I WAS BROUGHT UP ON A LIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother was very clear about the kind of person she wanted me to grow up to be. She wanted me to have all the ‘good’ qualities she felt she possessed. The list is long.

I was to be kind, caring, considerate and giving; compassionate, empathetic and loyal; a good listener and good friend; sensitive to the needs of others, ‘there’ for family and friends and generous with affection, praise and support of any kind. Also honest, trustworthy, down to earth and non-judgmental.

Quite a tall order. But my mother believed she had all those traits so why couldn’t I have them too? A noble goal in life. This is the description of a wonderful person, the person I have always tried to be.

My mother often told me that she would always love me, but she would only want me as a friend as well if I became “her kind of person”. That put fear in my very soul. I wanted nothing more than the love and approbation from and lifelong friendship with this amazing person.

It wasn’t until my late 40’s that I fully realized the sham I had grown up with. My mom was a narcissist, possibly with borderline personality issues. As with most narcissists, she got worse as she got older. She ended up being self-absorbed, controlling and selfish. Everything had to revolve around her but everyone had to think that she was the virtuous person I described above. Her primary goal in relationships, including with me, was self promotion.

Mom gave endless advice to friends (she was a psychologist) but never talked about her own problems because she didn’t want people to know she had any. She was judgmental about everyone and everything but herself. Her life had to be perfect. She had to be perfect. I had to be perfect since I was a reflection of her. (She used to say that I was a clone of her and I was thrilled!)

When it came down to it, she gave very little to anyone that wasn’t comfortable, convenient and self-serving. Here is a graphic example. When I was 40, I had a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old. I needed her help to leave an abusive, bi-polar husband, who was also abusive to the children. Mom had repeatedly encouraged me to leave and had said that she would do anything to help get me out of my destructive marriage. When the time came, she refused to help me. She said she couldn’t help financially because it would put a strain on her cash flow. Alternatively, she couldn’t let me and the kids live with her in her SUMMER HOUSE in CT. because it would inconvenience her cook (we would be using the kitchen) and cramp her social life (we would be using her guest rooms).

She expected me to accept these as totally valid reasons for her ‘inability’ to help me. I stayed with my ex for another eight years.

The literature on narcissism says that most children of narcissists either become narcissists or become subservient enablers to narcissists. I didn’t realize it but I was groomed to be the perfect narcissist’s side kick — in my mom’s shadow and at her service. I became a satellite. A small planet revolving around her sun. Unsurprisingly, my first husband, though bi-polar, was also a narcissist. For 25 years, my mother and husband fought with each other — constantly — over who would control me and get my ultimate loyalty and devotion. Each devoted themselves to trying to get me to push the other out of my life. I was a human wish bone.

The silver lining in all this is that I became the ‘good’ person I was brought up to believe my mother was. On the down side, I’ve had to learn to be less selfless and stand up for myself. I’ve had to develop self-esteem and self-confidence. I’m just learning how to be there for other people while staying true to myself as well.

I can be proud of who I turned out to be, so I guess that’s my happy ending. I just have to learn to forgive my Mother for not being the person she claimed to be and who I grew up admiring and emulating.

17 thoughts on “I WAS BROUGHT UP ON A LIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • My mother did a number on me. I believed everything she said about how wonderful she was – and how humble and selfless! I never challenged her until I was in my forties anad it didn’t go well. She didn’t like it when I didn’t agree with her or listen to her advice all the time. It turned out to be a very destructive relationship for me. I even had therapists trying to show me the truth but I wasn’t able to see it until late in life. I was totally blinded by the light when it came to my Mom.

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  1. Oh, I hear every word of that, Ellin. Mine was the same way, and she too was married to a bi-polar dude. Whatever broke, fell apart, or went bad was my fault, she remembered every incident, and made sure things I didnt even do were my fault too.
    It can be an amazing trip, navigating a narcissist, can’t it. I think we both did well to get this far without exploding. =)

    It does seem, however, that even though there is an element of ego in it, when you look closely you can see it as a coping mechanism for a total lack of self esttem. Their method is to put on the mask of ego, to tough it out. Someone else’s would be to cave in and become visibly needy. It cannot be pleasant, living that kind of drama your entire life.

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    • You are totally right about narcississts being needy, insecure people. Their defence mechanism is to blow themselves up to mythic proportions in their own mind and then convince everyone else how wonderful they are too. That’s why it’s so important that everyone always agree with them and think they are marvelous no matter what they do. I feel bad for the insecure child inside of my mother, which she acknowledged was there. It just made her that much more amazing that she overcame such emotional scars to become the paragon of virtue and humanity she turned into.

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      • it took me years and a great deal of emotional distance to realize that I was her whipping post–whatever went wrong, it was somehow my fault. Always. If she broke a glass in the sink, even if I was on mars at the time, it would have been my fault.

        The hardest part was, she managed to convince her friends (some of whom I grew up knowing) that I was the bitch, the ugly daughter, and never did anything to help her. sigh. Now and then one would catch on, and defect to the other side, quietly. It was quite a show.

