When you hear the phrase, setting boundaries, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For many, the first thing they think of are physical boundaries, like a property line, or the white lines that direct traffic.

These are things we can see clearly and its common knowledge that crossing these boundaries could have consequences. On the other hand, psychological boundaries are much more difficult to identify because of how subtle they can be, yet they play an important role when escaping narcissistic relationships. So, today we are going to learn how to set boundaries with a narcissist.

Setting and protecting psychological boundaries can be quite difficult because so many of us have had the phrase, “just go with the flow,” instilled into our demeanor by societal norms. Therefore, in narcissistic relationships, setting a boundary pertaining to the tone of someone’s voice, or how frequently they diminish things we may hold dear, or even topics we’d like to avoid because they are triggering, can be very difficult. 

What makes it so difficult is that oftentimes victims of narcissistic abuse are plagued with self-doubt, and after months, years, or even decades of an intense manipulative environment, have lost authoritativeness over themselves and their wellbeing.

confusion from narcissistic abuse

The hurdle people must jump when setting psychological boundaries is our inability to control other people’s behavior. Narcissists are some of the most entitled, arrogant, grandiose, and antagonistic individuals on the planet. They are disgusted by the idea of being held to the same standard as everyone else, which means physical and psychological boundaries mean nothing to them.  

Why Is Setting Boundaries With Narcissists So Difficult?

When it comes to narcissistic behavior, it’s very important to learn the why before the how. This section is going to break down how a misunderstanding of narcissistic behavior, lack of confidence, being unaccustomed to the concept of setting boundaries, and narcissistic rage can all impact whether or not someone has the ability to successfully set a boundary. 

Misunderstanding of Narcissistic Behavior

In the previous article, How to Support Someone in a Narcissistic Relationship, I mentioned that many people don’t take the time to understand narcissistic behavior, which is quite irresponsible because it causes them to unknowingly be converted into enablers. However, when pertaining to learning how to set boundaries with a narcissist, a lack of knowledge will cause an individual to approach the situation as they would a healthy relationship.

This will most likely manifest in the individual’s belief that the narcissist they’re attempting to set a boundary with, will acknowledge social cues, validate their concerns, or have the ability to identify and respect their body language in uncomfortable or triggering situations. As I mentioned in How to Co-Parent with a Grandiose Narcissist, for the most part, narcissists get bored and annoyed when the attention isn’t on them. Subsequently, they don’t have the skill set required to take others’ well-being into consideration.

Lack of Confidence

Because of the ideologies behind “just go with the flow” that have been instilled into the demeanor of many of us by societal norms, it’s very possible that someone may feel like they don’t have the right to set a boundary with another person. This is especially true with those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse because of the manipulation they endure, especially gaslighting. 

Gaslighting usually occurs when a narcissist doubts and denies their victim’s reality so often that the victim begins to distrust their own perception of reality. This normally leads to those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse questioning their own emotions. 

how gaslighting affects victims of narcissistic abuse

You can connect the dots on your own, but it’s pretty clear to see how this level of self-doubt could prohibit someone from feeling like it’s right to set a boundary.

Unaccustomed to Setting Boundaries 

For those who grew up in an environment where the boundaries they set were mocked or ignored by family members, the concept of setting boundaries may feel uncomfortable or even foreign to them. In addition, for those who’ve been forced to experience an abusive childhood, physical, sexual, or other forms of abuse, setting boundaries is nearly impossible because as a child, their boundaries were consistently broken with zero repercussions. 

It’s very important for those who have experienced trauma during their childhood from their primary caregivers to address it with therapeutic guidance. As we mentioned in our article How to Destroy a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist, whatever the circumstances may be, growing up in an abusive environment corrupts a child’s perception of healthy relationships, which makes them extremely susceptible to abusive relationships in their adulthood.

Narcissistic Rage

Narcissists have an infamous ability to weaponize their victims’ insecurities and vulnerabilities. A very clear example of this in the narcissistic realm would be the manipulative tactic called baiting, but their ability to weaponize almost anything can also surface when someone attempts to set a boundary. 

It’s very common for narcissists to shame those who attempt to make a boundary with them by painting them out to be crazy and/or arrogant for wanting to set a boundary in the first place. 

narcissistic rage

Overtime this level of neglect and strategic placements of narcissistic rage fosters a significant amount of fear within the victim, which causes them to associate the fear of their abuser’s response with setting boundaries. 

