( Covert Narcissistic Mother)
( For the audio version of this post go to the end of the article)
You’ve read about narcissistic mothers… and the descriptions don’t exactly describe your Mother’s behavior.
Yes, she’s difficult; impossible is more like it… but instead of the loud, brash variety of narcissists, she’s subtle, quiet, and more manipulative.
That doesn’t make her any less dangerous. If anything, if she is a Covert Narcissist, she’s more dangerous- a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
And beware, the attuned empathetic “Good Daughter” is most at risk for a covert mother’s manipulative ways.
When she’s so good at manipulating, you wonder if she’s really narcissistic… or if it is all in your head?
It’s hard to see clearly. You feel like you are in a fog. And you try to be good, to make her happy. That’s all you want- for Mom to be okay and okay with you. (Go here to see if you are caught in the Good Daughter role.)
No wonder you are confused. Anyone would be.
That’s actually the point- to keep you in the dark and unaware.
Never fear- I have clarity for you.
And when you can see through a covert narcissistic mother’s disguises, you will no longer be groping in the dark. Instead, you will see through the moves for what they are so you can deal with them more effectively.
Please stick with me until the end, and I promise you, her covert moves will no longer hold the same power over you.
Together we will begin to break her spell so that you will be set free.
What does it feel to be under the spell of a Covert Narcissistic mother?
An encounter with a Covert Narcissistic Mother might seem pleasant enough on the surface, but you come away with a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach. You feel guilty of what; you aren’t quite sure.
Frustrated, you can’t get it right with Mom. And you doubt yourself and wonder what you did wrong. But, mostly, you come away feeling bad about yourself.
With a straightforward Narcissistic mother, you come away feeling bad about her, a Covert Narcissistic mother leaves you feeling bad about yourself.
The Overt Narcissistic traits are easiest to spot, the Covert traits– not so much. However, after counseling women in psychotherapy for over 30 years, I know all the moves and can break them down so that you can see them for what they are too.
Here’s how the Covert Narcissistic Mother accomplishes the same goals as an Overt Narcissistic Mother.
1) She needs to look perfect –
a) Overt NPD trait – These mothers may be dressed to the nines, botoxed to the max, and name-drop her latest posh vacation spot. It’s all about how it looks and how she looks to the world. Yes, it’s easy to spot her ways.
b) Covert NPD trait– This Mom transfers her need to look perfect to you. You are what we call in the field her narcissistic extension. While she will brush off a compliment about herself, ” oh, this old thing, I’ve had it for ages,” she needs you to be her show pony, perfect and polished. She glows when you make her look good and has little tolerance for your struggles. She micromanages your every move and will ride you relentlessly, pressuring you to achieve success that reflects well on her.
2) She can’t admit she is wrong.
a) Overt NPD trait – Braggadocious and obnoxious, this Mom argues your every point, never backs down, and never admits fault.
b) Covert NPD trait- the sneakier variety still can’t admit she is wrong but will do it in a roundabout way. For example, she may say, “what do I know? I’m only your mother.” Then she holds onto your failures, waiting for the right time to throw them back in your face when it serves her purposes. If she does apologize, it isn’t genuine and is frequently followed by a “but you…”.
3) She has to be right-
a) Overt NPD Trait– Mom will tell anyone who will listen to what she thinks, and she thinks plenty. She will sound off and won’t back down, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Her need to be right stems from her need to feel superior.
b) Covert NPD Trait– Mom privately prevails on you to see things her way, although, with others, she keeps her feelings of superiority under wraps. With you, she can be relentless. And when you try your way and fail, instead of protecting your pride, no one can wield an ” I told you so” with more self-satisfaction than a Covert Narcissistic Mother.
4) She lacks empathy-
a) Overt NPD trait- Mom can’t put herself in another person’s place. Frankly, she sees no need to do so. Instead, she’ll bully and dominate without a second thought about how her actions land.
b) Covert NPD trait- Mom insists she is in your corner but tells you that you are just too sensitive if you show hurt feelings. She will blame you for the harm she causes and tells you her critical comments are “for your own good.” She needs your buy-in to her cruelty.
