Having a narcissistic boss is one of the most difficult situations an employee can find themselves in. Narcissists require almost constant external validation, and they manipulate the people around them to get it. They lie, gaslight, triangulate, project, and blame-shift. They have no empathy for how their behaviors affect other people, and when they have a little bit of power, they almost certainly will abuse it. Setting boundaries is essential when dealing with a narcissistic boss.
To effectively set boundaries with a narcissistic boss, you first have to determine your bottom line. What will you tolerate, and what is over the line? Once you know that, you can determine reasonable consequences for boundary violations. Through it all, it’s imperative you stay professional.
Surviving a workplace with a narcissistic boss is a difficult endeavor. Setting boundaries is vital for getting what you can out of the job and getting credit for your work. You have to be careful how you go about it so that you don’t make an enemy out of your boss. If you do, they will try to crush you. Read on to learn critical information about how to set boundaries with a narcissistic boss.
1. Determine What You Will and Will Not Tolerate
The first step in setting boundaries with a narcissistic boss is to determine exactly what your boundaries are in the first place. You have to know where your limits are in order to prevent people from crossing the line.
Sometimes people don’t know why they feel irritated by the actions of others. They don’t realize it’s because that person has just crossed a boundary. That’s why you need a process for determining your limits.
To effectively determine your boundaries, sit in a quiet environment where you can reflect on certain past events. Allow yourself to remember the last time you became upset by something someone did or said.
Try to remember the context of the interaction and exactly what caused you to feel upset. Did someone say something? Did they do something specific? What was it that you felt was somehow over the line?
Write down all the details you can about these incidents. Try to identify exactly what it was that you felt you were not getting from that interaction. For example, you might have felt disrespected or that someone was being unkind. Once you know exactly what you felt was lacking that made you angry, you can identify that as a boundary.
Now that you have an awareness of those boundaries, you can formulate sentences that express your boundaries going forward. For example, you might write, “People may not call me names,” or “I have a right to ask for respect (or quiet time or privacy, etc.).”
This helps you establish your limits, which is a big part of this process. It’s not the only thing you have to do, however. You also have to outline the actions you will take to assert your boundaries and the consequences for violating them.
2. Determine Consequences
The next step is outlining how you will assert those boundaries. For example, let’s say you determined that one of your boundaries is that you have a right to have personal time where your narcissistic boss cannot intrude.
So now, to assert that boundary, you would express how you will prevent your narcissistic boss’s intrusive behavior. You might write, for example, “To prevent intrusions into my personal time, I need to turn off my cell phone.”
If you don’t feel like you completely turn off your cell phone, perhaps you could turn off notifications from your work email account or put your phone on silent mode, so you won’t hear it ring. This is the action you will take to establish and maintain that boundary.
Your narcissistic boss will learn your boundaries when you don’t answer the phone after hours. But what about things they might do that you cannot escape? Perhaps your narcissistic boss is someone who explodes and calls employees names when they are unhappy with something.
If that happens to you, you might calmly state, “I understand that you’re upset, and I know I made a mistake, but if you’re going to call me names, I’m going to go back to my office (or I’m going to leave). I’m happy to discuss how I can improve my performance and avoid making the same mistake again in a calm manner, but I won’t put up with name-calling.”
This serves several purposes. It establishes your boundary but in a respectful manner. You are stating the nature of the boundary and naming the consequence. You are doing so calmly but firmly. This might initially provoke rage, but follow through if your boss continues yelling, and eventually, their strategy will change.
3. Don’t Rule Out Finding Another Job
You might not want to quit your job. You might love your job other than the fact that you have a narcissistic boss. But you have to accept that you might lose that job or need to find something else to preserve your boundaries.
It’s important to realize that setting boundaries isn’t about controlling other people’s behavior. It’s a self-care technique that’s about engendering self-respect. If you have a boss who cannot treat you with the respect you deserve, then the job – no matter how good it is – isn’t worth it.