        You’ve done well, Ellin. Never doubt that. Sometimes I think we are better off than many women who are still tightly bonded to their mothers, for good or ill. That breaking away can be very cathartic. People rightly exult in being cancer survivors, we should exult for being Mother Survivors, too. =)

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  2. I mess up so often as a mom and a human in general. Reading this makes me feel a sadness to my core. I imagine that she said that she wanted you to be all of those things because, more than anything at all, she truly wanted for herself to be all of those things and deep down recognized that she was nowhere near them. This post struck me so deeply because I fear that I do the same to my own kids – not to that level at all (I sincerely pray), but still putting my fears and inadequencies on them because often I just don’t know how to fix me. I see their goodness, and I dream and pray that they will be better than I am. I’m a good person and I love with every fiber of my being. Unfortunately I don’t always make choices that make that seem true, even to me. I feel like the Stuart Smalley character from SNL years ago (wasn’t that his name??) – “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And gosh darnit, people like me!” Just keep saying it even when you don’t feel it.

    I say all of this not as an excuse for her behavior nor as an excuse for my own. I say it because I read the things you write and I can feel your genuine kindness. In spite of all the ways she utterly failed to show these characteristics, you absolutely embody caring, consideration, empathy and loyalty. You deserved so much more, and I honor the amazing person you are and the loving qualities you display despite the absence of being raised with them. I truly mean this Ellin.

    If I ever get a summer house (and a cook), you and the cook will definitely be approved to share bunk beds. We should all be so lucky to have a beautiful soul like you sharing our space and our journey. Hugs to you dear one. 🙂 Jo

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    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my piece, MoJo. Also thank you for the wonderful things you say about me as a person. It means so much that my good qualities seem to come through the pages to you. I really did grow up wanting to be the best person I could be and give the most I could to those around me. It is so gratifying to feel I have succeeded in some way. It also feels great to be appreciated. I know my close family and friends appreciate my nurturing qualities. I’m just not a showy person like my Mom was so I don’t get a lot of feedback all the time. Thank you for making me feel special.

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      • There is a beautiful book called The Little Soul and the Sun. It’s very sweet and simple, but it’s also very powerful. I need to order that again myself. If you have the means, I would really recommend it. Maybe it will speak to you the way it spoke to me with regard to our value in those hurtful relationships. Big hugs sweet friend. You are a gem. Truly. 🙂 Joanna

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  3. This was sad to read, Ellin. But I do know the feeling well. For me, leaving home and never looking back had to happen. Of course, I am the black sheep of the family. Sorry, I needed my own life. Good for you on a happy ending.

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    • I never really left home or my Mom. She lived down the street from me most of my life. Even after I realized who she really was, I stayed in her life and took care of her the four years that she struggled with cancer. I felt I had to continue to be a devoted daughter but I never trusted her or confided in her again. I kept her at a distance but was good to her. My kids needed to see how one should care for parents as they get old and sick. When she was dying, I told her that everything was fine between us. I told her that I loved her and was grateful for all the positive things she had added to my life. I’m so glad I did that, despite how angry I was at her at the time. She wanted to be there for me and thought she was. She was just not capable of being the kind of person she brought me up to be.

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    • It can sometimes take a long time to be able to see our parents as they really are as people. It can take even longer to break away from the patterns of relating to them that we established early in life. Do some reading on narcissism and abusive personalities. It helps a lot to see that your parent is just like a lot of other sick people and that a lot of their behavior was merely symptoms of a mental disorder. It was wires crossed in their brain, not really anger at you. I was amazed to read about other people acting exactly like my Mom. Even using the same words she did in certain situations. When I realized that her behavior was part of a recognizable, diagnosable syndrome, I began to be able to see her and us differently.

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  4. It sounds like the perfect set up for you to become someone’s door mat, Ellin. I’m glad you finally got out of those destructive relationships.
    Leslie

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    • Thank you, Leslie! I was the perfect doormat for a good part of my life. It wasn’t until my Mom died and I married Tom, both in 2002, that I really came into my own. The hardest part for me was learning to advocate for myself and not always be subservient to other people’s needs. I have been in and out of therapy a good part of my life but it took my mother’s death to free me completely to be my own person. Sad, but true. I once had a therapist who told me, in my thirties, that I could never be my own person until both my first husband and my mother were out of my life! He turned out to be right. I’m still a work in progress but I feel I’ve come a long way in the past 15 years.

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  5. I know you probably FELT like a doormat and I know the feeling very well. When you have a parent like that, the lack of self-esteem and sense of uselessness doesn’t easily go away. But you never seemed like that to us. You always seemed pretty strong and decisive. Which both of us thought was GREAT. So, just so you know, what you feel is what you feel, but sometimes what others see is surprisingly different.

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  6. This is exactly the same universe that I grew up in and my ephiphany didn’t happen until three years ago. She blew up over absolutely nothing and said she wished that I never had been born, she wished she had never had me, her only child. She tried to chase me down outside for an hour while I tried to call my husband, and she normally can’t even walk a straight line without falling. Two hours later she called me a liar and that I was crazy and she shared her opinion with MY universe, which even my son and husband believed. She’s smart like a fox and only throws her nasty fits when we are alone. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only crazy “bad” daughter in the universe.

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