In South Africa we call it “The Festive Season.” South Africa is a melting pot nation that takes its mélange of cultures and faiths with serious respect. The season usually begins in November with fireworks for Diwali and Guy Fawkes Day and moves on through a variety of holidays until after New Years. So serious is South Africa about its multicultural Festive Season that the country virtually shuts down from 15 December until around 15 January. Everybody goes on holiday, which creates some interesting situations: you own a busy B&B in a holiday mecca like Cape Town and your plumbing clogs up—and your plumber has gone to Durban for the month…
But despite its differences, when it comes to families—particularly dysfunctional families—South Africa is no different from any other place on the planet: if you are estranged from a toxic, dysfunctional family, you are again going to be faced with the clueless, well-meaning twits who find this the appropriate time to poke their noses into your personal business and rag on you about reconciling with your noxious and feckless family members. And, no matter how successful you were in getting them to understand—or at least accept—your situation last year, this year it is like their brains has been wiped clean and you have to start all over again.
Well, here’s the good news: it is not really necessary for you to do that. In fact, doing that is a waste of your time, effort, and emotional energy. I am here to tell you that you are not obligated to explain to anybody why you are NC with your mother, why you are LC with your grandmother and why your relationship with your mother-in-law is as good as it ever will be. That’s right—not only do you not have to “mend fences” with the very people who keep tearing them down, you are under no obligation to explain yourself to anyone. Ever.
Let’s look at this rationally. First of all, this is your family situation, therefore your business. And if the nosey twit is a member of your family it doesn’t matter: nobody—and I mean nobody—has the right to shame you or disrespect you or second-guess your decisions about your life. Once you become an adult, that right is solely yours, shared with another only if you decide to do so (and you can take that back at any time it suits you). Anyone who inserts him (or her) self into your decision making process where your life and associations is concerned is seriously out of line. That includes your parents, your siblings, your aunties, uncles and cousins, your grandparents, your spouse and even your own children. It should go without saying that anyone who is not related to you is doubly out of line because they don’t even have a stake in your decision.
You may go to a trusted family member and ask for advice. That’s fine. But giving advice is not the same as giving a command that must be obeyed. The fact that Auntie Tilda said to ignore your narcissistic mother’s attempts to turn your children against you doesn’t mean you have to accept or agree or take her advice. It means only that you solicited a point of view different from yours to consider. And you have just as much right to reject advice as you do to accept it.
Unsolicited advice is worth exactly what you paid for it—nothing. It is rare for a person to offer unsolicited advice about your family situation without having a personal agenda…something s/he will gain if you take the advice. Sometimes that gain is as obvious as your sister roping you into Christmas lunch, knowing MNM will tear you apart and leave her alone. Or it could be as hidden as GCBro conning you into agreeing you will come to Christmas dinner and reaping a reward promised by your NM if he could get you to show up. But when someone takes it upon himself to try to get you to unilaterally make nice with someone who has abused you, it is not out of line for you to ask “Why is this your business? What are you getting out of this?” You don’t have to ask it aloud, but you really should think about what this person will gain if you re-establish contact because this effort is not about you or your well-being. In one way or another, it is about them and what they stand to gain.
Making this kind of overture to you is actually disrespectful. It is saying “I do not believe you are capable of making good decisions about your life.” If they think someone talked you into it—like a spouse or significant other or friend they either don’t like or think has too much influence over you—then they are telling you that they don’t think you did this independently and that you are easily led or swayed…so they are going to lead you, sway you, to the other side. Whatever their reasoning, the fact remains that it is disrespectful to you and indicative that they do not perceive you as a fully autonomous adult.
Before you formulate a plan about how to handle these people you need to formulate a plan about how to handle yourself. Why? Because whenever people start this crap, our most natural reactions are guilt, shame, yearning, tears and/or anger. Any of these feelings make us vulnerable and may cause us to second-guess our choices and convictions and the boundaries we have set. It is helpful to review—hopefully you have been journaling about your experiences and feelings—the reasons you have chosen to distance yourself from the narcissists in your life. You didn’t make this decision on the spur of the moment, you came to the conclusion about separating from this person after a great deal of pain and turmoil on your part. Most people who go NC spend years trying to get their Ns to understand, to listen, to treat them with, if not love, at least respect and fairness. Going NC was a last resort to stop the abuse because when the abuser refuses to stop abusing, only two choices are open to the abused: stay and know the abuse will continue or remove yourself from the field of battle.
Going NC is not admitting defeat, although it may feel like it. It is, in fact, a pro-active behaviour, a positive step in self-protection. There is nothing wrong in removing yourself from the fray when you realize the battle is futile. What point, after all, is there in fighting a battle that can never be won? The narcissist will never change and neither will her loyal supporters, the flying monkeys. You will always be at fault, you will always be less than what the narcissist expects, less than what the narcissist wants. That is not because of something wrong with you, it is because the narcissist set up the game, its rules and its roles and your role is to be the one who is “less than.”
