Updated: Jan 16
I have deep compassion and sympathy for anyone who has been raised by and is dealing with a toxic parent, a toxic or narcissistic mother is a destroyer of self confidence and self esteem, like an emotional vampire she drains the life force out of you, being denied the basic acceptance, harmony and stable foundations that others enjoy can be an incredibly isolating feeling, and in the absence of awareness it can have an impact on every subsequent relationship in your life, as well as cause severe anxiety or even prolonged depression and feelings of hopelessness.
Therefore it is helpful to identify and understand the traits of a toxic parent, to find coping methods as well as to start rebuilding our confidence so that we can move forward without being weighed down, refusing to allow our experiences to become a disadvantage to us as we move through life.
Although toxic relationships can pop up in many areas of life, grandparents, aunts or uncles, partners, in-laws or siblings, we are going to focus on toxic Mothers today.
To some, the traits of a toxic mother may sound far fetched or unbelievable, we have been taught to believe that you "respect your Father and Mother" but respect is earnt and it can be destroyed. Unless you have encountered this personally you probably can't even begin to understand the insane levels of emotional and mental abuse that some people endure at the hands of the the very people who are supposed to be biologically hard wired to love and protect them.
It would be impossible to cover every trait of a toxic mother but here are some common ones that you might relate to:
-She is egotistical to the extreme, outward appearances and a wider reputation matters much more to her than the personal feelings of those around her, she may display this with overt materialism or exaggerated self aggrandising behaviours, she lacks empathy towards you and others, you may hear her saying cruel and bitter things about people she knows often, but to their faces she is charming and has perfected an act of care and concern, which seems to have people fooled. You may notice her sucking up to others and being ultra friendly even though you know she has said terrible things about and has secretly schemed against them in ways that they would horrify them if they knew.
-One of the greatest indicators of a toxic mother is the way you feel around her, you may experience anxiety, frustration, fear and distress. Energy never lies, even during times where she is trying to be pleasant or you have succeeded in keeping the peace, you feel uneasy, angst ridden and unsettled to the core.
-You come to realise she has no sense of human empathy and feels no sincere compassion for the traumas or difficulties other people face in life, yet she constantly feels sorry for herself and expects everyone else to.
-She is controlling and wants everything her way even if you feel that a path she is pushing on to you doesn't feel right for you, this could be a career path that she pushes you towards despite your protests or it may be that you are happy in your relationship but she repeatedly pokes holes in it and make you feel ashamed in your choice of partner or she might push you towards a man that you are not interested in because outwardly he satisfies the criteria that qualifies for her approval, even if you have no interest in the person. Basically you are expected to "fall in line" with whatever schemes she cooks up for you. She might even be controlling over petty small things like what you wear or read. She may measure success only in terms of financial wealth and status and happily push you in to life choices that make you miserable just because they are outwardly impressive. This is where "mother knows best" becomes toxic, she cares nothing about your own dreams, values or goals, she simply wants to live through you, and brag about how exceptional her children are to make herself feel more important.
- She is like Jekyll and Hyde she has mastered false charm and a polished outward appearance, your friends may even remark on how nice she is and how lucky you are to have a mother like her, but inwardly you are uncomfortable to know a completely different side to her personality.
-She has a total lack of self awareness, no matter how calmly or carefully you explain your perspective when she has hurt you, she is unable to see anyone else's point of view but her own trying to get any sort of acknowledgment for the harm she has caused quickly devolves into a power struggle where she "strives to win" at any cost, without ever considering your needs, emotions or struggles.
-Furthermore, she gaslights you and plays the victim, if you ever do find the courage to express how you feel she flips it onto you as a reflex playing the victim with statements like "you think I am a terrible Mother it hurts me so deeply!" there is no chance of being heard or understood and instead you spend the time feeling guilted and trying to handle her drama, or she gaslights you, and accuses you of the very thing she has done to hurt you ie: after weeks of neglect, unkindness or stone walling she complains that you are no longer close and she doesn't feel wanted.
-She is self involved to the highest degree and see's herself as the worlds most important character, she talks about herself excessively, complains about her ailments, relationship difficulties and dramas, she is always a victim yet if you are honest with yourself she is never really interested in your news or worries, she experiences absolutely no concern for others (unless she is using it to seek attention), if you are having a genuine problem she tells you to get over it and stop complaining, or she refuses to even listen.
