I reject your reality and substitute my own.—Adam Savage (Mythbusters)
When someone who’s hurt us behaves as though nothing is wrong, they deny what we feel. When confronted and reacting as though we’ve hurt them, they deny us once again and put a fiction in our place.
And in their place, we move through the subsequent Kubler-Ross stages of grief for them as externalized ego-functions of them. We’re infuriated, confused. We try desperately to reason with them, to save both ourselves and the relationship. And when it becomes dreadfully apparent that it is we, not they, who must choose one or the other then we feel sadness. It is at this critical juncture, this decision at this point that separates the narcissist and their enablers from we who survive and succeed them.
If we choose ourselves then we sacrifice the relationship with the narcissist and their enablers, we suffer for and grieve the loss of it, reframe and learn from the experience, eventually arrive at acceptance and move forward with our lives.
However, if we choose the relationship with the narcissist, their enablers and the fictional character they’ve scripted us to perform then we deny ourselves; we self-sacrifice to maintain the narcissist’s beautiful lie and all that it’s promised us. And for the part we play, we’re embraced by others playing the parts of loving friends and family, rewarded with a warm sense of belonging, of purpose. The sensation is real enough but the basis for it is not and hinges precariously, perpetually upon the condition of ever more denial of all but the shifting whims of the narcissist. Given close enough proximity and enough time, whatever we were or might have been is consumed by the narcissist and we either self-destruct or become narcissistic ourselves just as they did and we do just as they do. We never reach acceptance, always resetting to denial like a broken record skipping back over and over and over again.
Defense Mechanism Run Amok
Denial is one of the few if not only ways a child can defend themselves against the otherwise inescapable pain of an abusive childhood. We learn to pretend that nothing is wrong, that everything’s normal, so that other people don’t treat us differently or make things somehow worse for us. We become what is demanded of us so that we are accepted by the adults that we depend on for nourishment and protection.
Narcissism is this defense mechanism run amok, denial being the primordial ooze from whence the omniscient, infallible false self emerges. The narcissist is protected from pain by denying reality itself and remaking it (and us) in this false image, subjugating their dissociated true selves and any who would dare have them believe otherwise. We can lie to others but when we lie to ourselves then there’s no bottom to the rabbit hole. The narcissist is not simply withholding from us, dismissing our experiences or gaslighting us to be mean (though that might be a perk) – it’s not about us at all – but rather they are exhaustively maintaining a fantasy about themselves that they cannot sustain by themselves. The narcissist is emotionally stunted, frozen in time and so continues to depend on others for nourishment and protection long after childhood and into adulthood.
Spartan Life Coach, Richard Grannon, free-styling about how the ugly truth sets us free from the narcissists beautiful lie.
Denial is like a kind of nostalgia hearkening back to a golden age that never actually existed. It feels familiar, safe. There’s order. Control. Things make sense. That’s what’s being threatened when we broach the truth.
The narcissist’s denial is unassailable. It’s absolute. A force of nature. There’s no reasoning with or through it. Hyper-vigilant, any perceived threat, slight or criticism will be met with rage before the narcissist resets to their natural state of denial as though it didn’t happen and in spite of any evidence to the contrary.
So confident in their denial are they that an event like this rattles those who witness it first hand, causes us to second guess ourselves if only momentarily and so incredible that few if anyone who hears of it second hand can bring themselves to believe it. It’s crazy-making at its finest. Those of us who happen to find ourselves weakened, predisposed to codependency, less trusting in our own faculties than the attractive certitude exhibited by the narcissist risk becoming enamored by and enabling it, following them down, down, down the rabbit hole.
We counter denial by doing for ourselves what the narcissist is wholly incapable of: acknowledge the veracity of our experiences and honestly accept and care for the person we are.
When we do this the narcissist will call us selfish for taking from them what they mistakenly believe they’re entitled to and that somehow comes at their expense — know they are wrong. They will make us pay a price for our perceived insubordination — accept the cost, grieve the loss and let them go. Let the trash take itself out. They will return. They will repeat. They will never change. They cannot be changed, only avoided. These are disordered people that we cannot ever safely share a connection or be vulnerable with.
Whatever we see in the narcissist is the best (or worst, depending where we happen to be on their idealization-devaluation cycle) of ourselves reflected back at us. Like the mythical pool that Narcissus sees his own reflection in, mistaking it for someone else he yearns for. We don’t need the narcissist to have what we already possess so long as we acknowledge that it’s ours, not deny and be denied of it. Like in Fight Club when the Narrator (Edward Norton) suddenly understands that he, not his false persona Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), is actually holding the gun (the power) he’s being threatened with. The narcissist is non-essential. We are. They cannot validate, approve of or love us. We can.