Now that we have a better understanding of the dynamics behind setting boundaries, let’s dive into how to set boundaries with a narcissist in different environments.

How to Set Healthy Boundaries in a Workplace

We are currently living in an era that enables and supports narcissistic behavior. When it comes to work environments, this is undeniable. Narcissist insecure need to win and be dominant in every aspect of their life encourages them to be deceitful and malicious. Yet these attributes are both directly and indirectly rewarded in work environments. 

It’s for this reason you give your undivided attention to the guidelines I’m going to lay out below. 

Document Everything That Violates Boundaries You’ve Set

We can rarely speak in absolutes when writing about narcissism, however when it comes to narcissists in a work environment, they are 100% guaranteed to not only violate the boundaries you’ve set but have the possibility of getting away with their actions as well. Unfortunately, this is the case because we live in a world where everyone looks out for themselves. 

Narcissists being rewarded for their behavior

While the photo above was a horrifying example, it happens all the time. Documenting each and every time your narcissistic coworker or superior violates a boundary you’ve set, may be tedious but is imperative if you were to take it up with HR or legal advisors. 

Avoid Scenarios Where It’s Your Word Against Theirs

A really important detail to know is that while there are narcissistic enablers, there’s also another group of allies that a narcissist has, they’re called flying monkeys. When you’re learning how to set boundaries with a narcissist, you must be aware of flying monkeys. Flying monkeys are people narcissists manipulate into aiding and abetting their behavior. 

While both enablers and flying monkeys have these titles because they’re uneducated when it comes to narcissism, flying monkeys are just a tad bit more malicious. For example, an enabler could manifest in the form of a yes-man or woman, they just go with the flow and don’t want to create conflict. While flying monkeys are people that a narcissist will weaponize to extract information out of their victims and report what they find back to the narcissist. 

The purpose of flying monkeys is for narcissists to regain a sense of control, usually after their victims have been able to identify their narcissistic behavior and successfully set boundaries. If you would like a complete guide on flying monkeys go read our article The Best Way to Disarm Flying Monkeys: 431 Survivors’ Advice

flying monkeys

The reason that I’ve suggested that victims of narcissistic abuse avoid scenarios where it’s their word against their abusers, is because when it comes to their potential downfall, a narcissist has the ability to unite a monstrous amount of people behind them. 

So, they should avoid company parties where they may be labeled as a “buzzkill” for confronting their narcissistic supervisor about inappropriate behavior. They should request that their one-on-one meetings are well documented with timestamps and so on. 

How to Set Boundaries in an Intimate Relationship

Setting boundaries in an intimate relationship is a whole different ball game, because there’s a brand-new set of rules. 

Unlike a workplace environment where ideally you have an organization like HR who has the ability to investigate abusive behavior within the company, in intimate relationships you’re often all alone. 

Narcissists have a variety of techniques to not only jumble their victim’s perception of themselves but also isolate them from their support groups. 

Fear, Obligation, Guilt

F.O.G. plays a massive role in the continuation of narcissistic relationships. 

The manipulative tactics that narcissists use create an environment where victims of narcissistic abuse are silenced, because they associate fear, with having emotions that don’t compliment their narcissistic abuser’s fragile ego. 

victim of narcissistic abuse afraid to set a boundary

Narcissists also strategically use empathy to manipulate tactics like breadcrumbing, to ensure that victims of narcissistic abuse feel obligated to stay in the relationship. 

And finally outdated societal norms combined with a pervasive environment of manipulation make victims of narcissistic abuse feel guilty for even wanting to leave the relationship or acknowledge that their abuser’s behavior is sinister. 

The Best Way to Set Boundaries With a Narcissist Is Going Gray Rock

When someone is wondering how to set boundaries with a narcissist in an intimate relationship, it suggests that they are still living with their abuser. There isn’t necessarily a difference between someone setting boundaries with a narcissist that they live with versus one that they don’t, but there is something they should know. 

The most effective way to escape a narcissistic abuse cycle is no contact. No contact is exactly what it sounds like, it’s when someone is able to leave and cut off all forms of communication with their narcissistic abuser, which suffocates their much-needed narcissistic supply. 

Unfortunately, no contact isn’t always an option. 

