Denial and Other Common Narcissistic Defenses
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Narcissists and psychopaths are the original boogeymen. They are the ones doing harm to others while denying their actions all the while. They are the ones to watch out for. So while my grandmother was telling me to be good or the boogeyman would get me, he was in our family.
We learn what we are taught by our parents and later can learn mean behaviors from our peers. Unfortunately, selfishness can be learned when the tougher-minded children in the family notice that “the parent who is the meanest gets his way.” The child learns that ‘he who throws his weight around gets the cookies!’ Too much throwing your weight around and getting your way at the expense of others in adults can border over into narcissistic behavior. Does this apply to you? If there was self-centered and egotistical behavior in your family or neighborhood, you may have taken on some of it! Self-absorption begins with several of the defense mechanisms, including a big dose of denial.
The psychological defenses are those strategies that the unconscious mind uses to deny reality and what is happening to avoid feeling bad. Science-fiction writer Frank Hubert, the author of Dune, said, “How often the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.” The defenses of denial and getting angry when challenged about harmful behavior function to maintain a self-image of feeling good about themselves even though others can see through the facade.”
The type and amount of defenses that a person develops can add up, creating more problems for themselves and those around them. Denial is avoiding responsibility for one’s harmful actions to others and saying “Nuh-uh. Not me! I didn’t do it.” The person learns to lie even to one’s self. They need to keep up the pretense of being a good guy and across time they come to believe their own lie. Denial is being irresponsible at an unconscious level because the person is embarrassed to know the truth about his misbehavior.
Denial is listed as an immature developmental defense along with delusion, distortion and projection in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV of the American Psychiatric Association. People who are not open to hearing information and criticism about themselves can become Masters of Denial. There is no end to what they can make themselves believe for their own benefit.
One man who identified himself as an ex-abuser describes it this way in his article The Three Horsemen of Denial. Here are the three main ways we lie to ourselves:
We minimize the damage we’ve done
We rationalize our actions
We justify ourselves in doing them.
Through these lies we distort reality as we perceive it, we redefine the meaning of what we do, and we adjust what we consider to be right and wrong, in an escalating fashion. Ultimately, any act, no matter how hideous, can be carried out once we have developed the necessary level of denial….
Any time you are comparing yourself to someone else you are likely justifying something you know to be wrong: “Man, he really treats his wife like crap. I never call my wife a slut like he does. I never call her anything worse than a bitch. And I never swear when I’m yelling. Boy, he’s really out of control. I’m glad I’m not like him. I wonder why she puts up with him.” No matter who you are, or how bad the things you are doing are, you can always find someone doing worse — Ted Bundy could find people who killed more people, or did it more brutally, but that doesn’t make what he did okay.
Certainly any time you blame anyone outside yourself for what’s wrong with you, that is denial on its face: “I never would have hit her that hard if she hadn’t called her ex-boyfriend again. I don’t know what it’s going to take to make her stop. If she’d only listen to me I wouldn’t get so mad at her. If she would stop her spending, I wouldn’t have to shove her down. It’s her fault that I hit her.”
And virtually anything said followed by “That’s just the way I am” is denial.
If you remain in doubt as to whether something is denial or not, bring it to someone who does not have an interest in maintaining the denial — don’t ask your drug dealer if you have a drug problem, for example; ask your counselor instead. Run the idea past them. If you are afraid to do this, it’s most likely denial. If they think it sounds pretty incredible, it might well be.”
The five year old who can’t admit what he or she has done wrong is acting within normal developmental limits. The adult who cannot see the ugly truth about himself because he or she feels embarrassed is stuck in an immature defense. Denial is the reversal of responsibility. It comes from the inside when you feel embarrassed and powerless to be able to do anything different because you are caught in an earlier way of thinking.
Without the willingness to own one’s own actions, the person cannot change for the better. Life’s lessons are denied and the person is stuck in his or her own rut.
The Disclaimer Words of Denial
|I didn’t do it.||Who me?|
|I can’t help it.||It’s not my problem.|
|It’s not my fault.||I am not _____but you are.|
|You are to blame.||It was just a joke.|
|I can’t help it if I have a temper.||It was just an impulsive act.|
|It wasn’t that bad.||You are too sensitive.|
Abuse of Others
Abuse is abuse whether it is physical, sexual, verbal or cruel teasing. You are an abuser if you habitually yell, snap, tell others they are wrong, dumb, stupid, or if you try to start a fight, imagine things, twist things around, interrupt, try to have the last word, think you are smart and know it all; if you pick fights and look for the wrong in everything to start arguments. There is no denying it or sugar coating it: YOU ARE AN ABUSER!
Defensiveness is about Fear of Criticism
People with strong narcissistic traits cannot process information, emotions and unresolved pain as it brings up such feelings of shame that they avoid looking at what they have done wrong and taking responsibility for it. They try to get others to make up for what they did not have in childhood in order to make themselves feel better. They cannot tolerate internal negative emotional distress and turn it on others instead of looking within to see their own part of the problem. An inflated self-esteem is a defense using grandiose thinking to cover up their sense of shame deep within.
Self Absorption Creates a Lonely Life
Some clients come to see me after being left by their partners. I’ve had several men crying on my couch because their wife has left them and they don’t know why. I figured out within five minutes of meeting them -they were unable to see things through others’ points of view and were so self-absorbed that they could not give of themselves to family members. Unaware and in denial, they believe that the problems in the family were always the other person’s fault. Projecting blame and not taking responsibility always keeps them in victim mode unaware of how they contribute to their own problems.
No one is as fascinated by themselves as the narcissistic person. Guess what? Self-absorption is so boring to everyone else. A study showed that narcissistic people could keep new friends for about four months. New friends found them exciting at first a then got tired of their only thinking about themselves. Of course selfish people are able to keep codependent people around them who give them their narcissistic supply-that fix of attention and compliments that they require.
However as their codependent partner or friends got into recovery, they were apt to leave the relationship. Once they get educated and start to feel better about themselves, loving, giving partners leave after years of putting up with putdowns and abuse. So if you want to end up alone with no one to love you or have only superficial “Yes People” around you, keep that denial defense going. Go to a nursing home and observe who gets visitors-those individuals who are loved and valued by their family members or selfish old people with money.
Often naive and gullible kind people who have chosen selfish partners early on in life and have children with them, wise up and realize that they would have a happier life if they find someone who can give back to them. I’ve noticed that sometimes the happiest marriages are those later life ones when two codependent people find and give to each other.
Look at your friends who are cycling through relationships or getting divorced; chances are there is a selfish person involved.
Eleanor Roosevelt said “It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.”
We are a product of our beliefs and entitlement beliefs are self destructive for creating happiness in life. The idea that you are fascinating to others and your needs should be met at the expense of others can create a death of relationships. Cycling of friends for a self-involved person is a sign of pure denial of not being able to make a friendship work because of lack of friendship maintenance skills. Friendship can and should be give-give so that both individuals get the win-win. My book Your Quick Anger Make Over describes in further detail the beliefs that contribute to narcissistic thinking and how to break into them.
Denial is a straight-jacket keeping you from growing and having loving relationships. Keep learning for more complete loving! Carl Jung believed that healing happens when the person gets past the entanglements of the ego and into resolution of the disowned shadow parts moving into self acceptance. So if you want loving relationships keep checking and challenging your ego. Throw out the e of ego and just go.