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Defining Boundaries and Setting Limits

Necessary Skills for Dealing with Narcissists; Helpful Practices for Keeping Relationships Healthy.

What Are Boundaries?

Similar to the shell and membrane of an egg, boundaries serve to protect us and to help maintain our identity separate from others.

On a practical level, they outline what kind of treatment we will or will not tolerate from another person.

Be careful what you tolerate. You are teaching people how to treat you. - Raunak Narula

They help to define our identity, as well as acting as a guard against unnecessary stress, thereby constituting a crucial part of our mental health and wellbeing.

Do Children Have Boundaries?

When describing boundaries to children, I use the analogy of skin. You can allow a trustworthy person to shake your hand, but only because each of you has skin to protect your body, and you each know and agree not to harm each other’s skin (such as by cutting or burning it), which would not only hurt, but could cause infection and make you sick.

In healthy families, parents define and respect boundaries for a young child.

These include the right to privacy and protection of their body, and the right to one’s own thoughts and feelings. This process helps the child internalize an expectation that they have rights and that those rights will be respected.

What About Boundaries for Adults?

In a healthy relationship, each person maintains boundaries that ensure they are treated well, and when those boundaries are overstepped, pushes back by setting limits, which leads their partner to either respect the boundary or for the couple to negotiate a compromise. In either case, there is agreement and clarity about what the boundary will be and that it will be respected. This helps instill trust and stability in the relationship. Neither tries to control or manipulate the other. And each person is responsible for their own thoughts and feelings.

Examples of Boundaries

In some cases, a boundary, and maybe the consequence, is stated up front, such as:

'I need a week's notice if you want me to petsit your cat. I don't want to be asked at the last minute and, unless there's an emergency, I will have to say no."

"I do not respond to questions sent via text."

"24 hours notice of a cancellation is required. Otherwise a missed appointment fee of $50 applies."

In other cases, the scenario isn't brought up until the boundary is crossed, in which case that person sets a limit with the trespasser by stating clearly what the boundary is, followed by what the consequence for crossing that boundary is.

Some examples are:

"I need a phone call or text from you if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late. Otherwise I will assume our meeting is off."

"I can't have guests, even family members, come by without asking first. The next time this happens, I will not be inviting you in."

"I have asked you not to call me by my childhood nickname. If you continue to do so, I will leave the conversation."

"My plans are not up for discussion. If you continue to interrogate me about them, I will leave the room."

“I am not okay with being cursed at. If you curse at me I will hang up the call.”

Then, most importantly they must follow through with the consequence, consistently, every time.

Variable Boundaries

A person can have different boundaries for the various people in their life. You might be willing to take calls after 9 pm from your teenager, but not from a work colleague.

To use the egg analogy, you might use your "shell" boundary for the man at the door trying to sell you windows, and choose to simply say "No, thank you" and close the door.

Whereas you might use your membrane boundary when a friend is spinning out of control with risky behavior, by spending some time with them and offering a sympathetic ear for their troubled feelings. You might also provide practical support, such as looking for resources and asking for referrals to a therapist. But the membrane protects from over-identifying with and losing yourself in someone else. So you wouldn't not show up for work and neglect other responsibilities in an effort to play therapist yourself and rescue them from themselves.

Rigid versus Porous Boundaries

Some people use their "shell" boundary with almost anyone in their life, regardless of the level of intimacy. Boundaries that are too rigid may alienate other people and cause isolation.

Conversely, boundaries that are too porous can lead to ambiguity, unnecessary misunderstandings or conflicts, or exhaustion and burnout.

Some people use their membrane boundary with strangers, leading to the risk of exploitation and harm.

Similarly, some people maintain almost no boundaries with people they know, losing their identity and self-preservation. This often happens with people who grew up in dysfunctional or narcissistic family systems, where children were never allowed to develop boundaries, and any attempt to set limits was met with an attack, such as scorn, humiliation, or worse. As a result, family members were enmeshed; separate identities, values, thoughts and desires were squashed, and expectations for how to be treated were disallowed.

Boundary Violators

Some members in these types of families are likely to become lifelong boundary violators.

Note that when limits are first set with a person who has consistently violated boundaries, they are likely to escalate their poor behavior before they take the limits seriously, which they will only do after consistent enforcement of the limits.

Narcissists and Boundaries

Narcissists are a different story.

Narcissists don't respect boundaries and don't respond well to limit setting.

That doesn't mean you should give up on boundaries. That would leave you open to considerable levels of narcissistic abuse. Consider them to be necessary but not sufficient.

Explicit versus Implicit Boundaries

If it's necessary for you to interact with a narcissist, what is called for are stone cold boundaries, consistently enforced, and tightened with each violation. (It may start to feel similar to training a dog out of a bad habit.) If that is not safe, then use the Grey Rock method.

But if you are able to avoid interacting with a narcissist, rather than setting limits explicitly, the best approach is to not engage at all; set the limit implicitly by blocking them (without discussion) from email, phone, and text communication, as well as from your social media accounts.

The narcissist's level of toxicity will determine whether explicit limit setting is possible or whether implicit limits are necessary.

Malignant Narcissists and Implicit Boundaries

Explicit limit setting with a malignant narcissist will not only turn into an escalation, but will result in retaliation. They will make it their life's work to maintain control over you and punish you if try to escape their domination.

Given their penchant for a "scorched earth policy," they may work with flying monkeys to ruin your reputation with a smear campaign. They may use the legal system to that end.

They may come to your home repeatedly to harass and abuse you. You may need to call the police or get a protective order. Some targets have even had to move and keep their new address private.

However triggered you might become by their antagonistic behavior, don't engage with a narcissist. It becomes an entanglement that can't be resolved; it only escalates.

Narcissists get narcissistic supply from engaging you in conflict.

They couldn't be happier to get you hooked back into the game.

The only way to win is to not play the game.

Rather than engaging with them, consider their mistreatment of you a boundary violation and set an implicit limit by departing from their sphere of influence. That means no contact with them directly or through others, such as their flying monkeys, who they will send after you. The consequence is that they lose access to you and the potential supply your entanglement with them would provide..

Remember, a narcissist needs you more than you need them.

Better to walk away.

Block and move on.

Go No Contact.

Then go live your good life.


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