Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism


Worth reading 😎

If your mother criticizes the very way you breathe, but treats you like you're being too sensitive, you may have a Lemon Mom.


If you had a loving, kind, affectionate mother, that’s wonderful! I’m truly happy for you. Many of us didn’t, and for those with me in that group, I wrote this book.

"Lemon Moms, A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism," walks you through the chaos and confusion of maternal narcissism: what it is, what it does, and how to recover from its devastating effects. With laid back narrative, personal examples, and action-oriented steps, you'll learn how to decode the crazy-making behavior, heal the damage, and move forward.

This is the book you need if your mom could be on the narcissism spectrum. Whether she is or isn't, you don't need a diagnosis to determine that your relationship is unhealthy.
The book teaches how to:
• remove the drama from interactions
• set boundaries
• shut down manipulative attempts
• identify gaslighting
• identify Narcissism Awareness Grief
• learn about the narcissist cycle-of-abuse
• use the chapter action-steps to gain insight and begin recovering
• move forward in life!

In dysfunctional families, there's an unspoken rule: don't talk, don't trust, don't feel. If you're done living by those rules and want healing and peace, this book is for you.

There are many kinds of moms in this world. There are moms that make you toast cut in three pieces when you're sick. There are moms who make sure that you knew you were loved and cared for. Then, there are the moms who treated their children like if they breathed the wrong way they were responsive for heinous war crimes. While no mother is perfect, maternal narcissism is very real thing that can do lasting damage well into adulthood. Lemon Moms is for the percentage of the population struggling to break free from gaslighting mothers and emotional abuse.

Author Diane Metcalf grew up with a dangerous mother. While the title of this book playfully refers to those surviving maternal narcissism as having "lemon moms," a play off lemon or defective vehicles, this is some serious information. Metcalf treats the reader as an intelligent friend, guiding them through experiences that as a child the reader may have been taught to believe were normal. She's careful to explain what maternal narcissism is, why its dangerous, and how adult behaviors may mirror childhood experiences from said danger. Narcissism is so dangerous because gaslighting techniques make the child suffering from their parent's behavior believe that they in fact deserving of the treatment or are imagining something that isn't there. It's not uncommon for one of these "lemon" moms to tell a child they are "over-reacting" or being "too sensitive" after a brutal verbal attack on everything the child has done from simple being born to breathing.

Metcalf focuses on moms not from some inbound misogyny, but rather because she is familiar mostly with her own experienced with her own mom. I would have loved to have heard more about male figures doing the same thing, as some who are close to me have experienced the same behaviors from their fathers. Still, there is a great deal of support that can be taken from this book and shared with other who may not have had a toxic mother, but are trying to get out from under manipulative attempts.

Lemon Moms is a great starting place to teach the reader how to identify the behaviors, shut down manipulations and remove the drama from their day-to-day interactions with their narcissist if they are unable to avoid them entirely. Metcalf does an incredible job of setting out a path for those wanting to break out, while still encouraging the reader to seek professional help and support so as not to suffer alone.

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Currently, I am the Editor in Chief of We are a blog publication that focuses on the female and non-binary perspectives of the fandom world. We focus on graphic novels, literature, television, film, and whatever strikes our fancy. I am also a contract reviewer with


If you had a loving, kind, affectionate mother, that’s wonderful! I’m truly happy for you. Many of us didn’t, and for those with me in that group, I wrote this book.

"Lemon Moms, A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism," walks you through the chaos and confusion of maternal narcissism: what it is, what it does, and how to recover from its devastating effects. With laid back narrative, personal examples, and action-oriented steps, you'll learn how to decode the crazy-making behavior, heal the damage, and move forward.

This is the book you need if your mom could be on the narcissism spectrum. Whether she is or isn't, you don't need a diagnosis to determine that your relationship is unhealthy.
The book teaches how to:
• remove the drama from interactions
• set boundaries
• shut down manipulative attempts
• identify gaslighting
• identify Narcissism Awareness Grief
• learn about the narcissist cycle-of-abuse
• use the chapter action-steps to gain insight and begin recovering
• move forward in life!

