Dealing with a narcissist can feel like walking through a field full of landmines. Any misstep could trigger an explosive reaction. Even asserting your basic needs and boundaries often gets twisted around and thrown back at you. So how can you speak up for yourself while dealing with someone who sees themselves as superior and faultless?
First, know that asserting yourself with a narcissist takes incredible inner strength and courage. Their manipulative tactics are meant to make you feel insecure, emotionally off-balance, and silenced. Speaking up requires connecting to your inner power and worth.
Here’s How to Set Boundaries with a Narcissist:
Assert your needs and boundaries. This is about communicating what you are and are not comfortable with and what you need to feel safe in a relationship. It’s not about calling the narcissist out. Be clear and concise without focusing on the narcissist’s behavior or providing an explanation. If you focus on their behavior, the narcissist is likely to become defensive and turn it around on you. And over-explaining can suggest a lack of confidence or self-doubt, which a narcissist may use to wiggle their way in and sway you to their demands.
Be cautious about sharing your feelings. While “I-statements,” like “I feel hurt when you make jokes like that”, are great for healthy relationships, this can give a narcissist further ammunition. When you tell a narcissist how their behavior makes you feel, you’ve essentially told them that they have power over you. It’s natural for their behavior to affect you, but you don’t have to let them know that. Remember, narcissists like feeling in control.
Here are some examples of how you might assert yourself with a narcissist:
If they start yelling or arguing, you might say something like: “I’m not going to continue this conversation when we’re arguing like this. Let's talk when we've had a chance to calm down.”
If the narcissist wants you to spend more time with them, but you only feel comfortable around them in small doses, you might say something like: “I can only stay for a couple hours. Let's focus on the time that we have.”
If a narcissistic family member is trying to put you in the middle of a conflict with another family member, you might say something like: “I care about both of you and don't want to come between you.”
If they are trying to persuade you to do something their way, you might say: “I appreciate your perspective. I'll consider it.” (Then, do what feels right for you.)
Notice how each of these examples is focused on the speaker’s needs, not calling out the narcissist or trying to change their behavior. Instead, it’s geared more toward ending uncomfortable conversations. The narcissist may not want to disengage, but you can. Be firm and give them as little to respond back to as possible.
You can also assert your boundaries in nonverbal ways by being mindful of how much you share with them, how much time you spend with them, or how often you talk to them.
Stay calm and matter-of-fact. Don't mirror their emotional chaos or get drawn into drama. State your position clearly and directly without exaggerating or sugarcoating. Avoid saying anything you'll later regret or that gives them ammunition.
Pick your battles. Because narcissists are hypersensitive and defensive, you have to choose when speaking up is truly worth it. Is this a boundary you need to enforce for your well-being? Is the issue critically important for the relationship? Don't assert yourself just for the sport of it.
This can be really hard for some people. You may feel like you’ve finally found your voice and don’t want to put up with things anymore, or you may feel like by not speaking up you’re enabling and reinforcing bad behavior. I get it! But the question is, will speaking up or asserting yourself help you? This is not about rolling over and taking abuse. You absolutely should not accept behaviors that are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. But you probably don’t want to start calling out all of their unhealthy behaviors. Is it worth saying, “Why were you bragging about yourself the entire dinner?,” which will undoubtedly turn into an argument? Probably not.
It might, however, be worth letting them know that you will not allow them to talk down to you, invade your privacy, or guilt you into doing what they want.
Back up your words with action. One of the most important things when dealing with a narcissist is staying firm with your boundaries. Saying “I won't tolerate X behavior anymore” means little unless you follow through. Be prepared to implement consequences like ending a conversation, leaving a situation, putting a relationship on hold, or setting specific conditions for visits. But, don't make empty threats. If you tell a narcissist that you aren’t going to visit, but their guilt tripping pushes you to visit anyway, this tells the narcissist that you’re not serious, that you can be swayed if they just push a little harder.
Expect pushback and remain resolute. Setting boundaries with a narcissist isn’t easy. Narcissists hate being confronted and will use every manipulation tactic to regain control - playing the victim, gaslighting you, threatening abandonment, trying to instill guilt and shame. This is not a reflection of you. It’s a reflection of them. See these ploys for what they are rather than backing down or second-guessing yourself.
Limit expectations. Don’t try to get the narcissist to understand your point of view or change their mind. They may pay lip service to your requests in the moment, but they usually go right back to the same behavior. Unfortunately, with narcissistic personalities, significant change is unlikely.
Document incidents. Keep a record of boundary-crossing incidents, including dates, times, witnesses, and specifics of what happened. This can help if you need evidence of harmful behavior patterns down the road, particularly if you are experiencing physical or sexual abuse, or if you are contemplating, or in the process of, divorcing a narcissistic partner. Divorce is never easy, but divorcing a narcissist can get especially ugly.
Enlist support. Asserting yourself in isolation is challenging. Having supportive friends, a therapist, or support group reinforces that you’re not “crazy” and helps you stay strong.
Assert your right to leave. Part of asserting yourself is communicating that you can choose to exit an abusive situation at any time and owe no one an explanation. You are not obligated to keep accepting mistreatment.
Avoid useless circular debates. Don't get sucked into defending yourself against irrational accusations or convincing someone of your worth. It can be so easy to get sucked into these battles, wanting the person to see reason. But unfortunately, these efforts are often futile and don’t work. You can’t reason with someone who is unreasonable. Disengage and reassert your boundaries if needed.
Check in with your emotions. What are you feeling as you assert yourself? Anxiety, guilt, shame and self-doubt are common. Make sure to process difficult emotions so they don't sabotage your resolve. And if possible, allow time to self-soothe before responding to a narcissistic demand.
Claim your freedom. Focus on your right to stand up for your inherent worth and basic human dignity. No narcissist can take those away without your consent. You are reclaiming your power.
Setting boundaries with a narcissist takes tremendous courage and is no easy feat, especially given the likelihood they will retaliate or escalate. Having compassion for yourself is key - this is an incredibly challenging process. Whether you’re thinking about or in the process of asserting your boundaries, experiencing self-doubt, anxiety, guilt, frustration, or overwhelm during these times is normal. That’s the narcissist's MO. They want you to feel uncomfortable. Don't judge yourself for having feelings or faltering as you work through this process.
I hope you’ve found this article on how to set boundaries with a narcissist helpful. And remember, you don’t have to do this alone. There are caring, empathic people out there who you can lean on for support. Don’t hesitate to reach out to supportive friends, family, a therapist, or support group for help. You can do this. You have a right to dignity, respect, and peace.
For more support in navigating narcissistic relationships, check out NarcissistAbuseSupport.com.