How to Survive Your Family Over the Holidays

December 20, 2019

Strategies for handling the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For so many of us, the holidays elicit complex emotions about our core human needs for home, family, love, and belonging. For those with narcissistic family members, this time of year tends to intensify our hopes and fears about fulfilling those needs, and we may find ourselves swinging between highs and lows as we chase the validation we long for while trying to avoid the conflict we’ve come to dread.

Survival Strategies

This holiday season need not crash and burn into discord and disappointment. Here are strategies for optimizing the positive aspects of holiday family time while protecting yourself from the drama and boundary violations that often occur in narcissistic families.

1. Adjust Your Expectations

People with narcissistic personalities miss key developmental milestones in childhood that leave them with an unstable sense of identity and self-esteem, little to no emotional empathy or self-reflection, poor emotional regulation, and a simplistic black-and-white understanding of human emotion. Narcissists by definition are profoundly self-centered and will always put their needs above yours, even when they tell you they only want the best for you. It’s understandable that you want your narcissistic family members to listen, understand, and act in your best interest, but the sooner you stop expecting them to do something that is beyond their capacity to do, the easier it will be to end your cycles of hurt, anger, and disappointment.

2. Manage Yourself, Not Them

You may have longstanding patterns of care-taking, appeasing, distracting, dodging, charming, or otherwise trying to manage the difficult personalities of your parents, siblings, and/or other relatives. Your strategies for coping made sense when you were younger and were your best tools for survival. But recognizing that you ultimately cannot control what others think, feel, say, and do is the key to your emotional survival now as an adult. This means being clear and confident about what you will and will not tolerate and being willing to follow through on maintaining your boundaries.

3. Disengage from the Drama

Narcissists thrive on attention and often create drama and conflict around themselves. Whether they are dominating the room through bullying or showmanship or controlling through passive aggressive manipulation, they will draw you into the fray if you allow them to. Resisting the urge to react to baiting, guilt-tripping, gaslighting, and other controlling maneuvers will preserve your sanity.

4. Resist Defensiveness

It is natural to feel defensive with narcissists. Their insecure need to bolster themselves and callous disregard for others’ feelings drive them to constantly invalidate those around them. It’s human to react to their unfair and often cruel behavior, but showing your hurt or anger and trying to explain, excuse, or justify yourself makes you vulnerable and only opens you to further harm. Try to keep a cool head and do not put your emotions and self-esteem on the line.

5. Take Time-outs

During the holidays, often we fall into patterns where we feel obligated to go along and let others dictate how we spend our time. Narcissistic family members typically demand inordinate attention and disrespect others’ need for boundaries. This makes it all the more important for you to honor your legitimate need for time away, whether to rest, exercise, meditate, work, see friends or other family, or simply recharge alone. Being low-key and matter of fact about your choices in a way that does not invite discussion or judgment is often the best approach.

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