Narcissists are externally focussed. That means they are more concerned with the appearance of something that the substance.
I grew up in the days before designer consciousness, so few people were after name-brand goods…and few people could afford them. If something was advertised in a slick magazine, it was “name brand” and cost more than a “no-name” brand. Typical name brand goods of my childhood and youth were Jantzen (swimwear and knitwear), Pendleton (woollens), White Stag (sportswear), and Keds (canvas shoes). Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dior, and Chanel were the exclusive province of the very rich and ordinary middle class people didn’t even lust after them—they pretty much didn’t know such things existed.
Narcissists with tight pocketbooks, like my NM, didn’t even lust after name brand goods…or so she would have you believe. In a kind of primitive reverse-snobbism, she would look down her nose at people who bought name brand goods and reprove them for wasting money; why spend all the money on one sweater with a Jantzen label when you could buy ten sweaters from K-mart for the same money? She considered herself smarter than they were and was quite puffed up with pride at her pinch-penny ways.
But, like everything in a narcissist’s life, it was all just sour grapes. When I was in my very early teens, NM took up with Frank, who later became my step-father. Frank held the mortgage on our house, so NM had known him at least since I was six. In retrospect, I suspect she was having an affair with Frank for years, which would explain why, when Marti, his much younger wife left him, my NM was waiting in the wings. Marti left behind just about everything she owned and my NM was in there sorting through Marti’s things before the dust had even settled.
Much to her dismay, the expensive wardrobe Marti left behind was too small for NM, but the shoes and the jewellery weren’t. What I found to be very funny (but was smart enough to keep silent about) was that NM, who had bad-mouthed Marti’s “spendthrift ways” to everyone we knew, was suddenly grabbing everything of Marti’s that she could foresee any use for. I can specifically remember her disparaging Marti for her shoes…a popular and costly pump called Spring-o-lators…but Marti’s marriage to Frank wasn’t even cold before those Spring-o-lators were lined up neatly in the bottom of NM’s closet!
The truth was, she was eaten up with envy over the simple fact that Frank and Marti could afford to buy name brand goods and she couldn’t and the only way she could deal with it and keep her façade intact was to set herself on a pedestal of financial superiority. The fact that Marti was buying better quality merchandise was not taken into account—all that mattered to my NM was that she could buy ten pairs of shoes with the same money Marti spent on one pair and that made her superior…at least in her own eyes.
Narcissists have a self-image that may or may not reflect the image others have of them. My NM’s self-image was that she was superior to everyone around her, and anyone who had an ability that exceeded hers…well, she denigrated that ability, called it unimportant, and thereby kept her self-image of superiority intact. Different narcissists use different methods, but it all stems from the same place: to keep and protect the self-image they have created for themselves, be it one of all-encompassing superiority or one of pathetic victim. And they can contradict themselves from one moment to the next, which an outsider may see, but the narcissist rationalizes it, never seeing the contradiction.
I don’t remember most of my childhood Christmases. Just a few stand out in my mind, and they stand out because of some kind of awfulness or some kind of realization, or epiphany, that they brought. Most of my life we were cash-strapped, my mother’s dreams of what she viewed as her entitlement (her parents were well-off) well out of reach of my blue-collar father. So, she had a job, which was most unusual among married women at that time, and my father worked two jobs, one during the day, the other part time at night. And still, her acquisitive nature outstripped their ability to fund.
Christmas, then, was a lean affair. And while I cannot remember most of my childhood Christmases, I can deduce what they were like from the ones I do remember. The year I was eight years old we drove the thousand miles to my maternal grandparents for the only family Christmas I can remember. I remember two things most clearly about that Christmas: I was a nervous wreck with my NM hissing instructions to me all of the time—“sit up straight,” “pull your skirt down,” “don’t talk unless you are asked a question, then answer it in as few words as possible, then shut up.” I felt paralyzed by the fear that no matter how hard I tried to obey, I was going to inadvertently put a foot wrong and then get humiliated for it in front of my entire assembled family. The other thing I remember is getting more than one present and being surprised by it. Really, delightedly surprised. From this I deduce I expected only one present for Christmas. My grandparents gave me a small set of encyclopaedias and I was thrilled by it...I loved to read and was insatiably curious…and I remember being surprised to receive something that I liked and was happy to receive. Which tells me that the Christmas gifts I got from my mother probably were more what she wanted me to have rather than what I wished to receive.
When I was 11 or 12, my parents were divorced and my mother had a new boyfriend who was fighting for custody of his children with the help of my NM. We had his two little kids with us for Christmas that year and I remember being surprised at the big tree with piles of presents under them. None of them bore name-tags, though, so I had no idea if any of them were mine. I remember getting up Christmas morning and finding the living room nearly impenetrable for all the Christmas gifts laid out for the two little ones. Dolls and tricycles, wagons and trucks, building blocks and water colour sets…everything you could imagine for a lavish Christmas for little kids was spread across the room. I was genuinely delighted for the little girl, and gaily pointed out treasure after treasure for her, retrieving things that she could not reach and showing her toy after toy. I was vicariously enjoying a bountiful Christmas through her when my mother, who was sitting on the sofa next to her beaming boyfriend, cleared her throat and said “Violet, maybe you should leave her things alone and look behind you.” So accustomed was I to sparse Christmases that it never occurred to me that there might be something for me in all this unaccustomed bounty.
