Dealing With Narcissists: Setting Boundaries


Dealing With Narcissists

Are you in a relationship with someone who is a narcissist?  If so, you will want to set boundaries in order to protect yourself from some of the harmful behaviors that narcissists indulge in.

What constitutes a narcissist?

We call someone a narcissist, or someone who possesses narcissistic tendencies, when that person substitutes a “false personality” that he presents to the outside world to cover up deep childhood traumas and hurt.

Some of the ways narcissists will present themselves to others include being excessively charming and having a “big” personality (very extroverted, wanting to be the center of attention at all times). They are focused on themselves and self-absorbed, often conceited thinking they are better than and know more than everyone else. In talking with them, they frequently dominate the conversation, leaving little room for anyone else to voice an opinion.  For a narcissist, everything is all about him.

It is important to keep in mind that underneath all that, people with NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) are truly empty, hollow people that never feel “good enough” because they are continually comparing themselves with those around them, and finding (secretly; they would never admit this publically) that they come up short.

For people dealing with a narcissist, it is essential to remember two things.  

  • One:  NPD is a disorder.  The person can’t help themselves.  
  • Two:  You cannot change them, as they cannot change.

You can, however, protect yourself when interacting with a narcissist.  This means setting boundaries.

Boundary-setting is vital to your own balance, sanity, mental health and self-respect when in a relationship with a narcissist.

It may be challenging to set boundaries when dealing with the narcissist.  They typically have issues with their own boundaries:  most likely they do not respect others’ boundaries because they cannot recognize what a boundary is.  

For example, a narcissist may speak inappropriately about his wife or daughter, revealing information that a normal husband or father would never share publicly, such as comments about their bodies.

What constitutes a narcissist

What do we mean by “boundary setting”?  

Imagine drawing a line in the sand, and telling your narcissist that they cannot cross that line.  Any overstepping of that line is unacceptable behavior.  That line is your personal limit, your boundary.

  • Set your boundaries in a calm manner.  Nothing will anger the narcissist more than being told what he can and cannot do, especially if done in a hostile voice.  Be kind, but be firm.  If your narcissist is abusing you verbally, set your boundary by saying in a calm voice, “It is difficult for me to listen to you when you talk like this.  I am going to leave (or hang up, if you are on the phone) now, but I am open to talking with you once you are able to use a reasonable tone of voice.”  Then walk away, or hang up.  Do not wait for his answer.  In this way you are protecting yourself from his abuse, all while teaching him that changing his attitude will allow you back into the conversation.
  • Understand that their actions come from a place of emptiness.  Don’t get upset or blame yourself.  They aren’t doing this on purpose; it is the disorder that is showing itself.  
  • When they criticize you to build themselves up, let it go.  For your own peace of mind, don’t wait for them to apologize.  And if the narcissist does apologize to you for the abuse, you need to be aware that the apology is not sincere.  They are merely setting you up to hurt you again.
  • Detach from them. You may have to stay in contact with the narcissist because you have children together.  To save your sanity, practice detachment in your communications with him.  Do not hold long, detailed conversations.  When communicating by email, scan his to get the pertinent information (skipping over all of his egotistical ramblings) and respond in a businesslike way to those points.  Stay brief, stay objective, and stay out of his manipulative behavior.  
  • Pursue your own happiness.  Do not count on the narcissist to do what he promises to do for you.  He is only making promises to keep you entangled in the relationship.  Go out and create your own happiness; do not rely on him to provide this for you.  He won’t.
  • Never show the narcissist how his behavior affects you.  Narcissists thrive on knowing that they cause pain to others.  For normal people, knowing they are hurting someone makes them feel badly.  But not for the narcissist!  Their brains light up with pleasure at the knowledge that they are doing damage to someone else’s emotions.  This is why divorced narcissists continue to sabotage the ex-wife, by not ignoring boundaries such as respecting the divorce agreement, being “late” with child support payments, or dropping by the ex’s house without notice (and sometimes entering it unannounced!).  Do not let him see your reaction to these behaviors.  The best way to deal with situations like these are to ignore him.
  • Be prepared to have to continually remind the narcissist of your boundaries.  Typically, the narcissist will respect them for a while but soon he will test your limits again and again.  He is seeking a weakness so he can slip through the crack and denigrate you again.  It will be hard for you to have to keep “drawing the line in the sand, “but it is essential to show the narcissist you mean business.
  • Forgive yourself for falling under his spell.  And forgive him.  Part of your dealing, and healing with a narcissist involves letting go of the resentment he provokes in you.  This resentment takes up valuable real estate in your soul, and that is what he wants.  You don’t need it.  Let it go.  Practice self-talk techniques to help you release your anger towards this flawed person.  Remember:  you cannot change a narcissist.  They have developed this adaptive behavior due to something hurtful in their childhood.  It has nothing to do with you.

Eventually you will have nothing to do with him, and that is a good thing.  Setting boundaries are part of the steps to getting to that place.  

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