Your mother wants to tell you how wrong you are for, well, everything involving your kids. Or your aunt wants to pry into your love life—and insult you about your single status. Maybe it’s a friend who needs to one-up you about everything (you just went away for the weekend? She’s planning on taking a luxurious tropical vacation. And flying first class). Or, your sister needs all the attention on her and throws a fit when she doesn’t get it.
Welcome to the holidays, the time of year when you’re forced to spend quality time with all the narcissists in your life.
While only 6% of the US population is thought to actually have narcissistic personality disorder, narcissism is really on a spectrum. “I think all of us have people in our family that meet some of the criteria for being a narcissist,” says Karyl McBride, PhD, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. (Learn the signs someone you know—or even you!—might be a narcissist.)
When you’re heading out to all the holiday parties and gatherings this year, you don’t have to run away from your narcissistic mother, uncle, or family friend. Here’s how to face them head on:
Don’t fight back
As hard as it can be, you shouldn’t try to compete with a narcissist. “Remember that they’re usually driven by an unconscious sense of shame or inferiority,” says Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age. For that reason, if you fight back, you’ll lose—and may make an enemy, he says. You can’t choose your family members, so it’s best to listen politely, then excuse yourself and join another conversation. But a friend? “You might want to look for different friends who take an interest in you, too,” Burgo says. Now that’s honesty. (Here are the two routes to a friend breakup.)
Remember this one word
Narcissists have a way of surprising you with their meanness. “They’re not in touch with their own feelings, so if they’re having a bad day, they’ll project that onto other people,” explains McBride. Whether they give you a backhanded compliment or deliver an outright insult, don’t get sucked in. Instead, shrug your shoulders and say this one word: “Interesting.” That’s McBride’s favorite go-to response when something comes at you out of the blue and you need time to think without reacting. It shows them that, nope, you’re not taking the bait and they can’t get to you.
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Play the opposite role
The holidays are about spending time with loved ones and getting all the fuzzies from doing so. Sadly, narcissists love to gossip and put people down behind their backs. “It’s their way of making themselves bigger and better than everyone else,” says McBride. A good comeback when they tell you that they don’t like so-and-so because oh, gosh do you see how she dresses/acts/looks: give the person she just panned a compliment. Say, “Oh, I think she’s super smart with the way she runs her business,” or “she’s always been a really great friend to me.” End scene.
Stroke their ego
Narcissists have a way of holding onto a grudge. (Remember, everything is about them—and they remember being slighted even in the smallest ways for a long time.) “My advice often strikes people as cowardly, but there is no value in standing up for yourself or trying to explain,” says Burgo. The best option is to avoid them entirely if they’re still mad at whatever happened at the holiday party two years ago, but if that’s not possible, try to make them feel good about themselves, he says. What’s going on with their job? What else do they have planned for the holidays?
But don’t always give in
One time you should stand up for yourself is when your pesky relative wants to give you a bunch of unsolicited advice, whether about your job, love life, or diet. “Most people feel like this takes their power away, so I don’t think you should put up with it,” says McBride. Still, set a boundary with “kindness,” she says. Say something like, “I understand that that’s what you’d do, but I have my own way of handling my own life.” And, in the future, keep the convos superficial—don’t divulge info about yourself. Good topics: football, the weather, and the news.