In a year that's been packed full of disorienting trials and whims, precious time with family for the holidays can offer much-needed comfort and support. Except when you've got a toxic person in your circle, specifically a narcissist. They're the kind who can turn an otherwise light and joyful occasion into an absolute circus, in a flash.
Often known for their extreme sense of entitlement, grandiosity, manipulations and provocative antics, narcissists are the quintessential energy vampires. Simple acts like sharing a festive meal or exchanging gifts can feel like performing emotional acrobatics.
So, if you've got a narcissistic person in your family – perhaps one you dread having to share a table or a Zoom chat with this holiday, take a deep breath and read on. We summoned the experts to help you enter into the occasion with your head held high, confidently prepared to dodge their maze of self-serving trickery.
First, get skilled at predicting their patterns of behaviour.
While psychologists have come to understand that narcissism exists on a spectrum, the most common traits of those with high narcissism include a pattern of baiting, gaslighting, entitlement, extreme jealousy, an absence of empathy, and, in the absolute worst cases, cruelty and rage.
Narcissists love bathing in their own glory — including their accolades, dramatic sagas, ideas, and even victimhood. They reek of bravado and have a hard time letting anyone else be awesome. A feeling of importance and superiority is wildly intoxicating to them. In fact, they might show up ready to make a parade of their recent accomplishments or unload every gory detail of their current hardships, in between sips of eggnog. Except they barely care enough to gloss over your highlights, good or bad. The conversation will always swing back to their own narrative. They are the most important person at the table, with the shiniest New Year's plans and resolutions.
Candace V. Love, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist of behavioural health who specialises in narcissism, says this might show up in family dynamics in a myriad of ways, but that a spirit of mocking and devaluing is a hallmark of this disordered personality. "The narcissist might use teasing against another family member, but the teasing will have a bite to it, often directly making fun of one of the individual's weaknesses. This type of teasing is actually veiled hostility," she told POPSUGAR.
When insulted by a narcissist, you might try to call them out, but they, in turn, arrogantly scoff at your perception of reality. "If you are the object of the narcissist's 'humour' and you attempt to defend yourself, they'll often say that you're too sensitive or can't take a joke," Dr. Love explained.
Dylesia Hampton Barner, licenced clinical social worker and interpersonal trauma therapist, says that one of the telltale patterns of a narcissist is that they find it impossible to maintain peaceful relationships with those who hold them accountable for the trouble they create. "You might notice that narcissistic relatives only have close relationships with those who do not challenge their position of inscrutable power," she told POPSUGAR.
For example, they might shove their phone at you and demand that you snap dozens of photographs of them in front of the Christmas tree. But when you ask that they return the favour, they'll make a subtle dig about your outfit or suggest that no one cares about seeing pictures of you. And if you dare to defend yourself? They're likely roll their eyes and act as though you're being prickly and overemotional. Or, maybe they'll take a bite of the gingerbread you spent all weekend perfecting, and rudely mention that they've tasted better. And, while they might act as though the comment was innocent, it's glaringly obvious that it was intended to slice you to the core.
So how do you effectively engage with someone who is masterful at making your blood boil? How do you assert yourself without causing a scene?
Remember that you have total control over your responses, no matter how outrageous their behaviour might be.
Dr. Love advises that the key to keeping your cool with a narcissist is to create plenty of breathing room in between the feeling of being triggered by them and the way in which you deliver your response to them. This will keep you in a position of authority. For example, let's say you've got a start-up business idea in the works, and as you speak about your plans and strategies with your loved ones, your grandmother smiles and nods with enthusiasm. A narcissistic sibling might then simmer with jealousy that you grabbed a moment of the limelight, and in turn, proceed to suavely unpack a few skeletons you're stowing in your professional closet – perhaps snidely mentioning an embarrassing failure or an unwise money decision you made several years ago. When something of this nature happens, don't be lured into a verbal bloodbath. Instead, recognise it and pause – not for their benefit, but in order to preserve your own personal peace.
"When you identify the triggering behaviour or comment that you've come to predict from the narcissist, this time you can quietly say to yourself, 'There it is,' then exhale and leave the situation. Walk into another room, take more deep breaths and give yourself kudos for not only not taking the bait, but also for taking care of yourself," said Dr. Love.
