Tag Archives: family relationships

The Seasonal Narcissist … Or, How to Survive a Holiday When There’s a Narcissist Underfoot

You don’t have to be married or partnered with a narcissist in order to have one in your life. Studies show that almost a quarter of us have to interact with  narcissists, although that may just be peripherally. If that’s the case, dealing with them becomes much more difficult because they are likely to be in your life for a long time, if only intermittently. It may sound harsh, but once you make up your mind, you can usually get out of a spousal/partnered relationship with a narcissist, although if there are children involved, you may still have to deal with the narcissist for many years.

Nevertheless, many of us have to, especially around special occasions, look out for what I like to call the seasonal narcissist. This is a person whom you may only see every couple of years or maybe a couple of times a year, since narcissists don’t like to hang out much with their families. He or she is a cousin, aunt, uncle, an in-law or maybe even a sibling, parent or grandparent. The fact that you don’t see the narcissist very often doesn’t make dealing with him or her any easier; in fact, as you probably already know, these narcissists can do a great deal of damage to whatever special occasion is under way.

The reason for this is that special occasions are just not their thing. Special occasions usually involve having others around, sometimes lots of others, to say nothing of the fact that the occasion itself, no matter what it is about, demands attention. Those details can seriously steal their thunder; they know that they will be part of a crowd, or perhaps lost in the crowd. They may be called upon to help out with preparations, cleaning, cooking, washing dishes – things they don’t like doing unless they can get something out of it. Altruism is definitely not one of their traits.

Narcissism
Narcissism (Photo credit: videocrab)

If you think about it, you can see why any special occasion is an absolute minefield for them. They aren’t the centre of attention. They are not the “special ones,” the person with the birthday or wedding anniversary or Easter party or Bar Mitzvah. It’s not all about them. Since their families know them and have probably been exhausted by them, the narcissistic “show” is likely to fall flat and their projections will be ignored. They cannot manufacture a new “self”. They are literally very stuck; nothing from their bag of tricks will work.

For all of these reasons, they will hate to have to go to whatever event it is. They may get dragged there by another family member, the one who always wants to see everyone show up at these shindigs. They may have to go because otherwise it might not look right, and narcissists are all about appearance.  They may go simply for the bragging rights: “I organized all the games!” or, “Without me there singing and playing the piano, the whole thing would have been completely dead.” “My speech was killer!” and so on and so on.

And that leads me to what I believe you have to do to avoid a narcissistic-induced “scene” at your next event. You have to assign them some task or other that allows them to show off and get attention. Otherwise, you will have a mess on your hands.

As I’ve already indicated, these narcissists may feel hemmed in by the fact that nothing from their bag of tricks is working. They may feel as if they are lost in the crowd. They may feel deflated and sorry for themselves. And this is dangerous, because then they will attempt to get attention in any way they can, no matter how negatively or inappropriately. Your event could be completely derailed.

I recall with much distaste the birthday party that I organized for my closest friend and held in my home while I was married to my ex-narcissist. There were some twenty people in attendance, including her children, a number of her friends and a couple of her colleagues. I seriously cannot think about this event without shuddering. All was going well until my narcissist started to very loudly chastise my friend’s son over the courses that he was taking in order to get into medical school.

According to Harry, Evan (my friend’s son) was shirking his academic responsibilities and shouldn’t be allowed into medical school with such foolish courses in his background. This then lead to a tirade about the general watering down of academic requirements and about how much tougher Harry had it when he went to university (supposedly he had to chisel his essays on stone tablets, which of course taught him the value of struggle and determination, something that today’s students also don’t have), that his degree was therefore much more valuable and was in fact the equivalent of  a PhD.

Utter nonsense, of course. He attended a respected university and got an undergraduate degree in engineering.  An academic accomplishment and achievement, yes, but certainly something that many other people have also done.

The business of shouting their “distinctiveness”, especially where their intelligence and academic prowess is concerned, is a common narcissistic trait. Harry rounded out his rant with a treatise on how Evan would never get into medical school and didn’t deserve to.

He only started to wind down when one of Julie’s (my friend whose birthday it was) colleagues started to call Harry on what he was saying. Julie and her colleague are both university teachers and are very familiar with the entrance requirements for medical school – something Harry had forgotten. As Julie’s colleague calmly started to defend Evan’s course choices, Harry began to seeth. He attempted to continue his bluster but eventually gave up. He walked out and didn’t return until after the party was over.

You can imagine what this did to the happy party vibe. We attempted to get back on track but that really didn’t work and the party fizzled out with most people leaving quite early. The worst part was the pity and curiosity that I could feel being directed at me. Their questions were floating around the room inside of big cartoon bubbles. “What is she doing married to that guy?” “Where did she meet him?” “I wouldn’t want to be her when he gets back.”

When Harry returned, however, he was contrite. In one of those flashes of insight that Harry is capable of, he realized how awful his behaviour had been and he regretted it. He thought about writing  letters of apology to Evan and to Julie. Like all of Harry’s good intentions, however, the idea disappeared.

