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Why Narcissists Can Forget Their Own Bad Behavior

Using "splitting" to expel bad behavior from their memory.

Key points

  • A narcissist may expel bad behavior from their memory by using an unconscious defense mechanism: splitting.
  • Splitting is a defense mechanism similar to denial and distortion but most closely related to dissociation.
  • When a narcissist uses splitting to eradicate bad behavior from their memory, it may be delusional amnesia.
Olleaugust/ Pixabay
Source: Olleaugust/ Pixabay

In reference to a narcissist, the term splitting has two different connotations.

The first describes a narcissists’ tendency to see themselves as honorable at all times. If you disagree with this perspective, you are seen as fundamentally “bad” by the narcissist. Your resistance to subscribing to their “sacred” view of themselves may fuel a vicious attack on your character behind the scenes.

The second type of splitting involves a narcissist unconsciously breaking off a part of their experience from their conscious mind. This kind of splitting is casually referred to as “delusional amnesia.”

Delusional amnesia is similar to the unconscious defense mechanisms distortion and denial, but is most similar to dissociation. Yet one important difference does exist. Delusional amnesia involves a narcissist erasing their own bad behavior from their awareness, as opposed to a person unconsciously detaching from the reality of a traumatizing experience to protect their psyche (dissociation).

For example, a bank teller is held at gunpoint by a robber. The life-threatening event, emotionally, is too much to bear. In order to survive the terrifying encounter, an unconscious defense mechanism, dissociation, may kick in to keep the teller's body functioning but allow parts of their mind to briefly escape. After surviving the assault, they may not remember aspects of the experience. Eventually, these memories may be retrieved but it takes time.

Conversely, a narcissist may kick anything out of their head that challenges their notion of who they are. For example, you and your partner are alone in the living room one evening. You offer an opinion about the reason your child is having a bout of anxiety, but you are ignored. Your partner mumbles, “Taylor is fine. You blow everything out of proportion. Stop being a snowplow parent. It's gross.”

Upset and angry that she dismisses and ridicules your viewpoint, you confront her and ask her to consider your perspective. In response, she pushes the dog away, jumps out of the chair, nudges you, and storms across the room towards the bedroom, kicking the toys across the floor.

The next morning, you approach her concerned about their physically aggressive behavior and she says, “What are you talking about? I never touched the dog, or you! You are crazy. You make this stuff up in your head.”

At this point, you are shocked, stunned, and utterly perplexed. You witnessed, with your own eyes, your partner acting aggressively. Later that day, you may try to approach the subject again, but your partner’s response is more forceful. “I did not do anything like that. I do not know what you are talking about. You are crazy. You are gaslighting me!”

It is eerie being in a relationship with someone who conveniently forgets their wrongdoings and who wholeheartedly subscribes to their own self-deception. Often you feel like you are the delusional one. This may be precisely why it is essential to consider the narcissist’s unconscious defense mechanisms.

Why? Because splitting allows them to do whatever they want to whoever they want and rarely be personally accountable. A person like this may be fundamentally unsafe. They can eradicate abusive behavior from their mind and continue to abuse because they do not believe they did it the first time.

Without a conscious recollection of the event, it may be impossible for the person to be accountable, experience authentic remorse, gain insight, and modify their maladaptive behavior.

In addition, while vehemently denying they did anything wrong, they may, simultaneously, play the victim and minimize the incident, which can also be super confusing. For example, the next day, she brings up the interaction from the night before and claims that she had a bad day, and didn’t feel well, so that is the reason for the negative interaction.

She still does not recall throwing, shoving, or kicking things, and insinuating that you are making this part up, but they do acknowledge the exchange wasn’t great, and skillfully excuse and rationalize their part in it.

Alternatively, an accountable and empathic partner may say, “What I did was unacceptable. I must have scared you and that is not okay. I’m sorry. I’m going to look for a counselor today.” This type of person recognizes and owns their actions and understands how they made you feel. They may attempt to repair any damage they caused in the relationship, and they make a concerted effort to change and evolve so they do not repeat the same mistake.

If you are with a partner with delusional amnesia, it may be important to assess the safety of the relationship. Does your loved one automatically “forget” their destructive behaviors?

If yes, they may be capable of continually and purposefully hurting you. Their convenient lapse in memory can free them from accountability, remorse, empathy, and permanent growth and change. Unfortunately, this may signal it is time to consider an exit strategy.

Facebook image: Bricolage/Shutterstock

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