Mothers experience challenges in life just like everyone else, and sometimes those challenges include living with symptoms of a personality disorder.
Not everyone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) experiences the same symptoms or symptoms with the same intensity. The same goes for a mother who may live with this condition.
When you learn about some of the signs of covert narcissism, you may think that someone has a narcissistic personality, particularly if you’ve known them well for a long time. However, only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose the personality disorder.
Determining whether some of your mother’s behaviors point to symptoms of narcissism may be challenging if you don’t have professional training.
Keep in mind that some of the signs you’ll learn here could be explained by other conditions or personal challenges.
In every case, NPD isn’t a personal choice. Most people with narcissistic personalities have diminished self-awareness and don’t realize that they live with the condition.
Narcissistic personality disorder is a formal mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5).
However, narcissism can also be a personality trait. This means that someone may exhibit narcissistic behaviors in some situations without meeting all the criteria to receive a formal diagnosis.
The core traits of narcissistic personality disorder include:
- a constant need for praise and admiration
- low capacity to experience and express empathy
- a pattern of grandiose behaviors and attitudes
People with narcissistic personality disorder will persistently experience at least five of the following symptoms across different situations:
- exaggerated sense of self-importance, often not based on facts
- a need to belong and be understood by people or institutions that are perceived as superior or elite
- persistent preoccupation with fantasies of self power, success, brilliance, beauty, or love
- a constant sense of entitlement
- a need to be admired and recognized as superior
- unwillingness or inability to recognize the feelings and needs of others
- tendency to use manipulation and exploitative tactics
- feelings of envy toward the success of others or a belief that others are envious
- superior or arrogant attitudes
What’s the difference between covert and overt narcissism?
Overt narcissism tends to be obvious. People might constantly show self-sufficiency and authority, demand admiration and attention, and express that they deserve better than they’re getting.
Covert narcissism, also known as maladaptive or vulnerable narcissism, can be less front-and-center.
While individuals with covert narcissism still experience many of the symptoms of NPD, including grandiosity and a feeling of superiority, they may not express them as openly in their behaviors and attitudes. They may also rely on passive-aggressive interactions.
Research suggests covert narcissism is more likely to overlap with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.
Identifying the signs of a narcissistic mother may not be as straightforward, especially if she lives with covert narcissism.
There are many ways someone may express the formal symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder or narcissistic traits. Everyone still has their own personality and individuality.
Behaviors can also change based on a child’s age, cultural background, personal circumstances, and other external and internal factors.
In general, a narcissistic mother may have a hard time identifying or connecting to the needs of a young child, for example. They may tend to use manipulation or guilt-based tactics with older children or adults. They could also play the victim in some situations.
Here are some indicators of a possible covert narcissistic mother:
According to Sterlin Mosley, CEO of Empathy Architects and professional in human relations at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, covert narcissistic mothers may use guilt trips with their children through the appearance of neediness.
“They may appear emotionally bereft, overlooked, under-appreciated, overworked, or participate in martyring behaviors,” he says. “Some narcissistic mothers may try to top their children’s problems, and tend to evoke feelings of guilt in children who feel unsafe sharing their concerns or issues.”
Mothers living with covert narcissism may tend to shift blame. This means that they might have a hard time being accountable for their actions and emotions and put that responsibility on the child.
For example, they may say that they’re having a bad day because their child woke up late, or they may justify their outburst by saying it was caused by something the child did or said.
Silvi Saxena, a clinical social worker in Philadelphia, explains that this type of blame-shifting can often result from the mother’s need to avoid being judged negatively by her social circle.
If your mother lives with covert narcissism, you may feel like she persistently prioritizes her needs over yours.
This behavior can appear in many ways, particularly during early childhood. This may be, in part, due to the low ability to experience and express empathy that many people with NPD have.
This may lead them to not be aware of the child’s needs or not realize how their actions affect the little one. They may, for example, ignore a crying child or overlook their academic needs.
Not every narcissistic mother will act this way, though. And in some instances, they may even act the opposite way in an attempt to show high status through their children.
Being excessively helpful
“Covert narcissists, particularly those who are identified with being ‘nice’ or ‘good,’ can also appear gracious, kind, empathetic, or even generous,” explains Mosley.
That generosity and willingness to help, however, may sometimes be motivated by a need for praise and admiration. They may want to be portrayed as “perfect mothers” or admired for their many sacrifices and efforts.
“Typically, underneath the image, they are seething with rage that people are not admiring them sufficiently,” he adds.
In some cases, mothers with covert narcissism may compete with their children. This could take many forms.
For example, they may always have a “bigger” problem or accomplishment than the one you’re talking about, or they may act in certain ways in public to redirect attention from you to them.
Holding high expectations
Sometimes, covert narcissistic mothers may see you as an extension of themselves. In this case, your behaviors are a reflection of their own.
Because of this, they may hold extremely high standards that lead you to be perceived as successful, smart, beautiful, or special in some way. They might often take the credit for these accomplishments.
Similarly, if you face challenges, a narcissistic mother may seem intensely upset and excessively critical out of worry that you may shed a negative light on them.
“Growing up with a covert narcissistic mother can render children hyper attuned to what will please others,” Mosley says.
The need to keep others happy, known as “fawning,” is common among children of narcissistic parents, he explains.
Those with covert narcissistic mothers may become particularly good at anticipating or reading the negative emotions of others. This may mean you become preoccupied with trying to contain those negative emotions in others before they appear or turn on you.
Growing up with a mother with covert narcissism may also make you more prone to engaging in relationships that repeat these patterns or become harmful.
“People with covert narcissistic mothers also find that they feel at home with ‘toxic’ or ‘negative’ people,” Mosley says. “Human beings unconsciously become attracted to what is familiar, no matter how dysfunctional it may seem.”
Not everyone growing up with a covert narcissistic mother will experience mental health effects. It depends on many factors, including other important relationships you had growing up.
But if you feel the experience has affected you in some way, know that healing is absolutely possible.
Narcissistic personality disorder is also a manageable condition. However, the need for support and healing needs to come from the person with NPD, which doesn’t happen often because of their poor self-awareness.
Your own healing journey may look differently depending on many factors, including the type of behaviors you were exposed to, your emotional resources, and the support networks around you.
“Mental health issues like depression, anxiety, [post-traumatic stress disorder], sleep issues, eating issues, and feelings of fear, shame, or guilt are also all likely to develop,” Saxena says.
Treatment for these conditions is possible and may involve psychotherapy and in some cases, medication.
It’s also possible to heal the mother-daughter relationship, or improve it in some aspects.
Narcissism can be a personality trait or a mental health diagnosis. In every case, it isn’t a personal choice.
Some people living with narcissism may behave accordingly in an open way, while others may live with covert narcissism.
Mothers living with covert narcissism may tend to play the victim, shift blame, or set high expectations for their children.
Being the child of a narcissistic mother may impact your mental health. If it has, healing is possible once you become aware of how it’s affected you.