Many people look forward to the holidays. They enjoy seeing friends and family, twinkle lights, decorations, parties, special foods and giving gifts to loved ones. They seek drama by attending performances of The Nutcracker Suite or watching It’s a Wonderful Life or the endless loop of The Christmas Story on the Super Station. “You’ll shoot your eye out! You’ll shoot your eye out!”
There are many people who do not look forward to the holidays. Especially if they’re married to, dating or share custody with an abusive, narcissistic or borderline partner or ex and/or have parents and other family members with these issues. If you’re in the latter group, you’ve probably come to dread the holidays because they’re now synonymous with tantrums, blame and shame fests, guilt trips, drama, pointless conflict and tantrums.
Narcissists, borderlines, histrionics, psychopaths and other abusers often escalate their bitterness, rage, cruelty and martyrdom during the holidays. And they’re not the kind to suffer in silence. Unless they’re giving you the silent treatment, that is.
If Nancy the Narcissist or Bob the Borderline ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Or, to use another cliché, misery loves company. Actually, misery frequently takes pleasure in making others miserable. It’s another way narcissists and borderlines get their partner to carry their emotional garbage for them. Probably not what you wanted for Christmas or Hanukkah!
Common Client Complaints During the Holidays
The following are examples of complaints I hear from clients with narcissistic or borderline partners, exes and family members:
“She hates my family and picks a fight before we’re supposed to visit. Then she refuses to go and gets mad if I go without her.” This is the correct response to her attempt to sabotage a family visit. Not going reinforces that acting out gets the NPD/BPD what they want. If you go, they’ll likely become even angrier. However, walking on eggshells only gets you more eggshells. Being a doormat leads to more bad behavior until one of you decides you’ve had enough.
“He complains that Christmas is too commercial, then gets angry if I don’t buy him an extravagant gift.” Make a donation in his name to your favorite charity instead. Will he pout and tantrum? Probably. Want to make a narcissist really angry? Give them exactly what they say they want. Abusers are masters of the double bind (i.e., no-win situations). The sooner you figure this out the better. Drop the rope and find a safe exit out of the relationship. That’s the only win — getting your life and yourself back.
“Everything is a fight. Buying the tree, where to put the tree, wrapping paper, where to go on vacation, presents for the kids. Everything is fodder for criticism and conflict.” If she’s being a pill, take the kids to an ice skating rink. Will she be mad? Sure, but she’s already angry, so why not get some respite for you and the kids?
“She expects me to spend an outrageous amount of money. If I don’t, she pouts, cries, tantrums and makes life hell.” Let her pout and cry. Preferably while you’re at the gym or visiting your family. Why do you stay and tolerate this? Figuring that out is a far better way to spend your time, effort and money.
“He starts getting really nasty in October just as store decorations go up. He issues proclamations about what we will and won’t do.” Ignore him and do what you want to do. Leave him out of it. If physical violence is a likely escalation, do what you need to do to stay safe until you can get to a place of safety. Mature, stable people don’t lose their marbles over Christmas and other holidays.
“I’ve come to dread and hate the holidays.” That’s a consequence of being in an abusive, toxic relationship. End the relationship, do the work and you’ll eventually appreciate and look forward to all the things the narcissist or borderline has soured.
“She tries to control everything and if something isn’t perfect or goes awry, she gets angry, blames me or the kids and guilt trips us about not appreciating everything she does to make Christmas ‘perfect.’ We don’t care about about having a Martha Stewart meets Etsy Christmas. We just want to relax and have fun. It’s a nightmare.” Martyr-cists (martyr + narcissist) are especially irritating. You could tell her the crucifixion occurs on Good Friday, and that it’s a bit early to climb up on her cross, but it probably won’t go well.
“The ex plays games with holiday drop-offs and pick-ups. Wanting to swap time or coming up with excuses for being late.” Forget reindeer games. This is textbook narcissist/borderline “co-parent” custody games. Say no to requests and adhere to the court order unless the request makes your life easier and/or is actually in the kids’ best interests. Show up when and where you’re supposed to. If the ex doesn’t; document it and add it to the list for when you eventually go back to court.
