I Broke Up With My Mother For The Sake Of My Mental Health

I grew up with a narcissistic mother. I used to live each day for her validation and couldn’t have an interaction without wincing, hearing her constant criticisms in my head. When I brought up these issues during a conversation with my therapist, she had an interesting theory: maybe my mother and I should take a break. Here are the steps I took to emotional freedom.

  1. I did some research. My therapist diagnosed me with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Daughters raised by mothers like my own often doubt the validity of their own emotional needs. They feel unworthy of attention and are crippled by self-doubt. CEN is usually not diagnosed until adulthood because there are no recognized symptoms in children. We tend to “numb out” as adults, feeling hollow and succumbing to crippling perfectionism, as I had begun to do.
  2. I admitted to myself that I’d been emotionally neglected. It was tough for me to describe my childhood experience as “neglected” because all of my physical needs were met. I had everything I wanted and more. Emotional neglect happens when parents don’t listen, have unrealistic expectations, or invalidate their child’s emotional experiences as my mother had always done. Most days, my mother was loving and understanding. She would buy the best presents. She would send me “I’m so proud of you” text messages. Other days, she was judgmental and overly-critical. She would say I eat too much, I slouch, I overanalyze. During a crisis, she would tell me it would be OK if I would just stop being so dramatic.
  3. I decided to put myself first. It’s shocking to realize that someone you’re supposed to love so deeply is actually causing you pain. I realized that it was critical to release myself from the guilt and recognize that this had to happen because of my mother’s behavior, not because I had done something wrong.
  4. I began to detach. After 25 years, I had to let go of the fantasy that someday my mother might change. It was time to take a step back from the situation and view our relationship from a more objective standpoint. I began to limit our conversations. I would only call when I was on the go. I stopped texting her on a whim. I only made contact when there was a clear reason and I ended the conversation shortly after. I avoided talking about emotional topics.
  5. I recognized that there wasn’t a “right” way. I had to own the decision that felt right to me regardless of what I read on the internet or what my therapist had to say. I went with my gut and came up with a plan that I could feel comfortable with.
  6. I created boundaries. Some people write down formal “rules” when breaking up with a parent. Some people cut all contact. I didn’t do that. Instead, I promised to stop giving in to the negative behavior and refused to respond when the conversation wasn’t productive. I stopped justifying my actions. I answered “yes” or “no.” My mother began to catch on. She asked what was wrong and changed the way she responded. So, it was working after all.
  7. I tried not to be confrontational. Confronting my narcissistic mother with a list of her faults wasn’t likely to go well. I knew that was only going to set me up for more pain. I had to communicate my needs without being overly critical. I did this through email, not trusting myself to state my thoughts clearly in person.
  8. I had to accept that it would be difficult. Imagine leaving a long-term partner—the memories, the shared belongings, the Instagram photos… Now, imagine the history you have with your mother. I knew that detaching from my mother would be a painful, heartbreaking experience. I felt guilty. I would ignore her one day and text her randomly the next before she would make an offhand comment and I’d remember why I was broken in the first place.
  9. I stopped blaming myself. One shared experience of emotionally neglected children is self-blame. That’s because these types of parents have manipulated their children for that reaction. I had to come to terms with the fact that I could love my mom, I could respect my mom and I could even enjoy being around her 50% of the time, but also that she didn’t bring out the best in me. I had to forgive myself for wanting more from our relationship.
  10. I began to enjoy the freedom. In this case, I know this won’t last forever. I’ll need my mother and she’ll need her daughter. We’ll find our way. Still, I have to remind myself not to backtrack. I now give myself time to breathe when I need it and our relationship is better for it.