Reading: Coming to Terms with My Narcissistic Mother

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Coming to Terms with My Narcissistic Mother

She was a grab-the-spotlight phenom with all the pathological trimmings. And she prepared me for success

By Deborah Burns

Deborah Burns with her mother in the tub
Deborah with her mother

My mother may have been a tad narcissistic. Perhaps even more than a tad. There, I said it, right up front and out loud.

I never could have uttered those words when I was young — for one, I hadn’t even realized there was a word for the way things were. And even if I had heard the word, I was too busy dancing around her, chasing and longing for her to figure it out.

Recovering From the Hurt

But as I wrote a memoir about my mother, Saturday’s Child: A Daughter’s Memoir, that fact finally did dawn on me. And when it did, it would have been easy to focus only on the negative aspects of being the child of a narcissist. There’s an obvious downside to not feeling like a priority or fully loved and I’m not minimizing that. But the experts have the hurt well covered — from the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, to the modern Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life by Peg Streep.

So here, with a full grasp on all of the minuses, I chose to contemplate the pluses for the first time — how my reactions to her tendencies might have actually set me up for success, especially at work.

I had a somewhat impressive magazine career that ultimately crowned me Chief Innovation Officer of a global media company, then led to my own consultancy helping brands reinvent, and then to a more creative life as a writer. And as I looked back, I realized that her narcissism had indeed served me extraordinarily well in life. It shaped me to be:

How Her Negatives Served Me

Dimensional. My mother was otherworldly, drop-dead, room-silencing, movie-star gorgeous. No matter how beautiful a child of such a mother may be, you always know you’re not that, so it doesn’t become your focus. And for anyone, not leading with the superficial is a great thing. Instead, you develop all the other cards in your deck and lead with those inner, genuine qualities that happen to win friends and allies at work — and that last a lifetime.

Intuitive. I spent a lifetime so tuned into my mother that any natural intuitiveness of mine was honed razor sharp at her feet. Later on, that heightened awareness became exponentially valuable at the office. Others could have been smarter, but I realized I had a very high emotional IQ. It seemed that I could always get to the essence of people and situations and ideas. Somehow, I just knew. And that was an enormous asset in the workplace.

Imaginative. Alongside someone with my mother’s star-power wattage, I was nearly invisible throughout my youth. But that fueled a rich, dreamy interior life beyond anyone’s reach. Adding my only child status to the mix meant I had to rely on — and entertain — myself. It all made me a creative adult who brought innovative ideas to my working life that were recognized and rewarded.

Motivated. Whether driven by something I needed to prove to myself — or to my mother — determination, action, and perseverance were three ever-present characteristics. Anyone can have an idea, but it really comes down to the implementation. So, all those traits that came naturally to me because of her also happened to be necessary for successful outcomes.

Agile, Resilient, and Resourceful. My mother was a temperamental woman of secrets and I had to figure her out, along with everything else. So I became used to navigating things and finding my way around. Her ways trained me to accept that everything is complex with built-in disappointments, to believe that there is always a solution somewhere to be found. And that flexible seeker mentality is just what everyone needs to bring to the office.

Collaborative. Although I’m a nurturing leader, I actually never strove to be number one at work — sometimes it happened anyway, but that wasn’t my goal. I liked the behind-the-scenes better and was always more comfortable being part of a team. Putting my mother on a pedestal in my youth made me a great collaborator as an adult, someone quite skilled at circling other stars to help them shine brighter. A way of being that fosters gratitude and appreciation.

Open. Yearning for something — or in my case, someone — keeps you open to possibility. You’re always anticipating, always thinking of ways to manifest what you crave, always hoping that some new situation will bring what you need. It keeps you open to opportunity and to what’s next — an invaluable office mindset.

Loving. I know just how important it is to feel fully loved. I worshipped my mother, but I needed more in return. So, when I had three children of my own, I became the mother I had longed for. If you injected each of them with truth serum and asked, “Does your mother love you?” they’d just laugh. All parents make mistakes, but since I made my children feel they were my beloved first priorities, that’s not one of mine.  

As with the Japanese art of Kintsugi — where broken pottery is repaired with gold to make the cracks visible and beautiful and essential to the piece’s history — having a narcissistic mother is an important part of my backstory. The golden threads of narcissism fill the chips from our combination to create a new whole. And those threads have, in many ways, illuminated, enhanced, and even eased my forward path.

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