Spending the holidays with a narcissist is often anything but merry. If you’ve been in a relationship with a personality disordered woman or man or come from a family that’s chock full ‘o’
nuts characterological psychopathology, you probably have some nightmare before, during and after Christmas stories. Holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, birthdays . . . National Arbor Day often trigger narcissistic or borderline rages, tantrums, pout-outs and perfectionist rampages of epic proportions. There are different reasons for this.
As awful as Christmas can be with the Grinch-slash- perpetual adult toddler, the first holiday season after ending an abusive relationship can also be an emotional roller coaster ride. This is especially the case if you allowed yourself to become isolated during the relationship. The same is true for those of you who’ve decided to distance yourself from toxic parents or siblings. The first holiday can be sad, joyous, lonely (although there are few things lonelier than being in a relationship with a narcissist), confusing and/or provide a sense of sweet, sweet relief.
Because narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths tend to suck up all the oxygen in the room, they often leave a vacuum in your life no matter which one of you initiated the break-up. If your identity became defined by pleasing the narcissist/borderline and avoiding their wrath, guilt trips and the endless blame you-shame you fests, it may feel like there’s a giant void at the center of your being. The empty space can feel overwhelming. Oftentimes, what’s most difficult for clients is figuring out who they are and what gives their lives meaning now that they’re no longer taking care of and making sacrifices for their former abuser.
You can interpret the loss of the relationship as evidence that no one will ever love you again and that you’re doomed to be alone forever and ever. Or, you can see it as an opportunity to begin anew, heal the original family of origin wounds and make healthier choices in all areas of your life. Instead of wasting your time and energy caring for and trying to please a terminally colicky and never satisfied for very long narcissist this holiday, you can begin taking care of you.
If you’re unsure how to do that, start with the basics. Spend your time with positive people. Do your best to eat healthfully, drink plenty of water, exercise and get enough sleep. Buy yourself new socks and underwear. Keep it simple. If you’re stumped by how to begin taking better care of yourself, consider what a loving father or mother would do to take care of you as a hurting child. If that includes a glass of ginger ale, Vicks VapoRub, flannel pajamas and flannel sheets, so be it (i.e., some of my favorites!) If that leaves you stumped, what would you do for your own child or a friend?
If you still can’t think of ways to practice self-care this holiday season, here are some suggestions:
1. Don’t pressure yourself with unrealistic expectations. Being away from the narcissist doesn’t guarantee immediate happiness. Nor does it automatically resolve the issues that made you vulnerable to such a predator or chaotic trainwreck in the first place. Therefore, set realistic expectations. It doesn’t have to be the best Christmas or best Hanukkah ever. It also doesn’t have to be the crappiest Christmas or Hanukkah either.
Don’t overdo on the decorations, gifts or socializing, unless you want to and it makes you happy. Aim for a holiday season during which you enjoy a glass of eggnog instead of tiptoeing around a narcissist or borderline’s eggshells. If you want to socialize, go for it. If you want to spend a quiet day watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie marathon while eating chicken tikka masala in your bathrobe then call Curry in a Hurry and fire up the Amazon Prime. If a walk on the beach or in the woods with the dogs feels good, that’s okay, too.
Don’t obligate yourself to attend holiday parties and other festivities if you don’t feel up to it. If you think you’d feel better being around others, then go. Don’t do anything out of fear, obligation or guilt. Even if that means not attending Auntie Hildegard’s annual dry turkey and god awful fruitcake dinner. You get to choose what feels right for you. Healing isn’t one-size-fits all. What worked for your best friend, cousin or a support forum buddy might not work for you. So what feels comfortable and just right to you? Do that.
2. Embrace whatever your narcissist belittled or spoiled. Do you still enjoy your favorite childhood Christmas TV shows? Did the narcissist look down their nose at that? Spend a weekend binge watching them. Personally, I still love Rankin & Bass animation. In fact, I own the entire Rankin & Bass Christmas DVD collection and a 3-ft tall Abominable Snowman Bumble doll, but we don’t need to get into that!
