Monday, March 9, 2009

Book Review: Will I Ever Be Good Enough - Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride

Hello Friends:

This book gets four out of five 'wings' from your Adventure Hostess.

I told myself I was going to stop with the self help books. That was almost three years ago, and up until recently I kept off of them. I felt I needed to take a break from it since every book I picked up said the same thing. I've read all the anxiety-books-this and phobia- catalogs-that and done the workbooks-for-the-relaxation-challenged. I have "Learned Optimism" and tried "Feeling Good" and everything in between. I read them all religiously, and after several years of it, I got almost as sick of the books as I was of my disorders.

My original impression was that my GAD and OCD issues were at the heart of all my problems, and I was starting to get very frustrated that all the cognitive-behavioral-blah-blah was still not working for most of my 'anxiety' attacks. But my perspective has shifted in the last six months as I've finally come to understand that the PTSD is really dominating my emotional scene. It was pretty well hidden before, since if you are having multiple panic attacks a day, plus can't do things like use door handles or wash dishes, you are in a pretty acute situation. Now that I have a better grip on those issues (after a decade of CBT and now meds) other, more deeply buried issues are coming forward. I had thought I was having only generalized anxiety attacks; turns out more than half of those 'attacks' are actually PTSD flashbacks. I figured since I wasn't seeing anything weird, I couldn't be flashing back. Wrong-o. PTSD sufferers can experience emotional and even somatic flashbacks. I've been in situations where I can see what's going around me just fine, but I actually feel and even smell things that are from my distant past.

This has given me a boost, since it means I can perhaps find new ideas and relief in a whole array of self help books I never bothered to read. And so you'd think this post would be about at PTSD book. Ah, no. Sorry. I ended up moving off into yet another area of emotional fodder as yet uneaten. This would be examining more the real root of my disorders in the first place. In my case, one of the three big nasty things from my past was being raised by a mother with Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissism. During my searches for new book-fodder, I spotted a recent book on the Narcissism subject, and figured I'd check it out.

And finally ... the actual book review.

Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride is relatively recent, published in September of 2008. I was originally drawn to the book by a review written by a reader that talked about how the book helped her understand why she and her brothers had such differing ideas about their mom. This sounded very familiar to me, and so I picked up the book.

Some of What's in the Book

The book is divided into three parts designed to lead daughters raised by Narcissistic mothers into recovery. Part One is about identifying the situation you are in and understanding how it changed you as a child. Part Two demonstrates that the results of the emotional abuse of the past are the pain and difficulties you are dealing with now as an adult. Part Three discusses how you can recover from your traumatic childhood and lead a happier and more fulfilling life.

There are several different kinds of lists in the book; lists of traits, behaviors, steps to healing, and such. These include 'the nine traits of Narcissism', a questionnaire of maternal behaviors, lists of 'daughters' current feelings, ten 'stingers' that are descriptions of mother-daughter dynamics, two 'kinds' of mothers, the six 'Faces of Maternal Narcissism' and more. The book is filled with quotes and anecdotes from other 'daughters' in the author's therapy practice well as from popular culture and the author's own life. In between these is text synthesizing all these data and ideas into a form the reader can (probably) digest and then use to make positive changes in their life. The book closes with some specific strategies for letting go, moving on, and even dealing with your mother again, if you really want to do that sort of thing. I'll say it's certainly not high on my own personal 'to do' list.

What I Liked

The book has a specific and well articulated focus ('Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.') Even with this focus that is still an ambitious goal, but the book does generally deliver on that promise. It is well organized and reasonably easy to follow. The writing is solid and engaging. The author is also a 'daughter' of a Narcissistic mother, and so writes from a place of deep understanding.

I found the quotes from other 'daughters' of all ages to be very pertinent, and a highlight of the book. If you have a mother with Narcissism, it is tremendously relieving and validating to see how very closely other people's experiences mirror your own. I felt less crazy after reading the book, which gives it a minimum of three of five 'wings' just for starters :)

The schematics of appropriate family dynamics nearly made me laugh out loud with amused horror, since they were so dead on with my own experience. The one with the Narcissistically dysfunctional family has Mom at the center, and then the Dad totally orbiting around her, and outside of that the kids. The chapter 'Where is Daddy?' is also dead on. It showed me that mine wasn't the only family where the father chose to sacrifice his own kid's mental, emotional, and even physical health to the beast ruling the house in order to save his own skin. The author describes the twisted relationship between the Narcissist mother and the man who enables this behavior as the 'unspoken agreement' and 'the pact'. Again, dead on.