-Passive aggression is a lifestyle, she may suddenly stone wall you for long periods without explanation, you search your mind for anything you could have done wrong but draw a blank, you then notice others close to her beginning to stone wall you too. If you ask her directly she provides no answers although it is clear she is angry or blaming you for something. She will fester bitterly on any perceived slight even if she has given you absolutely no chance to address the problem, she is the epitome of passive aggression.
-She never let's you build any sort of confidence in yourself, when you are excited about a new opportunity or experience she instils fear in your mind that you may fail or get hurt, she understates your talents and intelligence so that your confidence in yourself becomes tied to her approval, or lack there of, as a result you constantly second guess yourself and have little belief in your abilities. Even well into adulthood you may still be afraid to take risks or reach for greater success as her voice still echo's in your mind.
- Some toxic mothers actually live through their child's accomplishments, for example my mother pushed me into modelling and beauty pageant's at a young age even though I was a sensitive and creative child who didn't enjoy the spotlight or the superficiality, I was more interested in humanitarian careers that enabled me to help others improve their lives. I stuck with modelling for a while, having my exercise regime and diet controlled until I was severely underweight and weak and yet claiming all the glory and money earnt from my work for herself, when I finally broke away and became a community development worker she could not be proud of me, not even when I became a company director at the age of 23.
- She has no boundaries and zero respect for your privacy, as a child she may have gone looking through your room or she might have read your journal, she may have thrown your beloved possessions away on a whim, she has no respect for your marital home either and turns up unannounced regularly even if you have asked her to check in by text first, she may peer through your windows or walk straight into your house, she may even open your private mail, she may not respect your privacy even on basic levels like not allowing you time alone in the bathroom or changing room without her walking in, or she pries into private areas of your life leaving you feeling mortified and violated, if you make a big deal about it she once again resorts to a victim mentality and gaslighting or she makes you feel childish for wanting her to respect your privacy.
-Subtle put downs are normal and frequent, often when you are least expecting them, they may also be sneaky, like something she knows only you will pick up on so she can then accuse you of being overly sensitive and emotional if you react. You may also notice she does this to vulnerable family members such as the frail, sick or elderly, making unkind comments to them about them aging or starting to lose their memory, which is truly disturbing.
-She expects people to make huge sacrifices or adjustments for her personal comfort but makes a huge fiasco out of being asked to make even the smallest of compromises or favours for others.
-She pits her children off against each other, usually toxic mothers choose a favourite child (generally the most eager to please or get along at all costs), then their accomplishments are over blown and their failures hidden or denied, while your accomplishments are ignored and your failures are brought up often, even if you are proud of your sibling and love them dearly, you are made to feel awkward by the constant comparison and by being made to feel less than them. Some toxic mothers will even pit you off against the other parent, blaming them for problems she caused, trash talking them in front of you or trying to turn you against the other parent out of some bizarre display of loyalty to her.
-Her love is conditional, this is so dangerous, her love is only given when you are following her map for your life or even if you are she might still criticise you regularly, if you succeed she barely acknowledges it, she may even talk over you about someone else she considers to be better than you in moments where you feel proud, ruining your positive feelings and growing
self esteem in one move. This might also extend to your own children, again she chooses favourites and plays her grandchildren off against each other, spoiling one while she neglects the other, children pick up on so much and they risk growing up with damaged self esteem and undervalue themselves as well, questioning why they were not worthy.
-Her kindness is always conditional, she never does anything out of love, even if she does offer to do something sweet for you, you very quickly come to discover that there are big strings attached and you have now been cornered into doing something you didn't want to do, if you resist, the act of kindness is thrown in your face.
-She plots and plans how to manipulate others, she is nothing if not calculated, its easy to tell when she has an agenda as her words are well scripted and her view points are repeated over and over until the people involved acquiesce to her wishes, but if you attempt to respond with an alternative perspective, she walks away, talks over you or starts making loud noises in the room until you give up trying to speak. She may also "butter you up" with compliments to prep you to accept her plans, then turn nasty again if you don't.
-She says things like "I fed and clothed you! how dare you be so ungrateful" but those are the basic duties of any parent bringing a child into the world, it's not a "favour" that you owe her for.