“The ex refuses to let our kids see my side of the family.” Unless there’s a court order prohibiting the kids visiting with your family or your new spouse’s, that’s just too bad for the Grinchy-ness. If there are no registered sex offenders or active addicts in your family in attendance, your custody time – your choice.
“The ex tells our kids I spend more on their step-siblings and new partner because I love them more.” This is just childish and petty. Not to mention a blatant alienation tactic. Reassure the kids you love them, love isn’t finite and what the other parent is telling them simply isn’t true.
“The ex treats Christmas presents like a competition. She badgered me into agreeing to a spending limit for the kids. Then bought ridiculously expensive toys making me look like a cheapskate.” You’re under no obligation to tell the ex what you’re giving the kids for Christmas, so don’t. Don’t make agreements or promises with someone who’s repeatedly demonstrated bad faith. Narcissists and borderlines often equate material goods with love and teach their kids to do the same. As the non-disordered, healthier parent, it’s your job to model a better way of being to the kids.
“The ex puts the kids into double binds by planning ski trips for my custody time. I look like the bad guy when I insist on seeing them.” This is another crummy and common tactic used by disordered, alienating parents. Have the conversation with the kids about not getting excited about fun activities mom schedules during dad’s custody time. You can also explain to the kids why this is unfair.
Why Do Narcissists and Borderlines Ruin the Holidays?
Like most of their toxic behavior, it can be distilled down to the primitive fears, core wounds from childhood and defense mechanisms that drive them. In some cases, they may be reliving their original family drama. In some cases, it’s just spite, mean-spiritedness, self-absorption and selfishness.
The holidays often trigger narcissist’s and borderline’s control freakery and ratchet it to greater heights. They mange their anxiety by controlling others and everything around them. This rarely works and often creates a paradoxical effect whereby the more they try to control others, the more out of control they feel. In turn, this makes them more aggressive in their efforts to maintain some kind of illusory control. It’s a vicious cycle and sucks if you’re on the receiving end of it.
Hence the double-time control tactics such as bullying, manipulation, intimidation, guilt, shame, rage, etc. For example, if she says your family makes her anxious (i.e., she fears exposure, feeling inferior or not being the center of attention), she orchestrates a self-created drama or conflict or imagined insult or slight as an excuse to boycott your family. Although, refusing to visit your family does make her the center of attention albeit in absentia.
Their anxiety is a painful reminder that something is wrong with them. Narcissists rarely acknowledge their issues to themselves — never mind others. If something is wrong it must be you who’s at fault! Hence their attempts to control your actions, thoughts and feelings. Narcissists control to protect their false self’s fear of rejection and the underlying feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. Borderlines control to protect their false self’s fear of abandonment and the underlying feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.
Some narcissists who’ve hit “rock bottom” may temporarily self-pityingly acknowledge their issues, then resume blaming others once their ego crisis passes. “Self-aware narcissists” are often able to acknowledge their issues in excruciating detail. They show you their awareness in way that they actually seem proud of themselves. Awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into change, however. After they show off their awareness, they then make excuses for (e.g., childhood trauma), seek sympathy for their lack of attunement to others and use their awareness to rationalize why their victims need to be more understanding and stick around for more abuse. Many diagnosed borderlines do this, too.
Real progress involves taking responsibility for themselves, considering how their behavior affects others and making the necessary changes. Whingeing about how upsetting it it to be confronted by and held accountable for their behavior when they’ve suffered so much because [insert bad things that alledgedly happened to them] isn’t progress nor indicative of recovery. It’s manipulation disguised as “recovery.”
Abusers often likes nothing better than keeping others from having a good time — especially if they know it’s something you enjoy. It’s not enough for the narcissist to be sullen and angry; all the Who’s in Whoville need to be miserable, too. In fact, it warms their 2 sizes too small heart to ruin holidays and other special occasions for their nearest and dearest.
