Denial is at the core of narcissism. Without it, Narcissistic Personality Disorder simply could not exist.
“Denial (also called abnegation) is a defense mechanism…in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.” Simply stated, denial is lying to yourself and believing the lie.
Brought down to its very essence, denial is expressed in two basic forms: lying to oneself about others (the woman who cannot admit her man is cheating on her, for example, even though there is ample evidence of his perfidy) or lying to oneself about one’s own self (the jowly, bloated, middle aged matron believing she looks “hot” in fashions better suited to her 13-year-old daughter). One need not be a narcissist to engage in denial—we all do it from time to time, whether it is in reference to romance or fashion or health. But while not all deniers are narcissists, all narcissists are deniers—narcissism could not exist without the ability to deny reality and believe that denial.
When you are in denial about yourself it can take more than one form: it can be as superficial as believing you look really good with a trout pout or as deep as believing that you are entitled to whatever it is you want by whatever means you must employ to get it. You can deny what the mirror tells you, substituting in your vision what you want to see; you can deny that the rules of society and law apply equally to all of us and behave—without qualm—in a way the rest of us believe to be unethical.
Denial with respect to others is something you see all the time: people who essentially bury their heads in the sand rather than acknowledge unpleasant truths they don’t want to deal with. But there is a deeper, more pernicious kind of denial with regard to other people: the refusal to acknowledge the feelings of others and the substitution of something less true but more palatable to the denier.
The narcissist engages in denial that serves him, that allows him to always be right, that allows him to feel good about himself, no matter the cost to others. The narcissist’s lack of empathy allows him to look at someone who is crying as a result of some cold or cruel remark he made and believe she is not really hurt, she is trying to manipulate him. Or, if acknowledging she is hurt, she is hurt not because of something he said or did but because she has chosen to be hurt by his words or deeds.
Because a narcissist does not live in reality, however, sometimes his denial backfires on him and causes problems—but don’t think for a minute the narcissist learns anything from it. The boyfriend of a friend of mine now has a partially crippled hand due to his denial: he got an infection and refused to see a doctor about it, saying it was “fine.” Eventually, pain (and his girlfriend) drove him to see a doctor but by then the bones were involved and some of them eventually fused. His denial of the severity of his injury—whether because he subconsciously thought he was Superman or whether he was afraid to see a physician—caused a far-reaching consequence. Did he learn from this? No—he blamed the cat that scratched him and the next time he got really sick, he refused treatment until he was so sick he had to be admitted to a hospital in critical condition.
Unfortunately, most narcissistic denial doesn’t have the outcome of the narcissist being the only one injured. My mother denied I needed glasses—my science teacher sent me to the school nurse because I could not read the blackboard from the front row. The nurse checked my eyes and told my mother I needed glasses. When my mother said I was “faking it,” the nurse gave my mother the choice of taking me to the optometrist herself or she would call in CPS and lay a charge of neglect (she had been dealing with my mother for years by this time and was not fooled by her at all). All the way to the optometrist’s office I was harangued, terrorized and screamed at, accused of faking, and promised the beating of my lifetime after the doctor’s tests proved it. The drive home was absolutely silent—I needed glasses stronger than hers—but no apology was forthcoming for her tirade en route. Her denial of the reality of my needs took the form of believing me to be a “drama queen” and a “hypochondriac.” Even when I was truly sick, like when I had pneumonia or an allergy attack that swelled my eyes completely shut, I was accused of “playing up” my symptoms and pretending that I was sicker than I was. My mother’s denial of my medical needs not only caused me unnecessary pain and suffering, it set the stage for me neglecting my medical care: without my mother responding to my needs appropriately, I learned to endure long past the time I should seek treatment, because I was never sure when I should seek it.
The narcissist lives in denial about himself as well as others. To himself, a narcissist is special, talented, entitled, better than everyone else. He may be a short, plain, social bumbler, but in his mind, he is the superior being deserving of a supermodel girlfriend and a rich man’s lifestyle. That he doesn’t have it is not his fault—it is the fault of those who are jealous of his abilities, who don’t like him because of his colour, who won’t give him a chance because of his origins or religion or the school he went to (or didn’t go to) or his parents because they denied him those things that would have given him entrée into that to which he believes he is entitled.
In the narcissist, denial can be applied to any and everything. Laws? For the narcissist, they only apply if he is caught—but you had better abide by them! We must all be predictable so that the narcissist can anticipate what we will do and make his plans accordingly. It’s OK if he fails to return something borrowed—even money—but you have no such leeway. His front yard can be an overgrown mess and his house need painting, but you had better keep yours up or you’ll lower his property values!