In dysfunctional families, there's an unspoken rule: don't talk, don't trust, don't feel. If you're done living by those rules and want healing and peace, this book is for you.


For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers I knew.

By the time I was middle school-aged, I’d met a lot of moms, and I’d witnessed their interactions with their kids – at parks, the public pool, in stores, at the playground, fast food places, school events, and in their homes. My mom didn’t act like them; she didn’t relate to me the way they did with their kids. She didn’t hug or kiss me. She didn’t smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She didn’t seem happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day, and she wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She didn’t go to parent-teacher conferences unless I begged. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did.

There were no boundaries in our home. I stayed up as late as I wanted. I wasn’t required to do chores, though I was shamed for not doing them. I was expected to care for my younger siblings, and I was blamed and sometimes punished for their misbehavior.

My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities. She struck my face and body with her hands and other objects, and at times she completely ignored me for days, weeks, and even months at a time.

In dysfunctional families, there’s an unspoken rule don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel. At some point, as an adult, I decided I was done living by those rules, and eventually, I found a path to recovery. I embarked on an ongoing journey of discovery to find healing and peace.

Today my mother is 83 and lives in a memory care facility. She’s not the same person I’ve described in these pages. She’s dependent, frail and childlike. She requires a level of care comparable to that of a toddler. Her short-term memory lasts only a matter of seconds. She hallucinates frequently and spends many of her waking hours reliving years gone by.

It’s difficult to watch her navigate her world, where she simultaneously lives in the past and present. She has no grasp of time or place. She’s no longer the mother I knew. I’ve discovered a new sense of compassion for her. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this woman, once a force to be reckoned with, can get lost inside of her mind the way that she does. It’s a terrible thing to observe.

I know that given her lack of education, unstable support system, abusive upbringing, and limited resources, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for her to learn or grow beyond her childhood experiences. I think that she did the best she could with what she had. I think that’s all any of us can do.

I hold no ill will, and I wish her the best that life has to offer. I forgave her long ago.

If any part of this sounds like your mother or your relationship with her, you’re not alone. If there’s a pattern of manipulation, ongoing power struggles, gaslighting, or cruelty in your relationship, this book can help. If you find yourself second-guessing your memory, doubting your judgment, or sanity, or you’re continually seeking your mother’s withheld affection, attention, or approval, this book can explain why.

Your mother doesn’t need a formal “diagnosis” in order for you to determine that your relationship with her is unhealthy. If it is, you can do something about it.

Your mom may not be the mother you want, but she is the mother you have. Until now, you had two choices: live on her terms (focusing on her and chasing after her love and support) or go “no contact.” I suggest that you have a third option: allow me to walk with you through the chaos and confusion that is maternal narcissism. I’ll show you how to decode the crazy-making behavior, heal the damage, take back your personal power, and move forward to live your best life.

This book has the potential to be emotionally triggering. If you find that any of the descriptions, memories, thoughts, and experiences shared here cause you to feel anger, sadness, or to recall painful childhood memories, it’s a pretty good indication that you’ve found a resource that can help you.

I hope that you’ll begin learning about, understanding, processing, and healing the trauma that you experienced growing up with a toxic parent.

Hang in there.



“Long-term narcissistic abuse shrinks the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning. The amygdalae, areas of the brain responsible for “primitive” emotions like fear, grief, guilt, envy, and shame, become overactive and enlarged from the abuse.”—Katja Wingenfeld and Oliver T. Wolf, Stress, Memory, and the Hippocampus

It was all about my mother. It was all about how I reflected on her and how I made her look in front of her audience. It was about how she appeared in her role as a mother, and she wanted to be seen as Mother of the Year.


