SONS OF NARCISSISTIC MOTHERS .ORG
'Truly breaking free requires seeing things for what they are. Effective therapy will require grieving the mother you wish you had , and coming to terms with a woman, however destructive, who is doing (and did) the best she can. Anger yields to sadness, which yields to acceptance.'
The following model is experimental and only a proposition based on various readings and personal experience. Everyone's road to recovery is a unique path. There is no universal fix that I know of.
The 4 A's Recovery Model
1. Awareness through Enlightenment and Acknowledgment
This part of the recovery process involves becoming aware of our conditioning and our mental state.
In the cases of SoNMs, it means being aware of:
Our mother's condition and the family's dysfunctions
Other relationships that may be mirroring the dysfunctional relationships we had with our family
Ourselves, our thought process, ruminations, negative beliefs, etc.
This awareness can come from working with a psychotherapist, pears (support groups), gathering information about narcissism, and exercises to improve our mindfulness such as meditation, self-observation, etc. It is a lengthy process during which it is important to be patient and indulgent. The best is to start with a few seconds of extra vigilance every day. Pay attention to your feelings and thoughts. DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF. JUST WATCH. Imagine that you are an alien spirit who has just entered your body and is observing for the first time what is going on around and inside. After a while, it becomes easier to do.
2. Acceptance through Surrender and Grieving
Many therapists recommend that we go through the grieving process for the mother we never had. In order to move forward, it is important to let go of the past and in particular of the “what could have been” or the “it's so unfair”. Surrender here means surrender to reality, to what is, not surrender to your mother or any abuser. Accepting what happened to us doesn't mean condoning it, it just means that we recognize that shit happened and that there's nothing we can do about it. It is in fact a form of validation. We move from a state of mind where we think “This cannot be happening” to “This really happened (or is happening) and I'm moving on”. Accepting also makes it easier to deal with the present as we can then take measures to protect ourselves instead of shaking our heads and rebelling against reality. For example, we can say to ourselves: “My mother doesn't love me unless I conform to her every wish. That is not true love. I cannot expect her to see that because she is ill and unable to face her flaws. I need to stop expecting love from her and find true love elsewhere, starting with loving myself the way I really am. I accept that it is not my fault that my mother can't love me for what I am, this is the way she is. I cannot change that or take responsibility for it. It is simply the way it is”.
Acceptance is fed by Awareness, as the more we understand about mental illness, and the more we see how so many of us are affected by it, the easier it is to accept.
Reversely, awareness becomes easier when we can accept the truth. For example, if we can accept our imperfection (no human being is perfect), we can more easily become aware of ourselves. One of the reasons many SoNMs find it difficult to accept their human flaws is because they were often lead to believe that they should be perfect (which is impossible) to become truly lovable. As a result, a SoNM may associate having flaws with being unworthy of love. They may also believe that they are not loved because they are flawed, which is untrue. They are unloved because their mother (or other) is incapable of loving them. Remember, you are NOT inadequate or undeserving. You were made to feel that way by your life circumstances.
Surrender doesn't mean becoming a pushover but it means walking away from the fights we cannot win and dealing with life's challenges in a more efficient way. It also means moving away from a reactive state of perpetual anger and confrontations, where we easily lose it and get into unnecessary conflicts, to a more intelligent state where we can defend ourselves (and others) in a composed manner. There is a difference between action and reaction. When we react, we are playing the aggressor's game by their rules and therefore being controlled by them. Sometimes we over-react because we perceive something as an aggression that may in reality not really be as severe as we see it. It is a bit like an allergic reaction. The body can react to an allergen in such an extreme way that it will do a lot more harm to itself than the allergen could. SoNMs, like most abused people, are in a way allergic to external behaviours that remind them of the abuse they endured.
Again, self-awareness helps us eventually see that we sometimes make things worse by the way we react to them. Gradually, by observing ourselves when anger or fear takes over, or afterwards, we can gradually learn to recognize the triggers and the thoughts or emotions that ensue. It is a very difficult and painful process for some of us, and we must accept that we will fail many times before we learn how to really act in our best interest.
