5 Powerful Boundaries To Counter Passive-Aggressive Narcissists

Narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder characterized by traits such as a lack of empathy, self-centeredness, an excessive sense of entitlement, pathological envy, and exploitation of others. According to researchers, there are two distinct subtypes of narcissism. While grandiose narcissism, or overt narcissism, is associated with high self-esteem, extroversion, less susceptibility to depression, self-aggrandizement, and confidence, vulnerable narcissism or covert narcissism is associated with higher levels of anxiety, avoidance, lower self-esteem, hypersensitivity, and fearfulness.

However, both vulnerable and grandiose narcissism are associated with aggression, according to a meta-analysis of 437 independent studies. Vulnerable narcissism is also associated with hostility and narcissistic rage. Vulnerable, covert narcissists can operate differently in their manipulation than overt, grandiose narcissists. They may engage in extreme passive-aggressiveness to bolster their fragile ego, punish their loved ones, assert their false sense of superiority and get their entitled demands and needs met. Here are five powerful boundaries you should enforce if you are dealing with a passive-aggressive covert narcissist:

Boundary #1: People who are the aggressors should not be able to play the victim. If they do repeatedly play the victim after mistreating you, you must continue to hold them accountable. One of the most powerful and most dangerous tools covert manipulators use to gain emotional leverage is known as the pity ploy. Clinical psychologist Dr. Martha Stout notes that this is one of the clearest signs you are dealing with a conscienceless individual. After they have violated you, narcissistic or psychopathic individuals will usually give you a sob story or paint themselves as the oppressed party in some way to garner your sympathy. This way, you do not hold them accountable, even when they consistently harm you. Predators may also use the pity ploy to lure in their victims: for example, serial killer Ted Bundy faked an injury and used crutches to lure women into “helping” him. It is important that when you are dealing with a covert narcissist, you do not allow their excuses to sway you from detaching from them or issuing appropriate consequences in response to their actions, especially if these actions are part of repeated patterns of behavior that are unlikely to change. Remind yourself of all the adverse circumstances you’ve encountered in your life yet never used as an excuse to harm another person. Do not fall for the generalization that “hurt people hurt people.” Instead, learn to identify when manipulative people are deliberately going out of their way to hurt you and recognize that this is a choice.

Boundary #2: Apologies must be accompanied by changed behavior. Otherwise, they are empty displays orchestrated for manipulation. Research indicates that those with narcissistic and psychopathic traits tend to stay connected to their exes for darker, more pragmatic reasons – such as continued access to resources and sex. In order to maintain access to your life, narcissistic individuals will occasionally feign remorse for their behavior with crocodile tears and fake apologies. One of the myths that causes survivors to reconcile with the narcissist so quickly is the idea that narcissists don’t know what they’re doing. However, this is false. You must ask yourself, “If they know how to treat me well when they want something or when they need to keep me invested, why not treat me well most if not all the time?” This is how you know they can control their behavior at will and that their behavior is deliberate.

Narcissists are aware that their victims need to have some small incentive to stay in the relationship, so they dole out intermittent rewards of affection which will create a trauma bond and cause you to seek that “fix.” They’re more than capable of treating you well in front of witnesses and love bombing you when they feel you withdraw from the relationship just to keep you on the hook. This is why they suddenly put on the false mask again when you try to exit the relationship in an attempt to win you over just so they can control you again. To ensure that these faux apologies do not lead to the continuation of the abuse cycle and trauma bonding, you must nip this cycle in the bud and limit or cut off contact completely even when you are met with apologies and pleas for forgiveness after incidents of abuse. See apologies without changed behavior for what they are: another manipulation tactic.

Boundary #3: Mistreatment will not be responded to with kindness, overexplaining yourself or increased attention, but rather a withdrawal of investment, time, and energy. Narcissists engage in hot-and-cold behavior and intermittent reinforcement to keep you hooked in the relationship. After love-bombing you with future faking and a false persona they will not maintain once you’ve been sufficiently hooked into the relationship, they will reveal their true callous self and begin to devalue you. Rather than directly letting you know that they are incapable of fulfilling the healthy level of affection and attention that is required in stable relationships, they punish and mistreat their partners, lashing out in narcissistic rage when they are asked to meet the standards of basic human decency and respect. Instead of overexplaining yourself, attempting to regain the narcissist’s approval or giving any kind of attention to the narcissist (whether positive or negative), withdraw that attention, time, and energy from the relationship altogether. The biggest “punishment” for a passive-aggressive narcissist is your absence, your lack of attention, and their inability to continue playing mind games. Use the mental resources you would normally use on trying to “fix” the relationship or change the narcissist on self-care, healing, recovery and leveling up instead.

Boundary #4: Put-downs, whether issued covertly or overtly, will not be tolerated and will be met with consequences. Passive-aggressive narcissists will usually engage in underhanded and covert put-downs to demean you so they can escape accountability for their behavior. It’s important that when you are met with passive-aggressive put-downs, especially if it’s in front of others, you address it head-on. You may do this either by limiting contact with the narcissist, using the threat of legal consequences whenever possible or, for narcissists you cannot avoid, calmly calling them out in a way that lets them know they will suffer consequences if they do choose to engage in such tactics. For example, if a narcissist in the workplace issues a covert put-down directed at you, you might calmly “translate” their passive-aggressiveness with a measured response like, “It sounds like you are saying ____, am I hearing you correctly?” Even if the narcissist chooses to deny they meant anything by their remarks, this calm response will place the spotlight of public shaming on them in a way that will make them think twice about pulling such a stunt again in the future. After all, narcissists rely on impression management to get ahead. If they are met with social scrutiny or legal repercussions of any kind, they are unlikely to risk their public image or reputation by attempting to degrade you in front of witnesses.

Boundary #5: When someone uses a sarcastic or patronizing tone, withholds affection or subjects you to the silent treatment or stonewalling to passive-aggressively punish you, treat it as evidence of their disrespect and contempt. From now on, you do not owe them any consideration or communication either. Research has linked chronic sarcasm to psychopathic traits. One of the most passive-aggressive ways narcissistic and psychopathic individuals treat others is with their condescending tone and body language, as well as tantrums disguised as the silent treatment or stonewalling to underhandedly punish you for perceived slights. They may also purposely withhold affection and attention to punish you as well. If you are chronically met with a sarcastic tone or haughty body language from someone, withholding of affection or the silent treatment and stonewalling, act accordingly. This person has disrespected you repeatedly and as a result, you do not owe them any empathy, respect, affection, or communication moving forward. Covert manipulators use these tactics in the hopes that they can better control you and keep you invested in the relationship by trying to please them. You may choose to call them out firmly before detaching, or go silent yourself, withhold your affection from them, and remove yourself from their life altogether.

Resist the urge to be people-pleasing and do not try to mollify or coddle them or educate them into behaving correctly. Instead, show them with your behavior that you will no longer be talked down to nor will you be “punished” with their silence or withholding tactics, especially not by a person you lowered your standards for in order to engage with in the first place. Remember: narcissists don’t respond to empathy or compassion. They respond to consequences. Dealing with passive-aggressiveness from a narcissist can be difficult. However, by identifying their manipulation tactics and setting appropriate boundaries and consequences, you have a better chance of liberating yourself from toxic relationships and pursuing the healthy life you do deserve.


About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.