This is the animal that came to visit me the other day:
Almost gave me a heart attack.
You have never known what it is like to have privacy in the bathroom or in your bedroom, and she goes through your things regularly. She asks nosy questions, and snoops into your email/letters/diary/conversations.
When I was 13, my mother conducted a hugely expensive project of redesigning our apartment. As a result of this project, we ended up with a bathroom that had no lock on the inside and bedrooms with transparent glass in the doors. The bedroom where my sister and I slept was close to the entrance into the apartment. Anybody who walked towards the door (and we had crowds of guests all of the time) would see me lying in my bed on full display. Changing my clothes or underwear would always be a fraught task because there was no privacy anywhere. After I started living alone at the age of 27, I would only be able to dress and undress in the bathroom with the door locked.
Any attempt at autonomy on your part is strongly resisted. Normal rites of passage (learning to shave, wearing makeup, dating) are grudgingly allowed only if you insist, and you’re punished for your insistence (“Since you’re old enough to date, I think you’re old enough to pay for your own clothes!”) If you demand age-appropriate clothing, grooming, control over your own life, or rights, you are “difficult” and she ridicules your “independence.”
One of the greatest battles I had to wage was the battle to wear the top of my swimsuit on the beach. For some reason, it was hugely important to my mother that I go to the beach topless. For years, I begged her to allow me not to be topless in public but to no avail. As an argument in this debate, she would ask other people for their expert opinion.
“She doesn’t even have breasts,” she would say, pointing at my bare chest. “Look closely. Can you see breasts? Yes, I mean, it looks like they are growing but it’s not like they are big or anything. Can you see the swelling there? Does it look to you like her nipples are swollen? Come closer and take a look!”
When the people she tried to involve in the examination of my chest refused to participate, she would try to guilt me into not wearing the swimsuit top.
“You will feel so sorry about this when you grow up!” she would say in a tragic voice. “You will experience pangs of conscience forever! You have no idea how sorry you will be!”
I finally managed to win this battle. At that time, I was 12 and had already gotten my period. The period itself was a battlefield as well.
“Mom, I got my period,” I told my mother when I first had it. In the USSR, there were no tampons or hygienic pads on sale, so I needed my mother’s help to learn to manage the issue.
“Oh, of course, you haven’t!” she said. “You are not even 12 yet.”
“Yes, I have,” I insisted, growing desperate. “I promise it’s true.”
“I only had my period at 15,” she explained. “There is no way you got it so early.”
After 15 minutes of “Mom, I swear to you, I got my period”, my aunt interceded and informed us that a period can happen earlier than the age of 15.
“Well,” my mother commented. “Of course, everything about you just has to be weird. Why can’t you do one thing normally, I wonder? Now that’s it for you. Do you know that Jewish men thank God every day for not making them female? This is the reason why!”
It was obvious that I wasn’t going to get any help with handling menstruation, so I invented my own method. I will not go into any naturalistic details of this method here. Suffice it to say that it involved excruciating pain. At the age of 15, I traveled to England and finally bought a huge pack of tampons. My mother was extremely disturbed by the purchase. Once, we were standing in front of our building, and my mother saw a young doctor who lived two floors above us.
“Doctor!” she yelled. “My daughter has started using tampons! I’m worried! I’m afraid they will puncture her. . . you know! Please tell her not to use them!”
The poor doctor turned crimson. The neighbors who were sitting on the bench in front of the building perked up.
“Tampons are perfectly fine to use,” the doctor managed to squeeze out.
“They will not. . . I mean, will she remain intact?” my mother kept yelling. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to marry her off if she keeps using them!”
“They are fine to use,” the doctor mumbled, running away.
A small question interrupting the series on narcissism. What do I need to put on my door or my lawn to signal that I have candy for trick-or-treaters? Is the ghost on my door enough? Or do I need pumpkins? Where should I place them?
I know I keep doing something wrong because I never get any visits from trick-or-treaters. Americans, help!
She violates your boundaries. You feel like an extension of her. Your property is given away without your consent, sometimes in front of you. Your property may be repossessed and no reason given other than that it was never yours.
On the eve of our emigration to Canada, my mother came to my apartment in my absence, sorted through my clothes and books, and gave them away. When I confronted her about it, she waved me away with, “Well, it’s not like you will need all this stuff in Canada.” I still miss my favorite books that she gave away. By a strange coincidence, the books she gave away were precisely the ones I loved the most and was hoping to keep. It is impossible for her to see me as a separate human being, so my possessions are, by extension, her own.
While I still lived with my parents, there was absolutely no way in the world to convince my mother not to rummage in my underwear and my things.
Once, at the age of 15, I came home and discovered my mother in a blinding rage in front of my dresser. All of my underwear was lying in a heap on the floor.
“Where is your bra?” she yelled in a fury that was unexpected even for her. “Where is it? What have you done with it?”
“I’m wearing it,” I said. I felt entitled to wear it because I had bought it with my own money in England. I was 15, I had started developing quite early and by that age already had noticeable breasts. We had to wear these scratchy school uniforms that were leaving me raw without a bra.
“Why are you wearing it?” she vociferated. “Who allowed you to wear it? You are too young to wear a bra! I’ve wasted hours of my time looking for it? How dare you?!?”
She yelled for several more hours, informing me that I was a little whore and a horrible disappointment as a child.
“I curse you!” she screamed. “Do you hear that? Your own mother damns your existence! What kind of a monster do you have to be for your own mother to curse you?!?”
Since then, my mother has tried giving me bras as gifts on regular occasions. Every time, these bras were ridiculously tiny for me. It is really enough to see me once to figure out that I cannot possibly be wearing an A cup. But whenever I told her that I couldn’t wear these bras, she would get incensed.
