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The Narcissist's Alternate Reality

How Can They Say They Didn’t When Clearly They Did?

You may have had arguments with people who distort reality in their favor.

When you call them on something hurtful they've said or done, they vehemently deny it, even if it was witnessed or messaged.

How can they, in all good conscience, and contrary to logic, tell such outright lies, and expect you to accept them? (It feels like they are gaslighting you, and technically they are, but what's really going on is much more complex.) And to top it off, they later act as if everything is fine, with no apology offered.

Have they lost their minds? In a way they have.

What's Going On?

The narcissistic personality is built around regulating a shaky self-esteem that may have resulted in part from early life core shame, often in an environment where doing something “bad” equated to being altogether “bad.”

As psychologist Dr. Elinor Greenberg, a specialist in narcissistic and other personality disorders, explains, narcissists suffer from a lack of Whole Object Relations, which is the ability to see themselves and others in a realistic, stable, and integrated way.

Instead, they engage in “Splitting,” that is, seeing things in a black-and-white way, where a person is either altogether good or altogether bad at any given time.

And they can turn on a dime. This is why narcissistic parents can go from praising to devaluing their child in the blink of an eye.

So, unlike most of us, they lack the ability to maintain a positive self-regard while acknowledging a wrong-doing.

They can't experience a mindset that says "I'm a good person who did something bad" because they can't maintain those two realities as true at the same time. This prevents them from reaching the next step to get to the notion that "I'm a good person who did something bad that I can make amends for."

This is why they can never admit fault or make an authentic apology.

The Switch

Because they Split on not just others, but themselves, and lack stable access to positive self-regard, they rely on other people's perceptions of them to feel worthy. As such, they work very hard to make sure that they feel held in high regard. They need this in order keep their self-esteem in the "positive" position.

It's as if they have a switch with just two positions, good or bad, and that switch is controlled from the outside.

In fact, this process is so all-consuming that it results not only in self-aggrandizement and self-centeredness, but also in a lack of true emotional empathy. (Note that appearing empathetic due to an understanding of how someone feels, cognitive empathy, and feeling true empathy, emotional empathy, are not the same things.)

The Threat

When the narcissist is happy with how things are going in your interactions, especially if you are supplying them with fuel to bolster their self esteem (“Supply”), they see you as altogether good, as they see themselves as well.

But when you threaten their fragile ego (a Narcissistic Injury), for example by calling them on something they said or did, you have become the enemy they must defend themselves from, to the death.

If they don’t defend themselves from your allegation, they are at risk of feeling not just that they performed a transgression, but that they are a thoroughly rotten and fundamentally unworthy person.

This dynamic also applies to the possibility of the narcissist being wrong about something, which will typically elicit an outsized defensive response. You might even find yourself walking on eggshells, lest you say something that might be taken as a slight, even if that's just offering a different opinion. I call it "The Narcissist's Donkey Kick." It happens that swiftly.

[Examples of narcissistic reactions: Is It Healthy, Obnoxious, Toxic or Narcissistic?]

But How Can They Lose All Sense of Logic?

Dr. Greenberg explains it using the Figure/Ground Formation concept. As an analogy, think of a painting that focuses on a sharp figure in the foreground, versus the hazy landscape in the background. Because we cannot take in everything in our environment without getting overwhelmed, our perceptions are based upon aspects of our environment that speak to our current desires, needs, or fears (or our past unmet needs) while other aspects fade into the background.

Greenberg explains that in the context of relationships, what "becomes figural" is a representation of ourselves, the other person, and the felt relationship between us. However, because narcissism is a disorder of self-esteem regulation in the face of others, what becomes figural for the narcissist is anything that potentially enhances or threatens that self-esteem. So what has become figural during these disagreements is the threat of humiliation they must defend against.

Their need to defend against your accusation has become so all-consuming that the facts of the matter at hand, and the logic that binds these facts, recedes into the background.

