Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Lack of Accountability in Narcissists

Narcissists lie and rewrite history, but why?

Source: Elnur/Shutterstock

One of the most crucial characteristics of a morally centered, responsible, and mentally healthy individual is the ability to be accountable for one’s actions and feelings. This is how we grow and learn from our mistakes as well as live life according to our value system. Most people do know right from wrong and learn that from a very early age. But why is it so hard for some people to face mistakes, own feelings, make amends, and apologize?

A trademark of a narcissistic personality disorder or even a person with a high number of narcissistic traits is this strange problem with accountability. Not only do narcissists lack the ability to give and truly mean empathy, but they consistently blame others for their own mistakes and feelings and have an uncanny way of turning things around and making it someone else’s problem. You are the crazy one, not them. You are at fault, not them. If you show them clear evidence of something they have done, they will deny it or say they don’t remember it. They will say you took it wrong and will rewrite the narrative of what they meant. In this process, they are not owning anything about it. You just got it wrong.

Why do they do this? Narcissists, although covering up with grandiosity, actually are self-loathing, fragile people who do not have a solid sense of self to rely on. They are already walking on tentative shaky ground. Where for most of us admitting to a mistake and taking ownership to make something better actually feels good, the narcissist is not that grounded and self-secure to do so. If they can project the feeling or mistake onto someone else, it keeps them feeling more secure. If caught in their mistakes and there is no way out of it, the narcissist can’t handle the vulnerability it causes. This is where we see something called “narcissistic rage.” The anger and rage are intended to back you off and cause you to stop accusing them. The purpose is to make you doubt yourself. It’s a power and control move to make you afraid to confront them again. This is why many people who deal with narcissists in their lives use the phrase, “It’s like walking on eggshells all the time.” Dealing with a narcissist is dealing with a bully. They strike back hard to try to save their own self or credibility. They use name-calling, making fun of people, putting others down, judging and being critical as a natural defense. The narcissist is just too insecure to do otherwise.

What is the harm caused by this strange lack of accountability? It destroys relationships, trust, love, families, and hurts people. The gaslighting involved makes others question themselves and experience self-doubt. Imagine if a small child grows up with this kind of parent. They will grow up with crippling self-doubt. What if our leaders at work or in the government do this? It creates intense anxiety, chaos and insecurity about our surroundings and causes us to feel unsafe, mistrusting, and hypervigilant.

Do we all have moments in our lives where we mess up and don’t fess up? Of course, we can all make this mistake. But emotionally healthy people work on accountability and teach accountability to their children. It’s a monumental character-building lesson of life, and maybe the most important one.

Find additional resources from the author here.

More from Karyl McBride Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today