09.30.134:45 AM ET

When Mothers and Daughters Compete

For narcissistic moms, adult children often represent a threat. In an excerpt from her new book, ‘Mothers Who Can’t Love,’ Susan Forward looks at painful parental mixed messages.

The less secure a severely narcissistic mother feels, the more extreme her drama, anger, and attempts to feel superior are likely to be. But there are times—often when she’s gotten what she wants, when she’s feeling confident, or when she doesn’t sense an imminent challenge from you—that her behavior calms ... and she doesn’t need to criticize.

During those stretches, she seems like a much different person—kinder, more supportive. Some daughters rarely see their narcissistic mother’s good side. But some are haunted by the contrast between their “good mother” and their “bad mother” because they may have had long stretches of positive mothering, most likely when they were young. It’s a common pattern: a narcissistic mother with relatively few stresses in her life and loads of adulation from her young daughter envelops the girl in her world, embracing the role of teacher and idol. But as her daughter gets older, the mother begins to see her as a rival, setting off a pattern of criticism, competition, and jealousy that continues through adulthood. When triggered by her daughter’s emerging womanhood, the mother’s insecurities about being overtaken only occasionally recede, and the habitual behaviors we’ve seen from the narcissists in this chapter become commonplace.

Daughters are tormented by memories of the “good mother” because once she’s no longer a regular presence, it’s hard to turn their mother’s intermittent affection into something lasting, or recapture the closeness that once flowed so freely between them. But they twist their lives into pretzels trying.

Jan: Once Her Daughter, Now Her Rival

Jan, a 33-year-old actress, supports herself with commercials and sporadic acting jobs, along with a small inheritance from her father. She is a very pretty young woman with ash blond hair, but I couldn’t help noticing the dark circles under her large green eyes. She fidgeted with her bracelet as she sat across from me. After getting some background information, I asked Jan how I could help her.

JAN: “I’m a mess. I just got my first big break, a second lead on a series, but since I found out I’ve been so anxious, I’ve been eating to calm down, and I’ve gained seven pounds. My fingernails are gone. I can’t sleep. The director said to me, ‘What the hell is going on?’ He told me I’ve got to knock off some weight. My friend Anna says I’m sabotaging myself. I have to get it together.”

Clearly there was some self-sabotage going on, and to get a fix on it I asked Jan if she could give voice to the anxiety she was feeling by focusing on the fears and thoughts that were keeping her on edge. What did they sound like?

She thought for a moment.

JAN: “It’s like: ‘Who do you think you are? You’re not that pretty, you can’t get into any of your clothes and you’re a screw-up. You’re going to blow this job.’”

That kind of critical inner commentary doesn’t spring full blown as the voice of truth in a woman’s head, and when I asked Jan if someone close to her regularly doled out criticism, it didn’t take long for her to come up with an answer.

JAN: “Well ... My mom’s not the most supportive person in the world. I invited her to watch one of our rehearsals—I thought she’d get a kick out of that. When it was over, I asked her how she thought it went, and she said it looked like a good show. But then she looks at me and goes, ‘Look, honey, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re no Meryl Streep.’ It’s the weirdest thing, because she says stuff like that a lot now, but she was so great when I was a kid. In fact, she’s the one who encouraged me to become an actress. When I was young, like 7 or 8, she used to take me to see plays, and not just little-kid stuff, and that’s when I fell in love with acting. Those were my special days. I was so happy that my mom wanted to share what she loved with me—she’d done a little acting when she was young, and I wanted to be just like her. I idolized her. But then she changed. When I got a little older ... it’s like I lost her.”

Many clients have told me of having wonderful times with their mothers when they were little, days full of hugs and laughter. And they’ve puzzled over how dramatically that ended when they reached adolescence. It’s a crushing turnabout: you had a mother for a while, but suddenly you don’t—and you wonder what the heck you did to lose her. Actually, it’s simple: you stopped being an awkward, flat-chested girl and became a threat to her as a woman.

As we talked, Jan found that she could trace the change in her relationship with her mother back to high school. 

JAN: “Mom started trying to be friends with my friends and my first boyfriends, and not in a mom kind of way. I noticed how she would put on lipstick before they came over and hang out in the kitchen with us. She would act as if they were her friends and try to buddy up with them. And she would make snide little jokes about me, as if they were her pals and she felt sorry for them for having to be with me. When I got older, I really thought about not having my dates pick me up at home because my mother was so overtly seductive with them. She would wear revealing blouses and stand way too close to them, reeking of perfume. Once, when we were in the kitchen fixing coffee for one of my dates, she whispered, ‘I could tell he would really rather be going out with me.’”

Suddenly the roles and boundaries between mother and daughter were blurred and bewildering. The competitive mother had gotten into the arena and put on the boxing gloves. Jan told me that the rivalry only got more pointed as she got older.

JAN: “I remember once when I was about 17—I know now that I was pretty and smart, but I was also very insecure. A boy I was crazy about had just broken up with me, and I was devastated. We were on one of those awful family vacations at some dude ranch—and I couldn’t ride worth a damn. My parents and sister wanted to go out on a trail, and I went along, too. I didn’t want to look like a killjoy. I was miserable and bouncing all over the place. When we got back, I sat on the porch of our bungalow feeling really rotten. My mother came over and sat by me on the steps. She got an almost kindly look on her face and I thought, ‘She knows how much I’m hurting—maybe she’s actually going to say something comforting to me.’ But after a minute she sighed and said, ‘You know, dear, let’s face it. You’ll never be the athlete I am. You’ll never be the rider I am, and you’ll never be the woman I am.’”

Where could a remark like that come from? Jan’s mother, Pam, as I learned, was dissatisfied with her marriage, and her early ambition to be an actress had ended in frustration. So she seized the opportunity to zero in on Jan’s vulnerability. That way she could momentarily feel superior and assuage her own insecurities.

For Jan, as for all daughters who find they’ve activated their mother’s competitive side when they need to be soothed and loved, the experience was shattering.

JAN: “I was so hurt and bewildered. I kept asking myself, ‘What did I say? What did I do? What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t she love me anymore?’ And those words of hers. I can still hear them ... I just wanted to curl up in a little ball and disappear.”

Jan kept pursuing her acting, first in school plays, then in community theater and small professional jobs in television, sure her mother would be elated and that she’d win her back. But the response was almost always the same: criticisms and slights instead of encouragement. The woman who had once been her biggest fan now said things like, “I’d love to help you with your lines, honey, but I get so impatient with your stumbling. I always thought you had my good memory, but I guess not ... ” The message was loud and clear: anything you can do, I can do better.

JAN: “The implication was that I could never measure up, and it really hurt, because I thought this was something we could share. I was so confused. She created this huge desire in me to be an actress, and then when I actually went for it, it was like she didn’t like it because I was challenging her or something. It’s pretty much been like that ever since.”

Excerpt from Mothers Who Can't Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters © Susan Forward. Printed courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.