January 22, 2010

Narcissists Push Boundaries

The Dinner Table by Henri Matisse, 1897

This article refers to a post titled: Boundaries, Patterns and Healthy Change.

Over Christmas, our family get-together ended up with one family leaving early, other people pouting, and the hostess separating herself from Fixing Their Problems or Blaming Herself for their misery; or, feeling hyper-responsible to take care of everyone else's feelings while disrespecting my own.

This year, December 2009 (the date is highlighted in my recovery journal), I let events unfold as they should without running interference or myself ragged.

If the only person sitting at my Christmas table was the woman in the apron, then I'd enjoy the flickering candlelight and count my many blessings. How fortunate am I to have fine linen on the table, porcelain dinnerware, and crystal glasses? It doesn't seem that long ago when I bought my forks one-at-a-time during Safeway's supermarket promotional and purchased my fine china the same way the following year. 79 cents per plate, if my recollection is correct. A local antique store has the same plates now. They've raised in value to twenty-five dollars a plate though I might give all twelve of mine away if someone appreciated blue and white etchings of historical buildings on the east coast of the USA. Not that I don't like historical scenes, but I have FAR too many sets of dishes and obviously, my guest list is shrinking. Well, if my guests show up, walk through the dining room and leave, at least they'll see how beautiful the table is. Perhaps that's enough.

I do so love beautiful things.

Last week, my nephew in the family-that-left-early, called me on the phone and asked if he could spend the night with us. He was visiting a nearby university and needed a place to sleep.

"Of course!" I replied. "Would you like to have dinner with us?"
"Oh, I don't know." he said. "I can pick something up on the drive."

"No need to do that," I reassured him. "If you aren't here for dinner, we'll save something for you. We're having barbecued pork sandwiches."

"GREAT!" he said and then he added, "I'll call you tomorrow with the aproximate time of my arrival."

Now I am thinking: here is a nineteen year-old kid who INTENDS to call me again but he likely won't. Teenagers have good intentions and lousy follow-through. So the next day, when he called, I was pleasantly surprised.

"I"ll be there between eight and nine!" he said, adding, "Thank you so much for letting me stay at your house."

The reason I write about this is because I felt RESPECTED. What I declared as a boundary was not misinterpreted as an insult or criticism. When telling people what I expected in order for me to meet their needs and my own, it wasn't meant to be a rejection of anyone. It was an invitation for reciprocal respect.

In a non-pathological relationship, we encounter 'limits' all the time. We may not know we have trespassed another person's boundaries, nor that our own boundaries have been trod upon, UNTIL there's a blow-up. An argument. A disagreement. A confrontation. When this happens, we have the opportunity to define what we expect from other people and vice versa.

If our wants are 'respected', people conform to meeting our needs and do not consider our limitations to be insults, or criticism, or proof that they are unimportant. They also don't see our boundaries as evidence of selfishness and superiority---attributes narcissists are good at seeing in others and never in themselves.

However, in a pathological relationship, our boundaries will challenge the narcissist's grandiosity. Our attempts to set limits are consistently eroded, even dismissed as evidence of our selfishness, control, and power over others. Which is not the case---the selfish and dismissive person is the one who insists on controlling US and pushing our limits just to see if they can.

If you set a limit on behavior you will or won't accept, the narcissist may appear to be compliant at the time of the confrontation. But mark my words, they will intensify their efforts to destroy your boundaries. If you don't relent the first time, they'll keep pushing your boundaries until you do. The more insistent you are on keeping your boundaries in place, the more attached the narcissist is on getting you to back down.

Backing down is a win for the narcissist, you see. He got YOU to go back on your word and let him have his way. This, as you can already attest if you're reading my blog, makes you feel like a pathetic weakling and the narcissist believes he's Napoleon Bonaparte who said, "Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily."

The erosion of your boundaries regulates the narcissist's self-esteem. He feels glorious when he trespasses people's boundaries and conquers their territory.

Narcissists do not respect boundaries. They view boundaries as a challenge to their entitlement and specialness. A myriad of consistent attacks on your limits will ensue and for most of us, we're so caught off-guard that we back down.

What we do not see (because the narcissist pretends otherwise) is that the narcissist does not RESPECT our right to set limits or make demands. If you are under the impression that respect is reciprocal, just see what happens when you tell a narcissist "No". Their aggression increases and eventually, it's easier to let go of what you wanted rather than continue the endless battle.

People are under constant attack if they define themselves as separate from the narcissist. Your separation infuriates the narcissist who expects his wishes and needs to be of more importance than anyone else's. The attacks won't be blatant, though. What will happen is that the narcissist will say he will do everything possible to respect your boundaries and then, he will manipulate situations to make sure he gets YOU to back down. When you back down, his arrogance goes up. He feels better because you don't.