5) She needs to win at any cost-
a) Overt NPD trait – Everything is a contest, and there are winners and losers. If Mom isn’t the winner, in her mind, she’s a loser. As a result, she will do anything to win.
b) Covert NPD trait– If she can’t take credit for it, it will threaten her. The line in the Snow White fairy tale, “mirror, mirror on the wall,” is very real to her. While most Mothers take pride in their daughter’s beauty and accomplishments, the Covert Narcissistic Mother is weirdly threatened by it.
She needs to take her daughter down a notch and is the master of the backhanded compliment and doublespeak.
6) She acts entitled-
a) Overt NPD trait – Somehow, the rules don’t apply to Mom. She breaks in line, expects special treatment for no reason, and thinks others should do her bidding just because. Depending on the level of Narcissism, this can range from bending the rules to out-and-out criminality.
B) Covert NPD trait – She is just as entitled yet gets her way through manipulation and has no trouble lying and making up the facts as she goes along as long as they fit her purposes. However, her preferred ways to avoid being found out are gaslighting and artfully dodging the truth.
She feels justified in her truth-bending and will portray herself as the victim instead of owning up to victimizing another.
7) She exploits others-
a) Overt NPD trait – She uses people and then discards and devalues them when they are no longer of use to her.
b) Covert NPD trait- She might look as if she is close and caring, but in reality, Mom is collecting chips she hopes to cash in when she needs them. This includes appropriating her daughter to supply her needs.
Many times the Covert Narcissistic Mother parentifies her daughter. Because a daughter is unable to say no, her expectation is inappropriate.
Bonus- Traits for the Covert Narcissistic mother
Nobody, and I mean nobody, is better at making you feel guilty than the Covert Narcissistic Mother. She won’t be done with you until you show some sign that YOU are the one who shows remorse and culpability, not her. She needs you to go away with the feeling that you owe her something.
Your guilt is a credit she can cash in when she pleases.
9) Silent treatment and withholding affection.
If she is unhappy with you or feels you are out from under her control, she will give you the silent treatment. Her silence speaks louder than any words could.
Mom keeps the relational tension leash tight and doesn’t let up until you’ve shown your fealty to her. She keeps you second-guessing until you have figured out what she thinks you have done wrong and are working to get back in her good graces.
In this way, she uses your anxiety for control over you.
10) She says one thing and does another
Mind reading is a requirement to stay in Mom’s good graces. And since it is hell on earth to be outside of them, you are a willing student.
You need to watch for her gestures, an eye-roll, the rage cleaning, the slammed doors – all backed in with plausible deniability. ” What, I’m not mad- I don’t know what you are talking about. ” to know when she is displeased without her having to own it.
11) She will play one sibling against another if it suits her purposes
Not afraid to pit siblings against one another to maintain her control, the Covert Narcissistic Mother plays favorites. She praises the child who is working to please her or making her look good. This, of course, sets siblings up to be at odds with each other.
Mom will say she loves all her children equally, but her actions tell a different story.
12) She will make Dad’s life a living hell if he crosses her.
Dad is in a no-win situation.
Besides divorce, there isn’t any escape or hope for a better life as long he is with Mom. Mostly men in this situation try to keep their heads down and go along to get along. Of course, this leaves their children with no protection or example of how to stand up to Mom.
Frequently, Mom won’t “let” her daughter have a relationship with her father without feeling extremely threatened. Daughters pick up the unspoken rule- I belong to Mom.
Why is it so hard to tell if your mother is a Covert Narcissist?
We’ve all familiar with the jerk at the bar, certain politicians, the jerk of a boss you can barely tolerate. We even know to watch our back around the mean girl/neighbor/coworker who would sleep with our partner if given half a chance or throw you under the bus if it suits her purposes. With Narcissism so prevalent in our culture, we know the classic narcissist signs, and we know to stay away.
