A hallmark of people who have strong narcissistic and other dark personality traits (hereafter referred to as narcissists) is the avoidance of taking responsibility for their dysfunctional or incompetent behavior.
Since they already have shaky and low self-esteem, they try to mask it with fake confidence. A significant part of this defense mechanism is never admitting that they are wrong. Some may occasionally admit to some small wrong in order to “prove” that they can, indeed, admit something after all, but it’s a deception.
Denial and Delusion
Never admitting that you’re wrong and not taking responsibility for anything negative requires a lot of effort. This is usually characterized by constant denial. Denial of reality, denial that events happened, denial that they did what they did, denial of the good things that others did, denial of the consequences of their behavior, and so on.
It might have begun as conscious denial, but if you lie to yourself so much, you eventually begin to believe the lies and it becomes your reality. Whatever the case may be, the result is the same—detachment from reality. A disconnection from reality is called delusion.
People with strong narcissistic tendencies are highly delusional. That’s why having a conversation with them can be incredibly frustrating. Here you are trying to come to a mutual agreement about what the best plan to resolving a problem is, but they can’t even agree on what’s reality. And even if in some instances where they can agree, their solutions are so bizarre that they never lead to anything good.
Toxic Amnesia and Gaslighting
Toxic amnesia is a tactic where the perpetrator pretends to not remember abuse, betrayals, lies, and other hurtful and dysfunctional behaviors they’ve engaged in. It’s a form of gaslighting. Its purpose is to make you doubt your perceptions and memories.
You can read more about it in my article Gaslighting: What It Is and Why It’s So Destructive.
Blaming the Victim or Playing One
Two other constants in the narcissist’s playbook are blaming the victim and playing the victim. By blaming others, often the ones that they hurt (the victim, or the target), the narcissist “proves” that it’s not their fault, but rather, it is the fault of the person who they’ve hurt. The victim deserved it, therefore the narcissist did nothing wrong.
Sometimes, however, it is more beneficial to play the victim instead of blaming one. And so they twist the story until they look like they were hurt, while in fact they were the perpetrator. I talk about it more in the article titled How Narcissists Play the Victim and Twist the Story.
Sometimes, the narcissist uses both tactics concerning the same instance. This phenomenon is well observed even on a broader societal level. For example, Umberto Eco describes it in the context of Fascist propaganda, where the enemy is both too strong and too weak at the same time, depending on what narrative is convenient at the given moment.
A Narcissist’s Prayer
Many of these and other common narcissistic tactics can be summarized with what sometimes is referred to as a Narcissist’s Prayer:
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.
Now let’s look at what the narcissist is doing here and what response they are looking for:
1. That didn’t happen. – Pure denial, toxic amnesia, gaslighting.
Expected response: “You’re right, maybe it didn’t happen, maybe I misunderstood something. I’m sorry.”
2. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. – Denial, minimization.
Expected response: “You’re right, it wasn’t that bad, I overreacted. Sorry…”
3. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. – Denial, minimization.
Expected response: “You’re right, I’m sorry, it’s nothing, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
4. And if it is, that’s not my fault. – Denial, rejection of responsibility, deflection.
Expected response: “You’re right, I really overreacted, It’s not your fault.”
5. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. – Denial, lying, rejection of responsibility.
Expected response: “I know you wouldn’t hurt me. It’s okay.”
6. And if I did…you deserved it. – Denial, blaming the victim, deflection.
Expected response: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you act this way. It’s all my fault, I’m very sorry…”
Summary and Bottom Line
Narcissists will manage their shaky sense of self-esteem by denying any responsibility for their dysfunctional behavior. Some of the tactics they use to achieve this are denial, delusion, toxic amnesia, gaslighting, minimization, deflection, blaming the victim, playing the victim, and many more.
Refuse to accept this.