The section called "My Turn" was very interesting - seeing how other people chose to deal with their mothers after they 'recovered.' It is hard for me to imagine why anyone would want to put someone back into their life who has no interest in them, mother or not, after going to the trouble to separate and create an authentic, individual identity. But of course Narcissism is a spectrum disorder, with people ranging from occasionally cruel and self-absorbed to the totally toxic. So those with less dysfunctional mothers may have some hope of a relationship with positive aspects, however small.

Some of the stories resonate so strongly with me, and are just heartrending, especially those of children trying so hard to get love from a mother who is completely incapable. One person gave her mom a plaque saying, "World's Best Mom". This eventually got returned to the daughter since it 'didn't fit her decor'. Another bought her mother an expensive present by saving her lunch money, only to have it flung back in her face with an accusation that she obviously stole it. Such stories are difficult to read, but help underscore how horribly damaging and traumatic it is to be at the mercy of this kind of mother.

What I Didn't Like

There are too many lists, questionnaires, categories, and steps to keep track of in this book. It appears the author was trying to break a difficult topic into bite sized pieces, but for me the result was just one list or categorization after another. I did not think the author made it clear enough that all the categories can overlap; no one box will fit just one person, either for the narcissist or for her daughters. In any case, I felt the listing and categorizing strategy was overused, and ended up obscuring what I thought were important subtleties.

I was really rubbed the wrong way by the author stating that a Narcissistic mother doesn't intentionally hurt her children, and that mostly such people are trying their best. I felt the author was saying that since the Narcissist isn't capable of empathy, they don't really know what the effects of their abuse really are. My own situation is so vastly different I can't believe I am the only one. I do not think it helps to suggest to people that they deny the very real possibility that their mothers knew perfectly well what they were doing, and enjoyed causing suffering. I am certain my own mother knew exactly how her actions affected the people around her, and did it all quite consciously.

The section that I was hoping to read about, the difference in how daughters and sons are treated, turned out to be very short. This and the section about how different daughters are treated were very interesting, and not something I've seen much about in other places. I really feel the book needed to expand these sections, they seemed to introduce ideas without any meaty follow up.

Part Three was also too short. As far as I'm concerned the best part of the book, and the reason I read these self help tomes, is to learn how to change myself. There was not enough guidance here for me. For example, the author talks about forgiveness, but does not do a good job of defining exactly what that is to her. She mentions that it can be different for different people, and that forgiveness is not the same thing as pardoning. The idea of forgiveness as 'letting go' does not make sense to me. I have no model for this, certainly not having seen it modeled as a child, and the text didn't have enough examples to show me how to do this.

Summary and Final Comments

This is a very helpful book if you are the target audience, or I imagine, the spouse of a woman with a Narcissistic mother. It accurately depicts the issues of being one of the 'daughters' and offers some real life ideas for how to cope and how to move on. I'm glad I bought it, and would recommend the purchase to anyone interested in the topic.

Your Hostess With Neuroses


The Tenacious Writer said...

Wow, this book sounds intriguing. I love the idea of letting go--I would loooove to let go--but it really makes me angry that we are supposed to have sympathy for these people who are "doing their best." Their best sucks and I'm not buying it. It's the job of their therapists and friends to have that kind of sympathy, not their daughters. We are already damaged from being made into the parent when we were tiny and vulnerable.

I could go on but it's making me crazy! :-)

The Blue Morpho said...

I agree - it makes me angry, too. I think I probably can't see it clearly because of how strongly I feel. I do feel bad for people with this affliction and with BPD, but as for my own particular parents, I am in no mood to say 'they didn't know better' or 'they didn't really know what they were doing'. I think they did. I'm remembering a certain nasty email she wrote that I know went through four considered drafts before it was sent. That's not someone in a blind rage. As for him, bleh. How can you respect anyone who will sacrifice children because he is too cowardly to deal with reality? And he does not have some kind of emotional regulation disorder to fall back on as an excuse for his enabling. Whoa - I'm ranting. Better stop.