It’s possible that when you set a boundary, as we’ve discussed, your narcissistic boss might fire you. If you walk out of their office when they’re admonishing you for a mistake you made, they might fire you on the spot. You have to come to an agreement with yourself that you’re willing to take that chance to preserve your boundary.
The reality is that if you put up with behavior that violates your boundaries, you’re not going to like that job, feel satisfied with your work, or get out of it what you are looking to get. You won’t get the recognition or experience that can help you advance your career, and it’s likely you also won’t come away with a positive recommendation.
It won’t do you any good to put up with the abusive behavior only to be fired for something your narcissistic boss blames you for that wasn’t your fault. If you don’t respect your own boundaries and insist that others do the same, you’ll be far worse off than simply being unemployed.
When determining your boundaries, you always have to keep in mind that preserving them might mean finding another job. Once you acknowledge and accept that, setting boundaries gets much easier.
4. Don’t Justify, Don’t Explain, Don’t Defend Yourself
When it comes time to enforce a boundary, don’t justify, explain, or defend yourself. Simply state your boundary and enforce it. That means saying something like, “I’m happy to talk about my performance and how to improve it, but it is not acceptable for you to yell at me like this. If you can’t talk to me in a calm voice, I am leaving.”
You’re not justifying, explaining, or defending yourself; you’re simply calmly stating your boundary and what will happen if it is violated. This may provoke an even more rageful response from your narcissistic boss than what you are already dealing with. If it does, simply remove yourself from the situation without further explanation.
Many narcissists rage at other people because they fear they will be exposed as flawed individuals. Though they might be calling you out for your mistake, they are the ones who are really afraid. When they realize their rage won’t work on you, they often calm down and approach the scenario from a different angle.
This is particularly true if they really know you are not to blame or if they feel you are good at your job, and they really need you to fix the situation. If the latter is the case, you don’t need to explain that to them.
You also don’t need to explain beyond the simple statement above why you’re doing what you’re doing in response to their boundary violation. Just enforce the boundary and remember that you are respecting yourself. Trying to justify or explain your actions will only be interpreted by your narcissistic boss as weakness.
They will view you as being unsure of that boundary, and they will continue to push the limits. That’s why you can’t give them even a half of an inch.
5. Learn the Art of Sidestepping
Even if you successfully set strong boundaries and enforce them, your narcissistic boss will push the limits every chance they get. They will try to provoke you if they can.
Narcissists love drama, and they will not miss a chance to create drama in the workplace. Since you don’t want to always be pushing back in an aggressive manner, it’s helpful to learn the art of sidestepping their provocative comment or question.
For example, if they start to talk about something that’s personal, you can shift the topic. If they ask about your marriage, you might say, “Tell me how you have made it work.” If they start haranguing you about your career choices, ask them how they decided what they wanted to do. If they begin to criticize you, as narcissists are famous for doing, you can calmly respond with, “Challenges are what make us strong, don’t you think?”
Political spin doctors are really good at doing this. If they receive a question they don’t like from a constituent or a journalist, they often simply answer a different question. You can do the same with your narcissistic boss.
For the most part, you can make this work very easily for you by simply shifting your narcissistic boss’s attention to talking about how great they are. You’re validating them, which makes them feel good and it keeps you on their good side. At the same time, you’re not giving them any more ammunition they can use against you.
I had a friend who was a surgical assistant. She was working with more than one narcissistic doctor. She said a technique she used when assisting a nervous narcissistic surgeon was to ask them questions about the procedure. It refocused their attention and kept them occupied. It worked like a charm.
6. Call Out Your Boss…Politely
When your narcissistic boss is trying to provoke you or criticize you in front of your coworkers, it’s okay to name what they are doing in a polite, matter-of-fact way. For example, you might say, “I appreciate that you don’t like my suggestions, but I am just trying to help. I admire the work we’ve done here, and I’d like to see it continue.”
