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 🙂  

Loved or Hated?

Sometimes I wonder if the question most of us are asking much of the time is whether or not we are loved or hated. As I reflect on my past, sometimes it’s hard to know. If a person cannot love in a true, honest way, is it love at all? Maybe it’s more important to ask the question of whether or not I love or have loved.

When I was in high school, I performed in a theatre production in which our director gave all of us a specific desire to act out. My part was “I want someone to fall madly in love with me.” At the time, I was shocked she didn’t give me the “I want to be a ballerina” role — that was what I’d expected, as I was a “bunhead” and clearly obsessed with ballet. She was right, though, back then. I loved ballet but on a deeper level I just wanted to be loved. I craved safety and belonging, passion and love.

Growing up, there were times I felt pretty important to my mom. But, because of her tendency to “split” (view people as all good or all bad) my status with her was shaky. I can remember some of the times I did feel loved so vividly: the times she would squeeze my hand while bringing me to work with her, the times we’d laugh as we cleaned out our closet and got rid of things we couldn’t believe we’d ever bought/kept. But then there were other times, times when she would fly into a rage because I didn’t clean the coffee pot (when I was too young to know there was a coffee pot that needed to be cleaned). There were times she resented me for things other people had done to me — times I was seen as a threat instead of a daughter. I believed my mom loved me, but her words and actions did not often reflect deep care and concern for me and my well-being.

I think it’s because of this incongruence that I had difficulty knowing how to distinguish whether others in my life were “for” me or “against” me. It is hard to learn how to accurately view people and assess relationships when you grow up with an unstable single parent — even harder when that parent struggles with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. It’s our parents who are our first teachers and we learn how to be treated through our interactions with them. Consequently, my own pattern of feeling loved and then hated followed through into my adult life, and led me to be overly trusting at times and then overly withdrawn at others. It’s only recently that I’ve learned some discernment — that people must earn your trust. In my younger years I would just try and try and try, even when people proved to me that they did not like me and that my trying was in vain or when I found that they were never trustworthy to begin with.

Still, there are certain persons with whom I’ve had relationships where it truly was hard to tell if I was loved or hated … maybe they, too, had a tendency to “split” or be extremely fickle in their opinions. I was an easy target for these types of people, who could sense my desire to please and be loved. When I look back, I can see the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of these people who hurt me (I’m an empath). They wanted to be loved and adored, too. I’ve read that narcissists believe they cannot be loved, so instead they choose to be feared. This seems true in my experience. I was a target of mean bosses and manipulative co-workers, but even now I’m not sure if they truly hated me or just needed to feel powerful. The few times I’ve confronted these people, the underlying issue was that they felt slighted. My mom has often felt slighted, too, and her sense of entitlement prevents her from seeing that I must think of others and not only her. This sense of entitlement — to rule my decisions, my schedule, my opinions — coupled with not getting exactly what she thinks she deserves almost always leads to rage. It can be over the most minor detail. I’m not sure my mom truly hates me or if she’s just too angry to show love.

We all want to feel loved, and yet none of us love perfectly. The way we express or don’t express love is often flawed. Because of this, there is no perfectly safe person. In our quests to find love and admiration, we often forget to love ourselves and others. But, we can choose to love throughout this messy journey (even if we don’t know where it might lead). We can love ourselves and others through the messiness. I am working on loving myself and others better.

When I look back at what felt like my most difficult, messiest, ugliest life moments, they were often the times when there was a choice — a fork in the road that could lead to beautiful things. I didn’t always choose those things. Fear often held me back.

When my first boyfriend told me of a health concern right after we broke up…
When I was humiliated and hid from the world…
When I changed my mind about a lover…
When I left my first love (of dance)…
When my mom threw a tantrum and I decided to decide to try and reason with her, over and over again…

The loving things I could have chosen were compassion, honesty, grace, reflection, slowing down, saying nothing, asking for help, letting go of the fight.

When I can honestly assess what is happening, instead of trying to revise it to be what I want it to be as quickly as possible, things can reveal themselves more clearly. The truth isn’t always pretty, and it can be so hard to accept, but I believe that facing it can lead to better things. It is painful when someone you love cannot accept the truth (of their own disorder, of their poor behavior, of reality). I still struggle with this aspect.