As a child, if we were visiting friends or family and they put out snacks or treats, I knew I was not allowed to help myself or politely ask for any, and I was expected to refuse it if offered. I was not allowed to ask questions, show initiative, or curiosity. Asking questions or taking action meant that I was challenging her or distrusting her. So instead, I was expected to listen, obey, stay quiet, and be the epitome of social decorum, etiquette, and politeness.

These rules were laid down early and enforced aggressively. I was supposed to be the perfect and well-behaved child that would cause other mothers to feel jealous. Mother wanted to be envied.

I was not even in kindergarten yet, and I was terrified of her.

If we went anywhere, she dressed me formally and beautifully—a clean dress, hair combs and barrettes or braids and ponytails; lace anklets and shiny patent leather shoes; and sometimes short, white gloves. I was expected to smile, be soft-spoken, use manners, answer questions but never ask them, and always, ALWAYS make her look good. I felt like a toy doll or a puppet rather than a person.

She often stated that children should be seen and not heard.

If I embarrassed her in any way, I knew there would be undesirable consequences. She consistently used threats of physical violence and punishment, such as beating me with “the belt,” or breaking my fingers, or killing me. I believed she would do these things, and I lived in fear of doing the “right thing,” whatever the right thing was at that particular time. Because “the right thing” could and would change haphazardly, depending, it seemed, on a whim, or perhaps nothing at all. All I knew was that I needed to be alert. Vigilant. All the time.

When she was cross with anyone, she angrily took it out on me and called me names that belittled and humiliated. The name-calling hurt me intensely and made me feel like there was something fundamentally unacceptable about me. I felt like I was less of a person. She attacked me with words such as lazy, selfish, pig, liar, glutton, and the biggest insult of all, in her opinion: “You’re just like your father.” Later, when I was a young teen, she would add “whore” (even though I was a virgin) to her repertoire.

Her manipulation and iron-fisted control started early in my life, but the verbal and physical mistreatment didn’t begin until I was eight years old.

My father left when I was eight, and it began shortly after that.

After he left, my mother used my fear of abandonment to manipulate me. She threatened to give my siblings and me away, put us in an orphanage, or send us to live with our father, whom she repeatedly told us had left us for another woman, and who “didn’t love us or want anything to do with us.”

Angry, red-faced, eyes bulging, and teeth bared, she shouted, “Why did I have you? I can’t wait ‘til you grow up and get the hell out!”

Without my father’s presence, I felt lost and alone. Nobody was there to look out for me. I needed this strange new way of existing without him to make sense. I determined that my mother’s new nastiness was the result of her anger toward my dad, or because he was in love with another woman; or because my mother was afraid, alone, lonely, feeling unloved, unwanted, abandoned, angry, rejected, and most of all because she wanted him back. I made countless explanations and excuses for her behavior, all along, hoping he would come back.

But he didn’t.

With him gone, it was like she had been given a free pass to express herself in any hurtful way she wanted.

Throughout my childhood, I never heard anything resembling, “I see you.” “I hear you.” “How are you?” “How was your day?” “What did you learn in school today?” “What’s new?” “Have fun!” She wasn’t emotionally present in my life. It felt like she didn’t care, and I felt alone in the world.

I was empathetic and understood that she was hurting. I somehow believed I was emotionally stronger than she was, even at this very young age. I was convinced I could take whatever brutality she dispensed. I thought it was temporary. Besides, what choice did I have? And so, the trauma bonding and codependency began.

Trauma bonds are powerful emotional bonds between two individuals who undergo cycles of abuse together. Over time, trauma bonds become very resistant to change, and a codependent relationship forms.

Codependency develops when someone takes responsibility, blame, or makes excuses for another person’s harmful or hurtful behavior.

Throughout my childhood and young adult life at home, I witnessed ongoing narcissistic rages and rantings. (Narcissistic rage is defined as intense anger, aggression, or even passive aggression that narcissists exhibit when they experience anything that triggers feelings of incompetence, vulnerability, or shame. When their fantasies of superiority are challenged, rage results. I’ll talk about rages in depth later on.)

