Narcissists live and die by their own version of the truth. Is it the truth if reality has been distorted? A narcissist believes it is. Extreme cognitive distortions and rigid unconscious defense mechanisms change a person’s perception of an experience. Paramount distortions and defenses are typically employed by a person with a narcissistic personality disorder; both alter reality in order to make it more palpable for a fragile ego.
For example, say a narcissist loses a doubles tennis match. Instead of incurring the loss responsibly, the narcissist tends to blow up the partner’s mistakes and minimize his or her own. Denying the extent of his or her mistakes and amplifying the partner’s errors allows the narcissist freedom to deflect accountability for the loss and place blame on the partner. The narcissist protects a weak ego with deflection, projection, minimization, displacement, denial, and blame. By unconsciously altering reality, the narcissist exonerates himself or herself.
In contrast to a narcissist’s extreme and unconscious distortions and defenses, a person who works hard to be aware of cognitive distortions and defenses possesses insight. One hallmark of a person with a healthy defensive structure is, in fact, insight. Self-awareness and a capacity for introspection allow a person to capture an honest and realistic gaze of herself or himself and the situation, resulting in an ability to sincerely admit fault, feel true remorse, learn from a mistake, and evolve. The person may have a unique perception of an event, but it remains closely tied to reality because it is not impacted by a rigid unconscious defensive structure or overactive distortions.
Unfortunately, this poses a problem. If narcissists lack insight and the ability to be introspective, they may be unaware of their distortions. So how are they expected to be accountable if awareness of what they are doing is non-existent? Yet, if they are not held responsible for their actions, they are free to blame and mistreat others when they are the culpable party.
The answer to this question may be complicated but enlightening. A narcissist may not be aware of his or her unconscious distortions and heightened defenses but is somewhat cognizant of his or her behavior. The problem is, in the narcissist’s mind, the distortions justify the negative behavior. A narcissist feels entitled to “teach someone a lesson” and frequently does so inappropriately.
For example, say a narcissist believes she is a fair and equitable supervisor, yet due to her distorted black-and-white thinking, she idealizes several employees and devalues others. When a disgruntled employee is tired of being treated poorly and asks for a transfer, the narcissist acts out in anger and with revenge. She contacts the employee’s potential new supervisor and sabotages the employee’s attempt to transfer. Keeping the person under her thumb, she continues to passive-aggressively punish the employee.
In this example, the narcissist is not aware of her part in the conflict. She is not conscious of her idealizing and devaluing defense mechanisms, but is well aware of her actions, and feels absolutely justified and entitled to behave the way she does.
This makes it nearly impossible to resolve a conflict with a narcissist. He or she stands by a distorted version of reality, which fuels a tendency to bully and mistreat others. When a person offers a more realistic account, the narcissist reacts as if the person is lying, which is confounding.
Moreover, there are two instances when a narcissist appears to be accountable but is actually manipulating. First, a narcissist often unconsciously incorporates a victim stance. Second, when a narcissist encounters a person with more power, he or she often gives lip service to being sorry but does not feel sincere remorse, as evidenced by the continued misbehavior.
For example, say a narcissist forgets his wife’s birthday. Confronted with the realization that there is no way to deflect accountability, he is unconsciously compelled to employ a victim stance. “You did not remind me. All I do is work to support you, so no wonder I forgot. I work so hard for you—I don’t have time to remember anything else!” or “My ex forgot my birthday every year, so it shouldn’t be a big deal that I forgot your birthday one time.”
Although it may be true that he works hard or had an ex that forgot his birthday, the remainder of the rant is him playing the victim in order to escape responsibility. By acting like he was the person who was wronged, he transfers the blame to his partner. Conveniently excusing his behavior, he pivots on a cognitive distortion and reinvents himself as the actual victim.
A second example of the narcissist appearing responsible, but not truly embodying sincere accountability, occurs when the person confronting him or her has more authority than the narcissist. The narcissist quickly cowers and grovels. It becomes clear the narcissist may not actually feel sincere remorse, however, because he or she readily engages in the negative behavior behind the person’s back. When a hurtful behavior is repeated endlessly within the context of an interpersonal relationship, it is proof the person does not feel authentic and deep remorse for selfish behavior.
So, the answer may be more perplexing than the question. Yes, a narcissist is aware of his or her behavior, but unaware of the psychological mechanisms that compel and justify the behavior. Thus, an individual suffering from narcissistic personality disorder must be highly motivated to address the issue of compromised insight and introspection. If he or she is unwilling, the mistreatment of others may continue indefinitely.