Many of us have two types of fights going on in our lives: inner fights and outer fights. The inner fights are about accepting our true (imperfect) selves. They will cease when we stop judging ourselves and trying to be someone else, and once we stop comparing ourselves to others. The outer fights are about accepting that others and the world are imperfect, and also about seeing others as competitors. Once we accept that judging others is fruitless, and often unfair or exaggerated, and once we see others as our equals, we can move to a state of compassionate harmony with the outer world. Again, it doesn't mean doing nothing about anything we think is wrong, it means trying to improve things in a less confrontational way. Think Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Think constructive exchange versus exchange of verbal abuse or worse. Of course, the outer world will continue to be unfair, sometimes aggressive, even cruel, but mirroring abuse will not do anything more than feed the cycle of violence and abuse. This is the cycle we are trying to escape from, for our sake and the sake of future generations.
The first thing to accept is that we will fail many times during our recovery.
3. Autonomy through Emancipation and Separation
As the sons of narcissistic mothers, we were raised to provide rather than receive what we really needed. Our sense of self was closely associated with our mother's wishes and demands. Our mother treated us (and still might) as a source of narcissistic supply and an extension of herself rather than a separate human being. If she ever saw us as a separate being (or object), it was only to project things onto us that she didn't want for herself (such as her flaws or negative thoughts). In fact, the narcissistic mother attempts to perpetuate a phase in the child's early development where he relies entirely on her for survival and doesn't see himself as a separate being either. This process and state of entanglement between the narcissistic mother and her child is known as enmeshment.
The fairy tale of Rapunzel tells the story of a little girl kidnapped by a witch who keeps her prisoner by convincing her that the outside world is a very dangerous place. Many little boys experience the same thing as Rapunzel, but with their own mother. They are taught, sometimes very subtly but none the less efficiently, that without their mother protecting them, they will be in grave danger. Once this belief is entrenched in the boy's psyche, it can stay with him for the rest of his life. So, even as an adult, every time he does something that mommy would not approve of, he fears for his well-being. Even if mommy is hundreds a miles away. Even if she is dead. The equation is simple: Autonomy = Danger of annihilation. Only awareness of this thought process can help the little boy turned man escape from it.
When the child grows up and tries to live his own life, the narcissistic mother tries to remain in control. She might belittle the boy and break his confidence (in particular if the son is a scapegoat), or she might build his confidence but only in a way that serves her (“MY son is a world renowned doctor”). But either way, she remains in control.
Many times, the narcissistic mother abandons (emotionally) her child, as a form of punishment, or because she cannot control him as much as she'd like, or simply because she doesn't need the child for a while. In reality, every child of a narcissistic mother is regularly abandoned. They are like the dolls of a spoiled six-year-old girl who picks them up, plays with them for a while, and then forgets about them. Even the favourite doll gets put down.
Abandonment is painful for the son of the narcissistic mother. He has been conditioned to believe that he cannot survive without her.
Sometimes, or many times, the adult son recreates the unhealthy relationship with his mother with another type of unhealthy relationships: addictions such as smoking, alcoholism, drugs, gambling, workaholism, sexual addiction, extreme sports, etc. The addiction serves two purposes: to numb the mind (and the heart) and to provide a high, possibly a high reminiscent of the fusion with the mother. There may be a third purpose in some cases: to turn the anger inwards. Usually the addiction starts with a feeling of control: “I decide when and where I have the high”. But gradually, the addict realises that he is under control rather than in control.
Many of us struggle with bad habits that can destroy our lives. When we can see that the destructive addiction has its roots in the destructive relationship with our mother, the battle is half won. Again, it's about having the courage and patience to observe ourselves as we battle our dependency.
Every one of us has to decide how to emancipate and break free from the bad relationships in our lives. Some go ‘no contact', others ‘low contact'. Sometimes ‘no contact' is not enough because the problem is still inside us and we keep the abuser alive in our minds. Again, it's about being aware of what's really going on inside our minds as well as around us. We cannot change others but we can change ourselves. We cannot stop every form of external abuse. But we can change how we let the abuse affect us. Being autonomous is a state of mind. It means understanding that we are in charge of how we receive the outside world and respond to it. Our mothers cannot control our brains if we abandon the destructive thoughts they put in there. So we need to identify that little voice in our head, the one that belongs to our mother. And then we can decide not to listen to it anymore.