Over the ensuing years after my dad’s departure, I got to hear the latest and greatest versions of her story, entitled “Poor Me.” The story was always about her victimhood, her innocence, and her betrayal by my father. I heard various descriptions of what an awful man my father was, about his inability to love anyone but himself, and about his selfishness, lies, deceit, and adultery and how he never wanted us. But the father I knew was loving, kind, and caring and obviously loved me very much. All that while, I created stories for myself, so that the discrepancies made sense. I wanted to believe we were just like any other family.

During these elementary school years, my mom parented by blaming, shaming, intimidating, threatening, and physically punishing. There were frequent struggles for control over what I ate. I had a glass of milk dumped over my head because I said I didn’t want it after it had been poured. Another time, I was forced to take my dinner into the cold, dark attic when I was no longer hungry and couldn’t finish. I was terrified of the attic, and she knew it. She knew of my intense dislike for beets and yet forced me to eat them under threat of violence, such that I vomited them immediately onto my dinner plate. Then I was punished for that by being sent to my room. I was reminded daily that children were starving in other parts of the world and that I should eat “what was in front of me” whether I liked it or not. I failed to see the relationship between these statements. She seemed to be saying that by eating, I could somehow alleviate the suffering of starving children. This didn’t make sense to me. Maybe she should just send them my food? I didn’t understand until I was much older that she wanted and expected me to express gratitude for the food she provided, and that she was insulted when I wasn’t hungry, didn’t like the food, or the way it was prepared.

As her angry outbursts and bizarre punishments continued, I learned throughout these early years that I was always somehow to blame. I was challenging her rules, not meeting her uncommunicated expectations, or blatantly ungrateful. So you see, I was directly responsible for her anger and deserved the punishment! At the same time, there seemed to be no sense or logic to what might set her off. It was like living with an unpredictable animal that could hurt me any time it chose, for any reason or no reason. I could never predict the amount of rage she’d release on me or the degree of punishment. It felt like no matter what I did, it was always the wrong choice. I was left feeling unsafe, distrustful, and wary. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, and second-guessing and doubting myself became the norm. If I cried because of the overwhelming confusion or sense of defeat, she’d mock me or tell me that I had no reason to feel or act that way.

Feeling guilty for doing anything that could upset my mother or cause her to focus on me, I continually made myself unnoticeable by staying out of her way as much as possible. I felt like a burden, making her life harder simply because I existed. The seeds of unworthiness had been sown.

I started feeling liable for her emotional and sometimes physical well-being, and I took responsibility for them. Over time, she came to expect it. She shared her thoughts and feelings with me in frightening, highly emotionally charged, biased, and inappropriate ways. So, at the age of twelve, gaslighting, and cognitive dissonance had already become a way of life. My training for becoming an “Enabler-Extraordinaire” had begun.

“Gaslighting” is a term from the 1938 stage play Gaslight. In the story, a husband attempts to drive his wife insane by dimming their home’s gas-powered lights and denying it when his wife notices. This causes her to doubt her perception, judgment, memory, and reality. She begins to believe she’s losing her mind.

When you’re gaslighted, especially if you’re a child, you don’t know what’s happening. You’re primarily confused, stressed, and frustrated, and you can’t figure out the reason. Gaslighting gives a narcissist mother a tremendous amount of power and control over her child.

Cognitive dissonance is the confusion and mental discomfort you experience when living with contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.

Throughout this book, I talk about very personal, highly emotionally charged topics, some of which may cause you to feel uncomfortable. You might also begin to remember events you assumed you’d forgotten.

This book prepares you for healing. You see, to heal entirely and for good, you have to remember and, to some degree, re-experience the childhood trauma, but as an adult this time so you understand it on an adult level. To heal, you must take this understanding, validate how someone else’s narcissism affected you, reframe those experiences now as an adult, and move forward.

I recommend getting yourself a journal or notebook. Be selective about it. Invest in it. Your journal should be something that calls to you and speaks to your heart. Personalize it and make it a beautiful place to write your thoughts and feelings as you work through this book.

