Narcissism

7 Ways to Set Boundaries With Narcissistic People

How to effectively respond to intrusive and demeaning behavior.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Dashu/Shutterstock
Source: Dashu/Shutterstock

Lacking empathy for how their actions affect others, narcissists feel entitled to use other people. This makes it especially important to set firm boundaries with them. Here are seven effective approaches:

1. Don’t justify, explain, or defend yourself. Narcissists use scrutiny or intimidation to make others second-guess themselves. Doing so gives them a feeling of power and control.

Part of boundary-setting is the right to decide what you share with others. The less you share, particularly personal information, the less a narcissist has to use against you.

You don’t need to justify your thoughts, feelings, or actions to an intrusive narcissist. If a narcissist criticizes you, you can say something like, “I hear your opinion and I will consider that.” If they question your actions, say, “I am confident in my choice.” If they demand an explanation, say, “That’s personal,” or “We’ll have to just agree to disagree.”

2. Leave when it doesn’t feel healthy. You don’t need anyone's permission to exit a destructive interaction. You, not others, get to determine what is healthy for you.

You can glance at your watch and say, “Look at the time: I’m late.” Then leave. Late for what? It doesn’t matter. Every moment you remain in the presence of controlling or abusive behavior makes you late for healthier self-care.

Your cellphone can be a helpful prop. Nobody can know for sure whether you've received a call. Say, “I’m sorry, I have to take this call.” Then leave. Or decide in advance how many minutes you want to give a narcissist, then set your phone or watch alarm to go off at that time. When the alarm sounds, excuse yourself.

Or directly confront unhealthy treatment by saying something like, “I am going to excuse myself. We can talk another time when you are ready for a constructive conversation,” or, “This is not healthy. I will not participate in this kind of dialogue.”

3. Decide what you will tolerate and what you won’t. A key component of setting healthy boundaries is knowing when to say no, and doing so. Ask yourself what you are willing to accept from others and what you are not. For example, you may be okay with good-natured banter but not sarcasm. You may be fine with passionate expressions of opinions but not namecalling or bullying.

One way of drawing the line is to say, “If you continue to call me names, I will end our conversation until you are willing to treat me with respect.” You don’t need to explain further. If a narcissist’s aggressive behavior continues, leave or hang up. Refuse to engage in further interaction, no matter what they do or say.

When you set such boundaries, narcissists may cycle through their repertoire: arguing;  blaming; minimizing your feelings; acting like a victim; saying that you're too sensitive; or becoming rageful. While such tactics can be unpleasant to endure, your boundaries are not up for discussion.

4. Learn to artfully sidestep intrusive questions or negative comments. Skilled political spin doctors sidestep difficult questions from journalists by simply answering a different question — generally, a question they wish they had been asked that can promote their agenda.

Similarly, if a narcissist asks an intrusive question, you can gracefully shift topics. If a narcissist who has a track record of criticizing your spending, career choices, or personal relationships begins their familiar interrogation, why step in that again? Instead, say something like, “Those are the kinds of challenges that build character, aren’t they?”

Or shift to a topic the narcissist loves to talk about. Ask their views on the secret to a good relationship or how they made a difficult career or financial choice.

While their answers may be full of platitudes, at least they'll focus on their favorite topic — themselves — instead of you. You may even pick up some ideas. Plus, it can feel validating to adeptly shift a conversation.

5. Take the bully by the horns. Narcissists hunger for attention and approval to counteract deep, unconscious feelings of emptiness and unworthiness. As a result, they endlessly test to see what they can get away with.

One way to meet this is to call out what they are doing. For example, say, “Are you trying to put me down or make me feel bad?” or, “I notice that when I begin to talk, you interrupt me.”

Say such things in a matter-of-fact way. It doesn’t matter how they respond. Be content in knowing that you have named what is happening, and leave it at that.

6. Don’t underestimate the power of narcissism. Remember that narcissists have spent a lifetime learning how to devalue and take advantage of others. Narcissism is a powerful psychological phenomenon based on distorted views of self, others, and the world.

Most people are unnerved by narcissistic tactics. And if you come from a narcissistic upbringing or are in a long-term relationship with a narcissist, you may be conditioned to accept unhealthy behavior.

If you don’t set healthy boundaries in a given situation, have compassion for yourself. Identify what you want to do differently next time and move on. Boundary-setting is not a one-time event.

7. Remember: Good boundaries include consequences. Part of setting boundaries is knowing what you are prepared to do if your boundaries are ignored. Consequences are best when they are clear in your mind ahead of time. Then, when a boundary is violated, act on your chosen consequence immediately, decisively, every single time. Otherwise, you may lose credibility.

As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Copyright © 2020 Dan Neuharth PhD MFT

An earlier version of this post appeared on Psychcentral.com.