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.