The journal is a private and personal space only for you; it’s for your eyes only. It’s your safe place to reflect upon your reading, learning, thinking, and feeling. No one is going to read, judge, or grade your journal. Use it to write what’s in your heart. Its purpose is to help you work through the more challenging aspects of creating awareness, in a safe emotional space, where healing can truly begin. You could use the Lemon Moms: Companion Workbook in place of a journal. The workbook has “Takeaway’s,” additional “Action for Healing” questions, and spaces for you to write and reflect. It’s available for purchase on


“Narcissism falls along the axis of what psychologists called personality disorders, one of a group that includes antisocial, dependent, histrionic, avoidant, and borderline personalities. But by most measures, narcissism is one of the worst, if only because the narcissist themselves are so clueless.”—Jeffrey Kluger

If you’re “Googling,” reading, and researching, trying to find information or reasons for your mother’s hurtful behavior and what to do about it, it could be that she’s on the narcissism spectrum. But what exactly is narcissism?

At an American Psychoanalytic Association meeting held in February 2018, the topic of narcissism generated presentations, a large number of papers, and much discussion. Zlatan Krizan and Anne Herlache of Iowa State University pointed out that researchers commonly disagree about narcissism’s key features and how they’re structured. They observed that the definition of narcissism focuses on qualities like grandiosity and self-glorification, but that it also includes a level of vulnerability and insecurity. These contradictory features “have awkwardly co-existed throughout the history of the construct.” As a result, Krizan and Herlache define narcissism basically as “entitled self-importance” (2018).

In this chapter, we’ll learn about some specific personality traits and the associated behaviors that define narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

The characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder were first described in 1925 by an Austrian psychoanalyst named Robert Waelder. But the clinical term “narcissistic personality disorder” was actually coined more recently in the 1970s by an Austrian-American psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut. Kohut is known for his theories on developing a healthy sense of self (O’Donohue and William 2007; Kohut and Heinz 1968).

NPD is recognized by a publication of the American Psychiatric Association known as the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM). The DSM is the authority and official source for the definitions of mental illnesses and their diagnoses as well as possible treatments. It is used by clinicians to diagnose mental disorders in children and adults.

“NPD is one of the least studied personality disorders. It appears to be prevalent, highly comorbid with other psychiatric disorders and associated with significant psychosocial disability. NPD is challenging to treat and can complicate the treatment of co-occurring disorders.” —Caligor and Petrini 2018

NPD often exists with other mental disorders (Paris 2014). It’s also associated with comorbidly (simultaneously) occurring with bipolar, anorexia, and substance use disorders. In the United States, about 0.5 percent (or 1 in 200 people) have this disorder. There is a difference according to gender: about 75 percent of those with NPD are men (Weinheimer, J., Russo, J., Giblock, D., & Kuber, J. 2020).

NPD is considered one of the four cluster B personality disorders, according to the DSM-5. In addition to NPD, cluster B includes antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and histrionic personality disorder (HPD). NPD has similarities with the other cluster B disorders, which are characterized by drama and/or unreliable, very emotional behavior, impulse control, and lack of emotional regulation (Hoermann, Zupanick, and Dombeck 2019).

People with NPD can:

• become impatient and angry when they don’t receive the treatment they expect;

• have difficulty relating to others;

• feel slighted or insulted very easily;

• react with anger, contempt, and belittling to make themselves look superior;

• have trouble controlling their emotions and behavior;

• find it challenging to deal with stress or adapt to changes;

• feel secretly depressed because they’re not perfect; and

• feel insecure, ashamed, and vulnerable.

People who have narcissistic personality disorder (narcissists) have a distorted self-image.

Narcissists are often described as “challenging” to interact with. They can be defensive and condescending and believe they “know everything.” The appearance of having prestige, power, and superiority is vital to them, and they’re susceptible to criticism and feelings of shame. As a result, they’ll protect their sense of self at any cost, and that can include being aggressive and physically abusive. Narcissists’ emotions are often unstable and intense and out of proportion to the situation at hand. Additionally, narcissists can be envious and manipulative and exhibit a noticeable lack of empathy or caring about the well-being of others.