Their response really doesn’t matter. They might come back with something about how your suggestions aren’t good, but you’ve called out what they’re really doing. It’s something they will know you’re doing, and eventually, it can result in a changed strategy on their part.
You have to do this carefully to avoid becoming an enemy to your narcissistic boss. Remember, they will try to destroy you if that happens. They do that because they are so fearful that they will be exposed as hopelessly flawed. That’s why when they have an enemy, they have to show their superiority by absolutely crushing them.
It’s a good strategy to always preface your statement with some kind of compliment. For example, you might say, “I really admire you, but I feel like you’re trying to hurt my feelings. I hope that’s not the case because I’m working hard to do what you have asked me to do. Is it possible you can give me some constructive criticism so I can improve my performance?”
This is calling out what they’re doing, but in a way that makes it difficult for them to continue with their unjustified criticism. It’s difficult for people to continue an attack when they’ve just been complimented by their target.
7. Act, Don’t React
One of the most important things you can do is act rather than react. If you react to a situation in an emotional way, you can bet your narcissistic boss will know that whatever they said or did, it triggered you. Once they know that, they will use that tactic, again and again, to get you to react.
Narcissists have spent most of their life learning how to manipulate people. They know how to recognize an emotional trigger when they see one, and they know how to use it to get what they want.
If you react emotionally, it makes you look unstable. That’s why you have to step back from the situation if you think you can’t control your response. As psychotherapist Karen Arluck says, “If your boss is screaming at you in their office and you can’t handle another second, you can say, “I’ve heard what you said, and need to process this. Thank you.”
Think the situation through carefully before responding. You want to consider that you’re dealing with a narcissistic boss, so plan a strategic response that will get you what you want or need while still making your boss look good.
That’s a way to bring your goals into alignment with your boss’s goals. You both benefit in the long run, and you can avoid a confrontation. More importantly, you avoid giving your boss any ammunition they can use against you in the future.
If you don’t have time to step away and carefully consider your options, at least take ten deep breaths before responding to your boss. You want to respond to any situation in a calm manner, so give yourself a moment and get your emotions under your own control. That way, your boss can’t control you by using them against you.
8. Stay Professional
In every situation you face at work, you need to stay professional. No matter what you have to face at work, remain professional at all times. If you remain professional, it will highlight your boss’s unprofessional behavior by contrast.
Your coworkers and other superiors are likely to take note of your professional demeanor, but even if they don’t, you will know that you acted in accordance with your own work ethic. Staying professional is also an extraordinarily effective way to approach any situation.
By remaining calm and cool, you can more effectively observe the situation and respond in a way that will produce results instead of further agitating the problem. Remember that the only thing you’re in control of is your own responses.
You can maintain a professional attitude, and no matter what else happens, you will be seen as someone who isn’t overly emotional. That’s important should your narcissistic boss decide to try to demonize you.
Narcissists are very vindictive and will stop at nothing to make anyone they see as an enemy seem unstable. They don’t just want you fired from your job, they want you blacklisted from the profession. They want you utterly destroyed, but that will be difficult to do if you always remain professional no matter the external circumstances.
Behaving in a professional manner is a kind of boundary that you set for yourself. It shows you respect yourself and refuse to allow your emotions to result in erratic behavior. It will serve you well in many circumstances, and it’s vital if you have a narcissistic boss.
9. Document Everything
Another boundary you set in the workplace is honesty, and the way you enforce that boundary is through meticulous documentation. You want to document everything, preferably in writing. This means you document every interaction and all instructions for any projects you’re working on.
You want to try to get it in writing if possible. One way to do this if your narcissistic boss gives your oral instructions is to follow up with an email asking for clarification. You might say something like, “You instructed me to design a new logo for the project we’re working on. I wanted to get a little clarification about the type of design you think will work best. Do you have any specific design features you want to be included?”
You can see that you have detailed the instructions you were given and asked for clarification with specifics. If your boss doesn’t respond, you’re documenting that. If they respond with specifics and later criticize you for including those, you’ve got the documentation they requested them.
