Denial is a very commonly, colloquially understood term, but what’s the connection between this and narcissism/narcissists?
To be more clear, let’s briefly define terms and ask “what is denial?”, since it does have several different definitions depending context. In the context of psychology and personality disorders, it’s simply the refusal to accept a reality/fact that is clearly evident and true because it’s too painful or uncomfortable for the person to accept. So they deny it and reject or rebuff any appeal to facts/reason/evidence no matter how robust or correctly argued.
Anyone who has dealt with a narcissist long term knows how common and relevant this trait is to their personality, since it’s a defense you’ll very commonly see them using, often to our growing annoyance and exasperation.
Denial is one of the key cornerstones of the narcissistic personality, since the full blown narcissist has been practicing since a very early age to deny a reality about others and themselves that is too traumatic and painful. Therefore this defense mechanism, along with the related defensive trait of projection, is firmly ingrained into their psyche.
In other words, it’s something they’ve been doing from a very early age, which is why they’re so good at it, to the point of it being an automatic and instinctual defense they resort to.
Let’s look at how this personality trait relates to, and manifest in, narcissists in more detail.
Examples Of Denial In Narcissists
The trait of denial does not appear in the official DSM 9 traits criteria for full blown narcissistic personality disorder, but is still a crucial cornerstone concept that one must understand when dealing with narcissistic individuals.
Along with the twin defense of projection, it’s a defense mechanism they incessantly engage in – you’ll constantly encounter it, especially when conversations and relationships with them have turned toxic and confrontational.
Here are some examples:
- They’ll deny perfectly clear, provable reality with a completely straight face, convinced that their perception is correct when it clearly isn’t.
- The presenting of clear facts/logic/reason/evidence does nothing to break down this denial. Nothing penetrates this defense they put up.
- They’re deny clear wrongdoing on their part, instead claiming things didn’t happen or weren’t said done (gas-lighting), or blaming you or someone else instead.
- Presenting them with irrefutable evidence of this wrongdoing does not make them reconsider – in fact, they double down on it and become more resistant to reality.
- Narcissists often have a delusional image of themselves that’s at odds with reality. Narcissist managers often believe they’re great managers when they’re terrible, narcissist actors/celebs might believe they’re amazing when they’re really mediocre. In social circles, narcissists believe they’re popular and liked when they may be seen as “a joke”, a loser and an idiot. They don’t want to accept this painful reality about themselves, so they deny it and buy into a false image of themselves instead.
- Conversely, when this grandiose self image of themselves, and the denial that sustains it, is temporarily broken or punctured, and they are brought back into the painful reality that they are nothing special, you will see them fall into depletion and become visibly deflated or depressed (narcissistic injury), or else fly into a rage.
- On the occasions when a troubled partner of a narcissist does manage to get them to go to therapy, they’ll deny any wrongdoing or ownership for toxic behavior, and will rebuff or reject any diagnoses of NPD. They go therapy only as a move on the chessboard, and never truly believe anything is wrong with them, nor that they need to change anything about themselves fundamentally.
- More generally, narcissists live their entire life always seeming themselves as the victim when anything goes wrong in their life. Nothing was ever their fault, and it never could be. It’s the world who is always at fault. Any and all responsibility and ownership is denied – they were never to blame for anything that went wrong in their life.
“Those of you who are taking notes, write in capital letters Deny and Project (when talking about Cluster B personalities). It’s essential. When you’re talking about someone being narcissistic – “oh he’s a bit vain, he’s a bit rude, he doesn’t pay his tab” – that’s different to someone who is neurotically denying any wrongdoing whatsoever. They have no negative attributes. They admit to nothing. They is no humility.
Denial and projection (is at play). This is why therapy doesn’t work (for Cluster B disorders). “Why would it work for me; there’s nothing wrong with me. I know more than you, stupid therapist””
Richard Grannon, personality disorder expert.
Why Do Narcissists Deny Reality So Much?
Anyone who’s dealt with narcissists close up will recognize a lot of the manifestations of denial we mentioned above, but the logical follow up question is WHY do narcissist deny reality so much, and seemingly so easily? What is it about their personality, their identity, their background, that makes them this way? It’s infuriating to deal with long term, so we often want to know the reason for this behavior.
It relates back to how the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is formed, and the intense trauma that underpins it. For the narcissist to be the way they are, they have to suffer a large amount of inescapable trauma in childhood, and therein lies the clue right away. These people can be seen as victims as well as predators, in that they had immersively traumatic experiences as a child, and denial was effectively a coping mechanism to block out the horror of this trauma.
With the abusive parenting patterns that create narcissism, several traumatic messages and experiences commonly get imprinted on the child, such as:
- Never receiving true, authentic, unconditional love when they needed to.
- Sometimes being outright abused and objectified on top of not being loved.
- Being sent the message: “you’re not lovable and “OK” as you are. Love is conditional and tied to things you do or have, especially for me”
- Being sent the message that “you’re either the best, amazing, perfect, a “god”, or nothing, the worst of the worst, worthless, horrible (split between two polarities or extremes instead of just a healthy “you’re OK as you are” type message.
- Being used to feed the parent “supply” by proxy. Being shoved out in front of audiences and admired, so the parents can bask in the glow and also be admired (objectification).
- In general, never being allowed to truly individuate and grow as a person, but instead used as an object to satisfy the parent’s needs.
The bottom line on all of this is that a 3 or 4 year old child cannot fight back against this, and they’re too young to assert their own independence. The only way out of the inescapable trauma that they’re not loved for who they are, is to start denying and blocking out reality, because it’s too painful.
