Setting Boundaries with Narcissists
Boundaries don’t work with narcissists. It is critical to fully understand this simple truth. As you begin to accept this, you can begin the treatment for your codependency and learn to protect yourself.
Avoid the Wrestling Ring
One of my favorite quotes is from George Bernard Shaw. It goes, “Never wrestle with pigs, you will get dirty. And besides, the pig likes it.” This saying shows us that if we choose to argue, confront, or engage in a power struggle with a narcissist we will always lose. This is because the narcissist lives and breathes and knows every angle of their “wrestling ring.”
Just like you would never imagine stepping into a wrestling ring with a professional wrestler, you should never imagine fighting with a narcissist. Your goal instead should be to stay out of the “wrestling ring” and find a way to set a boundary without being pulled into a situation where you are already at a disadvantage.
Every codependent/SLD will tell the same story, that boundaries never work with a narcissist. However, boundaries do protect codependents, not in that they change the narcissist’s mind, or make them feel bad, or somehow motivate them to do the right thing. Instead, boundaries allow the codependents/SLDs to recover. It helps them learn how to protect themselves by not engaging in a confrontation or fight because, again, that just puts them back in the “ring” with the narcissist.
Here is how you can put boundaries into action.
Observe Don’t Absorb
The first strategy is to set boundaries with a narcissist and not engage in the fight. I created the Observe Don’t Absorb technique to help you when you get upset with the narcissist. This technique relies on the idea that if you get upset by the narcissist, it is essentially the same thing as fighting them—or getting into the wrestling ring with them. You begin to realize that every time you fight with a narcissist, they have the power. They will always beat you, psychologically, financially, emotionally, and verbally. To simplify it, your best defense is no offense.
This technique asks you to stay detached. Artificial healthy disassociation allows you to watch and learn how the narcissist tries to disable you by getting you angry enough to fight them. Once you begin to observe the narcissist being manipulative, you can start to detach from the emotions surrounding that experience and stop yourself from getting angry.
If you do this, you will have all the power and control. You will not react; you just gracefully and calmly see clearly how to make decisions based on healthy behaviors. Your goal will be to stay out of the “physical wrestling ring”, which is fighting back by yelling, sending emails, spying, and out of the “emotional wrestling ring” which is where they begin to manipulate your mind.
Staying out of this “wrestling ring” involves keeping calm and detached. That is the only place where your power is and when the boundaries you set work. You have the power to protect yourself and avoid fighting an adversary who will always win.
If you want the narcissist not to yell at you, your statement should be, stop yelling at me, I am leaving. Or, if you don’t stop yelling at me, I am calling the police. Keep in mind, that boundaries don’t work with a narcissist. You must follow through with what you are going to do. If you say you are going to leave, you must leave. If you say you are going to call the police, call the police.
The consequence or the execution of the boundary is the only way that a narcissist understands you mean it. They will begin to respect your boundary, not because of empathy, but because they do not want the consequence. Never try to get or expect a narcissist to understand it.
If you use my observe don’t absorb method and don’t get sucked into an argument, the narcissist will begin to eventually follow your boundary simply because they don’t want harm or pain to come to themselves.
Drop Your Expectations for Change
Next, you will need to change your expectations. Never think that a narcissist is going to listen to you when they don’t want to. Do not set your boundaries with the hope or expectation that you can change a narcissist.
Instead, think of this boundary as a way to protect yourself. Keep in mind, a narcissist has to stop doing something or take action, to avoid a specific consequence. It is up to you to follow through to make sure they do.
Recognize that either unconsciously or sometimes consciously, codependents are terrified of being alone. To avoid being alone, they try to change the narcissist because they do want things to be different. They are willing to risk it, to not be alone.
When a narcissist knows that you are not capable of leaving the relationship, they don’t fear the consequences. If you can’t execute on the consequence, like leaving the relationship, then you are simply on a hamster wheel moving nowhere, thinking you are going to get somewhere but never actually getting there.
This brings us to our next area of concern: Gaslighting. Narcissists use Gaslighting to make the codependent/SLD into accepting a reality that simply is not true. This can be beliefs like no one will love you, you are too heavy, too tall, too short, not educated enough, or will never get a job, and more. If they turn you against yourself and make you believe something that is not true, they control your life. They will use this technique because they are afraid you might follow through with the consequence or boundary you put together. If you don’t follow through, they know they’ve gaslit you successfully. Remember, a boundary is only a boundary if you execute it.
Always remember, codependents cannot change narcissists. Narcissism is a personality disorder, and the very nature of the disorder is that they don’t think they have a problem. They point the finger and blame other people for their problems and when they are held accountable, you can expect them to blame you. It is virtually impossible to get a pathological narcissist to take responsibility for something, let alone change.
Avoid Conversations with Narcissists & Be Free
If you set a boundary for no contact with a narcissist the worst thing you could do is engage in a conversation with them. You should keep any discussion strictly to black and white issues—where no arguments could pop up. Of course, once the narcissist feels like a codependent is not engaging with them, they will get mad and fight back.
When a narcissist doesn’t get any reaction, or if they fail to trigger you, they will try to get you back into the wrestling ring with them. This is called induced conversation. They will find any way they can to get you to have a conversation with them. Anything from a neutral topic to conversations over money.
It is up to you as the codependent to change what happens to you. By refusing to interact with the narcissist you can move forward and heal yourself.
Ross Rosenberg M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, is the owner of Self-Love Recovery Institute. He is a psychotherapist, educator, expert witness and author. Ross is known globally for his expertise in codependency (Self-Love Deficit Disorder™), Pathological Narcissism, Narcissistic Abuse and Trauma Treatment.
He is a keynote speaker and educator who has presented in 30 States/70 cities and abroad. Ross has been regularly featured on national TV and radio. His “The Human Magnet Syndrome” books sold over 120K copies and are translated into 10 languages. His YouTube Channel has amassed 19 million video views and 210K subscribers.