Anonymous said...

I'm working through the book right now, having found it, literally yesterday.

I can tell you one thing I have thought about as I'm raising my daughters and "recovering" from the effects of a narcissistic mother. It might be helpful to realize that our narcissistic mothers that appear to "cause us pain on purpose" probably are living out scripts from their own experiences from their own family dynamics.

It might be helpful to think of it that our mothers were incapable of re-writing the scripts. They have not had the wealth of information at their fingertips like we do now. If, perhaps in their 20s and 30s, they had access to the information like we do, they would have turned out differently and stopped the behavioral cycle. My mother now is 65. She is no way, no how going to read a book telling her what is wrong with her and how she caused me so much damage. But that's okay. My recovery doesn't depend on it. It depends solely on my taking responsibility for my own growth and healing. For my daughters, and for myself.

We don't have to feel sympathy for our mothers, but we DO need to have sympathy for what we lost as children. We do need to mourn those losses, and we do need to change the focus on external validation (validation we get from our lovers, our jobs, or our mothers) to internal validation (the validation we get from listening to our intuitions tell us that we ARE capable of making good decisions and ARE capable of letting go of the past and moving forward). This shift helps us to gain confidence in our inner wisdom. Most often, we do know what's good for us, only we stop listening to our inner wisdom and instead choose to go against it.

I started the process of listening to my inner wisdom a long time ago and stopped at a certain point (when I was safely out of my mothers influence). But I didn't realize I wasn't finished until I had my three beautiful daughters, one of whom has had a social anxiety so bad she had selective mutism.

In helping her, I got a whole bunch of books, but discarded many of them after a while. Not because they were bad, but because it was too much. What I had to do was trust in myself that I could figure out what she needed. Turns out she needed exactly what I needed from my mother 39 years ago - safe haven to express my anxieties and someone to help me manage my intense emotions.

But...this didn't come naturally to me. What I didn't know at the time was I lacked empathy for my own daughter because my mother didn't have empathy for me. We had a major setback for a while, until I realized something was very, very wrong. And even when I realized it, and worked hard to change how I responded to her, I still felt resentful that I had to be the one to change.

Why was that? It's because my mother's impact on my ability to be truly, truly empathetic was bigger than I ever imagined. The book realized not only did I need empathy for my daughter, but empathy for myself. I was a very sensitive child and I went into battle after battle with my mother and it left my soul in tatters.

I can't change what my mother did to me, but I can change how much longer it affects my life and my empathy and my relationship with others, including my daughters. I'm the one who decides when I want it to stop, and it is now.



The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Casey (raisingsmartgirls):

Thanks so much for posting this insightful comment. I greatly admire your efforts to be the best mother possible to your daughters. Especially the part where you deal with your own resentment at having to be the one making the changes, i.e. "I still felt resentful that I had to be the one to change. Why was that? It's because my mother's impact on my ability to be truly, truly empathetic was bigger than I ever imagined." I have seen this within myself, exactly so. I always imagined that I was very compassionate and accepting of others, just happened to hate and be overcritical of myself. This is something of an illusion. If your heart is closed against yourself, then in many ways it is closed against others. Now that I am learning more about loving *myself* unconditionally, I am seeing how much more capacity I have to love others. To truly be empathetic and open. I have a long way to go, but I finally am seeing the path.

I also could not agree more about the need to grieve what we have lost when we were children. I was long in coming to that realization, and it still makes me angry that I can't just say 'its in the past, get over it now' to myself. I do have to grieve it to 'get over it.'

Best wishes for you and your daughters. What a gift to have a mother who searches for truth.

MakeThisLookAwesome said...

Oh my mother was *VERY* intentional with her abuse, and delighted in it... wow. I can't believe the author missed that! Great review!

The Blue Morpho said...

Thanks for reading and commenting -Makethislookawesome! Glad the review was useful for you!

Popular Posts