But when it comes to our very own Mother dearest, it gets a bit trickier. A child needs her mother. She doesn’t have the luxury of moving out or finding another, so she follows a biological mandate to make it work, whatever it takes. Because she is used to putting Mom’s needs ahead of her own, she has normalized much of Mom’s behavior. And it’s even trickier when the symptoms or traits are veiled, hidden, inverted, or covert.
If Mom is a Covert Narcissist, why can’t anyone else (including my family) see it?
Because women and especially mothers, are hyper-aware of what the culture expects from them, they know how to put on a good front. In fact, they are experts at it.
You will ( likely) find a supporting cast of characters behind the scenes, including an enabling passive father and (possibly) a golden child brother. The Narcissistic mother’s outside friendships tend toward the superficial. No one outside the family is allowed a backstage pass to her inner workings. Strangely, but not so strangely, she will have few to no really close friendships.
If Dad has stuck around, he had most likely made his peace with it by doing her bidding instead of protecting you or standing up for himself. He is very invested in not rocking the boat and will encourage you to do the same. With a “you know how your mother is,” the expectation is that she will get her way no matter the cost. Her social relationships are a mile wide and an inch deep, mostly designed for show.
Unless everyone has had enough and flown the coop, only her daughter will have intimate knowledge of her harmful ways. This can be confusing at best, isolating, and infuriating at worst.
So what is Narcissism at its root?
What is the core of Narcissism?
Narcissism, at its core, is a problem of desperate insecurity. The traits or defenses we’re talking about here keep Mom unaware of the painful core reality she can’t face. At her very center, she feels unbearable unworthiness, shame, and emptiness. Thus the reason for the show of specialness, manipulation, and entitlement.
It’s all a carefully constructed act.
How your Covert Mother’s Narcissistic traits have affected you-
If your mother is a Covert Narcissist, she has parented you from a place of hurt, deception, and pain. As such, you have been fed a steady (emotional) diet of smoke and mirrors. Nothing is what it seems on the surface. When you are raised by a mother who is either high in these CovertNarcissistic Traits or has full-blown NPD, your self-esteem suffers; you doubt yourself constantly. You are at risk for carrying your insecurity into other relationships.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that awareness is the first step to healing from a Narcissistic Mother.
When you finally can begin to make sense of what makes your mother tick, you can begin to piece together your childhood. You realize the whole thing was upside down and that Mom’s needs came before yours… this helps you understand how you feel today.
Identifying the source of your pain and confusion is the foundation for dealing with it and ultimately rising above it.
It’s a new day. You are waking up!
Wake up so that you can find freedom from the oppressive chains of bondage to a dysfunctional relationship.
To listen- here is the audio version of this post)
You’ve taken an important step towards getting free. Here’s a guide to your next steps.
To find out if you are trapped in the role of the good daughter- take the quiz-
What traits would you add? Let me know in the comments.
Frequently Asked Questions:
They transfer their need to be special to their daughters, whom they appropriate, criticize, and micromanage.
No, they are passive-aggressive and use manipulation to get their way instead of bullying and overt force.
Covert narcissists ar also known as vulnerable or inverted narcissists.
Volatility, instability, mood swings, and the lack of resilience, are all traits of a mother with BPD.
A covert narcissist is a narcissist who disguises their need for power, admiration, and entitlement by appearing meek and vulnerable. Underneath it all, they are both driven to cover up their insecurity- just in seemingly opposite ways.
They play the role of the victim.
I found out the answer at 35 because of your help online. Thank you so much!!! God be with you as He is daily with me
Thank you for writing. I’m glad it helped.
I’m recently divorced from a vulnerable narcissist and have split custody of our 6 yr old daughter. My ex wife’s anger was always targeted at me, but after she lashed out at our daughter in front of me– I realize she took my place & everything is redirected solely on her.
Do you know of any good resources for handling this? Her mom is an extreme vulnerable narcissist, on steroids with every trait magnified.
