Narcissistic Memory Lapses

I didn’t say that

I don’t remember that

That’s not how I remember it

I don’t think I said that

I wouldn’t say something like that

That didn’t happen

It wasn’t like that.


Mmm-hmm. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking narcissism came with a side helping of amnesia.

There are two separate things going on when a narcissistic individual say they can’t remember clearly what they (or you) said or did. One is their internal attempts at ordering their world so they are always the hero and everything is always golden. The other is gaslighting, a form of psychological, manipulative abuse where the abusive person imposes their reality on others.

Everything is Rosy

The problem with maintaining a narcissistic facade is its dual nature. You have to present your ideal image to the outside world and simultaneously maintain your own belief in that image on the inside. I think narcissists do this in part by filtering out information that they receive from the outside which contradicts the persona of perfection they have created. Sometimes this means they can let contradictory information slide out of their minds.

I do believe they actually forget things.

Psychologists have a name for the discomfort felt when we are confronted with evidence which contradicts our preferred view of things – cognitive dissonance. We also have a word for the tendency that people have to dismiss or ignore information that contradicts deeply held world views – confirmation bias. Unsurprisingly people with personality disorders have very low tolerance for dissonance and a strong tendency towards confirmation bias.

Cognitive dissonance is the troublesome state of flux where nothing you previously thought seems to be as firm and clear as it once was and you entertain the unsettling possibility that you were actually mistaken. It is astonishing how strongly people will fight dissonance, most people really struggle to sit with it and wait for the parts that are in flux to settle into a new configuration. The natural outcome of dissonance is a change in attitude, belief or behaviour. Highly creative people who are apt to reinvent themselves are good at this, most of us are not. People with rigidly structured and defended personalities are worst at managing dissonance. They generally reject anything that provokes the sensation. Narcissists have highly defended personalities.

In order to maintain the belief of their superiority they must reject any outside information that challenges this belief. This could be by attacking the source of the challenging information by discrediting it or the person who delivered it. Sometimes it could be by simply pretending the information was never received in the first place, until they actually forget it. After all we remember things we pay attention to, because they made a big enough impact or because they are repeated. If you cannot psychologically cope with hearing you have behaved in a hurtful, mean way you may well push it out of your mind rather than mull over it. Then you just don’t remember it occurred at all.

Thus the narcissist preserves their internal mental model of themselves as a great person. They literally cannot recall any incidents when they were not great.

This explains the weird and unsettling circular conversations that happen if you try to confront a narcissist about their behaviour. They can outright deny that they ever did or said anything upsetting with such conviction. Some are very good liars. Some have blanked the incident from their mind because it clashes head on with their self-belief. They have to maintain their rosy world view of themselves on the inside as well as the outside.


This is a big topic and worthy of an entire post in itself so I will briefly explain what gaslighting is and how it links with narcissistic amnesia.

From the 1944 film Gaslight, the term gaslighting means using psychological manipulation to undermine a person’s sense of what is happening around them, physically or emotionally, is actually real. Gaslighting is all about planting a seed of doubt within a person’s mind. Did I remember that correctly? Am I oversensitive? Was that an accident? In the film an abusive husband turns down the gas lights in the family home, hides personal items and denies he is doing it to destabilise his wife and have her money signed over to himself.

Gaslighting is psychological guerrilla warfare as it occurs within your own mind. It is an abuse which occurs in close relationships built over time and couldn’t be perpetrated by a stranger. This is because for the seed of doubt to take root you have to value the abuser’s opinion. You have to take them seriously and believe they are trying to accurately report their experiences in order for you to then question your contrasting recollection. This is also what makes this form of abuse so devastating.

A narcissist will employ gaslighting, they will attempt to override your reality (how you recall, react, think and feel about an event) with their preferred reality. This may not be out of a deliberate desire to drive you insane. Gaslighting can be unconscious. If a narcissist is used to shoring up their self-belief by rejecting contradictory information as mentioned earlier, they will rebuff any external evidence that undermines their glorious image of themselves. If your memories and feelings about an incident open up the possibility that their image is wrong they will feel attacked. Then they reflexively start to undermine your version of events.

This can lead to absurd and disturbing extremes where the narcissistic person outright denies something that happened even when confronted with evidence. It is hard to underestimate how confusing and distressing this is if it happens repeatedly. If it happens regularly and repeatedly in your close relationships (spouse, parents etc) it can lead to a state of psychological collapse and depression as a person looses all faith in their own perception.