I can imagine this scenario with a pathological narcissist:

He would show up on my doorstep unnanounced because he had to drive to my house because there was an emergency and because he had no time to call me on the phone, he had to rely on my compassion to resolve his emergency visit.

"Besides," the narcissist would say, "You are so accommodating and kind that I KNEW I could trust YOU to understand my predicament. You always understand...not like those other people who refuse to help a guy in trouble."

Then once he got his foot in the door, he'd add: "And oh, by the way, what did you fix for dinner? I may need to leave and pick up something worth eating."

hahaha!!! Please don't interpret my humor as diminishing the impact of pathological narcissism. In retrospect, I laugh at myself for not being able to keep a straight head on my shoulders when under the illusion that all people just wanted to be loved.

No. Narcissists don't want to be loved. They want to be SERVED.

It's so important to recognize the differences between normal dysfunction (in which case, assertion of our boundaries will improve communication and result in reciprocal respect); and pathological dysfunction (in which case our boundaries are targets to be destroyed, insults to the narcissist's sense of superiority and entitlement).

p.s. We had a great visit with my nephew and enjoyed eating our barbecue sandwiches on paper plates. I felt respected, he felt welcome, and perhaps we made progress on familial dysfunction.


This article refers to a post titled: Boundaries, Patterns and Healthy Change.


  1. I always learn so much from your posts.

    It's true: I have a fight with the boyfriend (and it's usually me over-reacting because I've been trigerred more than anything) and at the end of it, I feel heard, changes are made, and he follows through on his promises. It's still so unusual for me that I am frequently unnerved by the idea that conflict might be productive and someone might actually keep their promises and care about my feelings.

    Whereas teh fights with the narcissists never worked that way. I would be worn to an utter nub by constant boudary violations and any attempt to erect any boundaries at all would be viewed as an attack, and I would be subject to a barrage of abuse. At the end, promises would be made and broken, no apologies would be offered, I would be told I was crazy for being upset or that I had imagined the whole thing.

    Sad that THAT is still what feels normal. But give me time, I might get used to this respect thing.

    1. You describe my ex so well! I'm also getting used to the idea that conflict can lead to real, lasting resolution.

  2. I really appreciated your distinction between normal dysfunction and pathological dysfunctions.

    I've had similar experience as Maeve. When my husband and I had problems - we listen to eachother, found out what the other needed, and then respected that.

    With FOO - I can't do the same thing. I was there to serve a role and my new boundaries prevent me from doing that.

  3. Your insight is so refreshing, CZ! Thank you for being you.

  4. Great post. Very important distinction, too.

  5. Hellooooo wonderful CZ -- Love the 'normal dysfunction' concept. Had a lot of normal dysfunction in my family of original. And normally -- when my dysfunction gets out of hand today, I can always count on my family to bring me back to reality!

    Nice to read your posts more often these days -- yipppeee, CZ is writing more.



    PS -- hope your daughter enjoyed the video of Eve Ensler.

  6. Here is a direct link to the Eve Ensler video in case people are interested in watching it:


  7. Yes, thank you for explaining this dynamic so clearly.

    I am involved in a boundary issue with my, now ex-, boyfriend, but don't know how to apply it to all the theories about healthy boundaries I've been reading up on.

    There is an activity I love to do, have done intermittently for about 10 yrs, that my boyfriend was well-aware of before we got involved. When we started dating, he started learning this activity and enjoyed it. I was so happy! We could share my passion. Later, his feeling towards this activity changed; which is fine. But if I showed interest in doing it, he would withdraw from me completely for a while, which was like torture.

    This activity happens to be dancing, and a rather physically intimate dance, social Argentine tango. I can understand that his feelings for me may make it difficult for him to watch me dancing closely with another man. However, I had always made it clear what a passion I have for this dance and that my feelings for him are not feelings I have AT ALL with the people I dance with. It doesn't matter; he still can't tolerate the awful feeling he gets in his gut when he thinks about me dancing.

    So his boundary is that in a close relationship, one must not be too physical with members of the opposite sex, even though he says he is not at all concerned about me cheating. Ok, so we're not a good match. But he kept trying to convince me that tango is not a healthy dynamic for a relationship and that it violates a sacred space between partners, so could I just dance only with him, ever again? I have to say, No. Although it makes me very sad.

    Is this a case where our boundaries just don't match for us emotionally- I can't meet his boundary not to dance with other men and he can't meet mine, that I need to dance on occasion? Or is this him trying to gain control or something? It would help me to have more clarity...