-she expects you to turn on the people she has had disagreements with to show loyalty. Her issues extend to others in the family or friends too, when she is not getting her way with another person or they have found the courage to stand up to her, she immediately goes on a mission to demonise that person, by calling around the family to tell her story before they can, she seeks to isolate that person from support systematically, she demands that you and others, cut that person off or step back from them, so they feel abandoned and cannot receive support, this can be very damaging if the other person is someone that you love and you are no longer allowed to speak to them out of fear of how she will punish you for your "disloyalty" to her.
-Love bombing, when she senses she has gone too far she may start love bombing you, lavishing you with expensive gifts, extensive flattery, giving you compliments or making you believe she needs you for her to be ok, you are suddenly on a pedestal yet nothing ever seems to be done out of authentic love and kindness but always with a motive, she may even use love bombing as a way to show off to others that she can afford nicer gifts than them or bragging to people that you are the best daughter she could wish for, even if she expresses consistent disapproval or cruelty in private.
-Secretly she considers you to be her property, not an individual in your own right, you exist to make her look better, more capable and more successful, you may feel that you are losing your identity and can't make decisions or plans without worrying what she would think, the pressure may even break you down completely.
-She is incapable of listening to you, even if it's her that asks to talk, she may ask how you are doing then speak over your answer, she may notice you pulling away and try to rectify it by collaring you to discuss it, but the discussion only involves her being allowed to speak she will repeat her point of view endlessly but be completely unable to acknowledge even the tiniest piece of input that comes from you.
-As a child/teen the abuse escalated in to physical violence in my case, I was then disallowed from leaving the house for days in case my bruises or cuts were noticed by others. A toxic Mother may discourage you from seeking therapy, afraid that she will be exposed for her abuse.
-She humiliates you in front of people, she may tell others private details about you or put you down in front of them, but God forbid you ever embarrass her or make her look bad, even if it was unintentional, you will be punished with the full extent of her wrath once others are no longer looking.
-In most cases the cycle of abuse is present in it's entirety (idealise-devalue-discard) which is traumatic and leaves a person with a loss of emotional stability.
-She is hugely critical but cannot handle even the mildest criticism or critique about herself, there is no self reflection or self awareness present at any time, she considers herself to be perfect in every way, having never made a mistake in her life even as she tramples over a trail of broken people in her wake.
If you hit your limit and try to walk away for good, she may coordinate a full campaign to stalk, slander and abuse you, turning people against you and even trying to destroy your life completely. So you must be ready to protect yourself if that's what you decide.
Never set yourself on fire to keep others warm, no matter who they are.
How to survive and keep your sanity
Toxic Mothers create wounded daughters which actually serves to benefit the narcissistic Mother long term, as you become much more easily manoeuvred and manipulated, therefore truly the antidote is to work on our wounds and to gradually become a healed woman, as a healed woman you will easily be able to see through toxic behaviours the moment they arise and as a result you will be able to deflect them with calm consideration and resolve. A huge aspect of a toxic mothers power is her ability to hurt you or to play on your unhealed wounds, she has carefully observed how to "push your buttons", by healing your wounds you will discover that she is no longer able to "strike a nerve" as that hurt part of you is gone.
It can take a long time to heal from possibly decades of toxic abuse, it is certainly not something that happens overnight, however the first step is to make a decision that you will no longer tolerate abuse, manipulation or allow your self esteem to be damaged, once you take that stance stick to it at all costs. This the first step to healing.
A healed woman becomes a beacon of light and strength, but sadly a toxic woman always uses cruel and calculated methods to ensure the survival of her egoism.
Begin to assess the specific issues or abuses that you suffer from your toxic mother and start to consider ways that you can set boundaries, for example if she is controlling over your life and feels entitled to dictate how you should live or the choices you make, stop attempting to achieve her validation and support as you know it's a losing battle, instead say something like " That's good advice/ a nice suggestion, I will consider it, thank you" then continue to make your own decisions and follow your own path anyway. If she calls you out again, you can say "It was a very good suggestion but I decided to do this instead" If she tries to guilt you or demands that she knows best say " thanks for caring, it's appreciated" try not to get emotional and don't fall into over explaining i.e. "I made this choice because of A,B or C and this feels right for me" this only gives her an invitation to find flaws in your ideas and erode your confidence further. Instead keep it simple and if she refuses to let it go, use her own tactic, tell her you must go now or change the subject entirely.