4. Appreciation through Trust and Love
If you can't trust your own mother, who can you trust? Of course we know by now that she isn't equipped to behave like a loving mother. But part of us may still find it difficult to trust anyone, other women in particular. Some of us may even have reinforced that belief by being in relationships with women who are not trustworthy. Some of us might have even helped or pushed a girlfriend or two to break our trust. A bit of introspection and self-awareness may lead us to see that we are attracted towards women who will betray us. Without necessarily agreeing with Freud's theory on the oedipal complex, we may see that we tend to choose girlfriends (or boyfriends) who have similarities with our abusive mother. Why? Possibly because there were highs in our relationships with our mother. Maybe we are trying to recreate the type of fusion we experienced with our mother at a very early stage of our development. But this attraction, if it exists, is similar to our attraction to destructive habits. The process of emancipation and separation will help us stop getting into relationships that replicate the abusive and destructive relationship we had with our mother. We will then replace these with healthy relationships with people we can trust and love.
What is love? If we believe our mother's behaviour and even her words if she ever said ‘I love you', love is a feeling or sentiment we have for things that provide pleasure to us. So for instance you may love chocolate because it tastes really good to you. But that is the form of love we have for things, or objects. That's the way narcissists seem to love. They not only treat people like objects, they also love people like objects, not beings.
Loving a being is not like loving a thing or an object. You may love chocolate but you don't care if chocolate is getting anything back from your love. Chocolate's pleasure and well-being doesn't come into the equation. But when you truly love a person, or even an animal, you care about them, regardless of what you are getting back. In fact, the simple thought of their happiness fills you with joy, even if it has nothing to do with you. You don't need to benefit directly from the loved one's joy but in fact you do because their joy is your joy. It's not so with the love of a narcissistic mother. In fact, she may even envy your happiness and find it unbearable, unless it benefits her too, for example by making her look good or promising some kind of dividends. That's very sad, but that's very real.
One way to understand how a narcissistic mother loves (or doesn't really) is this way: have you ever been envious of a friend to whom something good was happening? Something that eludes you for example. You may have felt mixed feelings, torn between feeling happy for your friend and forcing a smile as you say: “I'm so happy for you”, and that envy that pinches your heart and makes you think: “Why not me?”. If you have ever felt this, then you know the type of envy the narcissistic mother feels. The difference is that with the NM, many times, she is not torn between joy and envy. She only or predominately feels the envy and she will find a way to make you pay for having something she doesn't. The source of this envy is insecurity, a belief that your gain is her loss, a reminder of her deep self-hatred and feeling of inadequacy.
If we truly love someone, we know that their gain is our gain. Nothing they get is perceived as something taken away from us, as a threat to us. Sadly, because many of us have lived in an environment where true love was lacking, where selfish love and abuse was passed as the real deal, we haven't experienced what it is. So we need to learn to recognize and experience real love. A love that is not about taking. A love where giving and receiving are intertwined. One way to start experiencing this true love is with nature. When you observe nature attentively, you can see a lot of love, and feel it too. A dog rolling in the grass, a cat purring in the sun, swallows dancing in the sky. Can you see their joy? Can you feel happy just witnessing their love of life?
When we start appreciating life, we become in tune with it. And slowly, we may realise that we have been living in a war zone and are starting to come out of it. And then we not only see the beauty of the world, we realise that we are truly part of it too.
Recovery is a process. A process that takes us from a place where our life has been hijacked by another being, to a place where we can truly experience and enjoy it. Every being has a right to their own life. No one's happiness should be conditional on another one's needs. This is your life, not hers.
Will, whose story you can find on our Stories page, writes this about his own recovery:
"... I have begun training ways to switch from being in the state of fear, guilt and obligation (FOG) to being just me – knowing I have the right to be so, with my good sides and bad sides like everybody else – finally building my own Identity. I practice Yoga, listen to my body signals, allowing myself to shower every day(!) read a lot of books about narcissistic disorders, talk openly with (very close) friends and a lot with my wife.