For example, the first and only year the narcissistic ex visited my family with me, he tried to sabotage the 4th of July fireworks display. (*4th of July is a big deal in my family’s hometown. It’s one of the oldest celebrations in the US). I asked several times to head to the waterfront. He dawdled and dawdled and dawdled. This is the same man who throws a fit if he has to wait on anyone.
After we finally left my uncle’s home, he had to get a slice of pizza before going to the dock. Had to. Never mind that he’d been grazing all day at my family barbecue. The line for the pizza parlor was out the door, around the corner and down the street. When I expressed my frustration, asking if he could do pizza afterward, he chided me because, “Really? Are you that excited by fireworks? What are you? Five?” And, yes, I really do enjoy fireworks. He was acting like the churlish 5-year old.
Narcissists glitch when it comes to experiencing genuine happiness, joy, warmth and good will. Relationships are transactional. Generosity of spirit is an alien concept. They don’t do for others without the expectation that they will get something (with interest compounded by the minute) in return. They resent that other people have this capacity, which is why they begrudge simple pleasures to their partners and children.
This can also be a control tactic. By destroying the things you care about and enjoy, abusers grind you down a little bit more. This results in weakening you thereby making you an easier target. It’s a form of withholding as well. Withholding is about power and control. They delight in denying you anything that’s pleasurable or would bring you happiness and comfort. Don’t let them Scrooge you this year!
Center of Attention
Many narcissists and borderlines become unhinged if they’re not the center of attention. If they can’t get good attention, bad attention will do. By escalating their acting out, lashing out and acting in during the holidays, they become the focus. Everyone walks on eggnog shells to avoid upsetting them and in a futile effort to make them happy. Oftentimes, what makes these individuals “happy” is your willingness to jump through their never-ending hoops and chasing after the goalpost they keep in constant motion. In other words, being enabled is their jam.
Abusive, emotionally unavailable, uninterested, mentally ill, alcoholic/addicted, personality disordered parents — whatever the dysfunctional configuration — can do a tremendous amount of damage to children. Not all abused children grow up to abuse others as adults, however. For those that do, child abuse may explain the behavior of a narcissistic or borderline adult, but it doesn’t excuse it.
Perhaps some of these individuals have horrible holiday memories and are unconsciously or consciously compelled to continue the painful tradition as adults. Perhaps ruining their partner’s and kids’ holiday makes them feel powerful like their abusive parent seemed to them. Perhaps they’re replaying the old wound and are angry that you’re not making it better for them. You can’t, by the way.
They don’t see that they have the ability to break the pattern and have a new, positive experience. Why? It would mean truly acknowledging their issues and doing the work. This isn’t work they only have to to do a few times. It’s requires effort and maintaining awareness and self-control every day for the rest of their life.
If they’re aware of their issues and are still acting them out, what good does that awareness do them or, more importantly, you? Since misery loves company, they drag others down with them. Why do they do anything? Self-gratification even if it’s very short-lived and carries painful consequences. Spoiling the holidays for everyone else seems to make them feel better, at least in the moment.
Many of these individuals claim to have had perfect families and perfect holidays. They blame you for the holiday discord by saying it’s all your fault. You and your family are the ones with the problems. This is probably projection. People with happy childhood memories and relatively healthy family of origin experiences don’t go into radioactive free fall after Halloween.
I work with recovering codependents and trauma bonded individuals. Many of them don’t have the best childhood holiday memories either. Instead of taking it out on the people around them, they focus on self-care and don’t begrudge their friends and family having a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah or a happy New Year. It’s a conscious decision they make, and they don’t feel resentful and angry about it.
While understanding why narcissists, borderlines and other personality disordered individuals do the crazy-making, hurtful things they do might bring you some relief, ultimately, it doesn’t change anything. Does knowing why they abuse you make the abuse more tolerable? Does knowing all the diagnostic subsets help you move forward, heal and lead a healthier life? Why not make this the last holiday you spend walking on eggshells?
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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