In the eyes of the narcissist, we have a role to fulfil and when we refuse, we are trying to change the rules and roles of their game. They don’t care if you don’t like it the way it is because the game is theirs, it is for them, and created so they get what they want, not what you want. You cannot change their game and they are only going to change it if they see an advantage for themselves in making a change.
You have to be excruciatingly clear to yourself on two points: why you went NC in the first place and why it is in your best interests to remain that way. Write it down if you have to and keep the note in your purse or pocket. Whip it out and read it when it becomes necessary to remind yourself. There is nothing an N or flying monkey won’t stoop to in order to get their way. Don’t let yourself be conned.
Once you have yourself in hand, it is important to look at the person who is attempting to get you to reconcile with your Ns. Talking to them isn’t going to help. First of all, you don’t owe them any kind of an explanation and secondly, they won’t really listen if you try.
This is significant. This gives you a clue as to their agenda. The truth is, they don’t care about why you are NC. It doesn’t matter to them. What they believe has a higher priority in their minds than what you believe. If you tell them about a bunch of petty cruelties, they will tell you to be forgiving; if you tell them about major incidents, they will either disbelieve you or think you provoked it and therefore deserved it. Whatever you say, the person who has not bothered to put himself into your situation and empathize with you will, inevitably, discount everything you say, dismiss your every reason and justification, and substitute his agenda for your well-being because this is not about you, it is about him!
And that is the realization you have to grab onto and take to heart. This is not about you—it may sound like it is, it may look like it is, it may even feel like it is, but it is not. It is about the person who is pushing reconciliation. You see, your separation from your Ns he finds threatening. If he has children of his own, he projects himself into your Ns situation and sees himself being held at arm’s length by his children. You are a bad influence, distancing yourself from your parent, regardless of reason. You are demonstrating that parents can be held accountable for their actions years after the fact. They don’t want you giving ideas to others.
They don’t acknowledge your pain because that threatens them as well. If they acknowledge your pain, they have to acknowledge that somebody did something that hurt you. And if you are saying it was your parent, they may fear their own children might do the same thing one day. You, your honesty, your strength in stepping back and putting a stop to your abuse—all of this threatens them. Why? Because you are stepping out of the prescribed pattern of behaviour—putting up with whatever your parents dish out no matter what—and they do not know how to deal with that.
The sad fact is, the world is full of people who feel threatened by those who do not conform to their ideas of what constitutes the norm. Back in the ’60s families became divided over the length of a boy’s hair—some very rigid families actually fractured because the boys grew out their hair and their parents, afraid of what the long hair might symbolize (it symbolized individuation, which is precisely what teens should have been doing at that point in their lives) either forced haircuts on them or threw them out of the house and family. Over a haircut!
The bottom line is that these pleas for reconciliation, especially during the holiday season, have absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with the estranged N and/or the person trying to get you to capitulate. They don’t give a fig about your feelings or your well-being, they care about their image. Your Ns may look bad if you remain estranged during the holidays and, in the beginning, people may be sympathetic to your poor, abandoned Ns, but over time they may come to wonder about an estrangement that is long-lasting: my Uncle Gary, for example, finally understood why I had such animosity towards my mother when the truth came out, years later, about her huge deception and how she played the whole family.
But make no mistake: you are not missing your Ns, you are missing the fantasies your vision was clouded with. You are not being “bad” to stay away from them, to not send gifts or cards, or to refuse to accept gifts and cards: you are taking necessary steps to protect yourself. There is a price to pay for partaking of the Happy Families parody that your Ns script and produce every year and that price will be exacted from you with every contact with every N and flying monkey in the family for as long as you allow them to milk it..
The choice, of course, is yours. If you truly believe the price that will be exacted from you is worth the few hours of time spent in their presence then, by all means, join in the festive atmosphere and remember, six months from now when you are being accused of having been “difficult” at Christmas dinner, that you were sure that the togetherness was worth the price.
But you can also take on board this: nobody can abuse you without your consent. You give consent to their abuse when you pick up her call, when you open his gift, when you walk through their door. Each time you accept an overture, you are opening your shirt and pointing to the place where they should plunge the knife for greatest effect. They will not stop abusing you because they do not believe they are doing anything wrong and any expectations on your part for change will be viewed as outrageous and out of line. You are the bad guy in the script they have crafted and they will move heaven and earth to ensure that you fulfil that role as written.
The only thing you can do is to walk away from the drama with your head held high, knowing that that they cannot win if you refuse to play. Is winning important? Only in the sense that their win means destroying you as you are and remaking you into the perfect fulfilment of the role created for you, while your win means retaining and expanding your autonomy.
How you deal with your narcissistic relatives and their flying monkeys during the holiday season depends on what you want to get out of the deal. But if what you want is a happy, loving, normal family, remember that people in Hell want ice water…