We all know a narcissist or two. You might even have one in your family. People with narcissistic tendencies can make the holidays difficult.
This guest blog post by psychotherapist Joely Tweel can help you understand ways to make these family gatherings easier with 6 techniques. And while they might not make your holiday experience perfect, they will definitely make it survivable.
Joseph Campbell wrote, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” Many people long to be their most authentic self while visiting family members over the holidays but feel constrained by expectations and family norms. Packing for a family visit frequently involves packing the appropriate social masks to be worn, ones that will make the right impression and keep the peace.
When a family visit involves visiting one or more narcissists, the pressure to conform and appease can be overwhelming. Narcissists do not encourage others to be themselves; they manage and control people to get their own needs met.
According to Christine Louis de Canonville, narcissists are driven by the need for “narcissistic supply” – people who will provide the constant attention, praise, and admiration they crave. While sharing dinner with narcissists, you may be expected to revel in their stories and agree with their many brilliant points.
You may be tempted to challenge the narcissist and think that if you state your alternate view well enough that the narcissist will finally see the light. This is highly unlikely. As Louis de Canonville explains, narcissists are not interested in incorporating the perspectives of others, and when they perceive that a member of their “supply” is asserting independence the narcissist may become angry and find ways to shut down or shame the transgressor.
Narcissists do not see a social setting as a collaborative event in which each person’s needs are of equal value. The narcissist at the table may see him or herself as the director and other people as actors, being called on stage to play the role the narcissist dictates. If one of the actors goes rogue, the director may bring swift punishment.
One route to surviving the narcissist is to refuse to step on the stage. Decline to engage in the role of indulging the ego of the narcissist or becoming his or her target of rage by pushing back. Simply refuse to follow the script or give the narcissist much attention. Once you step on the stage with the narcissist you have lost your power and you will be forced to wear the mask of a cherished admirer or devalued villain.
It is possible to remain true to oneself, even in the presence of a narcissist. Below are a few techniques you may want to try the next time you sit down with a narcissist. To the outside observer, it may appear that you are following the narcissist’s script, but you are not. You are consciously following your own script and taking back your power.
- Be Mindful: It is essential that you be aware of the dynamics at play in order to avoid becoming ensnared. Notice how you feel in the presence of a narcissist. Do you feel compelled to step on the stage? If so, do you feel pulled to offer praise, to do battle, or to try to impress and win approval? Just sit with those feelings and know that they do not have to dictate your behavior.
- Change the subject: Rather than let the narcissist dominate the conversation, try to smoothly segue into a topic of interest to you. “Gosh, Uncle Sal, it is great that you were able to accomplish that. It reminds me of an article I read about the psychology of motivation…”
- Show interest in others: Rather than continuing to respond to the statements of the narcissist, feeding his or her need for attention, you can demonstrate an interest in the other people at the table. “Thanks for the update, Uncle Sal. Anita, how is your new job?”
- Simply ignore the narcissist: You can choose to consciously avoid engaging with the narcissist. Let others be the ones to respond to the narcissist and just sit back and observe the dynamics. This is a great way to educate yourself about the maneuvers of the narcissist so that you can become more and more adept at avoiding them.
- Feign agreement: Offering tacit agreement, if done consciously, is not stepping on the stage; it is offering you a way to get through the conversation without getting emotionally involved. Statements such as, “You know, you may have a point there…” are not true agreement, but they will likely be taken by a narcissist as such and may shorten his or her speech or lecture. (Note: Only use this method if you feel you can do so without compromising your own integrity. This is not about kissing up to the narcissist and probably should not be used if the narcissist is being hurtful or if you have a personal history of being hurt by the narcissist.)
- Engage an ally ahead of time: If you are lucky enough to have someone else at the table that you can trust, try talking to him or her ahead of time about your plans to not step on the stage. Share this blog with that person and make a plan for supporting one another.
Most of all, be true to yourself. You can choose to try any of the suggestions above, or you can create your own methods. Trust your inner wisdom and let the holidays be a time for giving yourself the gift of being yourself, no matter who shares your table.
Joely Tweel, LISW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Columbus, OH who specializes in working with survivors of trauma.
Photo by Mark Adriane