I have a mother with a personality disorder

November 29 | Guest post by SonyaG
By: babs4180 – CC BY 2.0
By: babs4180CC BY 2.0

I know many people can relate to the guilt, anger and destroyed self-esteem that can result from a parents' manipulative behaviors through-out childhood, without me even having to rant about the exact ways my mother's personality disorder attempted to destroy her kids. There are as many ways to deal with someone like my mom as there are unhealthy relationships. I would like to share my experience with a mother with a personality disorder, in the hopes that it might resonate with someone.

Keep in mind, I am not an expert. But here is how a bruised kid somehow grew into a happy, confident adult…

Remember the three Cs:

  1. You did not cause it
  2. You can not control it
  3. You can not cure it

Cut contact if you need to

I was fully estranged from my mother for several years. I highly advocate this step as necessary. When it has become a survival situation, when you can't deal anymore without losing yourself, do it. But it's not easy. Especially if other family members get involved. Just be firm but not aggressive in your boundary setting.

Rebuild yourself

Find your worth. Enjoy drama-free relationships. Go through the steps of grief. Be angry at this person; cry for all you wish you'd had but realize you won't. Do remind yourself it's not your fault.

Eventually you may feel like you could to be in the same room without drama ensuing

If being estranged is like being separate islands, it took me a decade to realize that for better or for worse, those islands are stuck in a bigger river called Family. So I am no longer estranged. But our relationship is not "fixed." I am simply distanced. I took this step because I wanted my daughter to be able to attend family gatherings. However, never EVER leave a kid alone with an unstable person, even if that person has been on their best behavior for months.

How to explain it to your kids

I made the mistake of leaving my daughter with my mom for thirty minutes once, and my daughter was deeply traumatized by this — not having the thick skin of an adult or grown up in that sick environment. I fumed. I cried. I breathed. And then I explained that her Grandma has a deep wound in her heart that creates all these negative emotions, like anger and sadness. And instead of using her words (Communication! Which I have been endlessly helping my kid do) Grandma reacts by wanting to make others hurt like her. Surprisingly, kiddo understood.

I know confrontation is useless

I refuse to respond to comments designed to hurt, even when they DO hurt. If I must speak directly with her, I maintain superficial conversation, about work and the weather. I recently discovered this technique actually has a name; "the medium chill." (I wish I had found this resource earlier, instead of figuring it out on my own over a decade, which prompted me to write this post.)

I am no longer a part of my mom's world

I am a fluffy white cloud hovering somewhere on the outskirts of her world; a world that revolves around thunderstorms, the ominous rumble of her controlling behavior, and retina-whitening flashes of drama when she does not get her way. She no longer has an effect on this particular cloud, and so she has dismissed me. It's perfectly fine. She is no longer the center of my world either.

It is not all rainbows and unicorns

I find myself clinging by my fingernails to the fact that I can not cure her. Certain responses are deeply engrained. It's tough to resist, to react with calm indifference. I am very much a "savior" personality type; I like to help and think everyone can find their way. It feels like a personal failure not to be able to heal the person who is supposed to be one of the most important figures in my life.

Ultimately, it's possible to maintain somewhat of a relationship with someone who is broken, after you have healed yourself. To be distant, not estranged. I refuse to be dragged down, and you can too; yet it will always remain a constant juggling act of fragile balance and reaffirming boundaries. I can't miraculously cure her. And you can't either. And until/if she is ready to take responsibility for her behavior, she will remain that way.

  1. This was an excellent post. Thank you for sharing. I grew up in a similar situation. For most of my childhood, my Mom brought her work stress home with her and took it out on her family. Things have improved since I'm an adult now, but she is still able to find something wrong with pretty much everything I do and remains the uncrowned queen of guilt trips.

    6 agree
    • I am very happy if my experience can help you.
      Oh god, the guilting is probably the hardest to deal with, along with disappointment from promises/expectations unfulfilled.

      Be strong!

      2 agree
  2. THIS! SO MUCH THIS! My mother has narcissistic personality disorder and it's taken me a long time to come to terms with it. I'm not currently in contact with her and I'm in therapy at the moment to deal with some of the more abusive aspects of my childhood. This post makes me feel much less alone, thank you so much for sharing it.

    4 agree
  3. As a therapist, I struggle with how to feel about this post.