The next best thing to going no contact is the gray rock method. Narcissists are very emotionally unstable but are incapable of acknowledging it. Therefore, they use relationships to regulate their emotions which manifest in the form of manipulative tactics like projection, scapegoating, gaslighting and so on.

When someone uses the gray rock method, they avoid confrontations with the narcissist by not defending and explaining themselves or engage in significant conversations. 

going gray rock and setting boundaries

By maintaining superficial conversations narcissists are unable to extract, anger, admiration, and confusion out of the victim to feed their narcissistic supply. In a perfect world this will lead to the narcissist becoming bored with the victim and leaving them to search for a new source of narcissistic supply. 

It sounds easy but it’s not. Those who try to use the gray rock method can expect to experience narcissistic rage and baiting for an extended period of time. But, if they stay true to themselves eventually the narcissist will leave, which enables the victim to prepare for and start their healing process. 

If you would like to read the complete guide for victims protecting themselves from their narcissistic abuser when leaving isn’t an option go check out, Living With a Narcissist When Leaving Isn’t an Option.

How to Set Boundaries in a Family Setting

The advice that I gave above and that you can find in the article Living with a Narcissist When Leaving Isn’t an Option, also applies to victims whose abuser is a family member. But I wanted to separate these two sections to ensure readers understand how important it is to seek out therapeutic guidance for childhood trauma. 

To do so I invited Roxanne, one of our participants and close friend, to summarize her 37 years of narcissistic abuse from both family members and two intimate partners. 

“My mother was a grandiose narcissist, and I was her helper child. I did everything for her. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was always trying to keep the household peaceful by cooking for my siblings, taking my siblings to school, helping my siblings with homework, really anything that my mother should do but found annoying… When I got old enough I would fill-in for my mother at parent teacher conferences as well. 

It was like working two full-time jobs without any compensation. I wasn’t doing anything to better my future, I was just my mother’s helper, that was my identity. I find the term helper child funny because my mother would call me her little helper from time to time. Back then that title meant the world to me but now I know that she used a title to manipulate me. Anytime I was feeling down or overwhelmed she would just call me her little helper, tell me that she needed me, tell me that she loved me, and I would come running… 

By the time my mother died I had been catering to her for 25 years of my life. I barely had a high school education. The only thing I knew for sure was that to feel good about myself I needed to put others’ needs before mine. Sadly, this mentality followed me into my relationships. My first husband beat me on what felt like a daily basis. I had never experienced physical violence before but somehow, I believe that it was my fault. I tried everything you could think of. I learned how to cook better meals for him, I cleaned up after him, I used the bathroom in our complex’s lobby so he could have his own space. The list is infinite, but the abuse never changed. 

With my second husband, the story remained the same, but the physical abuse turned into sexual abuse. At one point he convinced me that the reason he treated me so horribly was because I wasn’t sexy enough and to fix the problem, I had to do disgustingly erotic sexual favors for him. Back then it made sense but now I know that I was just playing out his sexual fantasies. 

I lost decades of my life because I didn’t realize how traumatizing my childhood was and to this day, I still find myself feeling the need to cater to others in order to be noticed. I can’t know for sure but I’m confident that seeking out a qualified therapist would have completely changed the course of my life.”

I really appreciate Roxanne and all of our other participants for sharing their stories, it’s not easy. I hope that her story has clarified why seeking out therapeutic guidance is a necessity for those living with untreated trauma. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

The best approach when learning how to set boundaries with a narcissist is to educate yourself on narcissistic behavior. Only then will you understand that boundaries are something that you set for yourself.

Narcissist’s inability to self-reflect, insecure need to regulate their emotions through others, and selfishness is precisely what pushes them to violate boundaries. It’s almost as if they violate boundaries to regulate their own emotions.

If you’ve suffered from narcissistic abuse, remember that you aren’t alone. Acknowledge the courage it takes to survive narcissistic abuse. Rebuild your self-esteem and last but not least, be kind to yourself.

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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References:

Interviewing 67 survivors of narcissistic abuse

Brown, Nina W., “The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern” (1996). Counseling & Human Services Faculty Publications. 43.

Luchner, A. F., Mirsalimi, H., Moser, C. J., & Jones, R. A. (2008). Maintaining boundaries in psychotherapy: Covert narcissistic personality characteristics and psychotherapists. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45(1), 1–14.

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