There are a lot of articles out there that are helpful to the person who is not looking forward to holiday family gatherings. The combined traditions of petty arguments past (Mom loved you best!), retelling of embellished embarrassing tales of childhood (“Remember when Timmy wet himself in front of Santa, hahaha!”) especially when accompanied by alcohol is too much for a sensitive person. These articles, give guidance as to what to do in these situations and they are very useful. I know because I’ve written a few myself.
Recently, however, it was pointed out to me that there’s another kind of toxic relative that may need special attention. These people are easily avoided most of the year but when the holidays come around they gather like so many vultures because “it’s the holidays and that’s what families do.”
Many of us decide to put up with people we’re not crazy about because we have accepted that no one’s perfect and we love them anyway. Besides, they put up with stuff from us, too, so for one or two days we can support what we like about each other and turn a willing blind eye to the rest. We aren’t talking about them here.
We are talking about the malignant narcissists who leave us feeling miserable no matter what we do. If we let them into our homes we end up feeling sick because they have effectively sucked all the air and happiness out of the room. If we make plans that do not include them we also feel sick because we are people-pleasers and they do not hesitate to let us know how bad we are for not doing what they expect us to do.
They are the most toxic kind of narcissists or chronically emotionally abusive in the most deadly stealthy manner or they are just bad people, mean and selfish. An outsider wouldn’t know it because they hide it well. It may have taken you a lot of years and help from a gaggle of therapists to identify just how poisonous these people are but now you know.
For lack of a better word l will call these people Dementors, like the Dementors from the Harry Potter books. They suck all the happiness from us and we feel powerless in their presence and it’s easier to spell than narcissist.
Some dementors get us particularly agitated because they put on an act. It’s the “isn’t everything grand” act. It’s as if they are posing for a Macy’s ad of a happy family. It’s that fake. It’s not the verbal abuse that gets on our last nerve, it’s also the hypocrisy and complete disregard that they hurt us horribly the last time we got together, or that we are even in the same room except to serve as their audience.
The trouble with some relatives (and let’s face it we’re usually talking about relatives) is they 1. Don’t take no for an answer, 2. Act as if butter doesn’t melt in their mouths which is FAKE but how do we call them on it?
It is very easy to distrust ourselves when dealing with Dementors. They have a way of presenting their twisted view of things as the only true reality.
The first step to regaining control over our lives is to trust our own view of things. For example, if something they said hurt us, then they are being hurtful, not “just joking”, or “just being honest.”
Here are a few Reality Checks to help.
Reality Check #1 You deserve to have whatever holiday tradition you wish. Take care of yourself; especially during the holidays. Do whatever brings you closer to joy and grace. How you define this is completely open but YOU get to decide. Easy to say, not so easy to do.
Reality Check #2 Trust yourself. If you feel a bit weak, go to a trusted friend, relative or therapist who can help support what you know in your gut, that these people are poison to you and it’s best to stay away.
Reality Check #3 No matter what you do, you will hurt.
This is a sad fact. When we do what we are not used to doing it is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. Don’t expect to be all happy because you finally said ‘No’ to the Dementors in your life. If you do that’s great! But if you don’t it’s important to know that this pain you are feeling is growing pain, far different from stab-me-in-the-back pain or I-hate-myself-for-letting-them-in-again pain.
I won’t tell you what to do. Giving advice just isn’t my thing. I tell my patients all the time I am not into judging. I will care for them no matter what. So I don’t tell people what to do (unless they are at high risk of harm). If I gave advice and they decided to not follow it they may not tell me because they are afraid I will be mad at them. That would not be good. Besides, timing is everything and we need to be compassionate with ourselves if we aren’t ready to make a painful change.
To get around the direct advice thing I might say “Here is what I hope I would have the resolve to do for myself.”
I would keep the Dementors out of my house during the holidays. I would say, “You know what? My spouse and I have decided to have a very quiet Christmas, just the kids and us.” If you are single make plans with your closest friends. We all know your ‘created’ family can be more loving than your real one. When the Dementors don’t take ‘No’ for an answer be a broken record, repeat the same sentence over and over, variations on a theme, “Well, with everything that’s been going on we decided a little holiday with just the four of us is what we’re going to do.” After three minutes: “Oh my goodness! Look at the time! I’ve got to go pick up Susie from her play date! Bye!” Keep all conversations with Dementors short and sweet.
Do not argue with a Dementor. You will not win. It’s like trying to talk a two year old into…anything. They are ALWAYS right and you only waste your precious energy trying to convince them otherwise. If they try to engage you in a discussion about why it is wrong to not have the entire extended family together for the holidays, go back to the mantra and say, “Yes, yes, you are so right. I hope we can do it next year. This year we are going to stay home just the kids and spouse.”
If this is too hard, you may lie. I give you permission to lie. Say you or the kids have the flu. Anything to protect you and your family. Just keep the lie simple and make sure you have a secure Cone of Confidence, i.e. that your spouse is your happy co-conspirator. Sadly lying may be a necessary soul preserving tactic. Use it judiciously but use it if needed.
Later I might suggest we meet the Dementors at a restaurant a few days after Christmas, maybe at one of those all you can eat breakfast brunches or dinner at the Mongolian Buffet! That way I could meet them there, on neutral territory so to speak, but have the option to leave as soon as I begin to feel diminished in their presence. Interestingly being in public often reduces the power of the Dementor, but not always.
Finally, to give me strength and resolve I remember that I am not only taking care of myself when I take care of myself. I am also a prime role model for my children. They watch everything and they are sponges. I want them to see that it is healthy to protect themselves from the Dementors in their lives if they ever have to.
Remember: Always keep your eye on Reality Check #1
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Wonderful Winter Solstice! You deserve it!
Creepy Christmas Elf photo courtesy of skronk! via Flickr