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 🙂  

Sins of the Mother: Recognizing Unhealthy Patterns

I made up with my mom a little while ago. She says we “got back together.” And that’s what it feels like. Everything is fine – actually, it’s pretty good – at least for now. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted. I want to tell her everything she’s missed over the last year plus. I want to tell her what I’m going through now, of the ways I’ve been reflecting on my life and wishing I’d done certain things differently. As difficult it is to have a borderline mother, it is equally as confusing. When things are good, she feels like my confidante, a best friend… and she is motherly. The anger is gone and the other emotions she expresses feel similar to my own. We share feelings of regret, sadness over missed opportunities and fear/confusion about what will come in the afterlife.

The CoVid-19 pandemic has led me to reflect on my life in an even more comprehensive way than usual. I wrote a long letter to my younger self, inspired by a class I’m taking. In doing that, I recognized some patterns I hadn’t noticed in the same way before. They were things I hadn’t really wanted to notice, I guess. Who wants to confront the ways they were at fault in shaping courses of events gone wrong?


I had formerly thought of myself as one who turned away from the negative traits my parents possessed, but what I’m realizing is that I’ve unconsciously acquired many of my mother’s sins (and probably some of my father’s, too). I’ve repeated some of her destructive patterns, just in my own personalized way.

I’ve inherited a pattern of darkness and negativity: when something would go wrong in my life, I’d turn towards a vortex of self-hating darkness instead of focusing on solving the problem at hand. When I got injured, I worked harder despite the pain of my body’s warning signal. I pounded on my foot until it shattered, and then smoked cigarettes in despair when it did. I then focused on my flaws and found other things to feel ashamed about. I repeated this type of pattern, with different variables, throughout my life. Negative event + self-hate = things getting worse. The healthy pattern I wish I’d inherited is one of gentleness and care. I wish I’d engaged in eating health food, breathing deeply, consulting expert doctors immediately, and cultivating friendships during times of distress; I do this now.

I’ve internalized a pattern in which I vacillate between feelings of entitlement and self-hatred, though it can be embarrassing to recognize this. I knew about the self- loathing, but to realize that I’ve sometimes acted entitled made me cringe. Aren’t borderlines and narcissists the ones who act entitled? Yes and no; it’s not only them. I learned from my mom to expect things I didn’t necessarily deserve. I remember complaining to her once that I wasn’t listed as the rank I thought I should be at my workplace (in my first year there!). Since I was doing more than the lowest level employee, I wanted the credit. My mom encouraged me to demand a new title. (Eek!) I didn’t ask for more money (I didn’t care about that), but I believed that it was so important that my rank be formally corrected. I mostly desired this switch in rank because I was hoping to get a better job the next year and wanted my resume to look as good as possible. I was young and naive about workplace tax arrangements and the fact that your “listed rank” really doesn’t mean or matter much, especially when you are just beginning. I wish my mom had instilled a sense of humility in me rather than a sense of entitlement. (This particular instance was complicated by my history of past injustices. At this place of work, as a child, I had been taken advantage of by a senior employee. Part of my feelings of entitlement came from the fact that things had gone unrecognized in the past.)

I can think of a few other times when I’ve almost felt owed things — parts, recognition, or understanding. Also, at times I’ve felt ungrateful or only temporarily grateful when I could have been on cloud nine. On the flip side, I have gone into spirals of self-hatred, thinking I am the absolute worst when I really just wasn’t at the top. I’d assume certain mistakes or flaws made me completely unacceptable. This is the danger of a lack of humility and gratitude. When you fail yourself or find yourself failing, the fall is much harder.

The times in my life when I’ve felt truly grateful and in awe have also been my most cherished moments. It wasn’t all about me, and I got to be a part of something great. I want to find this space again… this space where I am able to see the wonder. Humility and grace just feel better, all around.

Part of what is difficult about having a borderline mother is that you become confused about general social expectations. Persons with BPD/NPD don’t like to play by the rules, so it’s easy to become confused about what the rules actually are and which ones you yourself should follow. My mom would sometimes provoke me if I was too polite or not combative enough with her (saying things like, “why are you so meek?”). I internalized a belief that being polite was expected but can also be annoying. It became very confusing. I remember feeling this struggle when navigating workplace dynamics. Should I play by all of the rules, or is that annoying? Sometimes (now) I read the little memes on “success” websites and feel like I finally understand some of what I wasn’t taught as a child.

My mom’s impulsivity under (real or perceived) pressure was a pattern I also inherited. I think she acted most impulsively when she felt trapped or full of emotional torment, which is what I learned to do as well. For many years, not understanding her impulsivity, I let my mother choose things for me. I guess that is what children often do; they let their parents lead the way. Sometimes, when things didn’t go well (e.g. my mom took me to an incompetent surgeon and didn’t listen to the warning not to), I’d wonder how she hadn’t known better. Why hadn’t she heeded warnings? Then I grew up, looked back at my own impulsivity and wondered the same thing. I think that when you are cut off from a sense of peace & inner-knowing, it’s very easy for wheels to spin off track before you realize it’s happening. Taking space from my mom to heal my own mind and heart has helped me to learn how to center and ground myself. (Note: It can be extremely difficult to effectively distance oneself from an enmeshed/co-dependent relationship with a parent, but it is sometimes necessary for growth.)

After talking with my mom yesterday, it became clear to me that the patterns didn’t start with her. In the Bible, there is a verse about generational sin. Although it is referring to fathers, I believe the sins (iniquities) of the mother can also be passed down.

Exodus 34:6-7 states: “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed [himself], ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’”

I don’t believe the verse needs to be read literally, like a curse, but as an explanation of how we are often greatly affected by the failures of our parents, our grandparents, and even our great-grandparents. My mother’s father greatly failed his family when he abandoned them; I still feel the effects of his actions when I experience my mom’s borderline rage or adopt her maladaptive coping strategies.

We each learn from our parents. I don’t doubt that they do the best they can. I’m sure my children will be able to attribute their negative traits onto me, also, one day. Still, I believe that understanding the patterning can be the first step in getting out of the cycles. Although I couldn’t see and name negative conditioning as a child or young adult, it is clear to me now. I think this understanding has allowed me the freedom to make meaning from my mistakes. I can own the battle wounds, the revelations, and the newfound resiliency. I can take on new dreams. I can grow beyond the patterns of my parents.

Richard Rohr, in the foreword of The Sacred Enneagram writes, “One knows oneself only at the price of one’s innocence.” I love the simplicity and truth of that statement. I am no longer innocent or naive, but so much more self-aware.

Have you noticed any unhelpful patterns in your own life which remind you of one of your parents? (If you have trouble recognizing patterns in your life, try writing a letter to your younger self!)
Have you noticed any positive patterns or tendencies of yours? What internal space have you been in during your very best moments?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!