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  • Alisa Stamps

Boundaries: A Narcissist's Scorched Earth

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

“Scorched Earth is a military strategy used by a people when the enemy is advancing on their territory. Anything of use to the enemy such as houses, food, vehicles, utilities or equipment is burnt, leaving nothing which could help the enemy sustain their assault” (Simon, 2016, p. 159).

Boundaries. I feel like I talk about them with clients all day long. I say things like, “How would it feel to try and establish or even consider establishing better boundaries?”, or “Sounds like you put up a good boundary there for yourself”. They are so abstract and yet they aren’t. There are actual physical boundaries in this world—the Great Wall of China, the once existing Berlin Wall, and of course the soon-to-be-built, maybe-it-won’t-be-built border wall with Mexico. But what about personal boundaries? How do we build these? And most of all, how do we get the courage to build them and not see them as selfish, but rather self-helping?

How many of you would say that you have a problem with boundaries? Let me dial it back…how many of you would say that you have a “problem with saying no”? I just posed this question to members in the “Shattering the Mirror: Support and Recovery for Adult Children of Narcissists” group that I facilitate, and the answer was pretty much unanimous. In fact more than unanimous—there was noise and emphatic head nodding when this question was asked. In a relationship with a narcissist, the target is conditioned to learn how to not say “no”. Saying no may mean incurring wrath, so the target learns quickly that to preserve their safety it’s best to always agree or never challenge the narcissist. This agreement can then possibly spill over into other relationships in our lives. Romantic relationships or even work/boss relationships can be affected. We may work well past our eight-hour days or continue to take on project after project because we can’t say no. Conditioned targets can also be real people-pleasers. That might be part of why we can’t say no—we fear disappointing or losing our place as the “golden child” or “star employee”. The narcissist has made us believe that if we ever say no, we are less than or not good enough in their eyes.

Someone recently shared with me the idea that boundaries can include both a door and a window. This idea was a game changer for me. I feel that when we are used to interacting with narcissists, because of their behaviors of idealization and devaluation, we are so used to things being black and white that the thought of considering some grey areas is foreign to us. JH Simon’s book, “How to Kill a Narcissist” states otherwise. It suggests that we can:

“utilize the ability to say enough. We can remain in a situation but change the terms of engagement. We can go shopping with somebody but use some of that time to seek out our own stuff that we want. We can speak with a person then politely end the conversation when it gets too much. If the people in our lives love us, they will be flexible and open to negotiating each situation so that everyone is comfortable. We have the right to change the situation to suit our internal state better. When we do it in service of our true self, we never have to feel guilty”. (p. 157-158).

See? Doors and windows.

This takes practice. This is hard. Especially when we have not done much boundary setting before. But boundaries are scorched earth to a narcissist—they cannot continue their assault if their blood-source has been cut off, if the target is refusing to play the game. Start small with boundaries that don’t involve the narcissist yet by maybe not staying that extra hour at work, or not over-scheduling yourself during the weekend and see what that feels like. Pretty soon you will fall in love with “saying no” and hopefully also yourself along the way.

Simon, J. H. (2016). How to kill a narcissist: debunking the myth of narcissism and recovering from narcissistic abuse. United States?: JH Simon.

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