When I was young, my mother seemed to derive an odd sense of satisfaction (one hesitates to use the word ‘pleasure’) from my emotional distress. At such times, I see now, her fundamental motivation to comfort me (by talking to me, never in a tactile way by hugging etc.) was to make herself feel needed, of value, powerful, in control and superior to my own ‘inadequacy’.
Indeed, I can now see that she would deliberately induce states of distress in me so that she could then play the role of a nurturing mother; she seemed to enjoy, and derive satisfaction from, toying with my emotions – repeatedly ‘breaking’ me in order to afford herself the opportunity of ‘fixing’ me – rather as a cat might enjoy and derive satisfaction from toying with a mouse by repeatedly catching it and letting it go only so it could catch it again…and so on…and so on…
This gave her complete control and absolute power over me; once she had reduced me to a desperate and pleading display of tears by subjecting me to her unbounded rage and name-calling, and then left me to suffer for a while (often by giving me the silent treatment ),
I would be pathetically grateful, submissive and pliable when, at a time of her choosing, she deigned to ‘forgive’ me and play (for a short while until the cycle repeated itself) the ‘magnanimous’ mother (on more than one occasion, it comes back to me now while writing this) by administering to me whisky in warm milk and half of one of her valium).
In short, playing the nurturing’ mother wasn’t about making me feel good – it was about making herself feel good about herself.
However, I have never mentioned this particular aspect of my mother’s behaviour to anyone for fear of sounding ungrateful and cynical. After all, as many who have suffered childhood trauma will know all too well, even our most patently reasonable and self-evidently justifiable objections to our upbringing can be, and frequently are, invalidated by others, compounding the effects of our trauma and intensifying our irrational feelings of shame.
I was heartened, therefore, to come across the work of Masterson and Rinsley (1975). They theorize that mothers can cause psychopathology in their children, later leading to the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD), by preventing them from undergoing the separation-individuation process (see also my article on ‘enmeshment’).
They prevent their children from going through this process, according to Masterson and Riley, by encouraging them to be dependent. They encourage this dependency, according to the theory, as it gives them (i.e. the mothers) a sense of pride, satisfaction, gratification and self-esteem. It is further theorized that they achieve this by positively reinforcing the child’s ‘needy’ and ‘clingy’ behaviour whilst discouraging any signs of the child creating an independent, autonomous life for him/self. This then has the effect of preventing him/her from breaking away from her and forming his/her own identity
Indeed, tangentially related to the idea of certain types of mothers (especially narcissistic mothers) not wanting their child to form his/her own sense of identity, I recall that my own mother would frequently take it as almost a personal affront if ever I tried to change the subject from talking about her life (normally her ‘boyfriend troubles’) to talk, even for a short while, about any of my own interests (at the time these were meteorology and magic tricks; I often think now that it is no coincidence that the former involved trying to understand a chaotic and difficult to predict system, whilst the latter involved developing ‘special powers’ to make the ‘impossible’ happen, like making things ‘disappear’ – no prizes for guessing what these things almost certainly symbolized in my unconscious).
But back to Masterson and Risley. The researchers state that such maternal behaviour (i.e. rewarding the child’s dependence whilst punishing him/her – or, at least, withdrawing approval – when s/he attempts to gain mastery, independence and self-sufficiency) is frequently most prevalent during the developmental stage of the child when psychological and social influences are at their most potent in relation to instilling in him/her a need to become independent, thus creating maximum conflict in the child’s mind.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).