It’s happening again.
Your heart is starting to pound, your palms feel sweaty, and that little voice in your head won’t stop shrieking the same thing: It’s happening again! Those same little “jokes” that always seem to contain a sharp little jab; that same somehow challenging laughter as everyone looks at you expectantly, waiting to see how you’ll respond. The same conundrum - show them your honest, hurt reaction and risk the eye rolls and the angry dismissal? Or laugh it off, act like it doesn’t bother you and wait until you get home to cry.
It’s happening again.
Ah, holidays with (a narcissistic) family.
Captain Obvious incoming: Holidays with difficult families rarely look like what you see on TV. The holidays are one of the few times of year that even people who have gone low- or no-contact with emotionally abusive or neglectful relatives feel pressure to connect in some fashion. For those wavering on the fence about whether to continue a relationship with a narcissistic or abusive loved one, all this "family time" can feel like torture.
The high expectations we place on holiday gatherings can heighten what would have felt fraught on a random Tuesday in March. Many a wife knows the existential dread of bringing a side dish to her mother-in-law’s Thanksgiving table. The holidays bring a uniquely sharp focus on the ways that adult children of emotionally immature parents are simultaneously not enough and too much. How do they manage that? you may wonder, and it’s a fair question to ask. Let’s take a closer look at how narcissistic families trap adult children in the double bind of being too much and not enough.
When you're too much
“You’re just so sensitive! It was a joke, why do you always have to take things so seriously? I can’t even talk to you anymore!”
Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard some version of the above commentary, especially after reacting to a hurtful comment, backhanded compliment, or mean-spirited “joke” at your expense. These comments are usually made with a dismissive wave, scornful sneer, or genuine anger that you did not play along and accept the dig without complaint. For a Highly Sensitive Person, being called too sensitive is tantamount to being called fundamentally defective, since sensitivity is not something they can turn off.
Worse, calling you overly sensitive can be a way to shut down an adult child who steps out of their usual place. Telling hurtful jokes and passing it off as "you need to learn to laugh at yourself" deflects from the uncomfortable truth that what you responded to was hurtful or inappropriate in the first place. If you question, assert yourself, or try to break a pattern of being someone else’s emotional punching bag, you may become the target of a "get in line" campaign. These messages about how you are too much and not enough are meant to shame you back into compliance.
It’s also an effective tool in that it often causes the recipient to question and doubt themselves. Am I reading too much into this? Am I overreacting? It doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, so maybe it really is all me. These questions can throw off even the most strong-willed, assertive person. If get easily derailed by accusations of being too sensitive, don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember that your sensitivity to the unspoken, the nuance, and the subtext is one of your adult child of narcissist superpowers. Just because someone else doesn’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
When you're not enough
Then there’s the other side of the coin: the part where you’re never quite enough. Not smart enough, pretty enough, financially successful enough, married enough, etc etc etc. There can always be more ways for you to fall short, if you’re getting too comfortable with yourself among family members who need you to stay a level down.
“That promotion you were so proud of? It’s not as good as your brother’s, but good for you for finally moving out of that mid-level position you were stuck in for so long!”
“Oh, you lost weight? That’s nice, it’s good to see you finally caring about your body.”
“Your study is being published in a scientific journal? Well, that’s nice if you’re happy to stay in your ivory tower. The rest of us grunts know how things work in real life, but you know book learning has its place, too.”
A narcissist may express your “not enough-ness” as a direct comparison (in which you inevitably fall short) or through more backhanded compliments, non-responses, and facial expressions. Sometimes an eloquent “oh” says everything you need to know about how another person perceives you. The trickiest expressions come couched as a faux compliment. In these instances, your Spidey sense alerts you correctly, but there’s enough ambiguity for plausible deniability. These situations can make you want to tear your hair out.
When you're both at once
Adult children of narcissists live in the paradox of being simultaneously too much and not enough for their narcissist. Too sensitive to criticism about not being enough? Check. Too emotionally reactive to a backhanded compliment? Check. Reading too much into an “innocent” joke at your expense? Check and check.
This is hard for adult children of narcissist. You developed certain skills to survive in an emotionally abusive or neglectful home, such as attuning to your narcissist's emotional state. That awareness helped you avoid as much emotional blowback as possible. But when you utilize these skills in a way that does not suit the narcissist, they can become a tool to use against you. You are sensitive - but that doesn’t mean you are wrong.
In the same way, being not enough in some way keeps you in a one-down, off-balance position relative to the person making the value judgments. If you feel inferior to someone else, self-doubt creeps in and you may think twice before speaking up for yourself. If you’re both too sensitive AND not accomplished enough, you’re effectively sent to the kids’ table while the “real grownups” sit at the big table.
Make it staaahhhp
The same answer applies to both situations. Fair warning: It’s gonna sound cheesy, and it’s easier said than done.
The antidote to both of these is to form your own beliefs about your self-worth. Don't allow the judgments of others to make you smaller in your own eyes.
Basically...you have to believe in yourself. Know yourself, affirm yourself, and Stand in Your Truth.
People who need to feel better than you will employ many strategies to make you small. And when they’ve been effective for most of your life, it’s hard to stop responding to them as an adult. But you can heal the parts of you that believe, deep down, that you really are small and inferior. You do that with kindness, gentleness, compassion, and acceptance of yourself - ALL of yourself - regardless of what the other person does.
I’m going to say this again, because it’s that important: developing self-compassion and finding your self-worth happen because you show yourself love, regardless of whether anyone else does.
Too often, we think we can’t really believe in ourselves until someone else does. Hollywood is lousy with movies about girls who don’t know they’re pretty until a boy tells them they are, or men who think they’re too broken to love again until the right woman breaks through his walls. The truth is, healing begins inside. Only when you’ve begun to cultivate love for yourself can you truly bring your best self into relationships with others.
So what do I do?
Don’t wait until after another painful set of holidays to lick your wounds. Start your healing work now, and give yourself the gift of self-compassion. Prepare for family events with difficult relatives by reminding yourself that your worth is not contingent on their approval. Practice kindness by going through affirmations, such as I am worthy, I am enough, and This is their stuff, not mine. I don’t have to hold what isn’t mine.
Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. Honor every part of you that reacts to something in the presence of a narcissistic or emotionally immature relative. You have a right to feel how you feel, full stop.
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to have a few responses prepared for when you get those "get in line" messages. Think about where your boundaries are, and how you want to respond if someone pushes them. What will you and won't you do? Remember: boundaries are about what YOU do, not what you want the OTHER person to do.
This is a hard area for a lot of people. One of the most popular parts of the Walking on Eggshells group is where we practice scripting. Scripting is basically planning out some ways you can consistently respond to baiting statements, gaslighting, and other manipulative tactics. We will also dedicate a full block of time in the Walking on Eggshells workshop to scripting. If you're struggling in this area, sign up for the workshop! I promise, you're not alone in this.
The holidays are coming. Don’t face them alone! Contact me today to reserve your spot in the workshop.