7 Tips for Coping with Narcissists During the Holidays

If you have narcissistic family or in-laws, holiday visits can leave you feeling like you’re walking on eggshells. Ask yourself:

  • Does visiting family members feel more like an obligation rather than a choice?

  • Do you feel anxious when thinking about seeing family members at the holidays?

  • Do you worry that you will disconnect and regress more than you will connect and renew this holiday visit?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, here are 7 reminders to help you create a more nurturing holiday season.

Have realistic expectations

It's not your imagination: Narcissists often become more challenging to be around during the holidays. Year-end holidays are about connection, appreciation, and giving — values that are the opposite of narcissists' core needs of attention, admiration, and entitlement.

In healthy relationships, spending time in close quarters on special occasions, whether socially distanced or not, can foster emotional intimacy. But narcissists don't generally know how to be emotionally intimate.

The prospect of emotionally intimate interactions often activates narcissists' unconscious fears of being not good enough, fears which they cover by becoming manipulative, competitive, or provocative. Expecting anything different from a narcissist is a setup for disappointment.

Know what matters

What you focus on will get bigger. If your top priority around a narcissist is emotional survival, you’ll be focused on survival. If your top priority is not being controlled, you will focus on control.

On the other hand, if your highest priority is growth, learning, or being the best you can be, such positive and expansive values will become your focus.

If a narcissistic family member becomes manipulative or demeaning, ask yourself, “How can this help me learn?” or “Who do I want to be in this situation?” Doing so allows you to make use of anything that happens, no matter how upsetting in the moment, to further your growth.

Be mindful of what you share

Narcissists often use personal information against you. Be judicious in sharing sensitive information about topics such as your love life, finances, diet, politics, religion, lifestyle, feelings, health, or work.

While that may not leave much that's meaningful to talk about, remember that narcissists' conversations are about winning, getting attention, and feeling superior to others. Why risk putting sensitive topics on the line in conversations where another person has those aims?

Be a family ‘anthropologist’

In anxiety-producing situations, sometimes the best course is simply to observe. One way to do this is to approach a family holiday visit like an anthropologist.

Observe. How do people address or greet others? How do people express needs or feelings? What are the norms and apparent expectations? What do you notice about this particular “tribe” you are visiting? What feels healthy and unhealthy?

The great thing about research projects like this is that anything that happens is data from which you can learn. You can write your observations in a journal for later processing on your own, or with a trusted friend or therapist. By observing others, you take the attention, and thus the pressure, off yourself.

Plan ahead and decide where you will draw the line

The zero-sum-game worldview held by people with narcissism often leaves us with no perfect options for responding. Instead, it may help to remember that all of your choices in dealing with narcissists are imperfect. Your best bet may be to pick the least imperfect choices.

In advance of a family visit, consider what you are willing to tolerate and not tolerate. A helpful question to ask yourself is, “At what cost?” How much is too much to pay or give up? Determining that can help you choose when to set healthy boundaries, speak up, let it pass, or walk away.

You have the right to take time to yourself or excuse yourself from a conversation at any time for any reason. Despite what a narcissist would have you believe, your holiday is not a command performance for somebody else. You can always glance at your phone and say, “Excuse me, I have a work call I must take.” Or text, email, or call a friend or therapist.

Cultivate your voice

Narcissists assume they have you figured out but, in truth, you know yourself far better than they do. You are the best judge of what's best for you. If things get heated, declare a holiday truce. Say, “Let’s just agree to disagree.” Find distractions as needed, like a film or game.

If you do find that you've said or done things you regret, instead of berating yourself, ask yourself: “How might I have responded if I hadn't gotten triggered?” or “How would I like to respond the next time a similar situation comes along?” Questions like these are not rehashing, they are rehearsing. The questions can take you from regret to action.

Don’t forget healthy self-care

Especially during the holidays, maintain the helpful routines that support you in your daily life. Pay attention to eating, exercise, and sleep habits. Take time to yourself. Go on a walk, nap, read, or do other self-care behaviors.

In addition, don’t pressure yourself to pack a year’s worth of catching up or saying all you have to say during a holiday visit. Slow down, and live in the moment. Holidays should be bout celebrating, not working.