The fact was that Harry’s momentary contrition only came to the forefront because he had gotten what he needed and was feeling better. Soon, though, his desire for more attention and his firm belief in his own superiority eclipsed his sense that he needed to make amends and he sidelined the idea of the letters. Does that make him sound like an addict? Yes. In many ways, narcissists have very similar characteristics to  addicts and vice versa.

So here’s what you have to do if you’re dealing with a seasonal narcissist: first of all, as I’ve already mentioned, give them  highly visible, “important” tasks that will generate lots of attention. He could give a speech or present the gifts or play the piano or do a skit. Play into your knowledge of the narcissist and what he thinks he’s good at.

Be sure to fuss over and flatter the narcissist. If you have to lie, lie. Remember, you’re only doing this for one evening or afternoon or whatever and in this case, lying is the better part of valour. You can go to confession or expiate your lies later. Compliment his hair, clothes, weight loss, new job, whatever. Leave him with the impression that he’s the most important, smartest, best looking person in the room.

Assign someone to stay with the narcissist at all times and to keep him under control. This person should be completely aware of the mission and should be able to indulge in flattery, fussing and outright lying without throwing up. This “shadow” person will also need to ensure that the narcissist does whatever task he has been assigned. Narcissists are usually very undependable.

In the lead-up to the event and on the day, ask for his advice (be careful not to ask him to do what he might consider to be menial tasks) as to how things should be done, organized, carried out, and so on. Publicly acknowledge his help and how you couldn’t have done it without him. Gag later.

Designate someone, particularly someone who has good diplomatic skills, whose job it will be to get him out of the room as quickly as possible if he starts haranguing, pontificating, ranting, shouting or in other ways seeking inappropriate attention.

I can’t guarantee that any of these strategies will work; I’m only improving your odds. The one thing I do know, however, is that when it comes to dealing with narcissists, you can’t be too prepared, so be sure to prepare for this narcissist as much as you would for any other aspect of your special occasion.

Good luck!

One note: my apologies for my frequent use of the male gender when describing narcissists. I don’t mean to offend anyone. Statistically, however, the vast majority of narcissists are male and it is more likely that you will encounter a male narcissist rather than a female narcissist.

As Gertrude Stein Said, “There’s No There There”

Gertrude Stein at "Les Charwelles," ...
Gertrude Stein at “Les Charwelles,” June 12, 1934. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The life of the narcissist is also defined by his or her ability live a chameleon-like existence of on-going change. They adopt whatever they find pleasing and claim it as their own, particularly if there is any kind of mileage or attention to be gained from it. They will exploit anything that they deem to be useful. If, for some reason, they suddenly find it helpful to be Buddhist, then they will “become” Buddhist. If they can absorb extra attention from it, they will make a show of their “religious beliefs.”

They are “special” in other ways, too, and because of this, are deserving of notice and admiration. They may be related to a royal family. They may have survived an airplane crash. They may have received an award for bravery. Their parents may have been (choose one)saints/alcoholics/impoverished/abusive/scorned/wealthy/inspirational … the list goes on. Whatever it is they say their parents were, you can depend on it that it’s unlikely to be true. It is, however, likely to be grandiose and dramatic and either the best or worst of its kind. Narcissists don’t ever do, according to them, anything small. They just choose descriptors in that moment to suit the audience they have so that they can accomplish their agenda. And the agenda is always the same: compensation for the emptiness they feel and a cover for the fear that they have of having that emptiness found out.

An extension of the construct that they live is the fact that they carry very little with them, either concretely or emotionally. They often have little or nothing at all in the way of family contacts. Because their family members know them and their history, they will certainly not be able to pass themselves off as Buddhist, will they? So it often occurs that narcissists will eliminate family contact, either because they are constantly inventing  new personas to go with the new people in their lives or their family members are of no further use to them. Sometimes family members themselves will cut off contact because they can no longer tolerate the narcissistic behaviours.  There might not be much in the way of friends, either. If there are, the contact will be decidedly infrequent and not really of the quality that most of us would describe as friendship.

Another symptom of their rootlessness is the fact that often, they don’t own much in the way of material possessions; any major assets are likely to be fully encumbered by debt. I know of one situation where the narcissist showed up at his significant other’s home with only a single cardboard box of possessions; he didn’t even own a suitcase. Because of the constant need for re-invention, they are frequently on the move and therefore can’t manage much in the way of possessions; it becomes easier for them to own as little as possible. At most, there will be a storage locker somewhere containing old, cheap, worn furniture that the narcissist has fixated on as being valuable and special because he has good taste and is never wrong. These items will not even have sentimental value, only the value that he has assigned to them because he chose them.

So, as Ms. Stein said, “There’s no there there.”  They have no sense of themselves. They do not do their own thinking. They are incapable of self-examination. They constantly take from others – beliefs, possessions, money, hope, faith, charity, whatever they need in the moment to exploit the person or people with whom they are currently interacting. They give absolutely nothing in return. They are parasites who are always searching for a new situation, and once there, will attempt to consume all available resources before either moving on or being forced to move on. They are a plague that the rest of us have to endure; it’s up to us to be vigilant so that we can minimize the damage as much as possible.