setting boundaries with narcissists

Everything You Know About Setting Boundaries with Narcissists Is (Probably) Wrong

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Just set healthy boundaries! Speak what’s on your mind! Assert your truth!

When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, and you opt to disclose some of your troubles, these are the trite suggestions you’ll typically receive. Friends, family members, and even therapists will encourage you to sharpen your communication, set boundaries, and let the other person know exactly how you feel.

As if these are the magic answers that will cure the layers of pain and anguish. As if merely speaking more clearly can change years of agonizing and insidious abuse.

So, are these suggestions supposed to work? And, if not, is setting boundaries with narcissists even possible? 

Rule #1: Your Narcissist Doesn’t Care About Your Boundaries

Let’s examine the nature of boundaries for a moment. Boundaries are effective when healthy people share mutual levels of respect and compassion for each other. They work when both parties equally hope to improve the quality of the relationship.

However, when you focus on setting boundaries with a narcissist, you’re focusing on trying to change a person that doesn’t exist. In other words, you’re living in a false delusion that the narcissist genuinely cares about your needs and desires.

Narcissists care about power and control. They care about one-sided validation and praise, and they employ drastic measures of manipulation to meet their selfish needs. They need to be right. At all costs. Without question or recourse. 

Therefore, when you attempt to set a boundary, narcissists perceive this as a personal attack. It’s as if you’re doubting their amazing, wonderful perfectionism! How dare you do that!

And because narcissists cannot acknowledge mistakes or weaknesses, they will react to your boundaries with a variety of dramatic reactions including:

  • Gaslighting
  • Complete denial
  • Abuse (physical or emotional)
  • Cognitive empathy
  • Defensiveness

Remember that narcissists don’t care how you feel because they can only care about how they feel. When you start to “question” the way they act (i.e., set a boundary), your intentions for positive change are very likely to backfire. 

Related video: Why Narcissists Love You One Minute, But Hate You the Next

Rule #2 – Reexamine The Boundaries You Have For Yourself

Instead of focusing on what you need from the narcissist in your life, focus on what you need from yourself. Is it a sense of respect? A healthy and happy relationship? Someone who can unconditionally support you? Is it all of the above?

Expect that this internal search will be painful. You’ve probably devoted years to focusing on what the narcissist needs. It’s challenging when we realize that we haven’t acknowledged our own desires. Moreover, it’s gutting when we learn that the person who received so much of our love, attention, and support cannot and will not reciprocate those basic needs.

As adults, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. We choose who we allow into our lives, and we also choose how much of ourselves we are willing to give. We are not defenseless children, and we do not owe any relationship out of obligation. 

At this point, at the realization that traditional boundaries won’t work with the narcissist, you will likely face a conundrum. What kind of relationship do you want with this person? Better yet, do you want a relationship with them at all? 

Rule #3 – Paradoxically, narcissists actually love boundaries

This rule may seem counterintuitive.  After all, if you’ve ever tried to set a boundary with the narcissist in your life, you know how it turned out (and it was probably somewhat traumatizing).

But after the dust settles, the narcissist realizes that they know exactly what means the most to you and what things you want them to start and stop doing.  This is precisely how they know the best ways to keep hurting you, which means that the juicy supply they’ve been getting from you will be available on tap whenever they want.

Sharing your boundaries with the narcissist also gives them perfect ammunition for a seamless hoovering attempt when they want to get you back under their thumb after a painful discard and subsequent Silent Treatment.  

When the narcissist has deep, intimate knowledge of your boundaries, it enables their continued dysfunction all while you keep working hard to salvage the relationship.  The person you think you love is merely a phantom conjured up by the narcissist in an effort to “hook” you through your heart and manipulate you–this is why your radical acceptance of the truth about the narcissist puts you one step out the door.

Rule #4 – Radically Accept What-Is And Consider No-Contact

No matter how or why we reach this conundrum, we are left with two options for setting boundaries and getting our needs met in a narcissistic relationship.