How difficult it must be to witness your ex’s behavior towards the daughter you both share. It’s hard for you because you can’t go directly at your ex. You can, however offer your daughter a sense of stability and base your parenting on supporting her (your daughter’s) separate sense of self. Don’t underestimate how powerful the experience of a different way of relating to her can be.
You might have guessed this already, but the danger here is that/if your daughter feels the need to defend her mother. So you are best to tread lightly and not bring that on- as tempting as it might be.
This type of mother/daughter dynamic tends to produce a very enmeshed relationship. That is… your daughter may have a hard time differentiating from her mother and instead settle for being her ally.
If you are patient however- there will come a time when your daughter will most likely turn to you and need your help in sorting out her dynamic with her mother.
For now, my best guess is.. that you will have to settle for modeling a different type of parenting.
Of course it would be great if your daughter could form a relationship with a therapist where she could sort through her experience without feeling like she is betraying one parent over the other.
Best of luck,
Are there any forms of free support for an adult living with a covert narcissist parent? I used to have a career, earning over 100 grand/yr living in NYC. I left my career, the plan for next phase didn’t go well, I went through my savings, and it was either move in with my mother or be homeless. 3 years later, I have no glasses, an expired ID, no bank account, and no phone. My name isn’t on anything. My sister owns the place and so, the second my mother dies, I am homeless. There is zero chance I’ll be able to stay here. My sister hates me. Actually, she cant be bothered to hate me. It’s just apathy. She won’t help. I technically am homeless since my name isn’t on anything. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do. The amount of time it would take to save enough to move out… I can’t seem to be productive consistently. I have a couple weeks where I earn okay with the at-home closed captioning work I do (which is on an account in her name, not mine), but then I have weeks where I’m unproductive. The stress is overwhelming physically as well as emotionally. And every is soul-crushing. If it weren’t for my cat (who is the most loving animal ever and who relies on me) I’d have walked into traffic long ago. Obviously, I can’t pay for therapy, or I’d have done that from the start.
I have to say your comment left me somewhat at a loss… There is of course so much I can’t know reading your post. Mostly what I can say is I am so very sorry things look so dire for you. Depending on your state and community I don’t know what in-person resources are available to you.
So I will respond to your question- are there any free resources for an adult living with a covert narcissist?
In the past few years, there has been an explosion of folks that are sharing their time, effort, and expertise with you on the internet.
You, and anyone reading may discount these resources because they are free. Don’t make that mistake.
Most of us who write about mental health issues (who are individual authors) pour hours into researching and writing what we know. We write because we wished there was someone out there for us when we needed this information. The percentage of folks who purchase our paid offerings compared to how many read and benefit for free is minuscule.
Yes, the gold standard is individual or group help… however even those folks who come in for their first session with me have had the benefit of educating themselves from me and many others online- before we have our first session. This turbocharges what we are able to accomplish in much less time.
It is a win-win for all.
So while it certainly sounds like you need/want therapy ( which you say you can’t afford- and I get it) you can make a plan to read the many articles online about covert narcissism, make a plan to exercise, and meditate ( good youtube guided mediation videos to choose from) every day without spending a dime.
If any of the above speaks to you as useful I am glad, and if it is not a good fit for your situation, please disregard it.
I wonder if that girl who made over 100k in her career in NYC and felt like life was good at one time is still in there. Take one step towards self-sufficiency at a time and see how that feels. I’m rooting for you and your wonderful divine feline companion 🙂
Thanks so much for this. My mother is a covert narcissist who engaged in all of these behaviors, and my older brother is also like that. This led to me repeating these relationship patterns in romantic relationships and friendships until a couple of years ago, when I woke up and realized what was happening. I no longer interact with them because it’s too painful, and it’s been a long road recovering from all of this, but I’ve built a great life with my husband and stepdaughter. Sadly, my stepdaughter’s mother is also a covert narcissist, and now I see the same things playing out from an outsider’s perspective. My husband and I work hard to create a stable, loving, and positive environment at our home to counteract her experiences with her mom, but it’s still hard dealing with this person as a co-parent. Do you have any advice for dealing with a covert narcissist as a co-parent or any resources?