Sure enough, behind me the ugly pink bouclé chair was completely buried in things for me. My initial delight, however, was quickly dampened by the realization that the “gifts” were actually school clothes, pajamas, underwear and socks…things she usually bought for me in September but had skipped this year, telling me she couldn’t afford it and I would have to make do with what I already had.
It quickly became apparent to me that this whole thing was a show for the boyfriend…I think she wanted him to propose to her she was showing him what a wonderful mother she was. We all got dressed and went over to his parents’ house for Christmas dinner where there were more presents…and this time, there was a pretty doll for me, a “lady doll” with a small but pretty wardrobe. The doll came packaged in a long white box, like you would expect a dozen red roses to come in, and she was quite exquisite. I remember NM telling Grandma Higgins that I was “too old” for dolls and then telling me I should give the doll to the little girl. Grandma put the kibosh on that, saying the child was too young for a “lady doll” (the doll had boobs) and that it had been specifically chosen for me.
I cannot recall how NM rationalized those Christmases in which we had or did very little…I can’t recall those Christmases. But my surprise at receiving more than one gift, my surprise at finding I had any gifts at all, has to give some inclination as to what those other Christmases were like.
As an adult, I had a pitched battle with my narcissistic husband the first year we were married…I had gone to a discount store and bought a fake tree and a bunch of decorations, and I was very proud of how much stuff I had gotten for the pittance I had to spend. He was livid…he even demanded that I return everything for a refund. I refused, telling him that he did not have to participate, but he was not going to deprive the rest of us of the joys of the season. Thirteen years later, as our marriage crumbled to dust around us, he had a plan for getting back at me, for destroying the joy for all of us…he planned to go out to do his last-minute shopping (he always waited until Christmas Eve to finally capitulate and join in) but this time, not come home. He was going to spoil Christmas for all of us by becoming a missing person and set us all into a panic of worry over his disappearance. It didn’t happen, though, because I called an end to the marriage in June, six months before he was going to put his plan into motion. He told me about it later, in an uncharacteristically calm and candid moment when we were signing some legal papers, after I asked why he was so angry with me about ending the marriage because we both knew it was over and wanted out. Seems I had stolen his thunder…his words…by making my move when I did.
Christmas, then, has been a fraught time for me for a good portion of my life…and I am quite sure that many of you have your own “war stories” to tell about Christmases gone wrong, about stingy, inappropriate gifts or lavish overspending by the Ns to polish up their halos. How many times have I heard of an NM who used the largesse of Christmas as a hook…she is entitled to thus-and-such from you because of the gifts you received for Christmas? How many times have I heard of unwilling ACoNs manipulated into attending holiday “festivities” that turned out to be considerably less than festive and even downright toxic. How many of us drag ourselves to family holiday gatherings, only to be disappointed because we hoped…against our better judgment…that this year it would be “different” (meaning “better”) or because we feared the consequences of not going?
What can you do to make you dread the holidays less? What can you do to keep the wolves away from your door…to get out of showing up at the wolf’s door yourself? You start with putting your head in charge and not your feelings. Let your brain take over and force your heart to follow its lead.
1) There is no rule that says you must go to anybody’s house for the holidays or invite anyone to yours. Invitations should be accepted with pleasure—if an invitation does not please you, you do not have to accept it, no matter who it is from (parents included). They should also be extended with pleasure—if you cannot happily extend an invitation, don’t extend it. (Exception: your partner's children by a previous spouse/relationship…invite them even if you don’t like them unless your partner doesn’t want them there either.)
2) You do not need to make excuses or even give reasons when turning down an invitation and someone demanding one is out of line. “We have other plans,” is the most you need to say and if the other person badgers you, s/he is overstepping the bounds of good manners and respect. You do not have to say what your plans are, why you aren’t coming to their house or inviting them to yours…nothing. If they are too persistent and you can’t get rid of them and you aren’t rude enough to simply hang up in their ear, you can say “I’ll call you when we are free.” Then call at your leisure, even if that is seven years in the future.
3) You don’t have to adhere to somebody else’s traditions. You can make your own. One of the traditions I implemented was that the children could open wrapped gifts on Christmas Eve, and the Santa gifts would be under the tree on the morning. This saved me trying to wrap a bicycle or little red wagon or doll carriage. Those things that could be easily wrapped went under the tree, the awkward stuff was from Santa. The kids got two Christmases this way, so it doubled the fun for them.
