Ask a Therapist: “How to Set Boundaries With a Narcissist”

Published on: 04 Feb 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Karmen Smith LCSW, DD 
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Knowing how to set boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) can be overwhelming. You probably feel emotionally and mentally drained as you’re trying to navigate a very difficult relationship. 

Use the tips we have for you here to be confident in your own ability to set firm boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder. 

What Boundaries Should I Have with Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

The first step in setting boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder is understanding more about the disorder itself. 

Narcissistic personality disorder is defined as someone who doesn’t have empathy about how their behavior and actions affect the people in their life. They have an intense need for admiration and exhibit patterns of grandiosity. They often can’t accept responsibility and tend to dominate relationships in their life. 

NPD is a relatively common mental health condition in the United States, and it’s more prevalent in men than women. People with this disorder feel entitled to use people freely and openly in their life. You can feel empowered by learning how to respond to their demanding, intrusive, and controlling behavior by setting firm, standing boundaries. 

Narcissistic personality disorder and boundaries may seem impossible, but you can do it. Here are some boundaries you may want to put in place to protect yourself from a “narcissistic mother,” “narcissistic father,” or partner. 

It’s important to note, if you’re in a relationship (whether romantic or familial) with someone with narcissistic personality disorder and it’s become abusive or toxic, boundaries may not be enough. If you’re unsafe, you need to remove yourself from the relationship as soon as possible.  

Don’t let them talk to you any way they want

Someone with narcissistic personality disorder might try to use their words to hurt you. If you’re uncomfortable with how you’re being spoken to, you’re within your rights to say I need you to not talk to me this way.

When dealing with a narcissist, you should be assertive with your boundaries and make it clear to them what those are. For example, if you are not okay with something they want you to do, tell them up front and hold your ground. Don’t let them pressure you into doing it anyway.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Don’t let them treat you in a disrespectful or hurtful manner

Yes, words can be hurtful, but so can how someone treats you. Make sure you’re OK with how you’re being treated in a relationship, especially if it’s with somebody who has narcissistic personality disorder. If you feel disrespected, hurt, or have been experiencing narcissistic gaslighting, let them know that you’re not OK with that.

Ask them not to share your personal information with others

Your personal information is yours. Somebody with NPD may try to use your personal experience and information against you. Be very clear about what you are and are not OK with them sharing.

Demand they respect your opinions and thoughts

Everybody deserves to have their opinions and thoughts heard. If you don’t feel respected, setting boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder can help you feel heard so you can feel more valued in the relationship.  

Insist that they listen when you say “no”

Setting boundaries will mean nothing if you don’t insist that they’re respected. If you firmly say no to something, be sure you’re heard. If you’re not being listened to, you should feel comfortable putting distance in the relationship. Your feelings are valid, important, and should be respected, especially when you’re openly and blatantly expressing what you’re against or don’t want.

Ask for your personal space when you need it

We all need space in life. It’s an important part of self-care. If you’re feeling suffocated or crowded, it’s OK for you to ask for some personal space. Take the time to do something for yourself that makes you feel good.

Make sure you’re OK with the physical and sexual aspects of the relationship

You should feel safe in every relationship in your life. This is true even (or perhaps especially) in relationships with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. Feeling safe can be in terms of the physical relationship you have with someone, or it can be the sexual parts of your relationship. Either way, you deserve to be comfortable in every way and aspect. You should feel confident in expressing your needs and boundaries in these areas.

Ensure that your financial relationship is equitable and acceptable

Financial abuse is a difficult and not-often talked about component of many relationships. If you find yourself in a situation where somebody with NPD has financial control over you, whether they are a narcissistic family member or narcissistic spouse,  they may be using it as a power play. All financial relationships in your life should be based on equality and something that you’re comfortable with.

What to Expect When Setting Boundaries with Someone With Narcissistic Personality Disorder

You can and should feel confident setting boundaries in your relationships. That goes for any relationship of course, but it’s even more important when you’re in a relationship with someone with NPD or is showing narcissistic behavior. There are a few things to be aware of though.

