The Holiday Hoover

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Holiday expectations can be challenging. Living up to the idyllic narrative of collective bonding and celebrations in which people everywhere are supposedly experiencing holiday rituals and get-togethers that foster well-being and intimacy can be anxiety producing. For many folks, the seasonal lure of promised pleasure, coupled with the glitz and glam of commercialism, celebratory parties, and the promise of what can potentially fulfill while subtly reminding you of what you lack, is understandably overwhelming. Throw in the likelihood of toxic familial dynamics and you have a stimulating mix of circumstances to contend with. This volatile combination is particularly vexing for a disordered narcissist.

Although the holiday season does indeed afford the narcissist plenty of opportunities to grandstand, should they not be welcomed at any given festive occasion the rejection is experienced as a mortifying blow. Since the narcissist is incapable of true intimacy, attention seeking and dominance offers a tenuous sense of substitutionary fulfillment. As a result, any sort of exclusion is deeply wounding and is perceived as a personal attack.

Indeed, being denied the opportunity to revel in the spotlight of a holiday party or dinner can be viewed by a disordered narcissist as a huge offense that devastates their ego. Hence, the thought of others attaining what the narcissist covets culminates in deep-seated rage, envy, and indignation. This injury compels the narcissist to procure any sort of indiscriminate attention, through whatever means possible.

Since the happiness of others is a huge source of envy and contention for the disordered narcissist, the holiday season will heighten their wrath.

Fueled by a ruthless competitive nature, the disordered narcissist will amplify their efforts during holiday time to cause distress and glean supply. Supply for the narcissist is a form of life support, a source of sustenance that feeds their insatiable infantile need for constant gratification.

The narcissist’s attempt to glean supply is often achieved through employing a tactic referred to as hoovering.

A euphemistic term coined after the iconic vacuum for which it’s named, hoovering implies sucking in a designated target for supply. For those versed in understanding the machinations of a narcissistic abuser, it’s no surprise that any sort of celebratory milestone is an opportunity for hoovering. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the narcissist to resurface during the holidays even after brutally discarding former supply.

In an effort to breach a prolonged no contact rule the narcissist will extend holiday wishes. Acknowledging through text, phone, or email any celebratory event is a seemingly appropriate, non-invasive way for the narcissist to weasel back in. Any response, no matter how perfunctory or even hostile is a form of supply. For that reason, it’s best if possible to maintain low to no contact.

If groveling and seemingly amiable gestures fail to procure a response, the narcissist will either direct their sights elsewhere or more egregious measures may occur such as manufacturing emergencies, touting victimization or assassinating your character. What ensues is dependent on many variables.

First and foremost the thrill of the hunt and the irresistible power of embodying both tormenter and redeemer fuels the narcissist’s quest. Although an oxymoron, the ‘worth’ or more aptly, the rank of the supply largely determines where and how they expend this predatory energy.

Narcissists are partial to premium supply that compliments their delusional sense of superiority, meaning the supply embodies what the narcissist envies and desires to have. The level of supply deemed premium defers to the narcissist's need to be in control and provides the level of intensity (i.e. worship)the narcissist demands. If however, that is not attainable the narcissist will resort to peripheral lesser grade supply, meaning people or situations that are not as yielding or grandiose.

Irrespective of the type of supply being targeted, the narcissist’s ability to successfully exploit the vulnerabilities of their prey will encourage their ongoing attempts to reassert power and control. If the targeted victim capitulates, it reinforces the narcissist’s sense of superiority, omnipotence, and entitlement.

For that reason, should one take the bait and respond to hoovering no matter how seemingly benign, the narcissist concludes it is the victim’s weakness that has afforded victory. Caving in reinforces for the narcissist that the target is malleable supply, easily manipulated, and duped even in the aftermath of lies, infidelity, and emotional and physical violence.

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Narcissists understand that during the holidays empathic and generous impulses to extend oneself are a likely occurrence. They are also aware that feelings of loneliness during the holidays can make one more vulnerable to their ostensible overtures of well wishes and nostalgic recollections. Eager to capitalize on and benefit from these conditions, the narcissist will maneuver with a vengeance to pull potential supply into their web of deceit.

To my chagrin, I am witnessing this dynamic play out with my therapy clients who feel a sympathetic pull towards narcissistic family members during the holiday season. Besieged with guilt ignited by a narcissistic family member’s holiday plight, they make concessions and extend invitations to connect. “After all,” they tell themselves, “it’s the holidays. No one should be alone.”

Naturally, the consequences of these choices have been disastrous. The exacerbation of PTSD symptomatology is an unsettling outcome of attempting to bargain with the sinister motives of a malignant narcissist.

That said, during this holiday season keep in mind that not succumbing to the inevitability of hoovering is a critical test. Even if you have compassion for the narcissist that does not have to be equivalent to throwing caution to the wind. No matter how seemingly trivial or cordial the outreach may seem, resuming contact will be detrimental. Responding to unscrupulous ploys will only lead to returning to even worse degradation and abuse.

Your self-protective boundaries are essential during the holiday season. As you head into the new year affirm that you have every right to protect yourself. Surround yourself with people you can trust, exercise detachment, and look ahead to a life in which safety and relationships of trust and love nourish your spirit. Know that only by being narcissist free can that intention become your reality.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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