When Nothing Is Ever Good Enough for the Narcissistic, Borderline Mother: My Journey to Self-Compassion

My mom told me once that my first sentence was “It’ll be okay, Mommy.”  That might be the last time I ever said the “right” thing to my mom.   Her mom had died the year I was born, and once I began to speak I started my lifelong journey of trying to comfort her.  Since I can remember, I’ve been a go-to person for my mom in a time of crisis: she complains & rants for as long as I can stand it while I rack my brain wondering what I could say that might help and not set her off.  Unless my response to her sounds exactly like, “you are right; they are wrong” it has always been an impossible feat.  The difficulty for me arises because I really do care about my mom and want to help her.  I don’t want to tell her she is right if she is clearly wrong & clearly pushing away every single person that cares about her.  Still, my mom is the help-rejecting complainer type.  She says she is tormented and living in misery, but all solutions offered are deemed impossible, ridiculous, & lacking compassion or a true understanding.  It is truly a no-win situation.  The conversation never ends well.  She almost never feels comforted and I always feel drained.  Today, I spend most of the day texting with her, semi-ignoring my own kids, only to eventually hear her disapproval.  Sigh… 

I’ve recently realized that my constant feeling of never being good enough began in a relational context, due to the simple fact that my mom has leaned on me as a confidante/therapist/parental figure for most of my life, and yet I’ve never satisfactorily fulfilled these roles.  I can’t.  Her previous therapists haven’t been able to, either.  Although I can’t fulfill these roles, and don’t particularly want to, they are the roles I am  assigned whenever I resume a relationship with her.  Her crises & needs become paramount; her plight unavoidable.  It is a constant effort for me to resist the desire to try to help.  (The truth is she doesn’t really want help.)

For the longest time, I did not understand my own inability to forgive myself.  I didn’t connect it directly to my relationship with my mom.  However, just yesterday, I found myself full of regret for mistakes of the past when a coach asked me how long I’ve been unable to be gentle with myself when I make a mistake.  Did I ever learn how to comfort and forgive myself when I messed up?  The question brought me to tears.  I have never learned how.  I know that other people shake it off, learn from it, and keep going, but I don’t know how they do it.  I feel so much regret and incrimination when I make a mistake.  I always have.  When I was a little kid, I would try to make everything perfect in my surroundings.  I would re-write my school notebooks — the whole year’s worth — if my handwriting didn’t look nice enough or if I liked another person’s style better.  I had no idea how to accept a mistake, a blunder, a less-than-ideal version.  That’s why I could never accept my physical flaws.  That’s why I would always beat myself up, starve myself, and hate my mistakes.  I really didn’t know another way to be.  

And now I know why.  Even today, as a mother myself, I am sitting at my computer well past my bedtime wondering how I managed to fail again during a text conversation with my own mom.  In truth, I do know why.  I failed because it was impossible.  I failed because I’m the only one left.  I didn’t really fail, actually.  I stuck it out and tried to help.  I lovingly responded and didn’t lie to her, which felt to me like it would enable too much rage and entitlement.  I deeply cared.  

It wasn’t enough.  It will never be enough.  How can you save a parent from their own private hell?  You can’t.  I have put myself through so much because of my learned hatred towards myself, but today I am determined to choose otherwise.  I am choosing to forgive.  My mom thinks I failed her today, and maybe I did.  But I tried, and I am going to have compassion on myself for lovingly engaging.  I can choose to forgive myself for ALL of the ways I hurt myself when the cumulative stress of a lifetime of guilt and shame became too much for me to bear.  

The legacy left by an unhappy parent leaves wounds that run deep.  I know how much different my life could have been if I’d learned how to forgive myself for minor mistakes (like saying the “wrong” thing to a parent).  The truth is, it took me a long time to learn how to have self-compassion and I am just beginning this process.  If I’d learned these lessons sooner, I’d have experienced more joy and freedom and I’m confident I’d have less regrets.  Still, my life is not over and I want to believe that true freedom is in my future. I feel empowered to teach my children how to forgive themselves and have fair expectations of themselves.  I feel resolved that I will never expect them to fulfill roles that aren’t theirs.    

