Why Narcissists Make Truthful Reconciliation Impossible
Narcissists see forgiveness as establishing their false narrative as the truest.
Psychology Today cross-published this essay.
- An expectation of special treatment and a deficit in empathy can cause narcissists to seem entitled to forgiveness, even while still harming you.
- For many narcissists, conflict resolution and communication are often games to win, and humility and self-reflexivity are seen as liabilities.
- A narcissist’s terms of forgiveness often rush others into trusting them again, without proof of greater self-awareness or sustained change.
This piece originally appeared in Psychology Today.
“That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. And if I did, you deserved it.”
“A Narcissist’s Prayer,” by Danya Craig, perfectly illustrates why reconciling with a narcissist can feel impossible. When a narcissist asks you to “forgive and forget,” they usually expect forgiveness for harm they are still enacting in real-time. From their vantage point, the problem is you noticing their unwillingness to stop — not their actual insistence and refusal. They truly believe it would be easier and fairer for you to adjust to their mistreatment, than for them to just stop mistreating you.
Entitlement is a hallmark of narcissistic personality disorder. This explains why many narcissists misperceive consequences as more harsh than the cruel, dishonest, and self-centered behavior that warranted such repercussions in the first place. Narcissists see themselves as deserving of special treatment in all circumstances, even if they have destroyed a victim’s physical health, self-esteem, support networks, and capacity to build relationships with trustworthy individuals.
The best apology is changed behavior — that is common sense for most people. Yet, narcissists often prefer that victims adopt denial. They seem unable to imagine that their victims wish forgetting were possible; but the trauma inflicted on them was so deep, it is now something they must cope with. And, although it seems counterintuitive, sometimes the best coping looks is not repression, but instead openly processing the trauma with a support system who will not require dissociation from the past or present. Sometimes healing looks like rebuffing toxic amnesia.
As poet Lucille Clifton wrote: “They ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories/and I keep on remembering / mine.”
One might imagine that concrete evidence would help a narcissist understand he magnitude of their harm, but even in the face of proof, many will just pivot to controlling the narrative via victim-playing and “playing dumb.”
They might, for instance, tell others that you started a conflict that actually began with them attacking you, or that you were uncompromising, even though you never asked for anything more than basic respect and remained patient when you still had hope for them to change. Any self-respect from you can intensify this backlash. The more empowered you seem, the more they fear exposure, the more energy they invest in triangulating loved ones and flying monkeys against you, the more time they spend ensuring that their narrative drowns out yours.
Above Consequence and Beyond Reproach
A narcissist’s self-delusion that they are the self-appointed arbiters of truth — and the sole authorities on reality — is the presupposition fueling their entitlement to undeserved trust and respect. Just as narcissists grant themselves permission to shirk the rules and standards they impose on others, they also grant themselves permission to “play God” and rewrite reality to conform to their sense of infallibility.
Relatedly, a narcissist’s eventual downfall usually can be traced to their chronic dismissal of constructive criticism and well-intentioned advice. One might sense the need to sandwich direct critiques — even valid and substantiated ones — with the cushions of affirmative caveats, disclaimers, and qualifiers, or preemptive reassurance that they are a good person with aptitude to improve. Yet, these thoughtful strategies usually prove futile.
Worse still, narcissists tend to project competition and rivalry where neither exist. Advice like, “You might come across more positively if you pause more before you speak,” can easily get misconstrued as, “You think you know everything? That I am dumber than you? That I am a loser?”
Many narcissists could not fathom your openness to learning from them in the next moment, because they feel compelled to project a dominant-subordinate hierarchy onto the dynamic. Their default mental filter is typically set to black-or-white, either-or thinking and false dichotomies (all good-all bad, versus ‘both/and’ perspectives that stress contextual thinking and moral relativism).
This means they undermine their own socialization, and neglect practicing the prosocial skills of self-regulation and perspective-taking. Even if your private advice would spare them from harsher scrutiny in public, remaining oblivious to the pitfalls of their character may feel safer (and they usually have empath-enablers to help clean up their messes).