If your boss doesn’t play along and instead responds with more oral instructions, take out a piece of paper and proceed to take specific notes. For other interactions you have with your boss, you can also write out the details of what happened, what was said, who said it, and so on. Contemporaneous notes go a long way as evidence for any complaints you might need to file in the future.
For meetings, you can request to record them, so you don’t miss any details, or ask for someone to take the meeting minutes and transcribe them. This is a standard procedure for many businesses anyway, but narcissistic bosses often avoid that since they know that those notes could be used against them.
10. Never Underestimate Your Narcissistic Boss
It’s critical that you never underestimate a narcissistic boss. Many narcissists are good at what they do. They can be meticulous in their work because success is a sign of their superiority.
When they came to see themselves as essentially flawed and worthless as a child, they created a false self-image infused with grandiose ideas of how great they are and how superior they are to other people.
To prop up those grandiose ideas, however, they need other people. Their false self-image isn’t a self-sustaining identity mechanism, and that’s why they need external validation. But to sustain their delusions of grandeur, they will work hard to be successful.
Additionally, narcissists are human just like everyone else, and they are often talented individuals. They can also have skills that allow them to do well in the workplace, and they will cultivate them to prop up an image of superiority.
They can also be very charming, and if you make them look bad, they can convince their superiors that you’re to blame rather than them. They can use their skills against you, so you will want to proceed carefully. Set your boundaries and enforce them, but do so with respect and in a professional manner.
11. Fact Check Everything
Another boundary to set is that you insist on factual information. Fact check everything your narcissistic boss tells you. If you find something that is incorrect, call it to their attention in a respectful way, and be sure to do that in an email or through some other written form of communication.
Send an email in which you say something like, “I checked on that information you gave me, and it turns out that it is misinformation (or outdated or it was taken out of context, etc.). So I wanted you to know that, and I also wanted to know how to proceed.”
This tells your boss that you will check up on the information they give you. That’s setting a boundary that lets them know you won’t just blindly accept anything they say. By sending it in writing, you’re also creating a record of what they told you and what you found out through your fact-checking.
If they respond to you orally, be sure to document it with another email detailing their instructions and asking for clarification or in a journal you keep of your interactions with them. It’s particularly critical to maintain good records when you’re dealing with misinformation they are giving you.
You want to make sure that you have evidence of where you got the misinformation and what you were told to do. It’s also vital to have evidence that you tried to correct it, so your boss’s superiors will know your role in the situation.
12. Plan a Way Out
One final boundary you set is one to get yourself out of the unpleasant situation of having a narcissistic boss. You don’t deserve to be treated the way a narcissistic boss will treat you in the workplace. They almost always create a hostile work environment, and you actually have legal rights that are designed to protect you.
But having legal rights is one thing and enforcing them is another. It can be very difficult to get your boss in trouble for their behavior. Companies don’t like to have to deal with those kinds of complaints, and your narcissistic boss may be good at their job.
That can make their superiors reticent to get rid of them. Filing an HR complaint may not get you the results you’re looking for and could even hurt your career. That means that like it or not, you want to have a plan for getting out.
That might mean getting out of that department but staying with the company, or it might mean getting another job at a different company altogether. You’ll have to make the best decision for your particular career, but if you set these boundaries, you’ll be able to get the experience and references you might need from your job to move on to another department or company.
Having a narcissistic boss is a worst-case scenario for any employee. They are selfish, vindictive, and will blame you for anything that goes wrong. Moreover, they will use your own emotions against you. It’s vital to set strong boundaries to keep them from making your life completely miserable. To do that, you’ll want to have good control over your emotions.
My 5 Step Roadmap to Heal Emotional Triggers can help you do that. It’s a free guide for recognizing and defusing emotional triggers. It can even help you heal the original wounds that created those triggers. If you’d like a copy, just click on this link, and I’ll send one directly to your inbox.
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