James, my N ex-husband, was famous for his denial of economic reality—and when caught out, he was invariably angry with those whom he identified as the cause of the problems that cost him money. He, of course, never included himself among those at fault.
When I met James, he had about $3000 (about $16,000 in today’s money) invested in a company called Bowmar. “In 1971, Indiana-based Bowmar Instruments introduced the first hand-held LED (Light Emitting Diode) calculator. The “Bowmar Brain” was a huge success. Other manufacturers developed cheaper calculators, and when the company could no longer compete, it went bankrupt in 1976.” As Bowmar’s share price sank, James refused to acknowledge the company was crashing and he needed to sell out to minimize his losses. His denial of the reality of Bowmar’s decline—he kept telling me “it will go back up…then I’ll sell…”—caused him to ride Bowmar right down to the bottom. And then he got mad. He got mad at Bowmar for crashing, he got mad at the stock market, and he got mad at me for being right…so much so that when, a few years later, I suggested he buy a new stock called Redken, he got mad all over again and refused to invest a penny. Redken, of course, went on to be a huge success in its market.
The narcissist can sink himself into denial and hold fast to it, no matter how much reality may attempt to batter him. When James and I divorced, I retained possession the family home for a few years (and had to make the mortgage payments), after which we were supposed to sell it. I called in a real estate agent who had worked my neighbourhood for many years and asked her to get a comprehensive report of sales in my neighbourhood against which we could compare my house in order to set a selling price. Considering the age, condition and location of the house, she set the optimum selling price at $215,000, telling me to be prepared to accept offers at $200,000. But when I tried to get James to sign the sales authorization papers, he refused. He wanted to sell the house for $279,000, significantly more than the house was worth, and some $60,000 more than the best house on the street had sold for! And ours was far from the best house on the street.
I couldn’t imagine why he was fixating on this figure and eventually had to drag him back to court to get a judge to set a price and authorize the sale. I took my agent with me and she carefully explained to the judge why she had recommended her price and presented charts and other research of the sales of similar homes in my area over the previous year. When it came James’ turn to speak, he had no supporters, no presentation, no statistics. What he had was this: He wanted to by a house in Colorado, where he was currently living. He needed $90,000 cash to buy the house free and clear. So, he did calculations determining how much he would have to sell the California house for and, after taxes, commissions, paying off the old mortgage and splitting the proceeds with me, have that $90K left over. And the figure the house needed to sell for, in order for James to realize his $90K profit, was $279K.
He was in complete denial of the reality of the property market and sales. He was livid with the judge when he set the listing price at $215K and ordered we accept any offer of $200K or more. He was incandescent with fury when the judge stuck him with my lawyer’s bill and court costs for the hearing, saying if he had been reasonable, the hearing would never have been necessary. He fully expected the judge to side with him despite our research and the figures my estate agent had presented (and all of this had been presented to James before we decided to go to court—he simply denied their veracity). Interestingly, after being on the market for seven months at $279K and not a single showing, when the house was reduced to $215K it sold for $200K within a month.
James saw himself as a victim—he was my victim in the divorce, the victim of sandbaggers and backstabbers at work, the victim of the police who gave him citations for doing things (like speeding, running red lights, driving on the shoulder during commute traffic) that he considered harmless—speeding was OK because he was “in control”; blowing a red light was ok because he “looked and no traffic was coming”; driving the shoulder was OK because there was plenty of room and why should he wait with all those other morons who weren’t smart enough to take an opportunity when it presented? He was the victim of my “rapacious attorney” for taking him to court every month and sticking him with her bills—even though we only took him to court when he was in violation of court orders for things like support and maintenance costs for the house. He simply could not face that the trouble that were costing him so much money were of his own doing. So, instead of making his support payments on time, instead of paying half the bill to fix the furnace and the roof, instead of giving me half of the joint tax return, he viewed the situation as him being victimized by a greedy ex-wife, her voracious attorney and biased judges. Had he not been mired so deeply in denial he would have seen that on-time payments of both support and household repairs and refraining from forging my signature on a government check would have kept him out of court and my attorney’s fingers out of his wallet. He was so invested in his victimhood that he spent four years creating situation after situation that forced me to drag him back to court for redress...and every one cost him money and left him feeling further victimized.
