My stomach lurches just thinking about it; the Queen, aka Mom, on her throne, waiting for us to file in and pay homage. My brother will stride in, knowing he’s her favorite; my little sister will creep in, working hard to stay invisible and get in and out in one piece. And then there’s me. The handy-dandy scapegoat. I hope to hell nothing gets broken or the dinner ruined because I know ahead of time whose fault it’ll be. (“Jenna”, 47)
Am I the only one who’d like to go to sleep on December 22 and wake up on January 2nd? The whole season stresses me out but dealing with my mother and father is really the low point. Always a horror show. Bah humbug! (“Dana,” 41)
It won’t surprise anyone that narcissists tend to love the holiday season because it gives them an opportunity to really shine; their natural competitiveness with everyone else is given a ready platform as the holiday season approaches. Yes, they’re the ones who brag of finding the perfect gift for everyone, who tell harrowing stories of obstacles overcome on the way (what kind of a gift would it be if it didn’t have to be fought for?), and make sure that you take notice of every single detail of their over-the-top holiday decorations and cooking, and that you duly appreciate the slavery that went into it all. Don’t expect the narcissist to shrug off his or her Herculean efforts; where’s the fun in that? Grandiosity goes so well with eggnog.
Rather than invest in a coat of armor (clunky and uncomfortable) or fortify yourself with drink (way too risky), instead spend some time with this handy cheat sheet to help you get through the festivities in one piece and, hopefully, very little pain. The old Boy Scout motto is right about the virtue of being prepared; if you know what coming down the pike, you’ll be better at weaving and dodging. If you can manage some emotional distance, you’ll see that much of what the narcissist does is highly predictable because he or she curates everything with a goal in mind: To be center of attention and adulation.
The cheat sheet!
Do what you can to hang onto your own joy, even as you dread the upcoming event or events; please remember that none of this is really about you but all about the narcissist’s own blind spots. It’s hard to maintain a balance between hopefulness that it will be better than usual and deep certainty that it won’t but remember that your actions and reactions are the only ones you can control. Stay focused on managing you; the others will have to fend for themselves. Do keep the following in mind: Unlike an elevator, no one can push your buttons without your permission once you understand what triggers you. Self-knowledge is power.
Do recognize that the holiday season is stressful for almost everyone. Pamper yourself as needed.
1.Anticipate the orchestration
It’s the narcissist’s show and the chances are very good that if she or he has always assigned roles to the attendees, this time isn’t going to be different. If your mother or father (or both) has always played you and your siblings off against each (or against your cousins, for that matter, or the offspring of friends), you can pretty much make book on the fact that it will happen again. Prepare yourself and try not to rise to the bait.
While the usual favoritism and goading are bound to get under your skin, remember that you no longer live in your childhood room. See the patterns as an anthropologist might—the workings of a dysfunctional tribe that no longer defines you.
If the narcissist is an acquaintance or “friend” rather than a family remember, retire from the action now and again and do a series of eye-rolls. It’ll relieve the tension. A sly quiet laugh can also be immensely satisfying, especially if he or she is intent on showing off the full gloriousness of his or her life.
Remember that narcissists relish control; they will use what they know about you to pull your strings.
2, Try not to react to the symbolism of gifts
Every gift proffered by the narcissist has strings attached, and is carefully curated, One woman recounted how her mother always gave her clothes that were two sizes too small to underscore how supposedly “heavy” she was; another who felt her tennis and squash-playing daughter was too “masculine” always gifted her with lacy pink things she would never wear. Family rank and role are often revealed through the price tags—luxe rewards for the family “favorites” and “winners” and lesser presents for those who are thought to be undeserving. Horribly enough, this often extends to the children of those adult children as well, as one daughter recounted:
“My husband pooh-poohed how my mother played my brother against me until the year my parents gave my brother’s boys expensive bikes and gave my boys packets of white socks. The kids were roughly the same age so my boys were stung, hurt, and envious. My husband hit the roof and, yes, that was the last Christmas we attended at their house. Their excuse was that my boys had nice bikes so didn’t need them. Well, my nephews had nice bikes too—they just got nicer ones!”
The use of gifts as tools of manipulation and the subtle put-down (or enthronement of someone special) isn’t limited to family, of course. The narcissist knows how it feels to be in spotlight and graced, and out of favor.
If the narcissist in question is a lover or spouse, be prepared to be love-bombed. The holidays are a perfect time to showcase his or her wonderfulness. (Mine bought me my favorite kind of shoes one Christmas! Imagine a man buying a woman shoes on his own. Yes, it worked temporarily to put blinders on me.)
It’s a pity, of course, that whatever goodwill associated with gift-giving gets lost in the shuffle but, again, do remember this isn’t about you.
3.Know that your gifts will be dismissed
Yes, file it under “never good enough” if your position in the narcissist’s firmament isn’t high enough; if you’re smart, you might want to ask for a gift receipt, anticipating the inevitable. With a parent, this can be familiar but still pack a wallop, especially when accompanied by a murmured “Oh, how unusual,” “Whoever thinks of these things?” or “You thought this suited me?” compared to the elation when she opened your sister’s gift.
No, I’m not being cynical and, yes, there are exceptions to the rule but very few people high in narcissist traits can resist the lure of control and potential shaming at the moment of opening a present.
My all-time favorite narcissistic friend story is this one: The Christmas party her friend was throwing was to celebrate her successful year—recovery from a divorce and a successful year in business. The woman had gone to high school with her friend—they were now in their early fifties—and knew many people in common. So she shopped carefully, finally picking a handmade silver bracelet which cost more than she wanted to spend but she wanted it to be a special gift. She watched as her friend unwrapped it, expressionless, and then heard her say,” Thanks so much. It’s not something I would have chosen but I can see why some people would.” Ouch. The kicker? Ten years later, said friend gave the bracelet to her for her birthday, clearly having forgotten its provenance. This was long before “re-gifting” had a name…
4. Get ready for the disparagement
Yes, some thick skin is required, especially if you’re going “home” for the holidays and a narcissist or two is at the helm, and then some. Please look at the Moomeme I’ve placed here and memorize it, would you? I didn’t write it; it was shared.
If picking on you has always been a team sport, just prepare yourself for it and remember that the people doing it are those who are most invested in the family mythology; they need a scapegoat to feel good about themselves which is really sad—for them, not you. That said, do read the next two pieces of advice.
5. Stay out of the drama
Again, no one can engage you unless you decide to be engaged. You’re an adult and you are perfectly within your rights to cut off a line of questioning (“When are you going to deal with your weight?” “Are the two of you ever going to get serious and have children?” “Are you still struggling financially?”) that makes you uncomfortable. You’re not there to be anyone’s pincushion. Boundaries are good things and it’s neither rude nor antagonistic to expect someone, even your mother or father, to respect yours.
6. Don’t permit abuse
Many of us, raised by narcissistic parents—or those who are controlling, combative, dismissive, or hypercritical—tend to normalize verbal abuse; we become inured to the fact that family members use words as weapons and wrongly write off what they say as just indicative of their speaking style. Nope, and there’s no reason good enough to tolerate anyone putting you down or saying mean things. The holiday season—and a few glasses of wine—don’t give anyone a pass on abusive behavior.
React and speak up. Leave the room if you must or even the house. And read my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Dealing with those high in narcissistic traits can be trying at any season but is particularly hard when you’re supposed to be feeling joyful and embraced by “family.” Stand up for you, will you?
Photograph by Jodie Walton. Copyright free. Unsplash.com