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Denial in the Narcissistic Mind: Pathological Distortion

Narcissists compulsively use this early childhood defense.

Key points

  • Denial is a normal early childhood defense.
  • Narcissistic people engage in routine forms of denial to distort reality.
  • Some forms of denial are dismissal, justification, minimization, negation, and reversal.

A refusal to acknowledge a threatening, uncomfortable, or inconvenient truth, denial is a developmentally normal, unconscious defense mechanism of early childhood. Children may deny a "bad" feeling like jealousy to preserve their self-esteem, or they may deny a destabilizing feeling like fear of an abusive parent to preserve attachment with that caregiver.

Like shock, short-term denial can function as a temporary protection against the full impact of something painful or overwhelming. But ongoing denial in adulthood, a defining trait of pathological narcissism, becomes a choice to engage in distortions of reality.

The Narcissist's Denials of Convenience

Unless they are experiencing a psychotic break from reality, as can happen with schizophrenia, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) know the difference between fact and fiction, truth and lies. But because their personality structure is built around inflated self-importance (designed to scaffold unstable self-esteem), they hold reality at a distance and filter information to conform to their wishes. Add to the mix their exaggerated entitlement unmoderated by empathy for others and you have a personality type predisposed to manipulative and self-serving denials of convenience.

Forms of Denial

The narcissist's denial becomes a kind of self-deception in which accurate perception is ignored and replaced with preferred distortions. Such distortions can range from subtle misrepresentations to unrecognizable alterations of reality. The following examples of common forms of denial involve a mother denying her rageful husband's physical abuse of their son.

Dismissal: Dismissing pushes away a fact as unworthy of attention. Example: "That was so long ago I can't remember what actually happened. Haven't you gotten over that?"

Justification: Justifying rationalizes a fact to make it sound reasonable. Example: "Your father was disciplining you for your own good because you were out of control and needed a firm hand."

Minimization: Minimizing acknowledges a fact but reduces its importance or effect. Example: "Your father got angry sometimes, but he was always there for you."

Negation: Negating is an outright disavowal of the truth. Example: "Your father never laid a hand on you, and you know it."

Reversal: Reversing asserts a wishful, fantasy-based opposite version of the truth. Example: "Your father has always been kind and loving with you. He's a saint, and you're lucky to have him."

Effects of Denial

Sharing information and mirroring reality are primary dimensions of human relationships. In infancy and early childhood, we are almost entirely reliant on our parents to teach us about ourselves and the world around us. If our principal caregivers and models reflect back inaccurate or outright false interpretations of reality, it creates ongoing cognitive dissonance between what we feel and perceive and what we are told is happening. Such distortions lead to degraded trust, alienation from our physical instincts, chronic self-doubt, and other profound disruptions to our identity development and ability to form attachments.

Overcoming Denial

Children who have ongoing forms of denial normalized at home become more vulnerable to denial-based manipulations and coercion later in life on the part of narcissistic partners, friends, and others in positions of influence and authority. To overcome such confusion and vulnerability, it becomes necessary to identify the patterns of denial we have experienced and recontextualize those experiences with our increased knowledge and understanding.

As we work on separating from the false narratives of narcissistic and otherwise disordered people in our lives, many of us find ourselves reconstructing reality in alignment with what we have intuitively known to be true for a very long time.


Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self defense mechanisms in action. Guilford Press.