If the issue is a constant violation of space and privacy, set limits there too, if she is always showing up unannounced keep your doors locked, when she knocks, answer and politely tell her, "I wish you had called first we are heading out/we are busy right now, why don't you come over tomorrow at 3, we will have much more time then" you may need to get others in your household to coordinate with you on this, let them know you are working on setting healthy boundaries with the people in your life. Always stay polite and centred yet be firm don't let her wear you down, repeat this often until she gets the message .
If your toxic mother offers favours to manipulate or sabotage you, for example: offering to babysit for an important event, only to start a fight or cause a problem days or hours before the event leaving you stuck, stop accepting favours from her, instead look for more reliable childcare even if it's not as convenient. This is very common with narcissists and I had an ex that used to do this, he would promise to stay in with our son or drive me to an important meeting that I had worked tirelessly preparing for, only to throw a fit over nothing a few hours before and walk out, leaving me frantically trying to make last minute arrangements and feeling very upset and tearful so that even if I did make it to my meeting I was utterly dishevelled, he once even hid my keys so I couldn't get out of the house and missed an important meeting. I have heard of toxic mothers doing exactly the same. This is a power game where they not only control and upset you, but also sabotage your potential to become a success.
Whatever you do, try not to become reactive or angry as this will enable her to justify her toxic behaviour.
Please note: When you start to set boundaries or limits with a toxic person or narcissist, they will NOT like it, it is a huge threat to their fragile egos, so they may become angry, vindictive or use punishment. You may even observe hysterical behaviours you never dreamed of. When you decide to implement these steps you must be ready for that, rally as much support, protection and resources as you can before you begin.
It is important not to handle this alone, unfortunately in my case, I had no one to turn to for support at the time, I had ended up so isolated and cut off from others, so I can say from personal experience that this is not a burden you should carry alone, you want to put contingencies in place so that you are not repeatedly pulled back into the merry go round of abusive and toxic treatment. It will very likely require therapy to unpack so many years of pain, humiliation and sadness. Don't be afraid to open up to trusted friends and explain how bad things have got. It may also be the case that you notice one or two black sheep in the family that avoid your Mother like the plague, if they are good people it may even be worth quietly forming connections with them so that you still have some family support.
If possible begin to shift your energy towards groups of people that don't know your mother, new friends, support groups and start cultivating a more independent life away from her, minimise all sense of dependence on her so that you can spend time with her only when you feel strong enough. New activities and friendships will also boost your confidence, you will get to see first hand that people genuinely do like you as you are and over time you will cultivate a strong social circle that is supportive and free of toxic energy.
Release your emotions
There is so much deep and traumatic pain in the realisation that the one person who should love you most in the world has been a thorn in your side your entire life, undermining you, sabotaging you and controlling you, then possibly rejecting you like you don't matter the moment you refuse to acquiesce to her demands is the icing on her BS cake, such anguish and grief must have a release, sometimes these feelings have been bottled up for years on end with no outlet. Allow yourself to really cry, as often as you need to, you may be surprised how much sadness pours out of you, but each purge is a step closer to healing, write down your thoughts each day in a private journal (one she can never access) as difficult as it may be to understand, toxic mothers are usually painfully jealous and resentful of their children, you need to start understanding that this isn't you fault and it never was, you can't help the family that you were born in to.
Check your other relationships
It's a sad fact that the victims of toxic or narcissistic mothers often find themselves in other toxic relationships too, this was horrifying for me to realise that while I was finding the strength to distance from my narcissist mother I had another sitting right beside me, hiding my keys and sabotaging my career. but it is a reality that many of us face, the damage of the way we were raised extends outwards into other areas of our lives, often we find ourselves drawn to toxic partners or friendships because controlling, possessive and self sacrificing relationships are what are familiar to us, we actually come to believe that this is love. We may not be consciously aware of it at all and it is important not to panic. Once I meditated on this, I asked my higher self to point out any person around me that had toxic intentions, a couple of people sprung to mind immediately which was surprising, but later when I contemplated on it, I realised this made a lot of sense and that those people displayed the classic traits, lack of empathy, subtle put downs, controlling behaviours, yet I had never even acknowledged it.
