From a very early age, my mother would go on and on about how clever and gifted I was. How lucky you are, she’d tell me, to be so clever and able to achieve so much!
This was often followed with yet another guilt-inducing sob story about how she had to leave school aged 14 and get a job as a typist.
The notion that I was not only clever but very talented was impressed upon me from such an early age. It never occurred to me to question what I was told because Mummy was always right, and yes, I did tend to do very well at school.
In my first few years at Primary school, all seemed to go well. My mother had already taught me to read, and do simple arithmetic before I started in reception class, so her assertion that I was far ahead of the other children was, in fact true.
But how far ahead was I really?
I skipped a year in Primary school jumping from year 1 to year 3 with a couple of other bright kids, and we were thrust into a class with children far older and more mature than we were.
I have to admit it was unnerving and I never felt completely at ease being surrounded by older, bigger, and often meaner kids, some of whom clearly weren’t very happy at being outclassed and made to look dim by younger children.
The teachers also didn’t seem very pleased that we were there because it meant extra work for them helping us to catch up with lessons the other kids had already completed like learning joined up handwriting.
By the time I was 9, I was no longer coping being with the older kids and the other 3 bright kids who had skipped a year along with me were stagnating too. The decision was made for us to stay down a year and rejoin the children our own age.
I have to admit it was a huge relief for me, but Mummy was less than impressed.
She was furious.
I had failed her – and it wasn’t the first time!
See here – I’m a terrible failure! Spoiler alert – I’m not really 😉
Now, something to understand about my mother is that she didn’t just set a high standard for me, or hope I would do my best. Oh no, that would be far too reasonable.
For some reason she had projected her own narcissistic infallibility onto me and decided that I was some sort of genius prodigy. And I can tell you; I’m really not!
OK, yes so I do have above average intelligence, and yes I do have some raw talent for all things artistic and musical, but Mozart I ain’t!
Despite this, Mummy insisted on punishing me anytime my results weren’t exceptional. Yes that’s right. Very good wasn’t good enough, they had to be exceptional.
Why? Because I was “so clever and gifted.”
She even persisted with her fantasy by making me take the entrance examination for the local private girls school a year early. And not just the regular entrance exam, oh no, I had to get a scholarship because she wasn’t going to pay for it!
Being a good student and a hard worker, I did my best, I really did. I studied extra maths to bring my knowledge up to the required level and sat inside doing mock exam papers for hours on end when I should have been outside playing with the other kids my age.
I remember sitting at the big wooden desk on the day of the entrance examination, on the verge of tears, feeling stressed and terrified that I wouldn’t make the grade.
I desperately searched my mind for some words of encouragement my parents might have given me if they’d been there – but I couldn’t find any. I couldn’t imagine anything positive they’d say, other than telling me not to be so silly, and that really didn’t help.
I don’t remember much else about that day but I do remember being called back for an interview with the headmistress as the final part of the scholarship assessment.
I waited anxiously for the letter to arrive with my results, and finally the day came.
I saw the letter waiting for me on the dining room table, and recognising the school’s insignia I stepped forward eagerly. My mother didn’t bother to come out of the kitchen to greet me, she just barked “you won’t like it!” in an angry voice.
Panicked, I grabbed the letter and read to my horror that I would not be admitted, but that I was welcome to apply again the following year.
I looked to my mother for some reassurance or sympathy but there was none. She was angry, cold and sent me crying to my room.
I’d failed her. AGAIN.
For years I carried the terrible burden that I’d somehow managed to FAIL an exam.
I was in shock – I always worked so hard and did my best, and although I didn’t always come top in everything, I’d certainly never failed anything before. My mother used to gloatingly bring it up any time I was happy with an achievement and use it to knock me back down to the gutter with feelings of shame and self-hatred, where she clearly felt I belonged.
Many years later, when boasting to some friends of hers, she let the truth slip out.
I was feeling ashamed about the subject of my failure being raised yet again in front of guests (a huge source of amusement to her) and I must have finished the sentence for her saying that I’d done really badly and hadn’t got in.
Never one to be outdone, she ripped the rug out from under my feet, and spinning round to me she said:
“Ah yes, but you don’t realise how close you came to getting that scholarship, do you?!”
She looked highly amused, like there was some huge joke I wasn’t party to. I remember feeling confused and shocked, especially after all the sh*t I’d taken from her over the years about it.
As it turned out, I had aced the exams and I was shortlisted for the scholarship with one other girl.
But, after interviewing me, the Headmistress had wisely decided not to award it to me, because I was a sensitive and shy child, and she (correctly) felt I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to deal with secondary school yet.
I nearly fell over from shock. I felt dizzy and betrayed. I’d endured years of humiliation, cruelty and punishment for my so-called failure which, as it turned out, was no failure at all. It was actually yet another achievement that any other normal parent, or human being would have treated as such.
Clearly though, in her eyes it had been a terrible failure because it wasn’t exceptional enough for her twisted, narcissistic mind. I’m sure she felt she had lost face after boasting about it to all the other parents in our road. And how DARE I humiliate her like that?!
The greatest irony about the story is actually that the reason I was so emotionally immature and sensitive was actually her fault.
My research into abusive narcissistic mothers and the damage they do has lead me to understand that one of the most common problems is that the daughter is left emotionally unfinished. The narcissistic mother does not allow her daughter to separate from her mother and individuate, develop her own persona and grow up.
Of course, there would really be no point ever telling her this, because she would dismiss it as nonsense, or make out I was being “vindictive” and “making things up.” As usual. Mummy can do no wrong, after all.
She would also vehemently deny any wrongdoing on her part, and make up a story in her mind about what a wonderful mother she was and how she is sure she must have comforted me about it at the time.
That woman has one heck of an imagination.
But the point here is that the narcissistic mother will often label one of her children as gifted or clever, and take any sort of raw talent as proof that they are as exceptional and amazing as her narcissistic mind believes that she is.
Despite the promising-sounding label, I was actually the scapegoat child and the “gifted” label was used over and over as a rod to beat me with.
It was a convenient excuse for her to withhold praise, affection or love because my achievements could be easily dismissed with brush offs like
“well we expected you to do well”
or the one I hated the most:
“it was easy for you.”
It wasn’t easy for me! I worked very hard, and subsequently grew up with a real workaholism problem which has been picked up by every manager I’ve ever encountered in the work place.
They couldn’t understand why I would work myself into exhaustion, or why I would be dissatisfied with file audits where I scored anything less than 100% accuracy.
I’ll admit, it has been a very difficult habit for me to overcome.
I still feel myself slipping back into the old emotional habit, judging myself harshly if I don’t get things right first time or don’t quite achieve an exceptional result.
I’m getting there, and learning to celebrate and reward myself for smaller achievements has been a tough journey, but it’s not impossible.
I’ve learned (very slowly) that you don’t have to be the best at everything, and you don’t even have to do well.
The most important thing is the one thing Mummy never told me, not once, so I’m going to tell it to you right now.
The most important thing is to be HAPPY.
Being a kind, contented and happy person is the real achievement in this lifetime, not being some genius prodigy with millions of pounds and a stack of doctorates.
There aren’t enough cabinets of trophies in the world that will make you feel you’ve achieved enough, so if like me you’re forever pushing, maybe it’s time to stop. Take a break and just focus on you.
You are a human being, not a human doing.
And sometimes, just being is enough.