How to Survive Your Narcissistic Family Over the Holidays

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

Posted Dec 18, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Megan Ann, Creative Commons
Source: Megan Ann, Creative Commons

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.

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. 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 members, 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. 

6. Release Your Need for Control. Trying to exert control is an understandable response to the chaos that typically characterizes life in a narcissistic family, and you may have perfectionist or other controlling impulses as a result. But trying to push an agenda or control outcomes sets you up for power struggles, blaming treatment, and disappointment. Try to check your over-responsible and controlling tendencies at the door and go with the flow. 

7. Practice Ahead of Time. Narcissists often take people off guard with invasive questions, rude remarks, demands, and other forms of ambush. You can't possibly anticipate everything that could go wrong, but you can think through in advance likely points of contention or vulnerability and rehearse how you will handle them. For example, if you've recently ended a relationship and dread discussing it, have other things in your life that you can focus on with your nosy family members, such as the promotion you just got or the trip you're taking this summer. 

8. Find Positive Ways to Connect. It isn't always possible, but there are often ways we can connect even with the narcissists in our family that can be fun, helpful, or affirming. Find areas of commonality to focus on, such as shared interests, humor, or experiences. Look for ways to show affection that feel genuine and safe for you as well as for your narcissistic family members. If positive interaction isn't working, try to focus on others in the family whom you trust and enjoy being with. 

9. Do Things You Like. It is easy to lose track of what we like and want when we're with demanding family members. But it is your holiday and possibly vacation time too, and you have just as much right to enjoy yourself as anyone else does. Remember to make time to do things you like, whether it be walking the dog, playing with the kids, going sledding, or baking your favorite Christmas cookies. 

10. Turn to a Voice of Reason. If you have people in your life who understand the dynamics in your family and are willing to be a sounding board for you, reach out for support. Having an outlet to discharge the hurt and frustration you feel and getting an outsider's perspective can go a long way in preserving your peace of mind over the holidays in your narcissistic family.