My MIL has many times said she doesn’t recall doing or saying hurtful and mean things. What is additionally upsetting is how my husband in an attempt to preserve a collective family narcissism (we are a good and successful family) will forget about my MIL’s nasty behaviour too. Nasty behaviour which he had even written about in his journal, and then forgotten because it clashed with his family-image.

This has left me as one voice against two, one much closer than the original offender. Both trying to pretend that the narcissistic abuse isn’t happening. Both not remembering things I know full well happened.

There comes a point where you have to leave this madness. I have learned to hold firmly and securely onto my own memories and perceptions. There is no point trying to argue with narcissists who forget things. They will never believe you, they will never remember correctly or admit they were wrong. If their defences are so strong they can erase entire chunks of their lived experience do you really think you have some magic power that will persuade them to reinstate that soul-crushing, self-love shattering bit of information? Come off it. You’re on your own. And that is OK. By fully accepting your aloneness in the face of their selective memory lapses, you cannot be manipulated by them. This takes strength, I’m not denying that, but it can be done.


Filed under Controlling behaviour, defence mechanism, delusion, Denial, Effects of NPD on others, emotions, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, How NPD MIL affects a marriage, lies, Manipulations

9 responses to “Narcissistic Memory Lapses

  1. Thank you for this article! I am estranged from my mother who conveniently “forgot” the most recent verbal & emotional attacks she launched 6 months ago. The only thing keeping my confidence in reality is that I have gotten in the habit of keeping texts, emails & phone messages that prove I’m not making these things up. Now by holding firm to the request that there must be boundaries in our relationship of how we speak & treat one another I have been called, “mean”, “nasty”, “condescending” and also unable to see my mom’s “good heart”. Articles like this really help me stay grounded. Otherwise I often feel like I’m going crazy & I get really depressed. Now that I have a child of my own I feel the stakes are too high to let such unhealthy habits continue to hurt me & my family.

  2. Fed Up at 40

    I just had a conversation with my NMIL where she told me to my face that she did not take $40 back from her disabled grandson’s (my son’s) birthday card, and then skip the cake and candles so she could go to Bingo with her friend. I said, “You took it from my hands and I watched you.” Then, it was my fault because I didn’t stop her. Also, because I didn’t stop her, my “story” is very doubtful.

  3. ilaria walker

    Excellent post. Thank you as always. This goes to the core of living with someone who has NPD: how do you maintain a sense of self, a sense of what’s of what’s real, of what’s good… in the face of incessant attacks on both of those things. Looking forward to reading your post on gaslighting.

  4. Rebecca V

    I have been loving your blog for 3 yrs. I check in every now and again, and I laugh, and feel fortified with awareness and words as a navigate my NMIL. To be fair, I had a Narci mom, who also had alcoholism and it wasn’t until my NMIL that I learned to separate the two, it was completely baffling to me that my NMIL behaved the way she did without drugs and alcohol. And now I am so grateful my mother drank, at least she passed out! The NMIL, carries around her cross of riteous superiority and she just does not turn off.

    Your articles have helped me come a LONG way though. I completely sanctioned Her for 2 years, no unsupervised time with the grandchild, no flying to visit her on my dime, a blissful almost zero contact for me. Her emotional abuse, smear campaign against me (for marrying her golden child who now could not fulfill her dreams for her), has lighting, triangulating and general wake of drama that would pop up from all the narcissistic tentacles around her taught me to say NO, emotionally, psychically, physically. She is my teacher, and fair enough, as an echo I was easy prey. Not no more. Dealing with my husbands denial and magical thinking/forgetting has been a task. But we have made progress.

    Bringing me to today, I lifted sanctions (Mercy) and invited her to her grandsons 4th Birthday. She has to stay in a hotel, which she can’t do by herself of course, so she invited her sister and her two kids (whom my son doesn’t know)….. and even that I’ve taken in stride, asking her to contribute financially to the party. As well, if she has supply around her she won’t be expecting me or my grandson to be her entertainment/energetic supply while she’s in town.

    I gave her a job of decorating, and when she tried to hijack food and logistics, I kindly told her I had it taken care of (without explaining b/c she’s not in charge). To this she defensively justified her over reach, to which I (not giving an inch of my own perception away), told her not to go crazy. To which she stopped responding. Non manipulatable people are not good supply. She could of course find something terribly important she has to do, and not come at all and I will be at complete peace.