    First off, I want to be absolutely clear – I think the concrete advice this author gave is spot on. Boundaries are so vitally important as a family member of someone suffering from a personality disorder. I think the author has done an excellent job creating a healthy and safe dynamic with her mother.

    And yet, I work so frequently with individuals looking to overcome their personality disorders and repair relationships. I worry what any of them might feel if they read this article, and I worry about some of the readers of this blog who may have these illnesses. I understand that what the author went through may justify the word choices, but I worry about it contributing to the stigma in our culture around those with personality disorders – that they all must be cold-hearted psychopaths, or abusive and manipulative family members.

    It sounds like your mother had zero insight into her behaviors, and never sought treatment. For that, my heart breaks for you, and I hope some day she will. With hard work and dedication, these illnesses can be overcome and relationships can be rebuilt.

    8 agree
    • I definitely see what you're saying. In my comment about my own mother, I didn't mean to imply that all people with personality disorders are abusive or manipulative–I can only speak about my own experiences with my mom. But the post in and of itself makes me feel less alone after so many years as a kid thinking everything was my fault 🙂

      12 agree
    • Thank you for writing that. I am a person with a personality disorder (BPD, specifically), and I tensed up as I opened this post because I worried it would hurt to read. And it did a little, but not as much as it would have in the past, before I was as "recovered" as I am now (because in my experience, if there's one thing people with BPD love, it's masochistically reading about the horrible things the world thinks about us). It sounds like the author has made the right choices for her situation given that her description suggests her mother hasn't had treatment. But I want to echo that just because a lot of people with personality disorders are "broken" doesn't mean some of us can't be "fixed."
      I'm working on having a kid now. And it's my sincere hope/intention that my future kid will never have to identify with this post.

      6 agree
      • YOU are awesome. Simply by recognizing your issues, you have taken the biggest step in assuring your future kid does not take the brunt of destructive behaviors. I think you haven chosen to view it in the right way, as motivation to continue to heal it does not apply to your child.

        As you realized, (and the fact you did realize it comforts me that I managed to make it clear) this post is not about those trying to change, although I am very aware of how sensitive a subject mental health issuses, especially deeply engrained ones, is. It is about protecting yourself and still keeping contact with someone who will still actively try to destroy your stability and self-esteem just to feel superior if given the chance.

        I am sure you will do your very best to be a great Mom, and as a mother too, I can say that is the only thing we can all do; try!

        7 agree
      • Beth, thank you so much for posting this comment.

        The folks I know with personality disorders not only haven't had treatment, but have absolutely no interest in seeking treatment, or in recognizing how their illness negatively impacts those around them. At least not at this point.

        Knowing that it doesn't have to be that way gives me hope.

        You are a hero. With your love, honest self-knowledge, and intention – your future offspring will be just fine. I wish you good luck!

        6 agree
    • This comment seems to imply that children of parents with personality disorders should a) shelter their parents from seeing the damaging effects their behavior has had, b) be more sympathetic towards their parents, and c) be obligated to take on the emotional labor of rebuilding relationships if the parent wants to do so. I understand the impulse (especially from a therapist) to want to understand and empathize and hope for improvement, but that's not what this article is about. When a relationship is such that one person needs to set these kinds of boundaries and and carve out a space of emotional safety, I think it's much more important to support and empathize with the victim. It is so, so important for children of parents with mental health issues to understand (just like the author says) that it isn't their fault and to forge their own identities apart from their parents' issues. In cases like these, where a person has been horribly hurt by their parent, I don't think asking the victim to be more sympathetic is the right move. Also, while it's true that relationships can be rebuilt with hard work, it is never the victim's obligation to take on that emotional labor. If they want to and they're up for it — great. But, as I've learned through hard experience, it is ok — and sometimes essential — to put your own emotional needs first.

      To the author of the article — thank you. This was so helpful.

      25 agree
      • I personally find that compassion for my abusers, as expressed in praying for them and trying to understand the dynamic that made them that way, keeps me from becoming bitter, gives me hope, gives me some idea on how to prevent such distortions of human nature from happening elsewhere, and empowers my self-respect. Compassion does not include offering myself for further victimhood, as I see that as damaging both to myself and the other person. I also keep in mind that understanding how abusers become what they are is not the same as condoning what they did; rather, it's a question of studying what went wrong and how to keep that from happening again in future generations.