Richard Grannon sums this up well:
“In order to survive, the (narcissistic) child builds a shell around themselves. The shell keeps reality out. Reality, data and facts and truth are the enemy. SOME data gets through the shell, but only that which validates the pre-existing (narcissistic) self image.
Any other data that comes through that can be transformed on it’s way through the shell to validate the pre-existing false self image will be. And all the rest – ALL the rest – is ignored.
That’s why you’ve had the experience of dealing with a narcissist, and finding them to be very very stubborn, very stiff, and NOTHING gets through to them. They just cling stubbornly to that delusional version of themselves…..
….The formation of their personality is one giant NO. It’s a negation (of reality). They must fight like hell to keep reality at bay. And they’ve been doing this since they were very very young. They don’t know any other way of existing.”
In other words, denial becomes not just a temporary thing, but a way of life for them. It becomes firmly ingrained into their psyche. Their entire identity becomes built on the defense mechanism of denial, because in their minds on a primal level, if they didn’t do this, they wouldn’t have been able to survive as an infant.
How To Deal With A Narcissist’s Denial
As the old adage goes, what you practice a lot, you become really good at. A narcissist is really good at denial, because they’ve been practicing it since a very early age, because in their minds, they had to to survive. The problem is, this creates a really firmly implanted sickness and inversion on their psyche, whereby their default position becomes to negate or deny reality, truth and facts.
And if we continually try to engage and reason with this sickness, in time it will also drive us crazy, if we don’t realize that we’re dealing with the defenses a person erected as a 3 or 4 year old child. Therefore the best way to deal with a narcissist’s denial is actually to disengage with it, and with them in general. It’s not a fight you can win.
Here are some suggestions:
- Do NOT waste time trying to reason with a narcissist, since they will NEVER be able to process facts/logic/reason, however well presented, if it punctures their own grandiose self image.
- As they double down on their denial, even in the face of clear evidence, do not grow more exasperated trying to make your point. Disengage instead. They often even get a kick out of seeing this, and you may even catch them smirking as they see you getting more and more annoyed.
- Do NOT even waste time trying to explain to them the defense mechanism of denial, and how they should really work on it, see a therapist about it, etc. You’re wasting your time; these people don’t change and this defense mechanism cannot be penetrated.
- If you realize this pattern of interaction has been going on with a narcissist in your life a long time, it’s best to leave the relationship altogether as soon as possible. It’s not good for your own mental health constantly interacting with someone who’s entire identity is built on denying reality.
It’s not our job to deal with, or fix, personality disorders that go back to childhood trauma. These are things that need working through with a therapist, not in the outside world, and we all know how resistant narcissists are to any kind of humble ownership, change or growth.
Whilst it’s sad, it’s important to realize that with these people, the damage is already done, and we need to know when to withdraw and no longer bang our heads against the brick wall of their denial. Save your energy and move on when encountering these people in the outside world.
How Denial Can Spread To Victims Of Narcissists
This is an important additional point that needs adding, since a narcissist never works on their core wounding and trauma, and hence ends up passing it around to others instead. This means the victims of narcissists in relationships are often left with huge amounts of unresolved trauma themselves after it’s ended.
But as Richard Grannon has been at pains to point out in some of his work, narcissism is just a response to trauma, and DENIAL is a key thing that keeps a person from processing trauma.
Therefore this tendency to deny reality can sometimes be passed on from the narcissist to their victims in abusive relationships. Here are some examples:
- The victim denying, and unable to process, the complete reality of what happened to them, including just how appalling the abuse was, how badly affected they’ve been, and how low they’ve been sent by the abuse.
- Denying any ownership on their part for mistakes in letting the narcissist in (overlooking red flags, buying into their nonsense grandiose self image, buying into fake “slickness”, “coolness”, glib charm and other superficiality, not asking more questions, giving them second/third/fourth chances, etc).
- Staying with the narc and overlooking bad behavior because of superficial reasons (“good in bed”, “good looking” etc). Denying and not accepting that this was going on.
- Denying the reality of how their own behavior has changed for the worse (more moody, impatient, lower empathy, more triggered, more emotionally dis-regulated, falling out with friends etc)
Whilst this denial in victims is not as deep rooted as the narcissist’s denial, it’s still highly damaging and can prevent proper recovery and growth if it’s not understood that denial is a common response to trauma, and if it’s practiced too long and too often, can lead a person to develop some narcissistic traits themselves.
See our article on narcissists turning their victims into (partial) narcissists for more on this very important point. For breaking down denial and integrating truth/reality/ownership for recovering victims of narcs, Richard Grannon’s Break The Trauma Bond (referral link) course is highly recommended.
Closely Related Concepts
Here are a couple of terms that I believe could mostly ultimately be traced back to a narcissist’s denial, or closely related to it.
Projection – Really a counterpart to denial. If a narcissist cannot accept the reality about themselves or their behavior and want to deny it, it follows that this toxicity needs to be offloaded or “dumped” onto someone else. This is what projection is – the attribution of traits/impulses/desires to other people that are actually attributable to oneself. Hence the other infuriating patterns of behavior with narcissists where they’ll constantly accuse you of doing things they are actually doing (lying, cheating, stealing, betraying trust etc). Goes hand in hand with denial.
Gas-lighting – Refers to the relentless, pervasive undermining of a person sense’s of reality and erosion of their confidence in their own perception. Can and definitely is done deliberately by narcissists in some contexts, but can also arguably just be an offshoot of their constant and automatic tendency to deny and project. What we may call “gas-lighting” can often be just a narcissist denying a clear, provable reality (and undermining our correct perception in the process), because that’s all they know really how to do once their grandiose self image is threated. They’re just resorting to a defense mechanism that’s become automatic and instinctual for them, since they’ve been doing it since they were very young.