Did your borderline sabotage holiday meals with your family? That won’t be on the menu this year. Was it impossible to shop for your Crazy? No longer your circus, no longer your monkey. Did your narcissist pee all over your joy of Christmas trees? Well, to heck with that. Go to a tree lot and get yourself the biggest, most gorgeous tree you can fit in your home. If the ex made everyone miserable with unrealistic demands for a perfect tree and decorations, get yourself a little Charlie Brown tree or no tree at all. You get to choose.
The last Christmas spent with my narcissistic ex was a real doozie. He had a rage episode at the tree stand. He sneered, seethed, yelled, name-called and gloated about how he was looking forward to spending the next holiday with his “non-Christian” (I’m not at all religious, by the way) then mistress-now wife, a mullet-haired, buck-toothed bisexual former child actress. His face grew redder and redder as he struggled with the stand, while ridiculing me, the tree and the ornaments. The episode culminated with him shouting, “I can’t get it up!!! Why can’t I get it up?!?!?!!! F— you! F— you! F— you! I can’t get it up!!!”
Now, on the one hand, raging, “I can’t get it up!!!” while bragging about his infidelity partner was pretty darn funny. However, it went from funny (snickering to myself in my head) to scary when his face contorted from red to purple, spittle spraying as he nearly punched out a french door glass pane with his fist. Rather than let him forever ruin my pleasure of a twinkling tree, I reclaimed it. The very next year after I was rid of him, I drove to a tree lot, bought the tallest tree they had (11-feet). It was glorious. No one yelling, pouting and generally being a douche in private, while publicly glorying in playing the magnanimous host (when he wasn’t having narcissistic rage episodes at guests who dared disagree with him) at our annual holiday party.
What holiday traditions or pastimes did you enjoy before the narcissist(s) or borderline(s)? What’s stopping you from enjoying them again? Probably nothing, so why not do your version of a super twinkly evergreen tree?
3. Stay away from toxic people. This includes your own family if being around them is stressful, anxiety-provoking and depressing. If mutual friends/flying monkeys of the narcissist or borderline want to get together, politely decline. If friends want to tell you gossip about whatever or whoever the ex is up to, tell them you’re not interested and that hearing about the ex isn’t helpful to your recovery.
Friends who carry tales with good intention (i.e., without malice) will respect your request and boundaries. “Friends” who take offense or ignore your request likely want to feed off your misery. If you have friends like that in your life, they may have much in common with the narcissistic ex. If this is the case, it may be time to show them the exit along with the narcissist. Many people who have a pattern of relationships with narcissists, borderlines and selfish, self-absorbed people also tend to have friends and other associates with similar characteristics. After some time passes, it’s a good idea to do a friend inventory and see who’s a better fit with the healthier you and who isn’t. In other words, ditch the naughty (and the nasty) and keep the nice.
4. Do for others. If you’re feeling isolated and disconnected, find a charity and volunteer your time. Invite friends over for a quiet, home cooked meal. Donate money to a cause you support. Play Santa for the children of friends or nieces and nephews. Give of yourself to others who will appreciate what you have to offer.
If helping others isn’t compatible with work you’re doing on codependency issues, help the environment. Clean litter off the beach or a public park. Plant a tree (weather permitting). Volunteer to walk dogs at the local shelter. Be selfishly altruistic if it feels good.
5. Resolutions. How do you want life to be next year? What changes and choices are required to make that happen? If what you want seems too big or impossible, break it down into smaller, achievable objectives. Think of everything you were able to do while you were with the
albatross narcissist or borderline. Thinking back, you probably have no idea how you were able to keep as much of yourself and life together as you did.
If you’re like many of my clients, you were able to take care of the narcissist, kids and work. Now that you’re unencumbered of the nonstop demands, attention-seeking and general negativity of the narcissist or the perpetual chaos machine of the borderline you’re going to have a lot more time and energy. What do you want to do with it?
No matter how you choose to spend the holidays, be kind to yourself. If nothing else, enjoy the absence of the nastiness, drama or whatever form of Grinchy-ness your ex or family of origin likes to inflict. It really can be a peaceful and lovely time of year and it’s up to you to decide what that is.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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