        I don't think of it in terms of who has the "burden" to do what. "Burden" thinking comes from being raised in a judgmental milieu where everything is somebody's fault or somebody's obligation, where compassion for one must necessarily require throwing somebody else under the bus instead. It's an understandable outlook, given the circumstances, but one that healing can overcome, and life goes much more pleasantly without it. At least that has been my personal experience.

        5 agree
    • Hi!

      I am the original poster. And I would like to specify that no, my mother has never (and as she is now 67 will probably never) take responsibility for her destructive behavior.

      I really do not want to imply someone with issues can not work on themselves and that is my deepest most treasured wish for her, that she accepts help and really wants to change. Which, sadly, she does not. This post is entirely about sharing twenty years of dealing with someone unstable, finally feeling like I know how to react to provocation. I do not mean to say close off all relationship and dismiss anyone with mental issues. In fact, quite the opposite. I am no longer estranged. We have regular-ish contact and if my Mom ever shows any sign of sincerely wanting to get better, I will adapt my response. And god, I wish she would. But it is important (and tough) to stay realistic and accept how she is.

      I wrote this close to a year ago and it is something of an open letter to my siblings, one who is not doing so good and another who is alcoholic. It gets better. You can be happy and serene and no longer be completely estranged. You just need to know yourself and your boundaries.

      If you are suffering from mental health issues, admitting so is hard and definately the first step in getting help. I admire anyone with the courage to do so and this post should really not discourage you. In fact, I would really really like to read a reverse post. Someone's experience of how to break destructive cycles brought on by their personality disorder. If you have this experience to share, please do! I would like the insight in how things look from the other side.

      10 agree
      • I believe that compassion helped me break the cycle. To find out what made my abusers the way that they were, showed me what I needed to change in myself to break the cycle. That and recognizing I needed therapy. LOL!

        Seriously, most people seem to think that therapy is all about getting patted on the hand and told, "There there, nothing is your fault" when in fact it means getting your nose rubbed in everything that you never wanted to face–and having the guts to go through with it anyway, because evasion keeps your life locked in misery. Yes, you do go back to look at who made you the way you are when you were helplessly young and malleable–but it doesn't stop there. You have to face what decisions you made at that time in order to survive, how those decisions went on automatic, how they no longer serve you or anybody else, and how to switch them off again (and when time has corroded that switch into place it takes all the strength you've got!) It takes more courage than you ever mustered up before in your life, but the up side is that from that point on you have more courage with which to live the rest of your life than you ever thought possible, and that feels good! That opens doors where you thought you only had walls.

        Don't do it alone. Find spiritual or philosophical support beyond your own limitations. For me that came in the form of the Prayer of St. Francis, particularly one verse:

        "O Master grant that I may never seek/So much to be consoled as to console,/To be understood as to understand,/To be loved as to love with all my soul!"

        Narcissism, you see, was one of the components in a very complicatedly messed-up upbringing, and if you're not careful, the wounds of such an upbringing can drag you right into the maw of the beast itself. I teetered, in my youth, on the brink of retreating into inverse narcissism, along with my other problems of DID and PTSD. I hated that prayer at first! I so very much wanted to be consoled, understood, and loved! But when I let go, when I stopped trying to force others to love me and just started loving them regardless of outcome, to my utter shock I got inundated with so much love back that I never thought possible! And I learned that reaping gratitude–the spontaneous delight of somebody else, unasked for, in response to something that you did–is infinitely more satisfying than the grudging guiltitude that you might squeeze out of them. Of all the lessons in my life, learning to tell gratitude from guiltitude was one of the most important.

        1 agrees
        • Very deeply spritual and true. It is very easy to become bitter and angry (and normal and necessary too, I think. At least for a while.) But all those strong negative emotions take a toll and I wanted to tell people that yes, after the storm there is beauty and serenity even if your abuser has not changed.

          I had never really thought of the next step as compassion, more as accepting what you can't change but I can understand your view. I think the words you chose to guide you are very inspiring and truly something strive for.

          1 agrees
    • I would phrase it as, "I am not the person to cure my relative's problem." I don't see mental illness as hopeless (I have my share to wrestle with) but growing up abused by a mentally ill person hardwires me from childhood to respond the wrong way to that specific person. Even worse, if the other does recover, my presence could trigger old habits and cause a setback. So it's better for both me and the other to distance myself–and pray that somebody else in a better position to heal comes along.