Have you experienced difficulty discerning whether someone loves/hates you? Have you been on a quest for love that has left you exhausted, maybe because you are seeking love from one who is just too broken to give it? Please share your experience.

“You’ll be sorry”: a narcissistic projection?

I opened the French door to her bedroom and said goodbye; I was leaving early. She was in her bed in the late morning, coming down from her last rage, and she looked at me with her eyes squinted & cold as she said in a deep, haunting voice, “You’ll be sorry.” I walked away.

Maybe I would be sorry for leaving, for not anticipating what she’d wanted the day before, and for not making up for the lacks she’d had in her childhood. I was always feeling sorry. I had walked around apologizing nonstop for most of my life. “Sorry,” I’d say, when someone banged into me at the store. “Sorry,” I’d say, after talking too much, or not enough, or if I asked a question. I was sorry for being indecisive, for being decisive, for having an opinion. I was sorry for it all. That day, I was tired of trying to make it all okay.

I had wanted to connect with my mom on that trip. Recently married, I’d only known my husband for about a year. I had been living in a whirlwind with a new husband, new home, stressful performing career and college classes on the side. I was trying to be and do it all. I’d made some mistakes during this whirlwind of a time that were weighing me down, though I hadn’t had the space to confide in anyone or even come to terms with them yet. My mom didn’t seem too interested in the things going on in my life, but threatened by them. She was not the type to enjoy seeing the newlywed photos.

We were making dinner and discussing evening plans (including my plans to visit a friend in a bit) when my mom offered to play a new song for me on her piano. I’d listened to my mom’s songs before and knew I would need to be fully focused while listening. No smirks or smiles that might be incorrectly perceived, which can be difficult to monitor during hystrionic moments. Full attention. I suggested that I shower first, thinking that I could let my hair dry while I listened and be more attentive, rather than rushing off to shower so I could make it to my date on time. My suggestion caused a narcissistic wound and she began to scream, with and without words. Shrill screams and then, “You know what I want but you WON’T give it to me!” There was no diffusing the situation and I’m not sure that at this time I really knew what “diffusing” meant. I could have apologized then. I could have given her a hug while she yelled at me. She couldn’t hear my reasons, nor did she care. We went back and forth for hours. The next morning, the fight continued and worsened. She shook me told me to go to hell. In her mind, I should go to my grave sorry that I didn’t want to listen to her song the moment she wanted to play it. That I didn’t love her well enough. I could have, she thinks, but I didn’t. Just like everyone else.

There have been quite a few times in our life where my immediate, natural response has been utterly offensive to her while not necessarily wrong or bad. Once, she showed up unannounced to my new apartment shortly after I’d moved out for the first time. I was seventeen. I was busy, tired, and sick with a cold. She’d recently broken up with her boyfriend and wanted a friend, but I was not immediately excited to see her and it showed on my face when I opened the door. It’s been twenty years and I still don’t think she’ll ever forgive me for that. There is no room for me to be myself, with my own separate feelings and desires, in her world. Internally, I long for the mother who can accept me, with my failure to perform appropriately for her. I walk on eggshells, but eggshells break.

I feel very sad that my mom feels so desperately needy that she cannot tolerate the slightest perceived rejection. It grieves me to think that she must have been denied the type of attention a child needs to thrive. I can’t make up for that lack and as much as I try, I cannot always have the response that she wants me to have. I resent that I have tried so hard only to have it all fall apart, cyclically. Last year, holiday planning caused a similar outburst. In that one, she expanded the guilt: “You should be sorry when I’m dead IF you have any remorse or empathy.”

Sometimes I wonder if the phrase, “You’ll be sorry” is just a projection. Maybe she is the one who is sorry, or fears she will be someday. Maybe deep down, she can see that she aggressively pushes away those who love her the most.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs, in her book “Small Fry” writes this about her father:

“It is possible that he didn’t want me to leave, that he helped cause the very losses he didn’t want, that he wasn’t able to keep in his life the kind of people who might explain this pattern to him. Had he kept them, he wouldn’t have listened to them anyway.”

Her words explain so well what it is like to be a in a personality-disordered relationship. There is no getting through about the pattern. Sometimes you must let go.

Please comment if you can relate.