Change how you see her
It was so helpful for me to start using visualisation work, whenever you have to deal with your mothers toxic traits, imagine her shrinking down to two ft tall, about the size of a toddler, now remind yourself that this summarizes the level of her conduct, that of a toddler having a tantrum screaming "Love me!"... "Notice me!"..."I am frightened"..."I want attention, now!" then imagine yourself patting her on the head and saying "it's okay little (name) there is nothing to be frightened of". It sounds silly but it really does help, you come to see how childish the behaviour really is and how scared the other person must be to act the way they do with others. Toddlers are adorable but they are also irrational, clingy, they cry when they don't get their own way and they can be grouchy, even violent, but in a grown adult this is anything but cute, it's strange though how many parallels you may be able to draw between the narcissist and a toddler. If you are having a particularly bad day with your mother you can imagine her standing in front of you ranting and screaming or criticising you, then imagine you open your palm and blow her away with glittery fairy dust and smile to yourself. Watch her looking shocked and spinning away from you like something out of a cartoon. Drop the idea that she has any real power or control over you, she doesn't, and that is precisely why she behaves the way she does.
Pursue success in your own right
It has probably been difficult for you to seriously consider who you are or what you really want out of your life experience, being forced to live under someone else's shadow drains you of your unique individuality, it can even cause you to stop knowing your own mind. However your life is a gift and it belongs to you and you only, you deserve to shape it into something that genuinely fulfils you. Perhaps you have pushed down big dreams feeling that they are unacceptable, when I was a child all I wanted in the world was to become and an artist, I would spend hours alone in my room, drawing, painting and creating collages, but whenever I talked about it my mother would hiss at me that artists go through life starving, penniless and unhappy and I shouldn't put my focus into such silly pursuits, needless to say I didn't become an artist, but I grew up to realise that there are many happy and successful artists in the world and I did feel cheated. Once you have gathered some support and have found an outlet to share your thoughts and feelings turn your focus on to you and your dreams, begin to take steps towards your hearts desire and what you wish to achieve for yourself, don't allow her voice in your mind to discourage you. Pursuing your own path is actually protection, as you create a reality that is true to you while minimising her involvement, her voice will get quieter and her hold on you will become weaker. You can even use your pain as motivation, allowing it to fuel your passion, further cementing to yourself and everyone else that you are a valuable human being in your own right.
Break the cycle
Parenting styles and traditions are often passed through generations, it's usually our mothers that we turn to for advice, support and understanding, but because you didn't get so lucky to have healthy or wholesome love and support, you get to create a brand new chain, one that will echo through the generations that follow you. So, allow your children to be who they are, learn about what interests them, what causes them to light up with joy, then support them fully, talk openly to them and show them all the acceptance that you never received, show them privacy (appropriate to also keeping them safe) and respect as an individual, form wonderful loving bonds and create new healthy ways of doing things so that they naturally pass on the same respectful, nurturing energy in their own lives, and onto their own children some day. Wounded people often do create wounded children but this is not their fault, it is because they don't know how to break free and start the healing process. When we do heal we get to break the rule and become the exception. Just as trauma can be passed from generation to generation, so can your healing.
Once you feel stronger you can also do this with friends or other loved ones, if you see someone struggling with a toxic relationship of any kind, try to be a constant of support in their lives, you never know what a life changing difference it could make to them.
If the situation becomes unbearable, cut contact
It might come to a point where you have to cut contact completely with your mother, or at least to create the sort of distance that minimises all her toxic behaviour completely. This can be indescribably difficult for many reasons, despite how she treats you, you still feel a bond to her, you may forever wish she could just finally change and become a bit more reasonable, unfortunately because many toxic people do lack self awareness or shift blame on to everyone else around them, change is quite rare in these situations, sometimes setting boundaries can be enough but not always. One thing I have observed is that the guilt you feel at the thought of cutting contact can be overwhelming, I have seen people experience great relief when they realise that it is acceptable to cut contact with a toxic person. If your mother is damaging your mental health, refusing to let you heal or her actions are becoming more callous to the point where it is even harming your own children. It could be the best course of action.
It's strange but in the absence of a mother, you do seem to find mother figures in other places, whether it is an influencer you love, a grandparent, a very nurturing friend or an amalgamation of people, the universe never really leaves us without. Although it's a shame to end up resorting to extreme measures, it can end up being the very thing that saves your sanity.
My lovely, if you are struggling with a toxic mother and need support to rebuild your confidence and your life, please don't hesitate to reach out for coaching, sessions are confidential, supportive and non-judgmental and they start at just £30 GBP you can apply for a session here