      3 agree
  4. As a daughter of a woman with personality disorder, I can echo so many sentiments expressed in this article. I would add one thing though. It makes a very big difference if the person is aware of their behaviour, and has a wish to be 'fixed', or whether they are unaware of their behaviour and reject therapy. My mother is totally unaware. Whilst it is not my responsibility to cure anyone, I believe every person needs to be given clear feedback on their behaviour, and the natural consequences which then ensue. I have a very distant relationship with my mother, but each time we interact and we stray off the 'safe topics', I give my mother this chance to become aware by reflecting back to her how she is behaving, and why we have this distant relationship, and why my children do not want to see her. I treat her like anyone else I meet, honestly and fairly, I do not think shying away from the difficult stuff is an option. It does not have to be a confrontation – I remain neutral and objective and suggest she needs help – although often my mother chooses to make this into a confrontation which I then remove myself from. I have a little hope that one day my mother will accept help and start to understand her behaviour, and start to accept herself. My happiness does not depend on it, and it may not ever change our relationship, and she is still a person who will always be very different from me and play a very marginal role in my life, but I would just like her to have the chance of being happy in her own skin.

    8 agree
    • OP here.
      This. So much this.
      Especially the last sentence. "I would just like her to have the chance of being happy in her own skin."

      Yes. A million times yes.

      2 agree
  5. Excellent advice! I'd add one more thing. Be the mother to yourself that you didn't have. For instance, when I get terrified of doing housework, for fear of the consequences of doing it imperfectly, I picture myself going back in time to the scared little girl I was and saying, "Come on, you can live with me for the rest of your life–and we're going to make housework fun!" (I'll confess, it doesn't always work, but it works often enough, and I feel better for a long time afterwards, knowing that I'm safe, now.)

    4 agree
    • Great trick!

      I try to be the mother for my kid I never had. I too need to sometimes stop, stamp down on old ingrained destructive responses and breathe. Kids know how to push buttons for sure, and as you said, we are wired to react not appropriately because of our past. Mostly, I am not afraid to apologize and admit I did wrong if I made nasty comments designed to hurt instead of appropriate discipline. She is eight and so far seems to be doing okay!

  6. I'm bookmarking "The Medium Chill" for later reference. It's something I naturally do, but there are a lot of ideas in there.

    2 agree
  7. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Both my parents have personality disorders and so do all three (me included) to some extent. I have been in treatment over half my life. My father and sister are not interested in treatment. I often worry my mental illness will negatively impact my children but with a lot of support and work I hope it's not too much. I have cut off my father and most of his family and it's been good. I have seen him and just kept the conversation to weather and work. I feel I have made peace with this arrangement but my sister recently cut me off completely and this one hurts. Logically I know it's for the best she is completely toxic and an amphetamine addict as well. This time of year is the worst for me. I also have some trouble with social events. I am from and still live in a small Canadian east coast town. When I go out with friends these are the same people all 3 of us hung out with and our home due to extreme neglect was a place we often hung out. (My parents were pretty lax about drinking and drugs) I'm almost always asked about my family. People often seem bewildered even shocked by my answers I do not know where my sister or father are even living let alone working….which in turn makes me feel more alone. My father and sister are charismatic  narcissists and people who knew or know them superficially often really like them. I find trying to explain why they have disappeared from my life a struggle. I'm hoping it gets better with time. Kate

    • Explaining can complicate things. Sometimes it's better just to say, "I have my reasons, but I'd rather not get into it." If you're lucky, they'll see that as classy. If you're middlin' lucky, they'll give you the benefit of the doubt. If you're not lucky at all, and they keep pestering you, just keep repeating it till they finally start to feel too embarrassed to continue.

    • My heart hurts for you. It's tough, trying to cope… Hang in there!

      As for people being nosy, I stay really vague. Unless it's someone I'm close to (who will already know the truth) I will just answer casually. "How is so-and-so?"
      "Oh, I haven't seen them in a while." I don't get into details of why and don't explain that "a while" can be counted in years.

      Then I just kinda shrug with a shared look "You know how life is…" People will assume we're too busy to see each other, they don't need to know my heart is bleeding or we are entrenched in a war….

      Then I turn the question back at them. "Which reminds me, how about so-and-so? Any news from them?" Or ask about a project or their family and usually people will be glad to share about themselves.

      Did you check the link to the Out of the Fog (medium chill technique) website? It has tons of practical advice to help you!

      1 agrees

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