Teach them that you are firm within your boundaries, even when they push to defy them.
Let's say that, leading up to a gathering, a narcissistic family member bombards you with repeated phone calls, text messages, or emails. They've got questions they want answered swiftly, problems they're excited to dump all over you, or messes they expect you to sweep up. Dr. Love advises to never answer them immediately, because doing so only reinforces that when they shout "Jump!" you ask, "How high?" so to speak.
"Even if they reach out repeatedly, delay your response to them in an effort to reinforce your control. Wait hours or even until the next day to get back to them. This shows them that you decide, on your time, when you are ready to communicate with them. And never show that you feel obligated to justify or defend why you did not call back right away," she said.
Be clear, in a calm and confident fashion, about what you will and will not tolerate.
Narcissists are energized by confrontation. They love putting another person's vulnerability on the spot because it gives them an intoxicating surge of control. Sometimes it might feel like the only way to prevent a firestorm is to cater to them or flatter them. Don't take the bait. Dr. Love advises that, when a narcissist gets extremely aggressive, snarky, or emotionally abusive, make it clear that you will not be puppeteered by their manipulations. "Calmly say, 'Please don't speak to me like that,' or ' Okay, I am going to hang up the phone now,'" she said.
Barner agrees, stressing that, when you calmly highlight how unreasonable the narcissistic person is being, you not only honour yourself, but you teach them how to interact with you going forward. "Seeking clarity over giving insincere praise to a narcissist is one of the most empowering ways to communicate with them," she said.
Set a specific timeline for visits and commit to it, if necessary.
You have every right to carve out exactly how much time you will spend with the narcissistic family member. And don't feel guilty about it. Like, say, if the narcissistic person is your parent, you might genuinely want to see them, but for the sake of your own mental health, can only handle their company in small doses. In a situation like this, you might tell them ahead of time, "Yes, I will be there for brunch, but I can only visit until noon."
Dr. Love suggests that, if you do announce your timeframe, be vigilant about sticking to it. Again, this is crucial if you want to reinforce your boundaries and maintain a sense of control with the narcissist. And if they attempt to interrogate you about your reasons or pressure you for more? Ignore them and don't tumble into their guilt trap. "Remember: it is up to them to manage their emotions. You are only responsible for taking care of yourself," she said.
See the madness for what it is: deep insecurity.
Behind every narcissist's larger-than-life presence is a startlingly insecure and tortured human being. They are rooted in a desperate, grasping energy – one that derives from instability, rejection, pain, and scarcity of some facet.
Because, while you might see a boastful person who exalts in all forms of self-promotion, at the expense of everyone else's boundaries, feelings, and time, it's only because they are literally starving for acceptance and validation. Why? Because it's the exact opposite of how they feel inside. In essence, there is a gaping absence where the fundamentals of self-esteem would otherwise be. "Narcissists are exquisitely sensitive. This is something many people do not understand about them, and it's why they require so much attention and have so many overreactions," said Dr. Love.
Above all, love and honour yourself in all situations. Always have your own back.
Self-betrayal is never an option, even with the worst offenders. So, please, be delicate with yourself. Patterns of narcissistic abuse often cause a person to feel like they're dangling on the edge of their sanity, specifically because narcissists have a knack for making everyone within their self-created circus question if maybe they started the fire. But, once you know this about them, and you love yourself enough to be non-negotiable about your boundaries, you won't be baited or gaslighted ever again.
Barner advises that crafting a phrase and folding it into your headspace ahead of time is always an effective way to maintain your power. Depending upon your personality, the specific personality and severity of the narcissist, and the dynamic of your relationship with them, your phrase might be something like, "There is love in correction. By standing up for myself, I'm teaching this person how we can have a better relationship with one another," she said.
But if it's a situation where confrontation isn't the best avenue (which is common when dealing with extreme narcissism), Barner urges you to never judge yourself. In this scenario, Barner suggests that your phrase be something like, "Even if I don't confront this person, I know I am safe. I can let their bad behaviour slide and still protect myself at all times."
Because, regardless of how seductive a narcissistic family member might be at convincing everyone in their path to bend and twist in response to their self-serving motives, having your own back is always an option . . . and a necessity. Not only during the holiday season, but in every season.