Home for the holidays takes on a special meaning with a narcissist and, as many adult children will attest, there are certain parts of the script that are utterly predictable. First, the holiday season is a stage for the narcissist, and he or she is at the very center. There’s careful rigging to make sure that the spotlight stays precisely where it’s supposed to be—on him or her—and that means that the old familiar family games and roles are dusted off along with the ornaments and lights, even though those gathered around are now adults. Second, the narcissist likes playing hostess or host because the power to include and exclude comes with the role, and there’s little that pleases a narcissist more than the rush of power that comes with pushing people around on a chessboard of her or his own design.
If there’s a narcissist in your life, you’ll need a bit more than just a splash of eggnog to get through the season in one piece. The hopefulness that, somehow, this year will be different—yes, those of us who felt unwelcome and unloved in childhood still hang on to that thread, however thin—may afflict us with temporary amnesia or, failing that, a tendency to grab for rose-colored glasses. That was certainly the case for Susan, 46, remembering what passed for last year’s festivities:
My mother had asked each of us to bring a dessert, and I should have known that this was going to be a test but, somehow, I missed the cue. I keep thinking that we ought to be able to outgrow this garbage. Anyway, my two sisters each brought tarts they’d baked themselves and I—oh, stupid me—had the temerity to buy mine. Well, you would have thought I’d committed murder. The disrespect I showed the family, my ungratefulness, my laziness, blah blah. There I was again, Cinderella, covered in soot.
I’ll be referring to the narcissist as female but feel free to swap up genders if you like. Here’s what the holidays look like when a narcissist is in charge. The ideas and observations in this post are drawn from the research and interviews conducted for my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
The curator’s touch
Narcissists love the holidays because they’re a chance to show how perfect their lives are and how good they are at just about everything. From the lush tree to the decorations placed just so to the sumptuous wrapping paper and ribbons to the canapés and cloth napkins, this is an opportunity for the narcissist to feel really good about herself—and to highlight your deficiencies. Even if you’re not invited, in the age of social media, she’ll make sure that you see it on Instagram and Facebook, so that you’ll turn appropriately puce with envy.
Exploiting the symbolism of gifts
Yes, this is part of the power trip again, mixed in with a bit of game-playing, both of which are part of the narcissist’s arsenal or, as the French would have it, la spécialité de la maison. The exchange of gifts at the narcissist’s house isn’t really about giving at all but about showing off and showing up other people. If you happen to be one of the narcissist’s favored folks, you will get both a gift and a very long saga about the travails she endured acquiring it, both of which are calculated to make you feel super-grateful and guilty at once.
But it’s with those who cannot bask in the narcissist’s light—those marginalized, criticized, or scapegoated daughters and sons— that the power of the gift really gets exploited. Sometimes, the gift is part of verbal abuse, delivered without words but articulated nonetheless:
I don’t believe that I have ever gotten a gift of clothing from her that fit and it’s pretty clear that she does it deliberately to emphasize, once again, that I’m fat and unattractive. The sweaters and tee-shirts—all two sizes too small—communicate what she thinks without her having to open her mouth. Most years, she’s also somehow lost the receipt so they can’t be returned. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but you never really get used to your own mother hurting you. And, yes, she smiles when I remind her that I wear a large, not a small.
Gifts can become missiles bearing not just criticism but potential humiliation, a not-so-subtle way of putting someone in her place. Witness Cheryl’s story:
Money and price tags matter to my mother and the lavishness of the gift reflects her feelings for the recipient. Cashmere for my brother, a designer purse for sis, and for me, a repurposed blouse she got from a friend but didn’t like. The original birthday card—addressed to her—was still in the box. Her mission was a success—I felt just as I did when I was a kid, my nose pressed against the glass, looking in as an outsider.
Of course, when it’s the narcissist who’s receiving the gift—an appropriate token from one of the planets circling her sun—you don’t need a pad and pencil to keep score, not according to Katya at least:
You know that scene in The Devil Wears Prada when a designer chucks his collection because the Meryl Streep character purses her lips? That’s my mother. I don’t remember her ever smiling when I gifted her, not ever. Instead, she always looked as though I’d pressed a giant, squashed cockroach into her hand. She’d wrinkle her nose like she was smelling something rotten and then say “Oh” when she unwrapped it. Predictably enough, it made me feel awful.
Roasting more than chestnuts
When a parent is a narcissist, control of the children is key, and one way for her to maintain control to play her children off against each other, by favoring one and scapegoating another. There doesn’t seem to be an expiration date on the parent’s need to control so you may find that a heaping helping of criticism and disdain aimed at one adult child is served up along with the ham, and a veritable platter of praise is presented to another. The positions of Trophy or Golden child and Scapegoat aren’t necessarily restricted to the original family members but may include their offspring as well. Needless to say, tensions may run high as the Ghosts of Childhood Past animate the conversation.
Ironically, it was the last Christmas dinner that finally made me decide to go no contact when my mother decided it was time to play the old game of scapegoating with my children, comparing them to their cousins and finding them utterly lacking. Interestingly, my husband who’d always been inclined to tell me I was over-reacting completely lost it when the kids were mistreated and packed us all up and stormed out of there. It took him twenty years to see the truth about how she treated me but bless him for seeing it. We’re doing Christmas at home alone this year. We are done with that.
The narcissistic mother and the ghosts of childhood
Narcissists believe their own version of reality and I’ll wager that there isn’t a single story in this piece that wouldn’t be hotly denied by every single mother as having never happened. Gaslighting is another technique the narcissist feels comfortable with so that her version of reality is the only one that matters. And that guarantees that it’s not just the narcissist’s script that’s predictable but the behaviors of all the other family members. Those who got through childhood by staying on Mom’s “good” side will continue to do as adults, defending her when necessary and making scapegoating a team sport if need be. They won’t see her as a narcissist, of course, or as an abuser of power either.
It’s the Odd Girl Out, that scapegoat, who “gets it”—perhaps not immediately but at some point in her adult life—and she’s the one who’s most likely to save herself and opt out of the festivities and the playbook that governs them.
She’ll do the holidays her way from now on, thank you very much.
Photograph by David Cohen. Copyright free. Unsplash.com