“Of course, they fit you,” she would protest. “You are pretending that you can’t wear them for some weird reason. Put them on now! Just do!”
She’s very secretive, a characteristic of almost all abusers (“Don’t wash our dirty laundry in public!”) and will punish you for telling anyone else what she’s done. The times and locations of her worst abuses are carefully chosen so that no one who might intervene will hear or see her bad behavior, and she will seem like a completely different person in public. She’ll slam you to other people, but will always embed her devaluing nuggets of snide gossip in protestations of concern, love and understanding (“I feel so sorry for poor Cynthia. She always seems to have such a hard time, but I just don’t know what I can do for her!”) As a consequence the children of narcissists universally report that no one believes them (“I have to tell you that she always talks about YOU in the most caring way!). Unfortunately therapists, given the deniable actions of the narcissist and eager to defend a fellow parent, will often jump to the narcissist’s defense as well, reinforcing your sense of isolation and helplessness (“I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that!”)
This is the tragedy of people who have been subjected to a narcissist’s abuse: nobody believes them. After years of trying to share their experiences and meeting with the uniform response of, “I just can’t believe she would purposefully do something like this! You must have misunderstood. You are probably exaggerating. Are you sure you are interpreting this correctly?”, victims learn to keep silent.
Any form of self-expression becomes difficult to them.
They feel tongue-tied and anxious in front of any audience.
They find it extremely difficult to open up to friends and loved ones.
Even just having friends or loved ones is either very difficult or outright impossible for them because they feel a basic mistrust of everybody else.
It’s easier not to love anybody than to face the possibility that the person you care about will tell you that your experience is a fantasy.
The victims are likely to experience stage fright, writer’s block, all kinds of speech impediments. They have to work very hard to bring to themselves to the point where they can write down their ideas as researchers or formulate their thoughts in any verbal format.
Eventually, the victims learn to mistrust their own experiences. They will wonder if they are crazy, if something is wrong with them, if they are, indeed, inventing these stories of abuse.
In more extreme cases, the question of “Are you sure?” in relation to absolutely anything will lead them to experience a dissociative episode. They don’t trust any of their memories, and any doubt as to what they did or said or felt makes them feel like they are losing their mind.
She’ll spoil your pleasure in something by simply congratulating you for it in an angry, envious voice that conveys how unhappy she is, again, completely deniably. It is impossible to confront someone over their tone of voice, their demeanor or they way they look at you, but once your narcissistic mother has you trained, she can promise terrible punishment without a word. As a result, you’re always afraid, always in the wrong, and can never exactly put your finger on why.
“Mother, good news! I’ve had an article accepted for publication.”
“Ah, well. Congratulations, I guess,” she answers with a deep sigh. Her voice is so tragic that you’d think she was told I’m suffering of a terminal disease. “Of course, I’d been hoping that. . . well, never mind. I know my opinion is not welcome. But congratulations. I guess, if you think this is what you should be wasting your life on at your age, then. . . it’s OK, I guess. You know how proud I am of you.”
Because her abusiveness is part of a lifelong campaign of control and because she is careful to rationalize her abuse, it is extremely difficult to explain to other people what is so bad about her.
None of these anecdotes I’m sharing here are a big deal per se. They are only a problem because they are part of a life-long, relentless, constant campaign of creating an intolerable environment. Everybody says something wrong, stupid or hurtful every once in a while. Narcissists, however, infuse the air around you with cruelty, hatred, and fear.
1. Everything she does is deniable. There is always a facile excuse or an explanation. Cruelties are couched in loving terms. Aggressive and hostile acts are paraded as thoughtfulness. Selfish manipulations are presented as gifts. Criticism and slander is slyly disguised as concern. She only wants what is best for you. She only wants to help you.
“Mother, you forced me to get married against my will. I didn’t want to, I told you that I wasn’t ready to get married but you made me anyway. And I was really, really unhappy.”
“No, of course, I didn’t force you. You wanted to get married.”
“No, I didn’t. I told you then and I’m telling you now. I didn’t want to get married.”
“You are inventing all this. Of course, you did. And in any case, this was all for the best. I only acted in your best interest.”
Many of her putdowns are simply by comparison. She’ll talk about how wonderful someone else is or what a wonderful job they did on something you’ve also done or how highly she thinks of them. The contrast is left up to you. She has let you know that you’re no good without saying a word.
Smiling girls. Throughout my entire life, I’ve been persecuted by the image of these smiling girls. Whenever I would make a friend, both of my parents would tell me, “Masha (Lena, Marina, Katia, etc.) is such a wonderful little girl. She always smiles and always looks so cheerful. Why can’t you be more like her? Ah, how much I wish I had a daughter like Masha (Lena, Marina, Katia, etc.). And instead I have you, a girl who never smiles and is always sad and broody.”
Obviously, I would begin to hate Masha (Lena, Marina, Katia, etc.) and never wanted to see them again.
“Why can’t you even keep a friend?” my parents would ask. “Masha (Lena, Marina, Katia, etc.) is such a great girl. I was hoping she could teach you to be more like her. But now you don’t even want to spend time with her any longer. Why don’t you have any friends?”
“Clarissa doesn’t want any friends,” they’d tell everybody. “She is unsociable by nature.”
In adulthood, smiling girls would turn into smiling women.
“Ah, why have I been cursed with a child like you,” my mother would sigh on a regular basis. “Look at Tamara. Her only goal in life is to please her mother. All of her money goes to making her mother happy. She comes from work and doesn’t go out with friends or boyfriends. She goes straight home to be with her mother. And she is always so smiley and cheerful about it!”