Have you experienced a lack of self-compassion and forgiveness in your life?  Can you attribute this to the attitudes your PD parent had towards you?  How has the cumulative effect of these unforgiving frameworks affected you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please private message me or respond if you can relate 🙂  

Ugly Girl: A Child’s Response to “I Hate You; Don’t Leave Me”

It was my first boyfriend who told me he figured out what I had – body dysmorphic disorder – after taking his abnormal psych class.  He had loved me unwaveringly and I knew he told me because he cared.  He had noticed early on, the little quirks I had, and knew of my insecurities and preoccupations.  But what does this have to do with a borderline/narcissistic mother?  

Borderline mothers live in the relational dynamic described in the phrase, “I hate you; don’t leave me.”  A child’s response to this is often to hate themself.  The simplest thing to hate is often something tangible in one’s physical appearance.

I remember looking at my reflection once as a young girl – the reflection I saw in a spoon – and not hating it, but just noticing how my face would change shape in the round surface.  Sometimes I wish I could begin again there, when I had an inquisitive, untainted heart, and restart my life with the lessons I’ve now learned about body image.   

My mother herself did not have a healthy body image.  I was told that she was blacklisted from hair salons numerous times after throwing a fit when she didn’t like her hair.  I was too young to remember these particular episodes, but I know my mom was hard on herself and her appearance.  I remember once running into her when she was wet after a shower and her telling me to leave because she looked so ugly.  As the mother of a little girl, I’m conscious not to say these things to my daughter, but the thoughts are ingrained in me as well.      

I don’t remember exactly when I began to feel utterly self-conscious about my physical appearance.  I think it was about 4th grade.  That year, I transferred to a Catholic school in a wealthy district of the city although we were poor.  I rode a bus with a lot of kids from various schools, and I was bullied.  I was an easy target… I was anxious & awkward because my mom was often yelling.  She didn’t have time to teach me how to feel comfortable in new situations or anything like that — she didn’t know.  I was naturally small, the youngest in my grade (just making the cut off), and my dad had just left our family.  Her new boyfriend would be at our house when I got home from school, and he was funny and nice to me except when his temper rose out of nowhere.  My home was not a safe haven.  I did not talk about the bullying much although I know that my mom knew.

Despite being anxious, I made friends easily…maybe too easily.  I made friends and then quickly felt that I might not measure up to them.  One of the friends I admired had a beautiful bedroom, new braces, and an aunt who was into cosmetology.  She took ballet classes.  She told me all about “what is beautiful” and which parts I had and didn’t have, and which parts I could change somehow (though the “somehow” was slightly unclear).  My mom found me once, as I was trying to “make myself beautiful” through what I would now label self-harm.  She screamed at me — told me I was going to ruin my body— but I don’t remember her trying to comfort me.  

I remember expecting my mom to be proud that day: proud of my self-loathing, my disgust, my ingenuity… and especially of my intensity.  It felt like something my mom might do.  I later told my dad what had happened over my weekend stay with him, but he generally dismissed the subject matter.  I remember feeling alone & afraid.

The years grew on and my self-hatred grew stronger.  I saw other people and they didn’t have the particular flaws I had. I wanted to turn back time.  At one point, someone referred to me as the pretty girl down the street.  I was so shocked.  I didn’t believe it… there was no way that person couldn’t really see me.  They didn’t know the real me.  

I spent years feeling so ugly, trying to hide the icky parts of me.  I got into ballet.  Fairly quickly, I learned to hate new parts of me- my muscular legs, my height, my knees that I’d prefer were just a little more tapered and hyperextended.  At this time I met another new “friend,” or so I thought.  He taught me how to eat less and other tricks to becoming eating-disordered.  I was so desirous of being acceptable that I bought into the eating disorder game and his manipulations.

Even during that difficult time, I experienced moments of self-acceptance.  In high school, I was part of an arts school where my teacher always picked me to be in her plays.  She seemed to know me better than I knew myself at the time.  She would assert, “you’re like me; sometimes you feel beautiful and other times you feel really ugly.”  I think her saying that allowed the parallel feelings to occur even though i tended towards black-and-white thinking.

