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Boundaries: The Best Defense Against Narcissists

Why establishing boundaries empower you to create the relationships you deserve.

It is very challenging to interact with those with difficult or pathological personalities. Historically, psychologists have believed that individuals are in charge of their own emotions. If someone says something unkind to you, for example, your reaction is yours; no one can make you feel a certain way.

This may be true if you are interacting with an emotionally healthy and mature person. However, it is often not the case when dealing with a narcissist or emotionally immature personality (Gibson, 2019).

Reactions of anger, outrage, helplessness, guilt, fear, and confusion are common when dealing with those with pathological personalities. This is because they are prone to distort and deny reality, engage in pathological lying, and make use of gaslighting tactics. Narcissists and those with significant disturbance in personality, such as borderline and antisocial (psychopathy) personality disorders, often use these tactics—whether intentionally or unintentionally (if the behavior was, for instance, passed on by their own family).

Regardless of its intention, however, the behavior is a form of psychological abuse and is very harmful (Sweet, 2019). Those with pathological personalities elicit these feelings in most people they interact with, including therapists. This is why many believe they are not amenable to success in counseling.

It is well documented that many psychologists believe this population is usually “untreatable” (Dingfelder, 2004). This is because personality disorder aspects, such as the way of perceiving reality, are fixed and ingrained. Additionally, most also display emotional immaturity or arrested emotional development. These individuals may have physically grown up, in other words, but their emotional selves did not. Therefore, they may exhibit child-like emotional qualities (tantrums, lack of empathy, perspective-taking, acting out). In the field of counseling, maintaining effective boundaries with these patients is essential.

What is a boundary?

Boundaries are basic guidelines that people create to establish how others may behave around them. Personal boundaries are important because they set the basic guidelines of how you want to be treated. Effective parents, for example, set limits and boundaries with their children and have consequences for misbehavior.

Boundaries help both parties understand what is expected in a relationship. Emotionally healthy people respect your boundaries and have empathy and concern if they cross them. However, narcissists and toxic personalities do not and often thrive on this behavior due to their own emotional problems. Therefore, establishing firm boundaries is a must for your own mental health.

Often, we assume that people will respect our boundaries because we were brought up to respect others' boundaries and were taught what is acceptable by our families, upbringing, and culture. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Individuals with pathological personalities may not have been taught proper emotional boundaries, and often use tactics such as gaslighting, emotional coercion, and manipulation in their interactions because that's what they knew as a child.

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Further, they tend to show disregard for other people’s thoughts, feelings, and physical space. For example, they may break promises and obligations chronically and blame the other party with no remorse.

We can feel uncomfortable or even violated if we interact with those who have poor boundaries. Often, we know that our boundaries have been violated by the way we feel after an interaction with a person with these characteristics. Feeling drained, confused, exhausted, and "brain-scrambled" (Gibson, 2019) can all be signs that our boundaries have been violated.

Therefore, we have to know how to establish healthy emotional, psychological, and physical boundaries in relationships so we can feel respected and safe. How? The first step is knowing your rights for a healthy relationship.

Your rights in a relationship:

  1. To feel safe.
  2. To set limits on what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
  3. To set limits on harmful or exploitive behavior.
  4. To have your privacy and boundaries respected. "No" is a complete sentence.
  5. To be heard and listened to.
  6. To feel emotionally validated.
  7. To be appreciated and valued.
  8. To not be emotionally coerced through guilt, threats, and manipulation.
  9. To have your needs met.
  10. To be treated respectfully—this means the absence of emotional, physical, or verbal abuse.

Identifying your limits in relationships is the first step in maintaining healthy boundaries. For example, ask yourself: What is acceptable behavior within a relationship? If you meet a new friend and tell them that you are busy, but they continue to call and text you, you may find they are not accepting no for an answer. A person who continually does not take "no" for an answer is violating your boundaries.

The second step is consistency. It is important to consistently have a consequence if someone crosses those limits. For instance, if you have a family member who is emotionally volatile and begins to be verbally abusive, ending the conversation may be the consequence of the behavior; if you wish, you can reconvene at a later time when he/she is able to be in a calmer state. While creating boundaries is important in itself, remaining firm in your boundaries over time is crucial.

If you need help establishing healthy boundaries and practicing assertiveness, working with a therapist may help. Often, those who lack assertiveness skills—who often "don't want to be mean"—may be at risk for boundary violations because they don't want to hurt someone's feelings and put their needs on the backburner. Oftentimes, these individual fall prey to a narcissist because they lack the ability to establish healthy relational boundaries.

In sum, setting boundaries may help you manage difficult situations in your life, or distance yourself from them entirely depending on the situation and what is best for you.

This article was originally published on

Copyright: Dr. Tracy Hutchinson, Ph.D.


Dingfelder, S. (2004). Treatment for the ‘untreatable’. American Psychological Association, 35 (3).

Gibson, L. (2019). Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents.

Leedom. L. J. (2017). The Impact of Psychopathy on the Family, Psychopathy - New Updates on an Old Phenomenon, Federico Durbano, IntechOpen, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.70227. Available from:…

Roth, K, Friedman, F. (2003). Surviving a borderline parent: How to heal your childhood wounds & build trust, boundaries, and self-esteem. CA: New Harbinger.

Scharp, K. M & Hall, E. (2019). Reconsidering Family Closeness: A Review and Call for Research on Family Distancing. The Journal of Family Communication.

Simon, G. (2011) Character Disturbance: The phenomenon of our age. Parkhurst Brothers: AR.

Sweet, P. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84 (5).

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