H I Alexis-
I’m glad you’ve found my article helpful, and good for you that you have managed to get some distance from the people in your life that are hurtful.
You ask a good question about what you can do as a stepmother as you notice your stepdaughter’s mother operating out of the same playbook.
Yours is a tricky role, as I am sure you are aware. You can probably make the most impact in an indirect way. You are kind of boxed in- in that if you criticize your stepdaughter’s mother, your stepdaughter will most likely come to her mother’s defense- not because you are wrong, but because young children tend to come to the dense of the most fragile parent. They can’t see the manipulation- not until they are much older, and even then- it needs to be her observation.
That leaves you in the position of offering an alternative way of relating. And she will see you and her father relating in a healthy way.
Indeed, it may take many years, but eventually, she will most likely be able to see it and appreciate your approach. I know that means waiting- perhaps years before you see any payoff. That will take huge amounts of patience, but I think in the long run will be well worth it in the long run.
Best of luck,
Does it somehow sound like you may have to be a perfect mom in order to not be considered a narcissist? Just a thought
I imagine many readers out there might feel the same way. And, as odd as it may seem on the surface of it, I agree with your sentiment.
In my way of thinking, the opposite of a narcissistic mother isn’t a perfect mother… but one who is comfortable with her own imperfections.
She is open to listening and considering her daughter’s (or son’s) point of view, doesn’t have to be right or perfect, and can admit when she is wrong. She is able to offer a genuine apology when warranted and works to repair any hurt inadvertently caused by her actions because people don’t always feel what we intend.
She can be vulnerable and empathize. She can entertain her child’s perspective without vehemently defending her own.
Looking back as a mother of two grown daughters, I wish I had spent more time empathizing with them and less time trying to be some (culturally dictated) version of perfect.
My mother is a covert narcissist. I started seeing the odd signs when i went into therapy at a young age of 14 for an eating disorder and the therapist explain to me that my behaviors seemed to exist because of the relationship with my mom. My mom would constantiy yell at the therapist. It was nuts. now im 33 years old with a husband and two young boys and the manipulation, guilt, control, and shame still exist. My husband is tired of it. He wants me to cut off my mother but i dont know how because everytime I do she becomes more crazy and more MEAN. Her scariness has no limits and she wont stop until she gets what she wants which is a reaction out of me. Last time i cut her off for a year my therapist recommended a restraining order just bc my mom started coming to my house harassing me. We patched things up after that but its like she can only fake nice for so long before the monster comes out. I dont want to cut her off again because im scared of the blacklash. But how do i convince my husband to deal with the crazy?
I’m sorry you are having to deal with an extremely difficult situation.
I will respond with the understanding that I don’t know much about your situation and that you should consult with a therapist or another professional to dig into the particulars.
With that in mind- here are my thoughts-
From what you have written… I am to understand that a professional has already pointed to your mother’s role in your eating disorder, your husband wants you to cut her off, and a past therapist has recommended a restraining order.
From those observations, it looks safe to say people who care and know much more about your situation (either professionally or personally) see your mother as harmful to you.
But, if I understand where you are coming from… you say appease her a little, and she won’t be so bad. And you want your husband on board with that program.
You may think your mom is unique- and she may be… however If she is like my clients’ mothers, she may not be so unique. What she is doing and has done may fit a pattern that is recognizable.
I wonder if you know deep down that she (Mom) will never be satisfied with just a little- that she won’t stop until she has you totally under her control. That’s just how the personality-disordered mother is driven to act.
It is important now to look at the dynamics of a bully. They get their way through intimidation. Interestingly, covert narcissists will show their narcissism when they are challenged. In other words, you may have unmasked your mother’s narcissism by setting boundaries or limits.
