Narcissistic people view themselves as uniquely gifted and therefore feel entitled to take advantage of other people. They do not possess healthy boundaries, nor do they like it when others set limits against their intrusions.
Establishing solid boundaries around narcissists is essential. Here are 11 tips on setting boundaries with narcissists:
1) Know where to draw the line
Decide which behaviors you are willing to accept and which you are not. For example, if you are not willing to tolerate rudeness, bullying or name-calling, say so.
For example, one way of drawing the line is to say, “If you continue to call me names, I will end our conversation until you can be respectful.”
You don’t need to give a reason or explanation. If name-calling continues, say “As I told you, when you call me names I will leave our conversation. Goodbye.” Then leave or hang up. Don’t wait for a response. Don’t engage no matter what they do or say. The more quickly and decisively you act, the better.
Narcissists may call you more names, argue with you, or try to convince you that you are over-reacting or treating them unfairly. They will likely cycle through a variety of approaches to see if they can induce guilt or intimidate and confuse you.
While their pressure or wheedling may be unpleasant, your boundaries are not up for discussion or a vote. Establishing healthy boundaries can help you feel stronger, calmer, safer, and less overwhelmed.
2) Have an exit plan
You have the right to exit any unhealthy interaction with another person at any time. You don’t need permission.
Late for what? It doesn’t matter. With a narcissist who is being abusive, controlling or unpleasant, every moment you remain in their presence is one more moment you are late for self-care.
Or look at your phone and say ‘I’m sorry, I have to take this call.” Whether there’s a call or not.
Or set your phone alarm to buzz after however many minutes you have decided in advance to give to a narcissistic person, and then excuse yourself once the alarm goes off.
3) Set your agenda
If you watch skilled advocates being interviewed you may notice that they often do not answer the question they are asked, they answer the question they want to answer whether asked or not.
Similarly, when narcissists ask you a question or make a comment that leaves you uncomfortable, you don’t have to stay on topic.
If they ask how you are spending your money or how your relationship is going, and if they have a track record of criticizing your spending or relationships, why would you want to step in that again?
Instead, take the conversation in another direction. You can say, “Great” and change the subject.
Or shift the conversation to something you know the narcissist loves to talk about. For example, ask them what they found was the secret to a good relationship or how they learned to handle money.
While their answers may be full of self-serving platitudes, at least they are focusing on themselves — their favorite topic — not you. You may even pick up a nugget of wisdom. At the very least, it can feel validating to shift a conversation so adeptly.
4) Don’t justify, explain or overshare
You do not deserve interrogation. The less you share of a personal nature with a narcissist, the less information they have to use against you.
If they criticize something you are doing, you can simply say, “I feel confident about my actions” or “I hear your opinion, I will keep that in mind.”
5) Name what is happening
One way to defuse this is to name what they are doing. For example, say “That sounded like a put down” or “I notice that each time I start to talk about myself, you interrupt to talk about yourself.”
It can be best to say such things in a matter-of-fact way. You don’t have to say anything else. Their response is irrelevant. You have set a placeholder in the conversation in which you spoke truth about what they did.
6) Return your focus to yourself
Narcissists crave attention. Whatever they need, say, or believe in the moment is their priority, and they expect it to be yours as well. Such narcissistic hunger has a tremendous energetic draw, like undertow or a rip tide at the beach.
To avoid being swept out to sea, when interacting with a narcissistic person mentally check in with yourself and note what you are feeling, thinking and wanting. If you can’t do this in the moment, you can recall the interaction later and identify your thoughts and moods. Such awareness can lessen the power of narcissists to overwhelm you with their agendas.
Some self-help groups use the term “gray rock” as an approach for narcissists. This means dialing down how much you let yourself care about a narcissist. Temporarily being as impermeable as a rock can be an adaptive form of dissociating in an emotionally unsafe situation.
A gray rock approach reminds you, “I am not going to fully engage or give you my energy. I reserve that for safe people.”
Showing vulnerability or reacting emotionally to a narcissist increases the risk that they will put you down even more.
Narcissists love to feel they can get a reaction out of other people. In a perverse way it reassures them that they exist. By showing they can get to you, you unintentionally reinforce their unhealthy behaviors and intrusions.
Of course, narcissists are masters at getting a rise out of others, so sometimes despite your best intentions, you will react. But when you can, better to excuse yourself, change the subject, or set your reaction aside until you can deal with it later.
7) Realize that setting boundaries with narcissists is not a one-time event
Setting boundaries with narcissistic or intrusive people is a continuous process. Knowing this can help you adjust your expectations.
8) Have compassion for yourself
If you slip or don’t set healthy boundaries, realize the power of narcissistic tactics you are up against and the legacy of vulnerability you may have from years of their control. That is a lot to overcome.
Give yourself a vote of confidence. Ask yourself what you hope to do differently next time, and move on.
9) Focus on being the person you want to be
Narcissists care about image and appearance. Because of this, they want you to act in ways that make them feel good about themselves, often at your expense.
Your opportunity is to choose who you want to be around them. Ask yourself:
- What do I need to do to respect myself in this situation?
- What do I want to stand for?
- Do I want to feel small and overwhelmed or strong and confident?
Your answers can provide a context that can guide you to be the person you want to be.
10) Keep perspective
Knowing their struggle allows you to see them in a more realistic light rather than as a larger-than-life, bullying, know-it-all who has the power to reduce you to feeling like a five year old.
As communication coach Preston Ni wrote, reminding yourself that “It must not be easy to be constantly needing approval” can be helpful.
Of course, their limitations and wounds don’t justify them being controlling or abusive. But knowing their limitations can help you not take what they do personally and even have compassion for their plight.
11) Good boundaries always include consequences
When setting a boundary, decide what you are prepared to do if your boundaries are ignored or violated.
For example, if a narcissist insults you, the consequence may be that you will label it or leave. Consequences should be clear in your mind ahead of time so you don’t have to figure them out in the heat of the moment.
You need only communicate your chosen consequences one time. No explanation or rationale is necessary.
Once you have communicated the potential consequences, act on them – immediately, decisively, every single time. Otherwise, boundary setting is far less effective. You lose credibility and you end up playing the narcissist’s game.
As you set healthy boundaries, narcissists may escalate their attacks, threaten to disown you or spread gossip and rumors about you.
This is part of the risk of having narcissists in your life. It helps to consider the potential consequences in advance of setting boundaries. You may want to pick your battles.
Interacting with narcissistic people nearly always comes at a price. Consider the potential price you may pay if you do or don’t set boundaries.
For example, if you say or do nothing, you may feel demeaned or that you are losing touch with yourself.
On the other hand, if you stand up for yourself, you may incur a narcissist’s wrath.
As you think about contact with a narcissistic person, an essential question to ask yourself is, “At What Cost?” If the potential cost is more than you are willing to pay, consider all your options and choose a different path.
Set boundaries by Constantin Stanciu / Shutterstock
Escape plan by Nobelus / Shutterstock
Me Myself and I by Eskemar / Shutterstock
Gray rock by Nedilko Andrii / Shutterstock
Watch your step by Kezza / Shutterstock
Say no dartboard by Gustavo Frazao / Shutterstock