Not that I find it easy all the time. Depending on circumstances (like attempting to explain a bit of my feelings to my father – which did not turn out well) I spend weeks working hard to pull myself out of the “old” behavioral patterns – still feeling childish and tempted to blame the world, my wife and circumstances in general for me having a bad time. But I 'm gradually getting better at convincing myself that my responsibility first and foremost is to take good care of myself in order to be able to take care of my loved ones – and that every other person is fundamentally responsible for their lives in the same way. When I succeed in entering that state of mind it is like letting the light in, and being able to truly love life and others. I guess the rest of my life will be a bit like that, alternating between the old darkness and the new “being outdoor and fearless” feeling, constantly working on getting more “outside” time."
Another anonymous SoNM who was the ignored, or rather ‘given-up' child, writes about his recovery, which he says took a very long time and some hard, exhausting work:
“To me, the following key milestones in my final recovery (age 46-50) were of particular importance and may be useful to others:
1. Learn about the aspects of narcissism. I read two books and several articles. One has to understand that they, the NPDs, are mentally ill and not possible to fix. There is no love, no empathy, and no motivation for fairness or decent deals. That was my hardest part to understand: they simply are not interested in your welfare, or any other's welfare for that sake.
2. Understand that the brain only is 5% conscious, i.e. the “logical / reasoning” part which you to a certain degree can control is a quite small part of what you actually think. 95% of the signals received are sub- or unconscious. They come from various sensors in the body and are processed in brain patterns (neural networks) which are formed not only at birth and through natural development, but also from experiences in life. In other words, the anger and feeling of danger and unfairness from the abuse are literally coded into the brain, and the neural networks signal “danger – mayday – be careful” whenever you encounter something which looks or feels like your mother or which resembles past experiences or situations with her involvement. This, the research community says, can to various degrees be re-coded by systematic exposing oneself to positive experiences (and avoiding negative ones), thus creating new connections in the brain's neural networks. If the abuse was done especially brutally and/or very early in life, the damages may be permanent or at least very hard to fix. In such a case, life may prove to be inherently difficult. This is indeed heart-breaking. One would expect prisons and other institutions to be full of such cases. It's not their fault, poor kids. Child abuse is a very, very serious assault.
3. There is no such thing as a physical body next to a psychological mind. They rely on the same chemistry, and you will most likely have severe physical reactions to stress signals. During the years my full understanding of this matter came clear and in the open (a most troublesome journey), my allergy became far far worse than at any point before. To my psychiatrist, this was obvious. As she said, it is the same nervous system. Why should the reaction be any different?
4. A trained psychiatrist is in my view a must. Coaches, etc., do not have enough formal knowledge. The good news is that very few consultations are needed once one understands what is going on. Luckily, we victims, at least not all, are not as mentally ill as the NPDs, and through understanding and knowledge comes a better life quite quickly.
5. As you write, there is only one way out …. OUT! It took me a lot of time and grief to understand that any contact with my sister is not only difficult, but dangerous to me. Zero, nothing, nada. Not even an X-mas card. As the golden child, she is a copy of her mother, and when mom died, the walls and the floor fell out of my sister's life. I shall refrain from comment on the rather different effect mom's death had on my life.
6. A rather self-centered professor of philosophy (he is dead now) taught the population via naïve books during the 1990s that “it is not how you have it but how you take it”, i.e. you can simply think that life is good, and voilà : life is good. To a child of a narcissist, this is a very dangerous lie. Before one understands the points above, one simply cannot enjoy life in full. But the good news is that when one first understands and accepts what this is all about, life will be a whole lot better. By staying away from negative things and engage in positive things, the brain will slowly give priority to the “positive department” by moving resources to it from the “negative department”. Simple meditation and “mindfulness” techniques applied daily show a stronger brain with higher energy levels (physically) after two years, exactly like a muscle which is exercised.
7. It is annoying to look back and feel “why did you do this to me”. But you are the only person in your life which can take the full responsibility for your life, regardless of others and what may have happened to you. Therefore: understand, admit, do your exercises, accept the responsibility you have in your own life, and start experimenting forward. With a bit of luck, you may succeed :) ”
This page was last updated on: 30 August 2015
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