My mother was no less in denial about most aspects of her life. When I was about 10, she told my father that she was going to start “seeing other men,” and that she might bring some of them home with her…and if he didn’t like it, he could leave. This was the 1950s and she was in complete denial about the moral strictures of the day. She didn’t need to adhere to a moral code she didn’t like (although the rest of us damn sure had to!). One of the clearest examples of her denial was how she treated my growing, developing body. As my breasts grew and my height increased, instead of taking me shopping to buy me appropriate undergarments and school clothes, she took my little girl dresses (size 12 or so) and let the seams out as far as they could go, let the hems down and even stitched a band of lace to the bottom of the dresses to lengthen them. I just thought she was cheap, but my stepmother remarked that she was doing an awful lot of work just to be cheap—it was her opinion that I was becoming competition for male attention and by keeping me looking like a little girl, NM could not only deny her own advancing age, but keep me a child and not a rival. In context of the way she lived and thought, it made perfect sense.
Denial is always self serving. There are a lot of people in America who are unwilling to admit even to themselves that they are racist. Rather than admit, for example, that they simply do not want what they secretly consider to be a sub-human to dictate to them as the ruler of their country, they will come out with incredibly outlandish ways to try to discredit the black guy in the Oval Office and get him evicted, without dirtying their reputations by revealing their closet racism. Chief among these are the “birthers,” those who refuse, no matter what kind of evidence is presented, to believe that Obama is a natural born American citizen. His birth certificate was released from the state archives of Hawaii—and they called it a forgery. The governor, who was personally acquainted with Obama’s parents at the time of his birth, has attested personal knowledge of the man’s birth in Hawaii—they refuse to believe him. Not even the fine point of law—the technical meaning of “natural born”—sways them from their denial (there are two kinds of citizens—natural born and naturalized; if either one of your parents is a US citizen at the time of your birth, it does not matter where in the world you are born, you are a “natural born” US citizen). Their denial of the incontrovertible facts of Obama’s citizenship serves them—it gives them hope that they can remove this person from the presidency and allows them to avoid accepting that their leader is a man of what they secretly consider to be a member of an inferior race.
Denial is a peculiar thing but it always serves the denier. My daughter, despite authentication from half a dozen people in the family who were—or became—aware of my mother’s plot to steal my children and give them to her brother for adoption, has consistently refused to believe the truth. NM told her that I had abandoned her, that I didn’t want her anymore and as proof, cited that I did not make any attempt to contact her for the whole eight years she was gone. No amount of logic or proof to the contrary has swayed my daughter from believing that despite knowing that I didn’t know where she was, despite a large kraft envelope of cards and letters I sent to her and her brother over the years (in care of my grandmother), despite my father, my uncle, and even my grandparents telling her I did not abandon her and that I had made regular attempts to locate her and they blocked me.
How did this denial serve her? It gave her a safe target for her anger: if she got mad at NM or some other family member, they might reject her but since she believed I had already done so, there was nothing to lose. By siding with NM and becoming virtually her only ally, she became NM’s new Golden Child. When she needed a fat loan for a down payment on her first house, Dear Daughter approached her grandmother (who was flush with cash inherited from her own parents) for a loan. Several years later, when NM wrote her will, she told DD that I was being written out of it in her favour, a fact DD could not wait to impart to me over the phone.
“Do you think that’s fair?” I asked.
I could hear the dismissive indifference in her voice, “Well, you and Grammi never got along, anyway.”
Not only was she in denial about whether or not it was fair for my mother to disinherit me in her favour, she saw nothing at all wrong with her two brothers being disinherited right along beside me. Her denial netted her a fortune…literally…and then she lied to her brothers about it, saying Grammi had left the money to all three of them but she was to administer it.
Like the trusting idiot I can be, I believed that foreshadowed her intent to split the money with her brothers. Since this is what I would have done in my own will—split my estate evenly among my kids—I was somewhat mollified at the money having gone to her. If she was sharing it her brothers, then I could go along with that. But it didn’t work out that way—when my oldest son, who was disabled, approached her for the money to buy a car, she refused because she had already spent it all buying herself a new house—a McMansion in a neighbouring town, a huge overgrown monstrosity of a place for her family of three (she had empty rooms that she had no purpose for!). And when asked why, she denied any intent to share with her brothers—it was her money and she could do what she wanted with it.
Denial is at the absolute core of narcissism. Without the ability to deny one’s own feelings of inadequacy and shame, without the ability to deny how one’s self-serving actions affect others, without the ability to deny that one is part of a whole rather than an isolated entity, narcissism is simply not possible. When you deal in reality you hear the note of hurt in another’s voice and respond to it viscerally, you wince with another’s pain—even today I cannot watch my husband inject his insulin without feeling a little twinge in my belly as the needle pierces his flesh, and he has been a diabetic for a decade.
Denial is at the heart of every narcissist, it is at the centre of their being, it is what allows them to live conscience-free, to truly believe in their superiority over us lesser mortals, to be blameless in all things. Without denial, narcissists simply cannot exist.
Next up: Selective memory
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.