I am a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders who has worked with people with disabilities and mental illnesses for over 10 years.
We often hear that boundaries are a narcissist's kryptonite, and this is very true. But why? Mostly, it's because narcissists take boundaries as a rejection. When you say to a narcissist, "No, I will not do this," or "No, you cannot do that," they perceive this as an abject rejection. You are rejecting their feelings—their needs—and therefore, you are rejecting them. The basic mindset of the pathological narcissist is, "If you don't give me what I want—if you don't let me do what I want—you don't care about me." It's a very childish and emotionally immature way to view the world.
It's kind of like if there is a small child who wants to eat bleach under the sink. When the mother stops the child, the child becomes upset with the mother. To the child, mommy is being mean. This is similar to the way narcissists see it. If they cannot do whatever they want, you're being mean. Doing these things makes them feel better. If you don't let them do these things, you don't want them to feel better. Therefore, you don't care. "If you loved me, you'd let me do what I want." They don't care or understand that the things they are trying to do are hurtful to themselves or others. All they care about is what they want.
This is why boundaries turn narcissists off. People who have self-respect, who are confident and know their own worth usually won't put up with the narcissist's antics for very long. This, of course, tells the narcissist that this person doesn't care about them. Someone who doesn't care about them can't be manipulated, so there is no point in continuing the association.
Narcissists look at things in terms of emotions and fulfilment. "How does this make me feel? What can I get out of this?" When someone has strong boundaries, they will feel rejected because they are not getting what they want. They can't abuse this person to make them feel better, or play mind-games to manipulate someone into chasing after them so to them, the relationship is basically pointless. If they cannot enmesh with another person and emotionally leech off of them, there is no value in the association. People with strong boundaries do not permit enmeshment. Without that, there is no interest from a narcissist.
We often hear that narcissists "target" people who are empathic and things like that. And while it's true that they are drawn to these people, they are also drawn to people with money, with high social standings and lots of other qualities. They run their game on lots of people. Basically everybody. But it doesn't work on everybody because not everybody wants to play the narcissist's game. Not everybody is vulnerable to their manipulations. People who have poor boundaries are the most susceptible. They don't have the firm limits on what they will not accept the way that other people do. People who have strong boundaries have a very hard line regarding what they will not tolerate. The first time the narcissist is disrespectful or pushes a boundary, these people end the relationship.
And the narcissist will push the boundaries. They can't not do it. Because of the way they view the world, they see no separation between themselves and other people. They believe their feelings are everyone's feelings, and their feelings are all negative and self-centered. It's inevitable that projection will happen, where the narcissist will say how they feel is what you did or what you said or how you feel. Then here come the crazy accusations and the horrible abuse. But instead of trying to explain or figure out what is wrong with this accusing, disrespectful, cruel person, a person with strong boundaries just says, "I will not put up with this" and the relationship ends. They know it doesn't matter what is wrong with this person because that kind of behavior is inexcusable. Narcissists are not interested in people who will not give them excuses. If you will not let them slide, if you will not take their abuse then they are not going to bother with you.
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This is why it's so important to stick to your boundaries. If you don't hold firm even one time, they will come back at you 10 times harder. They see it as a weakness and they will burrow and twist and dig at that until something or someone breaks. It's a dog trying to get out of a crate. They find one weakness in the structure and they push and dig and shove against it until it breaks and they can get out. Doesn't matter how big of a weakness it is. One crack will do it because the pressure will be mounted until the whole thing falls. The sad, maybe even tragic irony is, that though this is the way we talk about it in order to understand it, the majority of narcissistic people don't think about it this way. There's no big plan involved. These things are simply second nature to them. They are just doing what they've always done. It's how they operate. They have no idea there is some other way to be, or some other way to relate to people and wouldn't care and couldn't change it if they did. This is what they are.
That's the other part of why narcissistic people hate boundaries: narcissistic rage. They just plain don't like being told no. You will never see a bigger rage from a narcissist than you see when you tell them no about something. Boundaries are big fat NO. No, you will not act this way. No, you will not treat me like this. No, this relationship will not continue. No, you cannot have what you want. No. No. No. No. Narcissistic rage is a reaction - and remember, everything they do is reactive - to what's called a narcissistic injury. A narcissistic injury is a real or perceived threat to - or attack on - the narcissist's self-worth or self-image. As listeners of this show know, their self-image is horribly negative and they have no self-worth at all other than the false things they project onto the world. As a result of this, these things are very fragile, because the narcissist knows they are false. They are protecting the ugly, damaged, deformed unlovable thing they believed themselves to be. To expose this thing is to die of shame. They are paranoid and terrified that what they really are will be exposed and they overreact to these threats on a large scale.
That is what narcissistic rage is. It's a primitive defense reaction to what they consider to be a life-threatening situation. Being told NO is being told "You are not what you are saying you are. You are not a deserving person worthy of things like everybody else. You are worthless and worthy of nothing." Many narcissists will leave the situation rather than risk this exposure, especially early in a relationship. This is one way that boundaries help discourage narcissistic people from pursuing you.
However, narcissistic rage can be dangerous if they choose to fight instead of take flight. An example of this is a situation where a man asks a woman to dance at a bar and she says no, so he punches her in the face. In another situation like that, the man stabbed the woman and nearly killed her. Those are both real-life examples of narcissistic rage in reaction to a narcissistic injury, such as rejection.
Sometimes the first incident of narcissistic rage is what ends a relationship. Most of the time, though, you will see narcissistic rage when the relationship is established and the narcissist - used to getting their own way - is told no or otherwise feels rejected. Look at the case of Jody Arias, who killed her boyfriend after stalking and harassing him. Narcissistic rage is often a tool to keep control over the situation, holding the family or the person hostage with abuse and rage until the narcissist gets what they want. It may or may not turn physical, but people will be subjected to abuse, criticism, threats, cruelty, hysteria, the silent treatment and any number of other things until the narcissist is given what they want. It's the dangerous adult version of a temper tantrum.
Some people disagree with that characterization of the behavior, but narcissists would need to be able to process and understand emotions more maturely in order for it to be something else and most are just not able to do that. Calling it a temper tantrum should not be taken as a way to minimize the severity of this behavior, though. A grown person with emotions that out of control is dangerous and that should never be forgotten. A 2-year-old does not have the ability to harm you during a temper tantrum. An adult does.
So, yet another reason why boundaries are so important and so valuable. They not only remind us of our own self-worth, but they keep narcissists away. Can't get better than that.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.