Narcissism has no known cure, but narcissists don’t usually seek any help or therapy anyway because they don’t think they need it. If they seek treatment, it’s generally because it’s been requested (or mandated) by a third party or is personally sought because of interpersonal or professional difficulty or conflict.


• Concerned with image and status

• Don’t like accountability or taking responsibility

• Prone to rages when they feel threatened

• Comfortable using violence to achieve goals

• Manipulative

• Test boundaries to see how far they can go

• Impatient

• Easily frustrated

• Irritable

• Can’t communicate honestly because “winning” is the goal

• Invalidate others’ feelings

• Indifferent

• Unapologetic

• Place blame on others

• Shirk personal responsibility

• Use name-calling and public humiliation to control others

• Hostile

• Aggressive

• Selfish, self-centered

• Unable to identify with other people’s feelings

• Lack of compassion and remorse

• Words don’t match their actions. In my experience: her words didn’t match her intonation or facial expressions. Example: she gives a compliment in a sarcastic tone or while eye-rolling. This is called a “mixed message” (Stines 2019)

• Use cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy


• “Rewrite history” to protect their image. This is also an aspect of “gaslighting.” In their version of the story, they’re either the hero or the victim.

• Staring at you, to make you uncomfortable

• Baiting you/picking fights

• Emotional dumping (expecting you to listen to their problems, criticisms of you, how you disappoint them, and what or how you should change to please them.) Dumping is done without empathy. They have no regard for how this will affect you, and they won’t allow you to share your feelings; it is a single-sided interaction. They’re not interested in how you feel.

• Intentionally misunderstanding, or “twisting” words to give them a different meaning

• Projecting thoughts or feelings onto you and saying it’s how you think or feel

• Threatening to publicly shame or “ruin” you by publishing something embarrassing such as a picture or letter

• Expecting behavior or a level of understanding from children that isn’t age-appropriate

• Expecting emotional caretaking

• View life as a game of power and control; they play to win at any cost

• Use other people’s empathy and vulnerability against them

• Experience narcissistic rages: showing intense anger, aggression, or passive aggression when experiencing anything that shatters their illusion of grandiosity, entitlement, or superiority, or triggers feelings of inadequacy, shame, or vulnerability

• Coercion: Getting you to give up something you want, or to do something you don’t want to do

Narcissists are a type of “high-conflict personality.” They exhibit behaviors that most of us would never do, such as thoughtlessly spending other people’s money, humiliating a child in public, sabotaging a coworker, or verbally attacking a waitress (Eddy 2018).

They consider themselves superior and are comfortable with “putting down,” insulting, and demeaning others in order to feel powerful or boost their self-image. They tend to be selfish and do not reciprocate kind gestures or invitations. They’re demanding, needing almost constant admiration and attention from anyone in their vicinity.

Additionally, they waste time trying to impress anyone who will listen to them; they break promises, make excuses, take credit for others’ ideas or work. They enjoy bullying and are willing to speak disapprovingly of someone behind their back but have only positive things to say in their presence. All of these traits can make narcissists exhausting for those of us who live and work with them.


Empathy, or specifically, the lack thereof, is a narcissism trait. When talking about narcissism, it’s crucial to understand what is meant by the term “empathy” and the role it plays in the relationship dynamics of a narcissist. A person’s lack of empathy is a big red flag.

The “empathy gene” was first referenced in research published in the journal Translational Psychiatry on March 12, 2018. To date, this was the most extensive genetic study done on empathy. It found that the degree of empathy any of us have is at least partly due to genetics.

There’s still a lot of discussion and debate regarding whether narcissists have any empathy and whether they can feel emotions like guilt or remorse.