    1. The problem in this case lies with you not him

  8. My boyfriend seems to view boundaries as a challenge to his supremacy. He really hates it when I call the shots on my personal need for peace, quiet or space and will deliberately turn UP the TV or bounce on me like tigger or whack my magazine in the air out of my hands whilst laughing like a maniac. He does this under the guise of fun and for a long time I thought it was irrepresible humour. But I'm starting to see an ugly undercurrent of control disguised as fun. I am starting to think the truth is that he is threatened by boundaries and hates me making them, even small ones he can't seem to help himself needing to push the button a few times and see if he can make me blow up or get upset or ruffled. He seems quite satisfied when an argument ensues and I tell him off or get upset because he is disprespecting my requests for space or peace. Then he is withdrawn and sulking and I am scratching about wondering how I went from some peacefull me time to trying to explain the 101 of respect to Mr hurt feelings. Iam starting to see how it always leads one way or another to the attention good or bad having to be about him. His Mom is an outright blatant narcissist, she loves ordering him about from the couch and witholding approval. My partner spent his childhood with no free time ever, every moment was spent fulfilling Mom's ambitions and needs and desires for glory through what she felt his acheivements should be. If he rebelled he was summarily blanked, ignored, made guilty, raged at. He told me all this stuff about her very sanely, like a person who could see the problem and had moved himself from it with no denial. But I'm beginnng to see a pattern of control emerging in him. I have called him on it majorly and given him a respect boundaries or we are over line to think about. I think it will only be so long before he feels compelled to cross the line. This is very sad but I'm not going to spend my life patrolling my boundaries tooled up like the border police, doing this does not leave energy or time for the rest of my life. I loved your piece it is written gently and with humour. A nice change from the really angry ranty pieces often written about people with these tendencies.
    On a last note I'm not certain my partner even realised consciously that he has this way of behaving. I've pointed it out step by step, what he does, how it uncurls into a distinct pattern of behaviour. He is somewhat horrified I think to have the mirror held up and have it held so calmly and minus huge messy emotional drama. I've made a choice not to engage in emotional drama with this behaviour, I suppose it's about cutting off the supply because I need it more. I grew up with alcoholic parents and so my tolerance levels are still somewhat buckled, even after therapy, this is my issue that I'm still (will I ever not be)trying to remedy by insisting on healthy boundaries for my safety and sanity. Without getting self hatey, I think there is a tendency for children of ex alcoholics or other abusive self centred parents to suffer bad behaviour for longer than others would.This is why I think we need to be very able to calmly and vigilantly observe boundaries being eroded by stealth. It isn't every manipulative controller who walks up to you with an empty whiskey bottle and roundly abuses you. It's the slow moving strategists that slowly suck the resistance from you with charm and wit that you need to be really aware of. I suspect my partner may berevealing himself as one of these. Bottom line is that my joy isn't open to a hostile take over bid, even from a funny guy who buys me ballet tickets and says that he loves me every day. Words and actions not matching are the dead give away. Stay strong but most of all stay vigilant of your joy. Best wishes f

    1. I really enjoyed reading your comment, anonymous. You are smart. You are 'onto' your boyfriend long before most of us realize the other person sees our boundaries are a challenge (not something to be respected).

      He sounds like some of my family members with ADHD, haha...acting like Tigger and whacking the magazine out of your hand. They don't have the same resistance to acting on their impulses that other people have---they can be rather irrepressible AND annoying but it doesn't mean they're control freaks (almost the opposite of that because they LACK self control).

      Just thought I'd throw that out there in case it 'fit'. That he won't stop OR figure out why he can't stop, is worrisome. If you were doing something that bothered him and he had told you several times to stop, what would you do? It's important to flip things around in order to get a better perspective on the relationship. And don't let him off the hook just cuz he's a guy! *grin*

      Thanks for the compliments about my blog. I have a bit of an odd sense of humor and it's always so nice to hear from people who appreciate it!


    2. Hi CZ, may I reproduce some of this post starting with the paragraph "in a non-pathological relationship we encounter limits..." over at CS's in a new post? I think it speaks to things we're talking about over there right now, and you have your inimitable way of putting things. I'd like to copy/paste a few paragraphs, with your permission and full credit of course. I think they'd be very helpful for me to have over there. what says the lady in the apron? love CS

    3. ps with a link to this entire post of course.

    4. Of course, CS! I need a refresher myself!

      I plan on reading your new entry tonight now that dinner is over and the dishes are done. See ya soon.


    5. Thanks CZ, I'm going to work them into a new post soon. see ya soon. xo


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...