Establishing healthy boundaries is an important part of any relationship, whether it be familial, romantic, platonic or professional. If you’re if in a relationship with a narcissist, boundaries are even more crucial. However, establishing them in a way that is effective, and that the narcissist won’t simply disregard, is a whole other matter.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, one of the biggest obstacles that prevents people from setting boundaries is that they’re worried about how other people might react, or that they will be perceived as selfish, lazy, flaky, or any number of other things. Durvasula’s response to this instinct is to quote philosopher Lao Tzu: “Care what other people think, and you will forever be their prisoner.”
Of course, taking other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration is something that we should all be doing in our everyday lives as empathetic people, but Durvasula warns not to let this take priority over our own needs when dealing with toxic or narcissistic people, who will otherwise take advantage.
“Because so many people out there feel that they’re not enough, they just keep doing, and doing, and doing for other people, thinking that there’s a point they’ll reach where they’re enough,” she says. “It’s never enough for other people, and especially for narcissistic people. So feeling like you’re not enough, that’s on you to address; doing stuff for other people isn’t going to address that.”
Durvasula also points out that an over-willingness to please other people is a quality that may even attract narcissists to you, and that once this precedent is established, it’s a hard pattern to break. “Toxic people just take,” she says. “They don’t have the empathy to care, they’re deeply entitled, so they’re never going to stop and take stock and wonder if they’re asking too much of someone…You will end up living your life as a bottomless well that keeps serving their needs. You’re the only one that can stop this cycle.”
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When beginning to set boundaries, it’s common to feel guilt—and while that’s natural, it’s also something narcissists will try to use against you. So often, it can feel easier to just give in to that pressure and continue that cycle than to endure the discomfort of the guilt that comes with putting yourself first. “Guilt about saying no is how people double down on all of this stress,” she says. “But guilt is one of the strongest glues that keep people in any kind of narcissistic relationship.”
Durvasula believes this is something that many of us internalize at a young age, usually from watching the relationship dynamics of parents and other family members. “We actually do a terrible job at teaching kids how to set boundaries in a healthy manner,” she says. “Now obviously there are some things that they need to do, that we all need to do… but go beyond that. Sometimes we force kids to play with kids who make them uncomfortable, or do extra activities like playing sports or instruments that they don’t want to do… That child may not feel that they can say no. If they finally find the courage to say no, they will often face a world of guilt from a narcissistic parent.”
It makes sense, then, that this association between boundaries and guilt will accompany a lot of people into adulthood, and even mutate into a fear that standing up for yourself in any way will cause a partner to dump you, or cost you opportunities at work. “The reason that learning how to set boundaries, especially with manipulative and narcissistic people, is so difficult, is that you need to learn to get OK with a new kind of discomfort,” says Durvasula. “You need to get OK with possibly not being liked, or maybe being unpopular, or the judgmental scrutiny of other people. Assuming that your boundaries are appropriate, then it’s about understanding that setting boundaries sets a tone.”
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