"Narcissist" is one of those labels that gets thrown around frequently, but it means more than having a high level of self-confidence. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a diagnosable mental health condition characterized by an exaggerated sense of importance, a deep need for admiration, and an inability to feel empathy for others.
Combine a narcissist with the already heightened drama and expectations of the holiday season, and it can be a recipe for disaster. The narcissist in your family tree might be a parent, an adult child, even an in-law. But whoever it is, getting together with them in celebration can mean putting up with their criticism, self-aggrandizement, and demand for attention.
This year, flip the script so you don't let them exhaust you or damage your mental health. Here's what experts advise when it comes to handling a narcissistic family member across your holiday table.
Does narcissism run in families?
Before getting into coping strategies, it's important to know how family background might be one cause of narcissistic behavior. Like most other pathologic personality traits, narcissism often stems from risk factors or negative experiences during childhood, experts say.
"Research has suggested a link between certain parenting styles and narcissism, which includes overly permissive or overprotective parenting," Rashmi Parmar, MD, a California-based psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry and MindPath Care Centers, tells Health.
Excessive praise and poor limit setting can fuel narcissism at an early age, but an overly strict or authoritarian parenting style can also result in trauma and low self-esteem, which may in turn lead to development of narcissism as a coping mechanism.
"The exact cause is unknown, and it is more likely a complex combination of factors involving a person's genetic makeup, neurobiology, and environment," Parmar says.
Coping with narcissistic family members
If someone in your family checks all or some of the boxes for NPD, you're probably not super excited to be spending time with them over the holidays. Here are the tactics that can make get-togethers easier.
Expect no sympathy or emotional support
When people gather after not seeing one another for months, they tend to open up about events that have gone down since they last got together. And if some of those events are emotional and upsetting—a job loss, perhaps, or health problems—you expect family members to express sympathy and support. A narcissist, however, isn't capable of giving that to you. This can catch you off guard and leave you feeling hurt and discouraged.
That's because first and foremost, remember that the narcissist does not see the world as you do. "To them, they are the center of their world and everyone is there for their benefit," Santa Monica-based psychologist Sheila Forman, PhD, tells Health. "Knowing this will help you to recognize their emotional limitations." Look for comfort and support from others instead.
Don’t get defensive
When a narcissist monopolizes holiday dinner conversation and shows no interest in the other people at the table, or you find yourself criticized and sucked into their belittling conversation, you might start to feel defensive and react poorly, calling out their behavior. Unfortunately, it's probably pointless.
A narcissist is ultimately driven by low self-esteem, even though one of their defining characteristics is a preoccupation with themselves. "Their NPD is a way to compensate for how they really feel," Forman explains. "Understanding this can help you feel empathy for them and not get so angry when they behave as they will."
Set firm boundaries
Dealing successfully with a narcissist means setting healthy boundaries as early as possible. It's not just about physical boundaries—the amount of time you spend in proximity to them—but psychological boundary lines as well.
"Narcissists often feel they are being mistreated or that others are the source of problems and not them, and tend to adopt a manipulative, persuasive, and dominant attitude to get their way with family members or friends," Parmar says. "This means people usually give into their demands out of frustration or fear of confronting them. But enabling a narcissist will only feed into their pre-existing self-centered ideology."
If you can't get out of the holiday event, limit your time there. Steer clear of engaging with them, and disengage when you feel vulnerable or like you're being drawn in. You may not be able to control their behavior, but you can control how you respond. Says Parmar: "You have the choice to limit your presence and interaction with such individuals for your own sanity, whether they like it or not."
Be prepared if you do confront them
If you wish to discuss a narcissist's behavior with them, expect resistance. Parmar recommends insulating your feedback with a layer of positive comments and compliments, to give it the best chance of being fully accepted. "Narcissistic individuals have trouble reflecting on their own shortcomings or flaws; they often jump on the idea that it is the other person's fault and that they are being unjustly blamed for wrongdoing," she explains.
To get your point across effectively, Parmar also suggests using clear, precise, and concrete sentences. Try to validate their feelings about challenging situations before you give them your feedback on their behavior. And avoid directly challenging the narcissistic person's beliefs, as it's likely to backfire.
Look after your mental health
It's holiday time, and just because there's a narcissist in the house doesn't mean you can't enjoy all the good things the season brings. Catch up with family members you do get on with, take time-outs to recharge your energy and mood, and stick close to loved ones who support and nourish you.
It's important to take care of your own mental health, as people who are abused by narcissists often end up blaming themselves for the dysfunctional relationship and may develop symptoms of anxiety or depression. Be good to yourself, and before you know it, the gathering will be over, and you can plan not to have to see them again next year.
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