You can create your own traditions, from food to décor to gifting to cards…do Christmas the way you want to do it, not the way you were taught. If you hate eggnog and fruitcake, don’t have any. If you love Christmas cookies and fudge, make them. Tailor your Christmas to fit you and those you want to celebrate it with. That means you can retain any traditions you grew up with that you like…and you can dump the ones you aren’t so fond of.
4) Put your brain to work when you start feeling sad and bad. Are you really feeling nostalgic? Or is it more of a longing for the ideal Christmas, based on TV, movies, and wishful thinking? Were the Christmases you shared with your family really wonderful, joyous occasions that you miss? Or were they emotionally fraught experiences in which Uncle Ted got drunk and told everybody off, Grandma got sniffy because nobody ate her candied eggplant casserole, Aunt Lulu tried to seduce your father again, and your mother sniped at you and called you a tattletale when you complained that your GC brother put gum in your hair?
If you can remember, write down your memories from Christmases past. Be as detailed as possible…remember even the ugly, painful, humiliating stuff. Save this…perhaps with your Christmas ornaments…so that when you start with the heartsore longing that may motivate you to spend Christmas with the toxic members of your family, you can read, in your own words, what it was really like to “celebrate” with them.
5. So what about feeling guilty for abandoning them on Christmas? More brain work…this time fire up your logic circuits. If you have two choices, the first one is to go spend Christmas with people who treat you badly and make the event miserable and the other choice is to do something—anything—else but carry around some guilty feelings, which appeals to you more? If you choose the first option, how long are you going to be upset afterwards for being treated like the family scapegoat in front of everybody? Have you ever gone to a family Christmas gathering and been the only one there who didn’t get a gift…and then got blamed for it because NM “didn’t know if you would be here or not”? How long do you think that kind of humiliation will linger in your brain? Longer than the guilt? Consider your options and the consequences…long term as well as short…for choosing each of them. It is worth it to assuage your guilt by putting your neck on the block for them yet another year and then carrying home a steamer trunk full of recrimination?
And why would you feel guilty in the first place? What are you doing wrong? Just who is the authority in your life, you or your narcissistic parent? If you are over 18, particularly if you are no longer living with your parents as a dependent, then you are supposed to be your own authority figure. You are supposed to be the person who decides what is right, wrong, appropriate, inappropriate in your life. Just because your NM tells you that you have an obligation to respect her doesn’t mean it is true: as an adult, it is your place to decide if she has earned your disrespect and what you wish to do about it. Guilt comes about when you do something you believe is wrong or fail to do what you believe is the right thing…but who says you are wrong? You? Or somebody else? If it is somebody else, screw ’em—even if that somebody is your parent or other family member. Guilt is one of the ways they manipulate us and you play into it if you abdicate the role of authority over your own self.
Look at the whole history of your relationship with your family members and how they have treated you. You deserve—then and now—to be treated with love and respect…is that your experience with them? You are entitled to be treated kindly and respectfully at all times…is that your experience with them? If it is not, then THEY are the ones who should be feeling guilty, and the guilt you are feeling is displaced and inappropriate. You don’t have to keep it, you can put that burden down knowing that you owe them nothing more than they have given to you.
6. Consequences of your choices. Ah, we must always visit potential consequences, mustn’t we? One thing I hear all of the time is that people are afraid they will “lose the family” if they don’t continue to place their heads on the block whenever it is demanded of them. And if that is the case, the sad truth is, you have already lost your family. If nobody is sticking up for you, if they ignore the situation or, worse, participate when the narcissist(s) start in on you, then you don’t have a family…you just have a collection of people with whom you share some DNA.
You can’t change anybody but yourself. Nothing you can ever do or say or give or submit to, will change another person, make them love you or even like you. People change for their own reasons, they change because they see some benefit for themselves in it…and that goes for narcissists by a factor of ten. If a narcissist cannot see any benefit to himself in making a change, then he simply will not do it. Other people might be persuaded through their empathy and compassion, but narcissists don’t have any of that and any changes you think you might have elicited from them you will later discover to have been nothing more than an act and as soon as the narcissist gets what she wants, her behaviour reverts.
So you will have consequences to deal with whether you continue along as before or whether you decide to make some changes and make the holidays yours.
And that is all it takes to make your own holiday miracle—decide to do things differently this year. Refuse to succumb to self-doubt, refuse to accept the negative messages that the narcissist and her flying monkeys are probably already sending to you. Acknowledge that whatever you choose to do, they will be the same, so if you are going to have to endure their negativity, why not make it worth your while? Go skiing, volunteer at a homeless shelter or visit a nursing home with small gifts and a big box of cookies. Go to a party…throw a party and don’t invite the narcissists. Do something very different and don’t let them spoil it for you—don’t tell them about it! Make Christmas about you…give yourself a gift, even if it is nothing more than the gift of freedom from their sniping. You deserve every bit as much holiday joy as anyone else on the planet and if nobody else is giving it to you, give it to yourself!
Happy Holidays and baskets of hugs to you all!