As the holidays approached, Heather began to worry about the next encounter with her in-laws. Last Thanksgiving was a complete disaster. After spending days getting their new house ready for the visit, her narcissistic mother-in-law walked in the house and announced, “It’s not that bad.” Heather tried to brush it off, but the comments kept coming.
“Let me help you fix the table,” she said next. Then she proceeded to reorganize the silverware, napkins, and other accessories. She grabbed the flower arrangement that was carefully done and took it apart, changing the vase and rearranging the flowers. “You aren’t going to do the gravy that way, are you?” was the next attack.
Heather tried to swallow the comments but eventually, her mother-in-law wore her down. Finding peace felt impossible. Another couple of comments later, Heather exploded. Now her mother-in-law turned the tables on her and played the victim blaming Heather for ruining the dinner. The rest of the family chimed in until Heather retreated to her room.
Even her husband wasn’t helpful either. His mother had done the comments outside of his ear so when he confronted his mom, she lied about it. Once again, Heather felt alone and isolated during a family holiday. Ironically, this is precisely what her mother-in-law wanted. For her to remain the center of attention, she felt the need to take Heather down and take over control. All the more reason why Heather wanted to do something different this year.
Here are five suggestions for surviving the next family event:
- Do pre-planning. Every winning team knows that one of the key ingredients to being successful is to understand your opponent. Families, both functional and dysfunctional, have a rhythm. Take a moment to step outside of a past gathering and make observations about how the family makes decisions, talks and treats each other and outsiders, has fun, negotiates, and determines who is in charge. What is essential to the family: values, morality, religion, logic, feelings, or connection? This is not about finger pointing or trying to alienate one person or idea regardless of the dysfunction. Instead, it is about information gathering.
- Form a strategy. Timing is everything. Just because a strategy did not work in the past, it does not mean that it won’t work in the future. Be open to all strategies and carefully select the best one depending on the nature of the event and the participants. For instance, in a large family gathering when the conversation gets dicey, ask the narcissist a question about themselves. This simple redirection will keep the person asking the question in good graces and redirect any unwanted negative attention. By doing so some reading on narcissism and understanding what makes them tick, several strategies can be formulated.
- Gather the team. The team might be a spouse, kids, or other safe relatives that see the narcissism for what it is. Don’t bother trying to enlighten the non-believers, for now, family gatherings are not the place for indoctrination. Rather be intentional in the strategy phase to formulate a plan which gently exposes the narcissism. This is planting a seed for the future upon which more information will be layered for the non-believers. With the team, devise a boundary that can be easily agreed upon and reinforced when overstepped. Then logically share this boundary with the non-believer before the event. Everyone is on the same page in advance will increase the chances of success.
- Work the plan. It might be necessary during the function to remind the team of the plan. In the case of a boundary being set, one person will have to courageously confront the narcissist when it is violated. Always do this in private first; embarrassing the narcissist in front of others will result in an immediate attack. Before the confrontation, inform the team that the boundary has been exceeded so they are ready to provide support after the altercation. This removes the narcissist’s ability to gather support afterward. Be prepared for a bit of sulking from the narcissist when they realize that others are supporting the boundary and offer a compliment as an olive branch. This will endear the team towards the boundary setting mentality even more and reduce any level of discomfort.
- Evaluate the situation. Immediately following the event, review what worked and what didn’t before small bits of valuable information are lost. These nuggets include observations of body language, any eye rolling, withdrawing of a family member, negative self-talk, blatant lies, manipulative behavior, or multiple references to feeling guilty. It might be easier to select one family member at a time and review their spoken and unspoken behavior. This information can be used for recruiting more team members or placing them clearly in the narcissistic camp. Remember this is not about conversion; everyone must come into realization in their own time. Being patient with other’s timing demonstrates love.
While it may seem like this is a lot of work, and it is in the beginning, in the end, it is worth the effort. Thinking long-term commitment rather than short-term alliance maintains a healthy perspective and a hopeful outcome.