Radical Acceptance

Try to radically accept that the narcissist cannot change. Stop resisting. Stop fighting. Stop feeding into the what-if scenarios. Cease trying to appeal to their long-gone inner child.  These actions are exhausting, and they can take a tremendous toll on both your physical and mental health. 

Narcissists are who they are. By radically accepting them and choosing to stay in a relationship with them, you are taking the good, the bad, and all the ugly. You choose to let go of the expectations and the insatiable desire for change. You choose to accept this dynamic, as it was, as it is, and as it will be.

That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to feel upset or angry. Acceptance isn’t the absence of emotions. Instead, it’s acknowledging the emotions without acting on them with behaviors such as over-explaining things, defending yourself, and expecting that the narcissist can somehow be different.  They can’t and they won’t.  

Going No Contact

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself when detaching from a toxic relationship is learning to master the art of self-discipline. Learning how to tell yourself ‘no’ is an important step to becoming a stronger and more resilient person. This is especially true when you are trying to maintain No Contact with an emotional abuser.

Self-discipline while going No Contact can help you achieve your recovery goals and realize your dream of freedom. Many times, achieving the recovery goals you set for yourself requires you to sacrifice time, money, and energy you might prefer to spend on other things. Are you willing to have this dedication? Are you willing to invest in resources that will help you escape your abusive situation instead of trying to lone-wolf it or binge-watching YouTube videos without ever making any real change?

Self-discipline helps you have greater focus 

By shutting out the things that take you away from your recovery goals, you can focus on what is most important. This might mean not going to the bar with your best friend on Saturday night, and instead, staying home to watch feel-good rom-coms and eat pizza.  It might mean instead of spending hours on Facebook and YouTube every evening, you shut off your phone and spend time with your children or your pet.  

Focus is nearly impossible to achieve without self-discipline, and your healing will be nearly impossible to achieve without focus. Are you willing to focus intensely on extricating yourself from the abusive narcissist?  Are you willing to train yourself to engage in new, healing habits?

The keys to breaking free are simple, albeit not so easy to implement

If you make a commitment to yourself, guard it with your life!  If you break a commitment to yourself, remember that you are human. But, you need to prioritize your commitments to yourself in the same way you have prioritized the narcissist’s needs.

Recovery means learning where your boundaries are and how to hold them when someone challenges them.  First, you decide them.  Then you practice them.  Then you adjust them as necessary, in response to your experiences and interactions.

Doing this will make them more solid.  The more wiggle room your boundaries have, the more easily they can break.

Let your personal boundaries be an expression and extension of who you are. Define them, and let them help you define YOU…or, rather, let your boundaries show you who you really are.  Yes, you will receive backlash from setting boundaries with narcissists, but it’s better than self-abandoning, which eventually leads to self-loathing and feelings of helplessness.  

If you are tired of living your life on the back-burner, if you are tired of existing as an afterthought, punching bag, or exhausted empath, you need a surefire path towards healing.

How To Get Started On Healing Your Life After Narcissistic Abuse

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3 comments
Geraldine says August 11, 2020

I didn’t find it hard to let go of the narcissistic relationship once I realised they are just in fact mentally ill and never could offer any real relationship to me or anyone else. What I found seismic was dealing with me and why I would be attracted to this person. That is the really interesting journey and one well worth going on. Such as, how you were loved as a child is how you expect to be loved by partners. Brutal but true.

Reply
Rosemary says August 6, 2020

For being going no contact as much as possible is setting a boundary. I blocked his number from my calling and texting. He has tried many ways to get me to contact him or reach out to him and I rarely do. If I do it is bare minimum. We have a couple of loose ends that need tied but I am ready to get rid of them completely as well. Does it make me sad? Hell yes at times. But so many things are getting better for me. The way he treated me during our relationship and the way it escalated in the end makes it easier for me to go no contact. He is textbook covert narcissist.

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    Kim Saeed says August 7, 2020

    Glad you are free now, Rosemary! Xo

    Reply
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