Similarly, a group with high collective narcissism — like a religious institution that is authoritarian and doctrinally fundamentalist — might deflect by invoking persecutory delusions, or perhaps overspiritualize any degree of critique or non-conformity as evidence of “The Enemy’s” spirit.
Narcissistic Abuse and Complex PTSD
Narcissists often employ unrelenting tactics — deflection, projection, and rationalization — because they are committed to misunderstanding and discrediting you. Their intent is to overwhelm your nervous system, until you lack the courage and strength to speak up and fight back.
This mind-body impact of this insidious hostility explains why survivors of narcissistic abuse commonly report C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). Walking on eggshells has led to gastro-intestinal issues, inflammation from chronically high levels of stress hormones, disrupted circadian rhythm, nightmares and flashbacks, panic attacks, and more.
In good faith, survivors often attempt reconciliation, not realizing that the narcissist does not “play fair.” Not only that, but entitlement prevents the narcissist from understanding what true peace and forgiveness entail: full transparency, radical humility, and actionable commitments to integrity moving forward, if there is even a desire to do so.
But rarely is humility is rarely found in narcissistic narratives. Thus, healing for survivors of narcissistic abuse often centers the challenge of discarding the need for proof or people to vindicate their innocence and good character.
Typically, the first step looks like replacing an inner self-critic that the narcissist purposely instilled to induce self-consciousness and self-doubt. This inner voice often replays the devaluing script of the narcissist — the narcissist diminishing their strengths, guilt-tripping their confidence or accomplishments, judging what brings them joy, accusing them of selfishness, invalidating their intuition as “craziness,” and comparing them to others.
Once survivors and whistleblowers step forward, narcissists often promise to cease their harm, and perhaps even engage in an ethical reconciliation process; yet, behind closed doors, they are often charming and grooming enablers.
Re-traumatization can result from the trauma of institutional betrayal, or the trauma of being actively and routinely disbelieved, invalidated, silenced, alienated, and/or scapegoated within in a family, workplace or industry, school, religious community, or other institution. Sometimes the re-traumatization of institutional betrayal eclipses the pain of the narcissistic abuse that initially prompted a survivor to speak out.
Institutional betrayal is often enabled by narratives that frame right and wrong “sides,” based on inequitable power dynamics (e.g., “How dare she speak about [her elders, her boss, her pastor, her father, etc.] that way?”). These narratives are how narcissist’s recruit a survivor’s friends and family to deny evidence, surveil them, and socially undermine them through gossip about them being “crazy.”
Survivors eventually realize that, for the narcissist defines “forgiveness” and “peace,” are contingent upon acceptance of their escapist delusions of blamelessness and purity. Nevermind that the revisionist narrative aligned with their self-delusion defies facts, reason, empathy, and all common sense.
Time Is A Mother
In “How to Humiliate an Absolute Narcissist,” Jeremy E. Sherman writes, “Being an absolute narcissist takes discipline of a peculiar kind, the discipline to be completely undisciplined, no consistency in their relentless and bogus rationalizations, the discipline to say in response to everything ‘that proves I’m right,’ with no attention to reality, or the meaning of the things they say, since all that matters is keeping up the appearance of winning.”
Even worse, narcissists often employ what Sherman calls defaulty logic — “if they can find any fault in you, that proves that they are faultless by default.”
This drives them to frame every choice you make as a weakness. Speak out because you feel unsafe? You’re vindictive. Spell out their motives? You’re a know-it-all. Take the high road? You’re uppity. Cry? You’re sensitive. Scream? You’re a monster. Stay silent? You’re scared. Debunk their lies with chronological and detailed evidence? You’re stuck in the past.
You are probably wondering if the narcissist wins in the end. No, they do not. Why, you ask? No liar can stop the truth from accumulating and revealing itself over time. Our character always seeps (or leaps) out eventually, even despite our best concerted effort to blend in and go unnoticed. Shadow work, or examining the unconscious and repressed layers of our selfhood, can save us — yet, narcissists are unequivocally opposed to it.
Imagine spending a lifetime believing your biggest problem is other people, then realizing the implausibility of that projection only when there is no one left to blame.