    The things is, I know narci’s And I know she’ll try and throw a wrench or two at me: control this, change all your plans to suit me that, make it all about her her her, ie: does my son really need to go to bed when he’s tired? Can’t he just stay up with Grandma a little longer (she thinks grandma sounds old so she’s asked to be called Nana, but i always refer to her as grandma 😈 when she’s not around). Coupled with my husbands malleability (as she calls it). I know I may get triggered. So I am upping my Narci literacy and plans, my ammo. For I am done being nice, Narcis eat that shit for breakfast. I am simply going to take care of myself and my son, whom I will not subject to the guilt and shame she uses to control/groom her victims. Your grooming article was off the charts, and sadly all to familiar to me.

    It ends with me

  5. RR

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve come across this blog while digging through the internet for more information on what I’ve been going through for 15 years. I can relate to so much of what you’re talking about. I came across a post about you potentially putting this info in an ebook format and selling it on Amazon. Did you ever do that? Is be interested in purchasing it 🙂

  6. Sad spouse

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I do hope that you are finding a way to part. I am in a similar position. My husband is controlling, abusive and manipulative. He has a narcissistic mother and I have been bemused as to how he can replicate his own unhappy childhood in our home while also being fairly aware of his own mother’s damaging behaviour. It’s incredibly difficult getting the mental energy and finances to leave, but I must.

  7. We relocated to help mil with her business after she was widowed. What I didn’t know was I was not to be included in anything. Before the move, she gave me a hug and whispered “I’m so happy to have him back. You know you can’t leave him unless he cheats on you.” Both came out of the blue and my hair stood on end. I started to cry uncontrollably (away from her) and when I told my husband, he didn’t believe me. No way would say those things, they make no sense, she’s so appreciative and excited. I was so cruel to say such things. Totally the beginning of the end. 6 month’s later he started an affair with mil’s favourite (married) employee. It was insanity. Husband begged me to try and reconcile (it was a stupid fling, no love, just attention via sex, the other woman was a notorious serial cheater). Mil flipped out about him not leaving me and we haven’t spoken in 4 years. Her mask slipped and she told him that “if you stay married, you give all the control back to lemondrop” and he was mortified, he saw her rage. Suddenly the attention she gave him seemed very inappropriate to him and creepy. He moved us back to our original home and she never reaches out to me or the kids. He maintains a relationship with her, but limited. Her treatment of me hurt almost as much as the affair. She denies everything. Never said those things, it never happened. Thirty years of her fawning all over me telling me she loved me. She just wanted him to leave me so he could move back in with her. Didn’t even want the kids. He’s 50. She’s a therapist. If I could go back in time I don’t think I would have married him, although he has put all possible effort into therapy and fixing what he did. The toxicity of the family, the covert incest, the amount of shame and blame and guilt I’ve carried for not trusting her all this time has been awful. She’s not happy I won’t engage with her, but only because she can’t get me close enough to hurt again. My crawling back to her only serves her image and proves she did nothing wrong. I won’t do it. She’s a weak, manipulative woman with no idea how she’s perceived. She wanted me off the pedestal and gone. It didn’t happen so she’s changed the story to me being a bitter victim. It’s crazy making.

  8. My mother in law is the person you wrote about.
    I cannot even look at my husband of 26 years because he says nothing “in the moment”.
    She could be humiliating me in front of twenty people saying I do not deserve to drive a car.
    I’m a stay at home mom. I literally ask for NOTHING but a roof over my head and food. She hates that he even provides that.
    If I worked and blew all my money on cigarettes and $1000 hand bags; she would at least not be able to hate me for not working. She would find something else. I can’t believe it took is this long to realise what she is.
    My own mother has some of these traits. She is self invloved. But, she is never mean.

  9. Thank you for your blog.

    My husband and I are dealing with his narcissistic mom and his dad, who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Since their facade/cocoon of false perfection has fallen in shards, we’re seeing much more narcissistic rage and general acting out on her part. It’s heartbreaking, maddening, and frightening, since she turns her rage onto her formerly servile husband, who has a brain disease. We are trying to find care for both of them and also sustain ourselves and our boundaries. THANK GOODNESS FOR THERAPY!
    I’m grateful to you for your articulate, intelligent, helpful posts, and I wish you and your family all the best. It is so truly merciful just to know that I’m not alone in this maddening situation…

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