Surviving the Holidays with a Narcissistic Family Member

By: Michael Toohey, Psy.D. | December 17, 2021

Although the holidays are commonly associated with fun and merriment, for anyone with a narcissistic family member, this time of year can also be stressful and overwhelming. This article will help you better understand your relationship with a narcissistic family member, and how to not only survive – but thrive, this holiday season.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A narcissistic person has a deep need for excessive attention and admiration combined with a lack of empathy for others. The condition is much more than overconfidence and being overly involved in one’s public image. It is a diagnosable personality disorder that can lead to emotionally abusive and toxic relationships, particularly within family systems. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, expert in personality disorders, understands this best. She has written a book Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist.

“Narcissism is not just something attributed to people who post selfies and list all their favorite meals on Facebook. It’s a diagnosable personality disorder that causes people to have a delusional sense of self-worth and lack of empathy.” – Ramani Durvaula, Ph.D.

While people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are charismatic and often successful, they are also controlling, manipulative, entitled, vain and have no empathy. This leaves the people close to them feeling disappointed, unsettled, and doubting themselves.

How does socializing with a narcissist play out during family functions and holiday socializing?

If you have a family member with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, they want to be front and center at all times and will not hesitate to steal the show from others. For example, they will try to impress others with extravagant gifts, as well as criticize others and cut people down. They will expect everyone and everything to be perfect (even though they don’t hold themselves to the same standard). If a narcissist doesn’t get their needs/demands for attention met, they will try to ruin the experience for everyone else by complaining about any aspect of the celebration (the food, decorations, etc.) and they will find a way to play the role of the victim so that others give them the attention they so desperately crave.

Surviving the holidays with a narcissistic family member:

Julie L. Hall, author of The Narcissist in your Life: Recognizing the Patterns and Learning to Break Free and founder of the Narcissist Family Files, an international resource for narcissistic abuse trauma recovery offers the following coping strategies to manage relationships with the narcissist in your life:

1. Adjust your expectations: Don’t expect the narcissistic person to do something they can’t or be someone they aren’t. A narcissist does not have the capacity to empathize with others. As such, no matter how hard you try, or how much you want it, the narcissist in your life will not listen to you, understand you, or be able to meet your needs. Having realistic expectations and planning accordingly will help ease feelings of disappointment, frustration, and hurt.

2. Take care of yourself first. Remember, you can only manage yourself, not the narcissist. You can navigate difficult situations with clear and consistent boundaries. Decide ahead of time what is acceptable to you, and what is not, and then stick to your boundaries. This may mean stepping away from the family gathering for a while. Make sure you take time-outs from these family members and take care of yourself by going to the gym, meditating, practicing relaxation exercises, and connecting with healthy friends and family members.

“Whatever the particular dynamics of your relationship, the bottom line is that you are constantly working to meet the narcissist’s insatiable need for validation while never feeling genuinely seen or acknowledged in return. You can’t control the narcissist, but you can protect and empower yourself with safer boundaries in the relationship.” – Julie Hall

3. Do not engage. We can always expect a narcissist to cross our boundaries, if only to try to get a rise out of us. Therefore, disengage from the manufactured drama. Do your best not to respond to the baiting, gaslighting, guilt tripping, or any other form of manipulation. Rather, be mindful about what you reveal and how you respond. Remind yourself that you don’t need to justify your feelings or explain your thoughts. The more you do, the more you are at risk for debate and self-doubt. If you know you will be spending time with a narcissist, it is helpful to create a series of rehearsed statements that you can use to avoid confrontations. For example:

  • “I’d like to change the topic.”
  • “I prefer not to talk about this right now.”
  • “Excuse me while I go to try the crab dip Aunt Jane brought.”
  • “Did you see the latest episode of….”
  • “Oh look, Cousin Mark just arrived, I’m going to go say Hi.”
  • “I’m going to play with the kids now” or “I’m going to help Mom in the kitchen.”

Be sure to create the time and space for the things that you enjoy this holiday season, such as baking cookies, wrapping gifts, or watching holiday movies. Do your best to surround yourself with friends or empathic family members to support you in managing your relationship with a narcissistic family member.

It is natural to get defensive when a narcissist is attempting to manipulate you, and understandable to feel sad, hurt, or angry in response to a narcissist’s cruelty or meanness. It can be helpful to talk to a professional San Diego Psychologist who understands the nature of narcissistic behavior to learn personalized strategies and tools to help you manage even the most volatile situations, as well as ways to care for yourself and cope with the strong emotions that arise. If you are in a relationship with a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, know that you are not alone. Contact us to learn more about how therapy can help.

The Team at Therapy Changes provides helpful information and resources for Surviving this Holiday Season and How to Deal with your (difficult) Family this Holiday Season. From our family to yours, we wish you a peaceful and meaningful holiday season.



Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

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