This explains the pathological lying that is a common part of the narcissist's make-up and the blame-shifting that is engaged in to turn things around on you and put you on the defense. (In fact, they'll use a number of arguing tactics to avoid having to take responsibility. Read about these tactics in the Narcissistic Word Salad section of Is It Healthy, Obnoxious, Toxic or Narcissistic?)

How Can They Treat Me So Badly?

In addition, any good feelings they have for you also vanish during a disagreement, due to a lack of Object Constancy. At some point in their development, and infant develops Object Constancy, in for example, the realization that even though their caregiver has left the room, she still exists and will return.

What a lack of Object Constancy means in adults is that during an argument, the narcissist cannot maintain an internal representation of you as a good person [remember, you have been a source of Supply] whom they wouldn’t want to hurt [they need you to be willing to provide that Supply]. That person is gone from their mind, and the person who stands before them is a mortal enemy they have no qualms about wounding.

How Can They Act Like It Never Happened?

Then, when, days later, they are back in touch with you (oftentimes texting feel-good emojis) as though their poor behavior, and the logic-defying denials that followed, never happened, they have lost access to that unpleasant experience, and are ready to renew a relationship that has usually served their self-esteem positively. That is what has now "become figural" for them.

Meanwhile, you’re incredulously asking yourself, “WTF?? Are they out of their mind??”

The thing to remember is that the narcissist's mind works differently from yours and mine.

How Do I Handle It?

As with so many things, the first step is understanding. Now that you know what is going in the narcissist's mind, you can make more informed choices.

1. You start by realizing that you can't win.

They've got too much at stake and they won't let go. They'll go down with the fiery wreck, and they'll drag you down with them.

You'll need to be the bigger person and put your side of the story to rest.

2. That includes even trying to explain yourself.

The narcissist is self-referential and lacks empathy, so they have difficulty seeing things from someone else's perspective at the best of times.

During a disagreement, your attempts to explain will just add fuel to the fire and lead to things spiraling out of control.

3. All of this will require that you keep from being reactive yourself.

You may need to practice responding reflectively rather than reacting reflexively.

To avoid being reactive, it helps to not take these interactions personally, but rather dispassionately.

You can be sure that the narcissist in your life is treating others the same way as well. They can't help but be reactive, but you can. The narcissist is controlled by a fragile ego; just be happy you're not.

4. Limit your exposure to the narcissist.

If you're able to, rearrange your life to cut out the toxicity. This might mean making significant changes in your life. Make an assessment of how much negative impact the narcissist has in your life.

You may want to consider changing positions or jobs if your boss or colleague is so toxic that it’s making your work life miserable.

If it’s a relative, consider that you don’t have to live by the the proverb “blood is thicker than water.” You have no obligation to stay in a toxic relationship. You owe it to yourself to expect to be treated well, and that might mean minimizing contact with a toxic family member. And you wouldn’t be the first person to realize they even need to create a whole new “family” outside of their toxic family of origin.

Finally, consider that in romantic relationships, narcissists often come on strong in the beginning (“Love Bombing”), and the hope that those good feelings will return sometimes makes people put up with may more than they should.

Are you being treated as well by your partner as you treat them?

5. If you're not able to avoid the narcissist, use the Gray Rock Method.

Act as uninteresting and neutral as you can and detach yourself emotionally.

Say as little as possible, and especially avoid saying things they can hook into to start a fight.

This isn't the same thing as walking on eggshells, because you've become dispassionate about your relationship.

You are no longer expecting that they will honor your right to your side of the story, or even your opinion, without a backlash. You know what you're dealing with, you've learned that they don't play by the rules, and you are now responding strategically for the betterment of your emotional well-being.

Detaching also means you're going to stop giving them the feel-goods you may have been supplying them with. And more than likely they'll start looking elsewhere for someone who will supply them that needed resource.

6. Put your relationship energy elsewhere.

Put more of your focus on people who are fair-minded, thoughtful in their responses, and reciprocal.

Once you start putting these new behaviors in place, you'll find that your world is a much better place.


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