It’s commonly understood in the field of social psychology that there are two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. When we feel an emotion that someone else is feeling, it’s known as emotional empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place and feel what they’re feeling. If you see someone crying, and it makes you feel sad, you’re experiencing emotional empathy.

Emotional empathy requires:

• Feeling the same emotion as another person (For example, seeing someone embarrass themselves and then feeling embarrassed for them.)

• Feeling distressed in response to another person’s feelings

• Feeling compassion for another person

Having emotional empathy can be extremely distressing for us. When we feel pain resulting from somebody else’s emotions, that experience can immobilize us. There’s a balance to be sought and maintained when it comes to feeling for others and not letting our empathy negatively affect our own lives.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to have an intellectual understanding that someone may be feeling a particular emotion and not feeling anything in response to this knowledge. Narcissists can see another’s perspective and then respond in the manner that best benefits them. Doing this requires a rudimentary understanding and some basic knowledge about emotions (Hodges and Myers, 2007).

Narcissists are more likely to use cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy, and it’s essential to understand this dynamic (Baskin-Sommers, Krusemark, and Ronningstam 2014).

When a narcissist uses a simple visual perspective to guess what someone’s feeling, they’re using cognitive empathy. In other words, if they can look at a person and notice that their eyes are swollen and red, possibly from crying, they may correctly guess that the person is feeling sad. This type of empathy has nothing to do with actually feeling anything themselves. So, if a narcissist knows someone well enough, they can guess how that person feels, and they’ll also have a pretty good idea of how to use that information to hurt that individual too.

Daniel Goleman (author of the book “Emotional Intelligence”), writes in his blog that torturers need to have a good sense of “cognitive empathy” to figure out how to hurt a person best.

Similarly, if a narcissist acts kindly, what they may actually be doing is feeling around for hopes, wishes, and dreams to use later to inflict pain intentionally.


The word “ego” is Latin, meaning “I.” It is the conscious part of us that makes decisions. It mediates between our own desires and those of society, hopefully keeping them in a healthy balance (Leary 2019). “Ego” became a household word after 1894 with the popularity of the Austrian neurologist and psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Freud is considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century and is recognized as the father of modern psychoanalysis

The “ego” is the part of the mind that organizes our thoughts so we can understand and remember them, and it makes sense of our environment, expressing our mental capacity, memory, understanding of reality, and other mental functions. The ego decides what’s real and what isn’t; it’s the referee between the conscious and the unconscious minds. Our ego is responsible for our sense of self, our personal identity, and is also the filter through which we see ourselves. We tell our egos “stories” that help justify our thoughts and beliefs about who we are (Snowden and Ruth 2006). The ego is frequently thought of as the “self.”

Carl Jung (1875–1961), the Swiss psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of analytical psychology, says that the ego is not the self. Instead, the self includes the ego, as well as the conscious and unconscious minds. To him, the self is the total personality, and the ego is only a small part of the self.

Using a “circle within a circle” to represent this idea, the self is the bigger circle, and the ego is a smaller circle in the center. (Lawson 2008; Zweig 1991).

Using Jung’s premise, the (true) self is the part of us that recognizes and experiences our feelings and desires. In this book, the terms “ego” and “self” are distinct, well-defined, and not intended to be used interchangeably. This book is written from Jung’s perspective that the self is not the ego, but that it includes the ego, as shown in the diagram above.

The idea that narcissists have true and false selves was first proposed by the American physician and psychotherapist Alexander Lowen (1910–2008).

The “false self” (also known as “false face”) is an image that narcissists develop during early life. It changes and adapts over time, acting as a shield against pain and narcissistic injury, which is anything the narcissist perceives as a threat to their false self, or to their sense of importance and dominance. Narcissists repeatedly revise their false face in terms of their basic needs, relationships, and conduct to continue protecting and hiding the true self. In doing this, the false self becomes the familiar and public face that others believe to be the narcissists’ true self.

