1. People-pleasing behavior

It is common for an adult child of a narcissistic mother to become a people pleaser. The explanation of why this happens is this: when the child is raised by a mother whose main concern is her unresolved issues and pain, the child becomes enmeshed with her.

He would often ask himself what is wrong with him for making his mother so upset. He’ll think that, if he will extend himself to his mother, then he’ll receive the love he yearns from her. For more about people pleasing and how to deal with it, check out my post ‘How toxic parents can turn you into a people pleaser’.

2. Low self-esteem

Very often, children of narcissistic parents grow up feeling not good enough in everything they do. This is because they were corrected since young age and told that they always do the wrong things. I would often hear from my mother how I do things the ‘wrong’ way. For example, she would show me how to fold clothes and if I did it wrong, she’d say that she rather do it herself because, I can’t do it the way she wants me to. A narcissistic mother is never pleased with how others are doing things.

She sets high standards for herself that only few people can reach. That’s why, the child will feel like he’s lacking something. After years of being told that he’s doing things wrongly, he ends up thinking that it must be something wrong with him. He’ll not feel comfortable in relationships and will try to make others love him by ‘performing’ for them.

At one point in ‘Autumn Sonata‘, Eva performs for her mother a piece of classical music. Due to the fact that playing piano was not her forte but writing was, the daughter’s interpretation sounded bland.

But, instead of letting this go, her mother Charlotte took the spotlight and showed her how to play Chopin like a pro. She didn’t need to say anything to Eva so she would feel inferior and unworthy. Her hurtful actions were enough to show her daughter how she is not good enough. For a narcissistic mother, being competitive is a way of life. She wants to be better than everyone else, to win at all times, even during arguments.

You can watch the piano scene bellow.

3. Lack of a sense of self and direction

When you are raised by a narcissistic mother, you might realize you have no self. During childhood, even though your mother might have tried to give you attention and care, there wasn’t any opportunity for you to express yourself. The narcissistic mother needs to live through her children, thus, the children are not allowed to have different thoughts, values and dreams. If they show signs of being different, they are made to feel guilty. Thus, the child needs to be what the mother wants him to be. That’s how he ends up denying his own self.

4. Lack of boundaries

A narcissistic mother makes you become enmeshed with her, much like how Eva was enmeshed with her famous mom. She had no idea who she was, why did she learn piano at an early age, why was she trying to impress Charlotte by playing Chopin for her.

There is no clear distinction between you and your mother, you have the same needs and aspirations. That is why, the child grows up thinking that everybody can ask anything from him and he will have to comply. The adult child will be upset with other people’s boundaries and feel insecure about his own abilities to support strong and healthy relationships.

5. Anxiety, panic attacks, addiction or depression

Because there is no sense of self in the adult child of narcissists, the adult will often ask himself what does he want to do with his life. Is it OK to do say this and that? Is it allowed to feel like this? This insecurity becomes stressful in time. He can’t trust himself, thus, it will be difficult to trust others, as well.

In relationships, he won’t know how to express his own needs and feelings. Due to this frustration, he might resort to drinking, gambling, eating, obsessing or panicking in order to cope.

6. Difficulty in establishing healthy relationships

The adult child of a narcissistic mother would be afraid of being abandoned or rejected by the person he loves. Although we’re all afraid to be left by our partner with whom we share so many great things, the adult child of narcissists is constantly terrified of saying or doing something wrong. He believes that, if he does something wrong, his partner will pack the bags and hit the road without them.

Seth Meyers, psychologist and writer for Psychology Today blog believes that the adult child of narcissists would be attracted to emotionally unavailable partners or highly critical of others. If he enters a relationship with someone who offers him unconditional love, he would feel anxious and undeserving. The adult child also feels that he needs to keep the partner happy and fulfilled, even if this means to ignore his own needs.

I would often ignore my needs in relationships with friends and significant others. It would be an automatic behavior, as if I wasn’t conscious of putting everyone first. However, due to therapy, I started learning how to acknowledge my needs and look at relationships as being two-sided. Both partners should give and have a chance to express themselves, without judgment.

7. Narcissistic personality disorder

Therapists say that, if you can’t fight a parent while growing up, you will choose to become like them. Why? Because that is the easiest and most convenient option. For a child to survive in an abusive environment, he needs to become similar to the people around them. It’s like a defense mechanism.

We will imitate the narcissistic parent and often find ourselves manipulating others or putting them down. If we don’t question our actions and seek therapy, we might develop an unhealthy type of narcissism that will hurt those around us.

N.B: We must remember that we all have a narcissistic side in us. It is important to have it so we can develop a healthy self-esteem. However, there are two other types of narcissism that are not helpful.

According to Dr. Craig Malkin, extreme narcissism is found in people who are likely to manipulate others to get what they want. They are approval-seeking and depend on the need to feel special. These people like to provoke negative reactions in others and use them to fulfill their needs.

Another type of narcissism that is less discussed in the media is ‘echoism’. Echoism manifests through people pleasing behaviors and a poor sense of self. People with high levels of echoism put others first and think more of how to make others happy than how they feel. If you’re interested in checking your level of narcissism, take the narcissism test made by Craig Malkin. You can find it here.

What can you do?

There are some things to consider if you were raised by a narcissist. First and foremost, seek therapy or counseling. It will help you discover how the world really is, how relationships should function, what is unconditional love, how to self-soothe and create better opportunities for yourself.

Secondly, do your research. The more you read and talk about narcissism with others, the clearer the subject will become. It is not an easy topic, I know. Start with blogs like narcissistsupport.com, outofthefog.website, daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com.  Continue with books like ‘Will I ever be good enough?‘ by Karyl McBride, ‘Toxic parents‘ by Susan Forward or ‘Rethinking narcissism by Dr. Craig Malkin.

If you’re dealing with the psychological consequences of being raised by narcissistic parents, I want to tell you that you’re not alone. Therapy will help you accept that you weren’t given the love that you deserved and move forward, towards healing. If therapy is not an option, consider reaching out to online support groups on the subject. From personal experience, I can say that these groups are really helpful. They can give great advises about your own situation which encourages you to want to get better.

If you have anything to add to this post, please leave a comment. Thank you for reading!

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Written by Marlena Bontas
I'm a writer of fiction and non-fiction with an MA in Social Psychology. My favorite subjects to write about are mental health, wellness, society, culture and art. I relax with a cup of coffee or while listening to music.