Oh boy, this is a very common frustration normal people get when dealing with narcissists, right? You can present them with hard data, facts, and evidence, or use simple, easy to understand, step-by-step logical or rational processes to explain why something they did was wrong, why you want them to stop doing something, why something DID happen contrary to what they claim, etc etc. And yet they seem completely unable to process whatever clear reality you bring to them.
I put that featured image at the top, because that’s how you’ll often feel when trying to reason with a narcissist, trying to get them to understand simple logic and facts you present to them – completely infuriated and exacerbated.
But why are they like this? Why can’t they seem to process facts, logic or reason, however clearly and reasonably presented? What’s going in inside them that means they seem to deny a clear, plain reality that’s put in their face?
A core answer to this is that narcissism is a disorder based upon the denial of reality, and this defense mechanism is not just a little bit, but DEEPLY, ingrained into their psyche and pattern of interacting with the world. Therefore with a narcissist, you’re trying to reason with someone who’s entire identity is built on NOT being able to do so.
However, in other contexts, narcissists understand very well what’s going on, and are merely “playing dumb” to string you along and frustrate and exacerbate you, often getting a “kick” out of doing so. This is more to do with gas-lighting and power dynamics rather than a denial defense from their side per se, but is just as frustrating to deal with.
Let’s kick off with a couple of these different interpretations of what’s going on with the narcissist here, since different perspectives might resonate with different people. But the bottom line is that these are NOT people you want to be engaging with long term, for your own sanity more than anything else.
Narcissism Is A Personality Disorder Based On Denial Of Reality
Other blog posts on this may have a different explanation, but I wanted to go really deep on this and give a core level answer as to what it is in the narcissist’s personality that means they seem unable to process facts/logic/reason. How can they seemingly deny obvious reality you present to them, with a completely straight face, almost naturally and instinctively?
It’s seems almost sick that someone could do that, right? It feels like an inversion of what’s normal, natural and sane, and it is! But it’s an axiom that whatever you practice for a long time, you become really good at. Let me explain.
To understand why the narcissist is this way, we need to understand how the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is formed. It’s fair to say that narcissists are in a sense also victims as well as predators – they had a very traumatic childhood to make them the way they are.
Full blown narcissism, also known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is itself thought to be derived from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), which is itself rooted in immersively traumatic/abusive childhood experiences.
We cover what some of this abuse that creates narcissism can entail in another post, but one of the defenses adopted by the child in response to this trauma, is to deny and block out reality, because they cannot handle how traumatic it is, and are too young to fight back or assert their own independence. The problem is, this denial of reality becomes a firmly ingrained habit – because in their mind, they MUST do this to survive. The environment they are in as a child is too traumatic/abusive not to.
The sickness in full blown narcissists is that their entire identity, even in adulthood once the threat has passed, is now built on a denial of reality, not it’s acceptance.
Personality disorder expert Richard Grannon has emphasized this aspect of narcissism constantly in recent years. Here’s just one quote of many where he clarifies this aspect of narcissism:
“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.
And 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.”
Now can you understand the exacerbation you feel when trying to get a narcissist to see clear logic/facts/reason? They can’t process reality, because they’re been training themselves since infancy to NOT be able to do this. You’re dealing with a fully grown adult who’s still operating with the defenses they erected as a 3 or 4 year old child.
Moreoever, these defenses are in-penetrable – they can’t be got through. Not by therapists, not by coaches, and certainly not by a lay person laying down facts, reason and logic, however diligently. Now hopefully you understand what a waste of time it is trying to appeal to reason, facts and logic with a narcissist.
Alternative Perspective – They Understand Very Well What Is Going On (Context vs Content)
There is another interpretation of the frustration of dealing with narcissists that in a way contradicts what was stated above, but still makes sense and is part of some people’s experience dealing with them. There are some contexts in which a narcissist DOES on some level know the reality/facts of a situation, but chooses to ignore or deny it anyway as an abuse and gas-lighting tactic. Or alternatively, just doesn’t care what the reality is and just wants to “string you along”.
This is perhaps more common when you’re really into the abusive, “mask off” stage of a relationship with a narcissist, where the gas-lighting has really ramped up, and at this point, they’re just playing with you. It might also come up when discussing something that doesn’t burst the bubble of their false self image, but they’re still happy to deny reality to mess with your head and confuse you even more.
It follows the same general pattern:
- You calmly explain something to them, using simple facts/logic/reason.
- They completely deny what’s presented to them, even though it’s irrefutable.
- You double down on the reason/information/facts/logic, thinking they just must be confused.
- They continue to double down on their denial, and you grow more exasperated with this.
- You may even catch them smirking as your frustration escalates – provoking a negative emotional reaction in you has “inflated” or “fed” them.
There are some scenarios (where their precious grandiose self image isn’t being threated) where the narcissist DOES know what the reality is, but chooses to gas-light and “toy” with the other person and deny it anyway, for their own amusement.
“The more chaos inducing communication and the more chaos inducing behavior we get from (the narcissist/psychopath), the more we push the pedal down on reason, rationality and information.
We’re like “No no no, just let me explain to you, let me just give you the right data, let me just give you the right information”, with this fallacious nation behind it, that if they just understood more, they would stop (the toxic behavior).
They understand perfectly. They understand the situation perfectly, believe me”
One framework to explain this is the context/content split in toxic interactions – you as the reasonable person are interested in the content of the interaction (facts, logic, reason, evidence), while they’re only interested in the context (power dynamics) of the interaction.
Put differently, in all interactions, but especially when they turn toxic and confrontational, a narcissist is NEVER interested in reality/facts/logic, but only really in the following things:
- The power dynamics – who’s in control of who in the interaction?
- Negative interpersonal dynamics – who is provoking or upsetting who? Is someone inducing a negative emotional reaction out of someone else?
- The EFFECT that communication has on people (not the substance or reality or truth of the communication). Cluster B disordered people are students of the effect their behavior and words has on other people. That’s why they’re so good at inducing negative reactions in people – they’ve been observing and practicing it their whole lives.
- In terms of personality disordered people, bring this under one umbrella – am I occupying this person’s mind/thoughts, in either a positive or negative way? Is so, then they have power and control over that person, which is what they want.
See our full article on the context/content split in toxic interactions for more information and examples.
But in one sense, it’s the same general idea as the “denial” interpretation above – when engaging with a narcissist, you’ve really got two people at cross-purposes, with completely different agendas, motives and goals, which is why it’s a complete waste of time even engaging.
In the case of denial, you’ve got one person trying to stay in contact with reality, and another fighting with all of their being to deny reality. No wonder the interaction is so frustrating!
In the case of the context/content split, you’ve got one (sincere) person concerned with the facts and reality of the situation, and the other concerned only with the power dynamics of the situation, with no interest in who’s really “right” or what really happened.
Either way, hopefully these explanations have made clear that with a narcissist, you’re dealing with someone who does not want to communicate sincerely, and in fact doesn’t know how to. This is why they cannot process facts/logic/reason, and why it’s a waste of your time even trying to get them to do so.
Once we see this, it’s much easier to dis-engage from them and save our energy (and sanity).
“When communicating with the terminally insincere, you must abandon all sincerity”