Setting firm boundaries with somebody who has narcissistic personality disorder may trigger them into cycling through their behavior. Be prepared for them to:

  • Act like a victim
  • Argue with you
  • Blame you or make things seem like your fault
  • Accuse you of being too sensitive
  • Minimize your feelings
  • Become angry

The bottom line, and what you must keep in mind, is that your boundaries need to be put in place. You’re taking care of yourself, and you deserve to have boundaries in place that protect you and make you feel safe and comfortable in your relationship.

“A narcissist is used to getting their way and will probably put pressure on you to do whatever they want you to. When you first start setting boundaries, there will be more push back from them. Over time, they’ll start to realize that you will not be so easily intimidated to go along with what they want.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

10 Ways to Set Boundaries with Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Some of the following tips might help you navigate the conversation and process of setting boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder.

Find a therapist to help you

Therapists are well-trained in guiding you in how to handle narcissistic personality disorder and boundaries. Through your sessions, you’ll work on feeling strong and confident, identify why you are attracted to a narcissistic person, and learn strategies on how to manage the relationship and tips for healing from narcissistic abuse. 

Decide what you are (and aren’t!) OK with 

The first step in setting boundaries with anybody is deciding what your limits are. It’s important for you to have a clear idea in your own mind about what is and isn’t acceptable. This will allow you to communicate things clearly to your narcissistic spouse or partner.

If it doesn’t feel right or healthy, leave

Trusting your gut is important when you’re learning how to set boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder. The more you can learn to identify and trust when situations or conversations don’t feel right, the better you’ll be able to handle this difficult relationship

You don’t have to justify, defend, or explain why you need a specific boundary

Your boundaries are yours alone. You don’t need to defend or explain why you’re setting them to your narcissistic partner. It’s your life, and these are your decisions. If something doesn’t feel good, you’re not responsible for explaining anything more beyond that.

Practice how to avoid or redirect negative comments and questions

As they say, practice makes progress. Try role-playing with your therapist or someone you trust in your life. You can practice how to course correct or entirely avoid questions and comments that make you uncomfortable. Eventually, you’ll be able to identify when things might be heading toward a confrontational place. This skill can help you navigate your relationship with a person with narcissistic traits in real time. Remember: Narcissistic people love to talk about themselves — if you want to change the topic, try finding something they love to talk about. 

Remember the power of narcissistic personality disorder

One of the reasons why understanding narcissistic personality disorder and boundaries can be so challenging is that people with narcissistic behavior tend to hold power over others. Keep in mind just how powerful that grip can be. Especially if you’ve been in the relationship for a long time, their need to control you might have been normalized at some point. 

Don’t be afraid to be firm and blunt

Be firm, blunt, and very clear about what you need and expect. This is the strongest way that your boundaries will be taken seriously.

Don’t forget about the consequences

It’s important for you to communicate what the consequences will be if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries. This should be something you’ve clearly identified in your own mind, before you go into the conversation where you tell them things need to be different. Having a clear consequence sets the expectation from the beginning, and when you follow through, it gives you credibility. 

Don’t give anything more

It can be difficult, but setting your boundaries is just step one. Once you do that, you must be steadfast in your conviction. Resist the urge to continue giving to the relationship, especially if your boundaries are not being respected. When you’re constantly giving and getting nothing in return, it’s the perfect storm that can end in you being both vulnerable and wildly unhappy. You deserve as much as you give to the relationship. If you’re not getting what you need to return, stop giving.

“You should not let a narcissist know your vulnerabilities. They will only take advantage of that. If you tell them things about yourself that you don’t want others to know, they will most likely use it to their advantage and try to hurt or manipulate you because of it.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Being in a relationship and knowing how to set boundaries with someone with narcissistic personality disorder can be challenging. You can do it though, and once you see the difference in the relationship and how you feel, it’ll be more than worth the effort you put in to make the changes.

Sources:

1. Stinson F, Dawson D, Goldstein R et al. Prevalence, Correlates, Disability, and Comorbidity of DSM-IV Narcissistic Personality Disorder. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008;69(7):1033-1045. doi:10.4088/jcp.v69n0701. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18557663/. Accessed December 20, 2021.

2. Mitra P, Fluyau D. Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556001/. Published 2021. Accessed December 20, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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