Most of us have some issues with our mothers, even if we consider them our closest friends. Despite all they do for us, moms can be jealous, self-centered, competitive, critical, controlling. In other words, human. Yet some mothers take those behaviors to an extreme, exhibiting a full-blown psychological disorder called narcissism, which often leaves their children feeling inadequate and fearing abandonment—even as adults. Of course, there are also narcissistic dads. (Some might argue that Lindsay Lohan's father is exhibiting these tendencies in his very public condemnation of the actress's girlfriend.)
Self-obsessed moms are the focus of a book out this week called Will I Ever Be Good Enough? by psychologist Karyl McBride. "I think mothers really serve as role models for their daughters," she tells me. "They look to their mothers for how to be in the world as a friend, lover, or mother themselves." The author, herself the daughter of a narcissistic mother, says she'd like to keep women from repeating the same mistakes their mothers made.
Your mom may fall into this category if:
• She seems incapable of loving you unconditionally; in other words, you think her love is based on your looks, achievements, or the positive impression you make on her friends, all things that she thinks reflect well on her.
• She has no ability to empathize. She may, for example, change the subject whenever you vent about work or your love life or—even worse—make you feel that you're to blame for all your troubles.
Another clue is that critical voice in your head telling you that you're not good enough. McBride writes that her internal critic told her she was a loser, a mess at finances, always picking the wrong men. She eventually concluded that this voice stemmed from her mother's lack of empathetic and nurturing love. You can take this survey about your relationship with your mother on the book's website.
While many women seek professional help to work through these issues, McBride outlines a multistep approach you can try yourself.
Step 1: Accept your mother's limitations and grieve that you didn't get a mother who could fulfill your emotional needs. This could take several months.
Step 2: Separate psychologically from your mother—perhaps cutting off all contact for a while—and reframe the negative messages you learned from her into positive ones. If that voice in your head tells you that you don't have any good traits, for example, remind yourself of something considerate you did today, whether smiling at a neighbor or running an errand for a friend.
Step 3: Develop and accept your own identity, feelings, and desires. McBride recommends making a collage filled with clipped magazine photos of women who could serve as new role models. You can also try making a list of your values, what's most important to you in your life, and your favorites (music, TV show, fashion style, leisure activity).
Step 4: Deal with your mother in a different, healthy manner. This involves setting firm boundaries—cutting her off when she begins to criticize, for example. You also need to set different expectations, realizing that your mother is probably never going to be empathetic. If you can get her to come to therapy with you after you've worked through your own issues, McBride says, that's ideal.
Step 5: Work to recognize your own narcissistic traits and refuse to pass them on to your children. "Allow them to be their authentic selves," McBride recommends, "by validating what they feel and not making them feel bad about it." If your daughter, say, doesn't make the school play, listen to her vent her disappointment and frustration rather than blaming her for not trying hard enough or dismissing her feelings by saying the play wasn't important anyway. "Kids need to feel valued for who they are, rather than what they do."
To chat with other women dealing with the same issues, check out this online forum moderated by McBride.