5 Boundary-Setting Basics With the Narcissists in Your Life
Protect yourself from abuse with these powerful boundary strategies.
Posted September 2, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Whether the narcissist in your life is a parent, partner, sibling, in-law, or friend, you know all too well the cycle of hurt they put you through. They dominate the conversation and glaze over when you attempt to speak. They make outrageous demands but fail to show up when you're in need. They disparage or attack what you say and do but bristle at the slightest hint of disagreement or criticism. They wear you down with passive-aggressive barbs and gaslight you when you question them about it.
Whatever the particular dynamics of your relationship, the bottom line is that you are constantly working to meet the narcissist's insatiable need for validation while never feeling genuinely seen or acknowledged in return. You can't control the narcissist, but you can protect and empower yourself with safer boundaries in the relationship.
Here are five boundary-setting strategies you can begin to implement right now for your safety, sanity, and self-respect:
1. Stop Explaining Yourself. Seriously, just stop, immediately. The narcissist doesn't care about your thoughts, feelings, reasons, or excuses. This is the nature of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Narcissists do not have empathy or genuine interest in others beyond the service or status others offer them. They are not listening, not thinking about your point of view, and not interested in what you have to say unless it relates back to them in some way. When you explain yourself, you put yourself on the defensive, which is never a good position to be in with a narcissist.
2. Stop Making Yourself Vulnerable. Again, please stop right now. The narcissistic personality sees vulnerability as weakness, period. Those of us with emotional intelligence understand that vulnerability is part of being human and necessary for trust and intimacy. Through our vulnerability, we access our greatest strength and connectedness. But the emotionally primitive narcissist merely sees your vulnerability as an opening for manipulation, one-upmanship, or outright attack. Narcissists view life as a competition or, in more extreme cases, a war zone.
3. Stop Looking for Attunement. Attunement is what we all look for with others, especially our loved ones and friends. Empathetic mirroring, understanding, and emotional engagement with others is necessary for healthy development. It is essential for the child learning self-regulation, the teenager working on secure individuation, and the adult building intimacy in relationships. Sadly, the narcissistic personality misses attunement in early childhood and remains unwilling or unable to genuinely attune to others later in life. The narcissist craves and often demands attuned attention and empathetic connection from others but does not reciprocate it. Many narcissists actively negate others as a way of feeling superior and in control.
4. Stop Expecting Them to Change. Narcissists can change. But the nature of the pathology is a mindset of emotional alienation and delusions of superiority, which shuts out self-reflection and personal responsibility. As much as you may care about the narcissist in your life, it is important to recognize that people with NPD rarely change and only do so if motivated for themselves, not for you or anyone else. As long as you continue to look for change, you keep yourself in the loop of neglect and abuse.
5. Stop Excusing Them. Like the rest of us, narcissists know right from wrong, and they know when they're hurting people. The difference between them and those with empathy and a sense of personal responsibility is that narcissists believe they are above the rules, entitled to special privileges, and justified in their bullying treatment of others. People who overlook or excuse narcissistic behavior normalize and embolden abusers and perpetuate trauma in those abused.
I share these boundary strategies with my coaching clients every day. They will help you regain your footing in relation to the narcissists in your life and protect you from debilitating cycles of abuse and emotional abandonment.