It can unleash their sense of entitlement.
If this fits your situation so far (and it may not), you may want to ask yourself some questions-
If you give in to her bullying, where will your relationship with your husband be in 5 or 10 years?
What message do you want to send to your boys about standing up for themselves?
And last but definitely not least, do you find yourself working to appease everyone and never really considering what you want out of life?
If so, you can plot a new course for yourself if you are highly motivated. It isn’t easy and won’t be quick, but there is a way out of being held hostage by your difficult mother and claiming your life for yourself.
If you need more support I can help with my book The Good Daughter SyndromeThe Good Daughter Syndrome .
I wish you all the best,
Thank you for this article I related to all of it. I am the ‘good’ daughter, except for a rebellious streak as a teenager. My mum fits the bill perfectly and extracting myself is very difficult. I found that although covert, at home, when my dad wasn’t there, my mum was incredibly aggresive verbally and at times violent, when I was a young child and teenager, I was certainly afraid of her anger and that ‘voice’ she used in public which I knew meant trouble after. However, you say in the FAQs that covert narcissists aren’t agressive and dominant? I found that behind closed doors she expressed more overtly narcissistic traits. Reading this also reminded me that I learnt a lot of my coping strategies and behaviours from her – playing victim, finding it hard to take responsibility, being passive aggressive, although I am working on all of these, with the help of free programmes and therapy. My mum is like a social butterfly, everyone thinks she’s wonderful and I just feel sick with dread now when I have to have any contact with her. It was particularly helpful that you touched upon the role of the dad, my dad is exactly like you describe as is my ‘golden child’ brother. Where does it end? As they age do they soften or become worse? My golden child brother is getting married in May, I am dreading it. I know I have to go, I will take my husband and children. Do you have any advice for this type of occasion. The wedding is big, I have three brothers (none acknowledge fully the truth of our mother) and my mother is like a director at occasions, she wants us all to dance (inculding my young children) to her tune and show us off and criticise me, whilst making it look like a joke or try to demand affection and guilt trip me 24/7. I’m not overweight but I am already stressing about my appearance and thinking about losing weight to physically shrink myself and try to avoid her criticism, but also avoid people complimenting me because she will become jealous and start finding other ways to shame me. I’d really appreciate any feedback.
Wow, you have certainly learned and identified a lot. It sounds like you have been living a nightmare.
And bravo to you for doing your own therapy and claiming and rethinking your own coping strategies!
You point out something very important, and that is that any covert narcissist can behave overtly- given the right circumstance -perhaps the presumed privacy your mom thought she had when you were younger. Because narcissism, in all its varieties, is driven by the same underlying motivation. Your loss is their gain.
Sometimes they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and sometimes they are just a wolf.
Unfortunately, at this level (what you describe here), it becomes part of a family system with the golden child ( sometimes brother) and passive dad. As you point out, that makes it even trickier. Her tentacles reach into all the inner psychological workings of family relationships.
It is hard to extricate yourself from the system without knowing and addressing the underlying traps I talk about in my book, The Good Daughter Syndrome. Moms like yours get their hold over you from very early childhood, and the unconscious agreements your survival brain makes just to get along can keep you tied to her needs instead of attending to your own.
Do check the book out if you need additional support. Breaking free from a mother (such as what you have described here) is very difficult, but it is possible.
I know you’ve asked for specific advice on your brother’s wedding. I could give you some ideas, but they would only scratch the surface without the deep internal work that needs to come first so that when you set boundaries and refuse to dance to her tune, and she pushes back… you are prepared.
From what you’ve written here, it sounds like you have what it takes to take on this huge but oh-so-important psychological and developmental task
Best of luck,
Just wanted to say that you give very thoughtful and helpful replies. Your information about these relationships is very insightful. Thank you for the time and effort you share here!
Thank you so much. I do like to go into the specifics and reply to the real-time questions and address the issues that come up for individuals. I so appreciate that you took the time to say this.