Navigating A Narcissistic Parent

By Brittni Barcase

“But she’s your mom.” I have heard this phrase so often in my life. It’s drenched with the guilt that kept me sticking around for her abusive narcissistic behaviors.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has shown poor boundaries and a lack of support in my day-to-day life. Without getting into detail on the specifics of our relationship (or lack thereof) that led me to cut ties – again, I want to wave a little PSA flag to other people out there like me that reads, “You are not alone, and you can do hard things.”

My first step in finding the language to describe my relationship was to admit that my relationship experience was traumatizing. Then I started to understand what trauma is, I found a therapist who understands Complex-PTSD and supports my journey in how it shows up for me month-to-month.

July 2017 was the first time I went ‘no contact’ with my mom. Prior to that, I spent a lot of time fawning in our relationship. For those unfamiliar with the fawning response, it’s a fairly new addition to the trauma response list. I am sure you are familiar with flight, fight, and freeze, but fawn is a trauma response that is learned in an effort to appease the wishes, needs, and demands of others. In other words, fellow fawners like me have learned the only path to safety in relationships is to abandon their own sense of self, wellbeing, needs, and boundaries. Fawners find it easy to be empathetic, kind and compassionate towards others, but it can be difficult to be compassionate and protective towards themselves.

Our parent-child relationship involved me filling the “smaller voice in the room” seat so she could out-shine me. I found survival and grounding in the following ways:

My Grandma and other family members – My Grandma and Grandpa always called me “Sunshine” as a nickname. They saw my shine. This was a good reminder that I did not have to fawn 100% of the time. Their encouragement to maintain my brightness is not lost on me. When safe with family members, I was reminded of my light which kept the darkness I felt around my mom, well, less dark. They also gave me a normal childhood experience. Although I did not have words for it until I was much older, the normalcy I found with my safe family members provided a lighthouse that guided me when I was back in the presence of my mother and stepfather.

Dancing/Movement – Dancing and exercise/movement were mine, not my mother’s. When I was on stage performing or on the safety of my yoga mat, I could be myself and just breathe. Hearing my own breathing was grounding and provided moments of clarity where I could weed through some of the trauma I was experiencing, even when I didn’t have the words to explain what was happening to me just yet.

After our first “break up” in 2017, I started seeing a therapist (let’s call her Julie) every other week. With Julie I worked through deep-rooted trauma and worked on growing my confidence as a soon-to-be mother. I made sure that my voice was loud, and that it would not be quieted by my mom, should I ever decide to have a relationship with her again. Julie used meditative-based therapy practices that allowed me to feel safe in my own body and mind, building trust with my inner voice and healing some of the trauma wounds that were still festering.

Fast forward to 2019, I started “dating” my mom again. It was casual and easy, and I made sure to have clear boundaries for her to follow. In fact, I worked very hard with Julie to talk through boundaries and what was “right.” In the beginning stages, I would only talk with my mother in person, and we corresponded via email to set times to meet. I also set other boundaries including barring her from texting me, calling me, or befriending me on any social media sites.

For someone like me, setting a boundary feels like life or death. It’s the notion that if I set a boundary, the person I am setting it with (mom, dad, spouse, friend, coworker, etc.) will be mad at me and hate me forever. This is a result of fawning. Fawners “go along to get along” and try not to stir up the pot. Confrontation? Forget about it! I learned this lesson because the last time I asserted myself, the situation got worse.

If boundaries are something you are working on, you first need to understand what actually a healthy boundary is. Lean into curiosity around your situation and don’t be prepared to reparent yourself through work with a therapist and other supports. I now understand that I cannot rely on my mother to parent me, even as a 30-something year old, in a way that is healthy. While some days that sentiment makes me physically angry and/or sad, I have also come to terms with it (plus, knowing there is a whole community out there doing the exact same thing makes it feel a lot less of a lonely path to be on). Another helpful shift for me has been to find other ways of filling the need for a maternal presence. My gram, stepmom, mother-in-law, nanny-in-law, aunt, grandma-in-law, friends, the list goes on, have given me glimmers of maternal support.

As of recently, I’ve gone ‘no contact’ with my mom again. With Julie’s help, I’m currently navigating, shame around my decision; however, this time the shame is not mine, and I am feeling very liberated by my decision. It was not an easy decision to make, and it is both less complicated and more complicated all at the same time.

I no longer cringe at the sound of my cell phone ringing wondering if there will be something hurtful to read or hear from my mom when I pick up my phone. Instead of walking on eggshells around her and fawning my way through our relationship, I can just be, well… me.

Navigating a narcissistic parent is extremely challenging. From dealing with their behavior to dealing with how their behavior affects you and all the other in-betweens. If you like to read, here are a few of my personal recommendations on the subject:

Believing Me: Healing from Narcissistic Abuse and Complex Trauma by Ingrid Clayton, PhD

To Love and Let Go: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Gratitude by Rachel Brathen

Adult Survivors of Toxic Family Members by Sherrie Campbell, PhD and Wendy T. Behary LCSW

Will I Ever Be Good Enough? By Karyl McBride, PhD

While support groups seem to be scarce, the pandemic birthed one that I recently stumbled upon. Survivors of Narcissistic Abuse & Codependency Support Group on Meetup has unlocked a world of support groups for people like me. While I’ve only been to a few meetings so far, it feels really good to hear stories from other people that sound just like mine.

Admittedly, I don’t think I will ever be 100% healed from my trauma experience or feel like my journey of navigating a narcissistic parent relationship has found completion. It will continue to be something I have to work with and around using the tools mentioned here and new ones I discover along the way.

With the work I’ve done, I am better able to regulate myself and find flexibility in coming back to homeostasis. Think of the oxygen mask analogy– I am working to put my oxygen mask on first so I can show up better for the people I love.

Disclaimer: If you or someone you know is dealing with a challenging relationship, abuse, or mental health crisis call JCS for services at 410-466-9200.

Originally posted on The Mental Well blog site, an initiative of JCS Prevention & Wellness.

Brittni Barcase  Brittni Barcase is Manager of Prevention & Wellness at Jewish Community Services.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.


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