Beth wants the impossible. She wants a nice family dinner with sharks. No, I’m not talking about a shark diving expedition, I’m referring to the feeding frenzy of triangulation and gossip that surrounds every family gathering in her family of origin. Last year’s dinner was ruined by the narcissist grilling her about her engagement to someone they didn’t want her to marry. This year she wants to bring her newly married beloved to dinner. All the family brouhaha that inspired her to elope has been forgotten in her dream for a perfect family holiday, but this will be the first time they all share a meal together since the invisible, yet big event of her life.
On one hand, Beth would like to go, but on the other, she isn’t sure she should go because she’s still hurt that no one threw a reception for them. At the same time, she thinks if they will just get to know her special person, they will see how wonderful they are together and approve of her choice. Her new spouse says,”Forget your family, let’s just go skiing by ourselves this year.” If you were Beth what would you do?
I think I know how Beth feels. Even when our siblings and parents are rude to us, we still love them. We dream of the intimacy we once had as children and we would like to sit around and share memories with the only people who know what it was like while we were growing up. It’s fun to get together when others are warm, generous and kind, but you and I know there’s always a catch at a narcissistic family dinner and these are a few of my least favorite things.
This is the time of year when we look forward to the holidays, but for people who come from narcissistic family systems, it can bring on mixed emotions. Of course you want a warm family gathering. You long to see the people you love and would like to have a pleasant meal where you can be yourself—-dissonant record break here—being yourself just cancelled out the first part of this dream for most of us, because narcissistic people can’t accept people who don’t go along with their rules.
It’s important to note that whatever you do on this holiday, it might have repercussions for years to come. The narc and flying monkeys will bring fear warnings of separating from your family. What if someone dies? Well, what is even worse than death? Living with people who treat you with contempt? There’s a saying that says to treat people in such a way that when you are gone they will miss you. Most narcs and flying monkeys never consider this option. They also want you to feel alone and shut out, but what about being alone at the table and feeling shut out? What if all you do is attend and end up going gray rock? How much fun is that?
The family gathering sounds so nice until you realize you might have to sacrifice your heart and soul to have that dinner and you know going home you will have heartburn for weeks. That’s why it’s important to think about your options now before you come up to the last minute. Otherwise you might end up with one foot at Grandma’s and one foot out on the street. It is very possible to sit with those you love and feel alone much like a stranger staring in from the outside.
A few years ago, I got up at four in the morning and baked Christmas cookies to take to my nephews. My husband and I had not done anything with my family for several months due to what we called the Great Divorce in our family, but hey, it was Christmas and I loved the dark dancing eyes of my nephews and couldn’t wait to take them some gift cards and cookies.
We invited family members to meet us at the Spaghetti Factory. Not everyone was happy with us and my parents were still holding a grudge so the meal was tense. As we went out the door, my mom tried to put me on guilt trip for following my own conscience and my dad backed her up. It was gaslighting at its worst and in the parking lot of one of my favorite restaurants.
I decided to walk away from the argument and head to my car. My dad yelled that I always walk away. Then he said what he had said whenever he couldn’t control me since I was a teenager—that I was mentally ill. I turned around and said, “That doesn’t work on me anymore. I know I’m not mentally ill and I think you’re being emotionally abusive, so I am going to leave now.”
It took me an hour and a half to drive home. When I got home my parents had sent an email telling me to “read 1 Corinthians 13, because you don’t even know how to love.” This was after I gave them my money for years and did everything I could to be a good daughter. It broke my heart, but I was not torn to shreds because of another holiday three years before when I made the choice NOT to see them.
That year, instead of having dinner with my family, we’d decided to invite a group of church friends for Thanksgiving dinner at our house. A woman around my parents’ age named Debbie was always complaining because she had all kinds of dietary restrictions. Other women in our church rolled their eyes at her when she complained, but I knew she lived alone and I wanted to find a way to warm her heart so I invited her over for dinner.
When Debbie arrived at our house she said she didn’t want to inconvenience us with her food allergies–that she was just thrilled for the company, so she decided not to mention her dietary restrictions and brought one thing she could eat which was cottage cheese. I showed her what I’d cooked and she shook her head at each dish. She wasn’t demanding like my family had been that Worst Thanksgiving Ever, she just had a lot of health problems. She couldn’t eat gluten, couldn’t tolerate tofu and vegetables wreaked havoc on her intestines. She said she could subsist on cottage cheese and be fine. I asked what else she would eat if she could eat anything. She said pickles and cheese. Believe it or not, I had none in the house, but since a nearby store was still open, my kind husband ran out and bought her some pickles and cheese. She was so thrilled that we went out of our way for her that she never forgot it.
A couple years later when we were moving away, our church threw a party for us and Debbie asked if she could give a speech. She read the meaning of our names. When she got to me, she explained how my name meant love and how she thought I was appropriately named because she’d seen me live out love in action over and over for the last few years. She said she loved the way l loved people.
Of course Debbie made me cry then, but she also made me cry again three years later when I read my parents’ email. I realized this woman Debbie had given me a beautiful gift years before I would need it to protect my heart from their future abuse. I would never have received such a gift if I’d gone to my parents’ house that Thanksgiving instead of holding my own dinner and inviting whoever needed a place to eat.
So back to Beth and all who are on the dividing line between spending the holiday with family and choosing another route, ask yourself these questions, “If these people really love me, why is it so hard for them to show me respect? What will be best for my emotional health in the long term?”
It’s also worth thinking about the ways loving people show love for others? Do they remember birthdays? Send a note saying I thought about you? Call to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” Respect each other’s boundaries and social media walls? Do they resolve conflicts by talking to the person they’re upset with instead of triangulating with another family members?
What is love? Is it not being true and honest in our relationships? Is it not doing to others as we would like to be treated? Is it not apologizing when we’ve used someone or lied about them? If we can apologize for our mistakes, why do we make so many excuses for the narcissist? Remember we can’t reconcile with people who won’t say sorry.
When someone says they love you, but they talk about you to others and never speak to you, do they really love you? And if they write accusations in public on social media and call you a liar when they have access to your private email and phone number, what does that say about them? Doesn’t it say they are more concerned about being right and looking good than about having a relationship with you? If they can’t even pick up the phone and call you what business do they have being on your social media in the first place? With such cruel manifestations of love, who needs enemies?
No matter how wonderful your own intentions this holiday season, you have zero control over what others will do. You can’t make people accept you. You can’t stop their triangulation and gossip. You can’t stop people from making snarky comments and giving backhand compliments. You can’t control any of these things any more than you can stop them from putting their elbow on the table and talking with their mouths full. Obnoxious people are going to be obnoxious, thoughtful people will be thoughtful. By now you might be able to tell who is which.
Since the only person you have control over is yourself, you get to decide where to invest this holiday season. You control the wheel. It’s up to you if you pull over to a restaurant, a friend’s house or your dysfunctional family’s crap fest. Choose carefully, because once you’ve made the choice, it can’t be undone. You’ll never get a do over. Life only gets to be lived once. Like a famous TV psychologist often says, “The only thing worse than ten years in a bad relationship, is spending one more day in it.” And I might add the only thing worse than a miserable family dinner is the heartburn that follows it for weeks afterward. Look, if you really want a holiday to remember, choose freedom.