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Setting Stone-Cold Boundaries with Toxic Boundary Violators

Shock-inducing consequences for when words alone don't work.




Brief Overview of Boundaries


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.


Boundaries are not rules the other person must follow. Commands are not boundaries. Neither are expectations. We can't make the other person do anything. The closest we can come is to implement the consequences, i.e., carry out the action defined by our rule for ourselves.


Internal Boundaries


Usually when we are speaking of boundaries, we are referring to external boundaries. There are internal boundaries, too. Internal boundaries you set for yourself and typically keep to yourself. Like a promise to yourself to behave in a way that better prioritizes your needs, protects you, or takes care of you. It can even be something like a healthier bedtime routine that helps decrease anxiety and improve sleep.


For example, you commit to yourself that:

“I’m gonna stop investing in my relationship with friends who go hot and cold on me.”

You decide on it and you carry through with it, but you don’t announce it to your hot-and-cold friend.


Boundary Violators


Toxic and narcissistic individuals tend to be boundary violators. They don't respect boundaries and don't respond well to limit setting. In fact, when limits are first set with a boundary violator, they are likely to escalate their poor behavior.


That doesn't mean you should give up on boundaries. That might leave you open to considerable levels of harassment or abuse. Consider boundaries to be necessary even if not sufficient.

If it's necessary for you to interact with a toxic or narcissistic person, what is called for are stone-cold boundaries, with painful consequences that are consistently enforced, and tightened as necessary, possibly with each violation. (It may start to feel similar to training a dog out of a bad habit.)


Note that you should first assess the person in question. If it's possible that this approach might be unsafe, then use the Grey Rock method. If they are dangerous now, it will only get worse. The boundaries to set in this case involve law enforcement and the courts, such as a protective order.


Stone-Cold Boundaries


When you get to this level of boundary setting, you are in the realm of operant conditioning, punishment and rewards, but without the rewards. This is essentially training with the goal of deterrence. It's not a cognitive process. It's conditioning at a neurological level. They come to apprehend the consequence, not by thinking it through, but from "muscle memory."


And the slot-machine phenomenon applies: being rewarded (getting away with it) even just 10 percent of the time encourages continued bad behavior.


Setting and Enforcing Stone-Cold Boundaries


You have to draw a hard boundary by first defining exactly what behavior you will not tolerate, then stating the action (consequence) you will take if they repeat it.

Example:

Young mother with her young child, on a routine visit to toxic grandmother’s place, who often disparages [ husband ], even in front of [ young child ]:


“If you speak disparagingly about [ husband ] in front of [ child ], I will pack up our stuff and leave.”

This should be said matter-of-factly, calmly but firmly. (I like to envision a very capable and experienced elementary school teacher who successfully manage the students with firm but matter-of-fact directions, without a punitive, retaliatory or contemptuous undertone.)


Five Components Vital for Success


Five components I consider vital when dealing with a toxic boundary violator:


1. It’s important not to include the word “again.”


So, do not say:


“If you speak disparagingly about [ husband ] in front of [ child ] again, I will pack up our stuff and leave.”


That’s because the toxic boundary violator is likely banking on the belief that you won’t follow through on the consequence. And “again” may give them a sense that you are an “another-chance giver” i.e. you’ll repeatedly state consequences but never actually take action to implement them.


This may seem minor, but setting the correct tone at the start is important, especially since you are making a major change to the dynamic.

2. Do not include the word "immediately."


This allows for the possibility of a consequence shock, as described later.


So, do not say:


“If you speak disparagingly about [ husband ] in front of [ child ], I will pack up our stuff and leave immediately.”


3. Make your boundary statement one time only.


[There may be circumstances that merit saying it again, but only do so when that's the case.]


Setting limits with a toxic boundary violator is all about the actions (the consequence), not the words. Since words, logic and consideration have no impact on their behavior, it essentially boils down to deterrence. And frankly, it’s most effective if it shocks and pains a bit, so that they remember it in their nervous system. Whereas, at a cognitive or emotional level, a toxic person might have the manipulation skills to walk circles around you.


4. You are going to have to follow through every single time. 100% of the time.

It’s operant conditioning, punishment and rewards. You know how people will spend their life savings in a casino because there was a payout 1 time out of 20? If the toxic person can get away with the boundary violation sometimes, they wont be deterred from trying anytime.

5. A toxic boundary violator may shoot right back at you with the exact behavior you just said you wouldn’t tolerate.

If you truly want to have an impact, you’re going to have to take that action (consequence) right then. There is no “practice” time.


For example:


Young Mother:

“If you speak disparagingly about [ husband ] in front of [ child ], I will pack up our stuff and leave.”


Grandmother:

“You’re just not willing to face the facts! You picked an idiot loser who will never amount to anything!”


Young Mother:

[Immediately packs up their stuff and leaves with her child.]


A Consequence Shock


Packing up and leaving right then may seem extremely difficult to the point of being unimaginable. But the same dynamic that has you thinking that way, is why it will have an impact: it will be quite a shock, something they would never believe you’d be capable of doing. And that's impactful.


Notice that your stated consequence was not...

"I will pack up our stuff and leave immediately.”


...and yet you did leave immediately.


That's another way to add to the impact. It shows strength and confidence in yourself that you can choose to leave immediately, even though you didn't "warn" them about that part.

A Different Violation


Let's say Grandmother responds:


“What the hell right do you have to tell me how to speak in my own house?! You’re lucky I babysit your stinking kid, just so you can go act like a teenager and waste money!”


You also leave immediately.


In this second case, you didn’t give a “warning” about not speaking to you in an aggressive manner. Oh well. A toxic person might not always get the same consideration you’d give to a considerate person, especially when it comes to protecting your (and your child’s) mental health.


You could think of it as an internal boundary.


The Benefit of Internal Boundaries


In fact, it's a good idea to commit to some internal boundaries, especially if you've got boundary violators in your life, such as:


I am not going to tolerate being spoken to in an aggressive manner, especially in response to something reasonable that I've said calmly.

[whether or not I gave a warning!]


Or more generally:


I am not going to tolerate being spoken to aggressively.

[whether or not I gave a warning!]


Or:

I am not going to tolerate being mistreated at all.

[whether or not I gave a warning!]


Or:

I expect to be treated kindly in general.

If you work on developing strong internal boundaries, you'll start to invest more in people who treat you kindly and divest from those who don’t. You wont need to enforce hard boundaries so often. Because your strong internal boundaries will help ensure that in making decisions on what relationships to invest in, you take care of you.


Scaling Up the Consequences


If your boundary isn't respected, you'll may need to increase the consequences:


“I had to pack up and leave the last time I was here. If I need to do so again, I am going to stop routine visits. This is not up for discussion.”


OR

“I had to pack up and leave the last time I was here. If I need to do so again, I am going to re-evaluate whether it's worth maintaining a relationship with you. This is not up for discussion.”

Answer any challenge with:

“This is not up for discussion.”


Repeatedly. Leave if necessary. Keep scaling up consequences. This is an endurance sport. Consider whether going No Contact would be the better option.

Explicit versus Implicit Boundaries


Earlier I describes how to implement stone-cold boundaries for when it is necessary for you to interact with a narcissist.


But if you are able to avoid interacting with the 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 may 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 malignant 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 have provided.


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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