Before I decided to stop writing my ‘Movies and Mental Health’ blog, I had intended to do a video about the narcissistic mother as portrayed in two different films, Black Swan and The Fighter; in this post, I’ll be referring to those films but I won’t include video clips. If you haven’t seen them, I recommend both movies for their psychological insight into family dynamics and, in particular, the role of the narcissistic mother.
There’s a degree of narcissism inherent in the relationship between most parents and their children: we take pride in their achievements and feel they somehow reflect well upon us when they do succeed. I’m very proud of my kids and take pleasure in recounting their latest achievements to my friends, and those friends in return (the ones who have kids of their own) appear to feel the same way about their offspring. “My son the doctor” … you know what I mean. On some level, I suppose we view our children as a type of achievement of our own: we’ve spent so many years raising and caring for them that we feel pride in ourselves, as well as in them, when they turn out well.
Under normal conditions, even if we do take a kind of narcissistic pleasure in their achievements, we nonetheless see our children as having identities of their own. When parents have poor boundaries, however, or struggle with separation issues, they may instead regard their children as an extension of themselves, not truly separate. Alice, the matriarch in The Fighter is just such a narcissistic mother. She and her oldest son Dicky have a merged relationship and she exploits his past success as a boxer for her own narcissistic needs. As her second son Micky becomes more successful, she tries to exploit him in the very same way.
Alice reminds me of my own mother, and stirred up one particular memory. During fifth grade, I was given a battery of intelligence tests for admission into the gifted education program. The school psychologist called my mother in for a consultation to discuss the results; when Mom came home afterward, she said to me, “The psychologist told me not to talk to you about what we discussed but I’m going to tell you anyway. She said you’re highly intelligent and you could do anything you want with your life, even become a nuclear physicist.” Even then, at age 11, I felt the expectation being placed upon my shoulders. This incident is but one example of an ongoing way she related to me, as if I were supposed to fulfill some ideal that would reflect well upon her. (We’re in Alice Miller territory, and The Drama of the Gifted Child.) During my senior year in high school, she broke down sobbing when she discovered I’d been smoking pot. “I failed with your brother and sister; if you turn out bad, my whole life will have no meaning.” It’s all about me.
If you’ve read my post about the mostly bad mother, you may remember that Mom had very little ability to empathize with me (or anyone else, for that matter), a problem shared by most narcissistic mothers. Matriarch Alice in The Fighter also demonstrates a complete lack of empathy for son Micky’s needs and suffering. Some my clients were burdened with mothers even more lacking in empathy, so completely self-absorbed that they neglected their children entirely. One type of narcissistic mother uses her children as a narcissistic feed; another type abandons them in her solipsistic pursuit of admiration, attention from men, etc.
For the narcissistic mother who tends to merge with her child, struggles ensue as the child begins to separate. Mother Erica in Black Swan treats daughter Nina as if she were a little girl and refuses to accept that she has grown up. When Nina is cast in the lead role in Swan Lake, Erica (a retired ballerina herself) buys a cake to celebrate — the kind of sheet cake you might serve at a child’s birthday party. When Nina doesn’t want to eat the cake, Erica feels it as a kind of narcissistic injury; she becomes angry and manipulative until Nina backs down and lets Erica feed her a bite. Don’t grow up, Erica seems to be telling Nina; if you do, I’ll turn on you. It’s also clear that, not far below the surface, Erica envies her daughter. She subtly undermines Nina’s self-confidence and repeatedly tries to sabotage her as the premiere approaches.
Natalie, one of my clients, had a mother who resembled Erica in many ways. Natalie’s mother had been raped as a young woman; during her childhood, Natalie repeatedly heard that nothing she suffered could ever compare with her mother’s suffering. Natalie felt as if her own experience didn’t matter. In her teenage years, as Natalie developed into an attractive young woman, her mother would often tell her, “Men won’t be interested in you after you’re 30.” Natalie felt very clearly that her mother envied her, especially for her youthful figure. This narcissistic mother threatened to have Natalie admitted to the hospital for “anorexia” because she wouldn’t eat more. Natalie did not suffer from an eating disorder and merely wanted to stay slim. She felt that her envious mother wanted her to get fat, and in her late teens, Natalie eventually did put on quite a bit of weight. Relations with her mother subsequently improved.
So here, then, are three types of narcissistic mother: (1) the one who merges with and exploits her child as a kind of narcissistic feed, with little or no capacity to empathize; (2) the one who completely abandons her child in pursuit of attention or admiration from others; and (3) the one who envies her separating child for everything the child seems to possess but she does not. I’m sure many of you have stories to tell, about your own narcissistic mothers. Feel free to share them here if moved to do so.
UPDATE: May 23, 2013
Inspired by reader comments to my posts about narcissistic mothers and vindictive narcissists, I’ve released a new eBook on the Kindle platform. It’s a novella-length retelling of the classic Cinderella story, focusing on my usual themes of shame and narcissism, with a look at the tumultuous emotions behind self-injury.