When a person functions from within their false self, they experience a feeling of disconnectedness from their genuine emotions and how they would typically relate to others. When using this false face, narcissists respond the way they think they should feel or are supposed to feel or want to feel, instead of how they actually do. Subsequently, only those closest to the narcissist are aware of this discrepancy. All others are only allowed to see the public image or false face. Still, those closest to the narcissist witness and experience the narcissist’s true self, and they regularly observe and interact with both faces firsthand. This is what makes talking about the narcissist with others who only know the false face so frustrating.

The false face can imitate emotions and empathy, and this is great for the narcissist because it allows them to appear as kind, caring, and compassionate individuals. Secretly, the false face is threatened by anything perceived as criticism, and narcissists are terribly concerned with how other people think about and understand them. This false self is typically anxious, judgmental, and insecure overall. At the same time, it believes it’s more acceptable and lovable than the real self could ever be. Narcissists don’t like themselves and can’t accept their true selves. That’s why their false face must be kept intact, and the way they do this is called “obtaining narcissistic supply.” We’ll get into that topic later on.

“Narcissists lack the ability to emotionally tune in to other people. They cannot feel and show empathy or unconditional love. They are typically critical and judgmental.” ―Karyl McBride

Most narcissists will never know whether they’re on the NPD spectrum or have full-blown NPD. Most don’t seek treatment and will never have the benefit of a professional diagnosis because they don’t think they have a problem. They believe their problems are all caused by others, and they don’t accept personal responsibility. They are blamers. So, most narcissists will never see their own role in any of their interpersonal problems.


• A “false face” is a coping mechanism formed during childhood. It changes and adapts over time, acting as a shield against pain and narcissistic injury.

• Narcissists display personality traits, such as selfishness, vanity, manipulation, and self-importance. They’re often defensive, condescending, and “know everything.” They can be aggressive and even physically abusive and are challenging when interacting with them.

• Most narcissists will never know whether they’re on the NPD spectrum or have full-blown NPD because they don’t seek treatment.


The first step in healing is acknowledging that you grew up in a dysfunctional family. You may be reluctant to do this because it’s painful, and it stirs up memories that you’d rather keep buried. If these statements are true for you, I encourage you to go at your own pace, making notes in your journal and giving yourself time and space for self-reflection and beginning the healing process.

1. Do any of the NPD behaviors and personality traits feel familiar to you? Write about this in your journal: How are they familiar? As you write, stay aware of your emotions and how you’re feeling. Make a note of your feelings as they come: Are you feeling surprised? Shocked? Unsure? Defensive? Sad? Angry? In denial? Write about each emotion you feel. Write about your memories as you remember them—not as you may have been told that they happened.

2. Using what you just wrote, focus less on what your mother said or did, and more on how you felt. If you can remember them, make a list of the feelings you were experiencing at the time when this or that thing happened. For example, I wrote, “I felt scared out of my mind when you screamed and yelled at me because your face turned purple, and your eyes bulged out, making you look insane. Your voice was so loud it hurt my ears and vibrated in my chest. You looked and sounded like a monster to me, and I thought you might physically hurt or kill me.”

3. Look over everything you just wrote. Acknowledge that you felt those emotions and that you had the right to feel them. Say it aloud: “I felt ___ and ___, and ___ and I had reason to feel those emotions. I lived with this. I witnessed this. It was real.”

You are validating yourself when you acknowledge your feelings. You are acknowledging the fact that you were x years old with big, scary feelings that you may not have known the words for. You were probably confused. If you couldn’t tell anyone about these feelings or what was causing them, you probably felt like you had no choice but to keep them bottled up inside. You may have re-experienced these same feelings at other times in your life when you found yourself in similar situations. Let yourself cry if you feel like it. It’s OK to feel your feelings. You’re in a safe space.

About the author

Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on the topics of domestic violence, abuse, and family dysfunction. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and has worked in the field of domestic violence and abuse. She shares her insights in the LEMON MOMS SERIES with others who want to heal. view profile

Published on August 13, 2020

Published by Image and Aspect Media

0-1000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Self-help

Reviewed by

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