But, myself as an ugly girl was the prominent figure in my mind.  At one point, a friend’s sister listened to my complaints and comforted me, telling me that my perceived flaws were fixable and that there was nothing to worry much about.  This was another pivotal moment in my life –  a second game-changer.  I could fix the damage done!  All wasn’t ruined.  My mother’s words, stating that I might have ruined myself, never left my heart but I was seeing a future “out.”  I tabled that idea but held it closely.  

There are so many life moments where I can distinctly remember feeling worried about my hated flaws when much more significant life moments were happening (weddings, performances, parties).  I would check the mirror, seeing how visible they were in a particular light.  In reality, most people could not notice the flaws unless I pointed them out and they looked very closely.

Whenever I was treated poorly, rejected, or in pain, I thought about my future plans and how I would fix my (physical) brokenness.  I wrongly believed that someday, once I got my broken parts corrected, I would be lovable.  Maybe I could even love myself then.

I fell in love and got married (somewhat impulsively) to a man who loved me and who I loved.  However, did not think I was good enough for him.  A week after our wedding, I went through with a cosmetic procedure I had scheduled prior to our wedding. I would finally repair the damage I’d done as a child and be acceptable. I often look back on this particular decision and sigh with so much regret.  Honestly, I think I knew better but I had not learned to trust my gut yet.  Part of me was dying for someone to stop me.  I was acting impulsively at a time when I felt in love and semi-invincible.  Couldn’t I have waited?  Couldn’t I have danced in just a little bit of freedom and have allowed myself to be loved as I was?  No, I could not.  I did not trust it.  I did not trust love, and I still struggle with this. I wish I had been able to confide in my mom about my plans, but I couldn’t.  She had made a huge scene at my wedding and I did not trust her to be there for me.  I wish my husband had pushed pause on my ideas, but he was more naive than I was at the time and had no idea what the fallout would be.  I still remember calling to make the appointment for the procedure.  I’d had an awful day at rehearsal and I saw myself in a very unflattering fluorescent light in the bathroom.  I thought anything would be an improvement, even though the doctor wasn’t sure he could make it any better.  Shame can really alter one’s judgement capabilities.  

About a month after the procedure, what would have been my worst nightmare had I actually considered the pros/cons of my decision came true: I was bullied, intensely, for what I had done by a man who I’d previously rejected.  I was mortified.  I tried to stay strong.  I denied (per my mom’s advice).  In the end I couldn’t take the self-loathing I felt.  I left my career and inwardly started my next “how I’ll be okay” plan.  

My shame spiral has continued for longer than I expected.  Most people would never know there was a problem.  But I know.  I would have chosen so much differently had I known better. (I could have done something much less invasive had I done more research — my injuries & flaws were fairly minor to begin with although they screamed out to me).  

I have tried many things to change how I think about the situation: therapy, subliminal reprogramming, affirmations, EFT, ACT, prayer.  In the end, I still live with regret and I’m not sure I’ll ever be happy with my appearance.  It’s disappointing, but I’m starting to think that I can live in that space.  In some ways it is the physical representation of how I feel about the relationship with my mom.

I am still hoping for a miracle in regard to my relationship with my mom and also in regard to my appearance. I believe both miracles are possible. God has the power to heal my mom if she is open to it, and there are always new remedies for physical conditions. I’m trying to believe that there is always hope.

I felt drawn to write this post because it’s anonymous and I can share without feeling so embarrassed afterwards.  I also feel drawn to write because the more I have become honest about this struggle, the freer I have become from the shame.  

There were times I felt suicidal, an embarrassment to my husband or kids (or even friends), because of my flaws.  And yet, I know they love me.  I know they’d miss me if I were gone, and that they need me.  I believe we’re all needed somewhere, if we let ourselves be available.  

I try to talk to myself the way I would talk to my child if he/she had a similar flaw in appearance.  Would I think he/she was disgusting, unlovable, or ruined?  No, I wouldn’t.  Not at all.  Self-love is just so much harder.

A child’s response to “I hate you; don’t leave me” is to hate themself or at least parts of themself.  It is a hard cycle to break. The other day my son, who needed stitches once, told me as I was checking out his scar: ““It’s fine, mommy. A little boo-boo doesn’t mean i’m not cute!” There was something about his innocence and self-acceptance that made me smile… parenting while learning how to re-parent myself has been both challenging and rewarding.

Please comment/message me with your stories if you can relate.