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 🙂  

Runner: Living with regret after running away in shame

I didn’t always think of myself as one who runs away. I’m a determined person, and I’ve been able to achieve many of the goals I set for myself. Recently, though, as I’ve reflected on my life, I see things a little differently. I set goals, achieve them, and then run when things get tough. I get to a good place, find people who love me, and then I sometimes want to run and flee from it all. I feel safe with someone, and then I smash the feeling to bits by oversharing and then withdrawing for a while.

I run. Safety is foreign, and uncomfortable. I also run from joy; Who am I to have it? Growing up with a Cluster B personality-disordered mom, things were never emotionally safe and joy was only acceptable if and when my mother was also feeling happy. Misery loves company. Because I didn’t want to overshadow my mom, I often embellished my misery. I neglected seeing the bright side and, consequently, I lowered my resilience and my ability to focus on positive emotions.

There were many times in my life when I couldn’t run. I was by my mother’s side as we moved cross-country with her boyfriend when I was ten, leaving my father & extended family behind. I moved to a few places with my mom and her next boyfriend, who quickly became my abusive stepfather. I couldn’t run from my mother’s control over my decisions throughout my childhood.

At seventeen, I ran towards my dreams and my goal of freedom. A prestigious ballet school had offered me a scholarship plus a stipend, and I rented a studio apartment which I shared with another student. It was glorious… I was even offered an apprenticeship with the professional company. It was truly a dream come true until I shattered my foot. After that, I was full of shame and embarrassment. I didn’t need to be — the school administrator even told me so: “It happens to everyone,” he’d said with understanding— but I felt defective. I stopped attending class because I couldn’t dance, and my stipend was removed without warning. Broke, embarrassed and feeling physically broken, I left. I ran. It never occurred to me to stay or ask for help or advice. Years later, people asked me why I disappeared.

When things got hard, I didn’t run towards people who were healthy & safe. I’m not sure I really had any who were available and present in my life at the time. I ran towards what I knew. I called my mom, with whom I was still very enmeshed, who told me I should move back home. She convinced me that the company surgeon was neglecting me and that I should see a surgeon in her city. Even when the company surgeon called and advised against the proposed surgery, she was adamant that I go through with it. I didn’t run. The surgery didn’t go well. Ashamed and embarrassed even further, I recovered slowly and eventually I ran back towards what had saved me before: ballet.

Against many odds, three years and two surgeries later, I returned to live out my dream, only it was much harder than before. I soon set off to move across the country and my mother was so despondent & angry when I drove away that I spent the entire cross-country drive feeling guilty for taking the opportunity I had been given. When I arrived at my new job, I was much less self-assured than I could have been. I was filled with guilt and anxiety and I hadn’t had years in a studio apartment alone – free of my mother- to prepare myself emotionally for the pressure I’d experience. Right away I met another new dancer with BPD (what are the odds?!) who leeched onto me a little, asking if she could move in with me when she was kicked out of another living situation. I had not yet learned healthy boundaries or how to recognize safe people. She was not a positive influence on my experience although for a while I thought she was a friend. The tough thing about personality-disordered relationships is that they can be disarming… things get so twisted and confused it’s hard to know what is going on. Things got tougher when a minor injury set me back a little and I decided to run away…again. I wrote a letter and left behind a beautiful opportunity. I moved again, this time towards a narcissistic dancer who lured me into believing the grass could be greener at the lower-level company where he worked. I was easy to fool. I ran away from a director who liked me towards one who was antisocial and abusive.

Eager yet ungrounded, I stayed in the negative environment for the rest of my short career. Negativity was familiar. When the dynamics became too toxic for me to tolerate, I exited. I was never fired, and I think my boss might have wanted me to stay in the end… but I decided to go, giving only a tiny portion of the reason why. I guess I thought I might return one day.

Looking back on these decisions now, I feel so sad. I forgot what I loved and let insecurities, abuse, and my own negativity cause me to run away in shame. I was raised to believe that I should constantly feel guilty, that I was not okay, that every move I made was the wrong one, that I would never be good enough as I was. I wish I had believed otherwise.

Can you relate? Do you look back and regret the ways you self-sabotaged by running away in shame when you didn’t need to? Did you ever lower yourself for no reason? Did you leave those who cared about you to move towards people who only wanted to use you?

These days, I am trying to run towards what is good and avoid the negative things that want to draw me in. I’ve learned that it is easier to face my shame head-on than cover it up and hide it away. There are good things to run towards … goals & dreams & loving people who bring out the best in me. My mother wants me to always run towards her – to make her my top priority and her grievances my biggest problem. It is so easy and natural for me to do this. I was raised to do this. But, for my own sanity, I must choose to stop walking on eggshells & run instead towards love.