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How to Set Boundaries With a Narcissist

6 min read

By Katie Ormsby

  • Knowing how to establish firm boundaries with a narcissist can seem overwhelming at first.
  • To get started, think about what you are and aren’t OK with — and what the consequences are for crossing your boundaries.
  • Boundaries are personal, so you don’t need to justify or explain why you’re setting one.
  • A mental health professional like a therapist can help you navigate the specifics of your situation.

Whether it’s a loved one or an acquaintance, dealing with a narcissist can be challenging. They may try to gaslight you, place unfair blame on you, and dismiss your emotions. As a result, it’s important to protect yourself by setting firm boundaries.

Of course, we understand that can be easier said than done. That’s why we’ve compiled tips to help you set boundaries and stick to them.

How To Spot a Narcissist

According to The Recovery Village, many experts believe narcissism exists on a spectrum. While a healthy amount of narcissism can help someone take pride in themself, too much narcissism can lead to toxic relationships. Here are common signs and symptoms that a narcissist might exhibit:

  • Always talks about themself — their talents, looks, etc.
  • Fantasizes about monetary, professional, or romantic success
  • Belittles others because they believe they’re superior
  • Craves near-constant praise and attention from others
  • Takes criticism as a personal attack and holds grudges

Depending on where someone falls on the narcissism spectrum, they might be self-absorbed or they might have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The source says 1 in 200 people have NPD. Regardless, taking care of your well-being by setting boundaries is important.

Decide What Your Limits Are Beforehand

When setting boundaries, the first thing to do is identify your limits. That way, you can clearly communicate your boundaries. Ask yourself what is and isn’t acceptable. “For example,” Psychology Today says, “you may be okay with good-natured banter but not sarcasm.”

As part of this process, prepare for the possibility that the person might cross the line. Should that happen, the source recommends responding with something like, “If you continue to call me names, I will end our conversation until you are willing to treat me with respect.”

Consequences Should Be Part of the Equation

Since your boundaries may be ignored, remember to think about the consequences. Talkspace says consequences are something you should identify “before you go into the conversation where you tell them things need to be different.” You don’t want to end up having to think of consequences in the heat of the moment.

Psych Central gives this example: “If a narcissist insults you, the consequence may be that you will label it or leave.” Once you have the conversation about boundaries and consequences, follow through whenever the person crosses the line. Consistently enforcing your boundaries gives you credibility.

You Don’t Need To Justify Yourself

Psychology Today warns that the person might try to interrogate you about these boundaries because “narcissists use scrutiny or intimidation to make others second-guess themselves.” But remember, you don’t need to justify or explain why you’re setting a boundary.

Boundaries are personal. And as the source explains, “The less you share, particularly personal information, the less a narcissist has to use against you.” Should the person demand an explanation, the source suggests leaving it at something like, “I am confident in my choice.”

Use the Grey Rock Method if Necessary

If the person tries to manipulate or dominate you during the discussion, then you may want to use the grey rock method. As Dr. Marina Harris, PhD, explains to Well+Good, “The premise is to act like a grey rock: stable, blank, and unresponsive.”

The person may be trying to get an emotional response out of you, so the grey rock method is a useful tool to keep your cool and uphold your boundaries. Dr. Harris says to “always respond in a flat, calm, emotionless manner.” Additionally, it may help to avoid eye contact or leave the situation.

Be Firm and Matter-of-Fact

In the same vein, Talkspace says you should “be firm, blunt, and very clear about what you need and expect.” If you take that approach, then the source says it’s more likely that the person will take your boundaries seriously.

For example, let’s say you’ve set a boundary that you won’t let them talk over you. When they ignore that boundary, name what’s happening. Psychology Today suggests responding matter-of-factly: “I notice that when I begin to talk, you interrupt me.”

Steer the Conversation

While setting and upholding boundaries, the narcissist might try to take over your interactions with negative comments and questions. Should that happen, Psych Central recommends steering the conversation back to topics you feel comfortable discussing.

Let’s say they have a history of criticizing your romantic relationships. When they bring up the subject, the source suggests keeping things brief. For instance, your response could be a simple “Things are going great.” Then shift gears back to the original topic or a new one instead of letting them control the conversation.

Create an Exit Plan

Before beginning the conversation about your boundaries, think about an exit plan. That way, you’ll be prepared to end the interaction if the conversation feels unhealthy. As Psychology Today emphasizes, you don’t need anyone’s permission to leave.

You could check your phone and say, “I didn’t realize it’s so late; I need to get going” or “Oh, I missed an important call I need to take.” The source says another option is directly referencing the situation with something like, “I am going to excuse myself. We can talk another time when you are ready for a constructive conversation.”

Have Compassion for Yourself

Setting and upholding boundaries is a process. At some point, you might slip up by not following through with the consequences of a crossed boundary. If that happens, then you should be patient with yourself.

As Psych Central puts it, “the power of narcissistic tactics … is a lot to overcome.” There’s no need to dwell on it or get frustrated with yourself. Simply ask yourself how you plan to handle things next time and move on.

Consider Getting Help From a Therapist

A mental health professional can help you learn strategies to manage your relationship with a narcissist. In addition to helping you set boundaries, GoodTherapy says a mental health professional can help you:

  • Recognize narcissistic behavior
  • Understand how the narcissist affects your thoughts and feelings
  • Talk about narcissistic abuse and rebuild self-esteem

In a nutshell: therapy and counseling can help you “lead a happy life even if the narcissist never changes their behavior,” according to the source. Given these points, you may benefit from professional help.

What To Expect When Setting Boundaries

As Talkspace explains, “Setting firm boundaries with somebody who has narcissistic personality disorder may trigger them into cycling through their behavior.” So, be aware that the narcissist might:

  • Argue with your boundaries
  • Act like the victim
  • Blame you for the situation
  • Dismiss or minimize your feelings
  • Get angry about the boundaries

This is where your exit plan comes into play. It’s also important to note that “if you’re unsafe,” the source says, “you need to remove yourself from the [romantic or familial] relationship as soon as possible.”

The Takeaway

Setting boundaries with a narcissist isn’t an easy process. You’ll most likely need to remind them about your boundaries and enforce the consequences of a crossed boundary more than once. However, you don’t need to justify or defend your boundaries during this process.

Narcissism exists on a spectrum, and every relationship is different. A mental health professional can help you navigate the specifics of your situation and learn more about dealing with a narcissist — whether it’s a narcissistic partner, family member, co-worker, or friend.

Writer, General Health

Katie is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She has a degree in journalism and political science from the University of Washington. In her free time, Katie loves spending time with family, reading, and going to the movies and theater. She also enjoys getting out in the fresh air to explore parks.

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