Here we go again, heading into another holiday season marked with all the usual unknowns – and then some. This is the time of year where many of us have to take a deep breath, mentally prepare for days and weeks of gaslighting and guilt trips, and practice our frozen-smile gray rock faces. We try to plan ahead for who will be the designated flying monkey this year, and which guilt button your relatives will push the most. This year, after an incredibly contentious election cycle, an ongoing pandemic, and a year of civil unrest and awakenings, there are even more layers to consider. How do I respond if someone wants to debate the election, or calls Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization? If my parents refuse to wear masks, should I suck it up and go anyway just to make them happy?
I don’t have all the answers, because let’s be real – no one does. But I do have some tips to help you get through a time of year that can be tough in a non-pandemic year. Here are 5 things to know before entering the holidays:
1. You don’t owe anyone your presence – including family.
Receiving an invitation to a family function can be an instant source of stress for survivors of narcissistic and emotionally immature families. Unlike many other invitations, these invitations come with an unspoken expectation that you will accept, whether or not you really want to go. For many enmeshed families, the idea that a member could choose not to participate in a family event is inconceivable. But let me say this loud and clear: An invitation is not a command appearance. Read that again – An invitation is not a command appearance. Unlike a court order to appear before a judge, there is no actual requirement to attend a family function. You can choose whether or not to accept an invitation (I do not recommend ignoring a court order!).
Now, it is true that a narcissistic family may be so certain of your compliance that they are dumbfounded by your refusal. Even when a relative says “oh don’t worry if you can’t make it,” you know when the default expectation is that you will present yourself for Being with The Family ™. You may be pressured to overlook your conflict with your parents in the name of giving your children holiday memories with their grandparents. You may see more flying monkeys than angels heralding good news. Remember, no matter how much they desire it, those who abuse you are not entitled to your time, mental energy, or forgiveness.
2. Your feelings are valid.
You are allowed to feel how you feel about the holiday season, even if you are the only one you know who feels this way. Despite the heartwarming resolution of all family conflict in every sappy holiday movie, greeting card commercial, and toy advertisement, the holidays are hard for many. For some, the holidays are a happy and exciting time. For others, they are lonely, sad, overwhelming, and stressful. Try not to beat yourself up if you’re feeling less than charitable during the season of giving and receiving.
The intense mashup of feelings surrounding holidays can be further complicated when a narcissistic or emotionally immature family tries to bully you into feeling something you don’t feel. You may receive a passive aggressive Christmas card about the benefits of forgiveness. Or an invitation to a Kwanzaa celebration hinting that this could be Granny’s last one so you should check your attitude and not disrespect your elders by holding a grudge. These messages are designed to push your “guilt trip” buttons. They can effectively cause you to gaslight yourself in an effort to create a feeling of forgiveness, calm, or love where you really feel anxiety and anger. Don’t twist yourself into knots trying to create a feeling that isn’t there. You are allowed to feel how you feel.
3. Your memories are part of your decision-making process.
“Let it go! That was ten years ago!” Raise your hand if you’ve ever been told to get over something because the other party involved has decided that you should. While no one is entitled to tell another person how to feel or what to remember, that doesn’t stop a narcissist from trying. A core element in any significant decision-making process is examining past experiences to understand and make the best possible decisions in present or future. We look to our history to inform our day-to-day decisions. If certain relatives virtually always berate and gaslight you, it is reasonable to assume they will continue to do so.
Those who insist you need to ignore, forgive and forget, or let go of memories of past abuse are generally those who have the most to gain by you giving up your personhood. You may choose, if it feels right for you, to forgive a hurtful person. If you do, that is entirely your choice to make. No one can make it for you, and no one has the right to try. You can also choose not to forgive, and to distance yourself from a hurtful person. That is also your choice, and no one can make you do so. You are allowed to draw upon your history with the people in your family to decide whether or not to gift them more of your time and energy.
4. It’s ok to say no.
So you’ve been invited to the big to-do, and you’ve gone through all your memories of the past events and decided you just aren’t up for another round of Family Drama. You can say no! As we noted earlier, an invitation is not a command appearance. You have the right to say no to things that are not good for you. Take a deep breath and check in with yourself right now. How does it feel to think about saying no to your narcissistic family? Butterflies in the stomach? Sweaty palms? Rapid heartbeat? Running to the toilet before you anxiety-barf?
It is normal to feel intimidated, nervous, or downright scared to say no, especially if you normally always say yes. And I’ll be honest with you, because this is important: Declining a family invitation may well have consequences. You should prepare ahead of time for the response if you choose not to go. How do you want to handle flying monkeys, guilt trips, and gaslighting about the importance of family during the holidays? Remember your reasons for saying no. And remember, no matter how much they may want you to appear, you do not owe your time, mental energy, or emotional availability to anyone – least of all to those who have already taken advantage of or mistreated you.
5. If you say yes, you can do so on your own terms.
Perhaps, after thinking through all your options, acknowledging your feelings and memories, and embracing your autonomy, you decide to go ahead and attend the family function. You can do that! If you say yes, consider what you need to do to take care of yourself in an environment that has brought you harm. What boundaries do you need to keep yourself safe? Do you need to set a time limit for how long to attend? Maybe you need a head count so you can change your arrival time if your most sharp-tongued aunt is in attendance. Think about how you can protect your time and energy before you get there. Perhaps a visualization of yourself encased by an invisible layer of shatter-proof glass – so no matter what they say or do, you are protected.
If you feel up to it, you can lay these boundaries out with your family ahead of time. “Dad, I am coming to dinner. But if you call me names I will leave.” If that feels too risky, just keep them in your own mind – but hold onto them. Try not to talk yourself out of upholding your own boundaries for the sake of anyone else’s comfort.
Bonus: Invite your sense of humor to help you through.
And remember, if all else fails – we are still in a pandemic. You can choose to stay home where you can log off a Zoom call at any time. Or, you can go and wear a plague doctor mask so they can’t see your facial expressions anyway! Whatever choice you make, remember that your life is yours. You don’t owe anyone an answer about how you spend your holidays.