How Narcissism Stands in the Way of Making Amends

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Narcissists have a hard enough time acknowledging any fault, let alone finding it within their heart to invest themselves in the task of making amends to those they’ve hurt.

Making amends for damage done in a relationship is an arduous task. But it’s also one critical to an intimate relationship’s survival. As I mentioned in the first article of this series (“Making Amends”), it’s not a task that disturbed or disordered characters embrace very willingly. That’s especially true for folks with a lot of narcissism in their character.

Twelve-step program adherents will tell you that the first and perhaps most crucial step on the road to personal “recovery” is admitting where the main problem lies. Narcissists have a hard time taking such a step, no matter how obvious the error of their ways may seem to others. Anyone who’s had to live with or deal with a narcissist knows how they can never be wrong and how everything is always someone else’s fault. There was a time when mental health professionals of all persuasions believed and promoted the notion that this was always because underneath it all narcissists had such a “fragile” ego and self image that unless they held on to their pretense of greatness (a pretense they maintained unconsciously), they would experience a psychological meltdown of sorts. Their “denial” was unconscious protection against the loss of any sense of self. This notion appears to have a modicum of validity when it comes to the increasingly rare type of narcissist that some researchers call “vulnerable” and that I refer to as the more “neurotic” type. (See Character Disturbance.) Because their self-concept is so shaky, such folks will indeed resist admitting shortcomings and fault. But vulnerable narcissists actually do have decent empathy capacity, although they might not always display it, and they care what others think of them. So if you’re careful about how you approach them, being mindful of the “fragility” of their ego, they will in fact admit mistakes and will even sometimes work in a legitimate, conscientious fashion to restore the kind of self-image they’ve so long tried to project.

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The kind of narcissist researchers these days tend to label “grandiose” and that I have long referred to as the character-disturbed or disordered type are very different from the kind described above. (For more on the two types of narcissists, see “Two Types of Narcissism and How to Tell the Difference”.) Such narcissists can’t be wrong, but not for the same reason as their more vulnerable counterparts. It’s not that they unconsciously fear their tenuous self-image will crumble under the weight of admitting weakness or error. Rather, in their determination to manage the impressions of others and in their ardent desire to maintain a position of superiority and advantage, they simply won’t acknowledge personal fault. Doing so would only call into question their way of seeing things and doing things — their very personality. And because they’re comfortable with the way they’ve chosen to define themselves, and most especially, because it would take a lot of work to change, they’re simply not of a mind to concede error. Besides, because they truly consider themselves superior and harbor strong attitudes of entitlement, they also don’t see why they should be the ones to have to change. From their point of view, it’s everyone else who needs to come around to their way of seeing things. It’s almost impossible for a person with this kind of mindset to have any motivation to make amends. They can’t (or won’t) take that all important first step — truly admitting fault.

Being unwilling to admit error is not the only thing that keeps a grandiose narcissist from developing the motivation to make amends. These individuals also lack empathy. As I’ve said many times, It’s not that they’re not aware enough about how their behavior impacts others, it’s that they don’t care enough about it. They consider themselves “special” and superior and therefore entitled to behave as they please. And if others have a problem with how they see things or do things, well, that’s just their problem. In their conviction of special status, and in their utter disregard for the rights, needs, and concerns of others, they feel no obligation to change, even if in their heart of hearts they know they’ve made a mistake. They only make course corrections when they see it’s in their own best interest to do so. It’s never out of a sense of duty to respect the needs of another. This is contrary to the spirit of making proper amends. Making amends means properly regarding the needs of another, admitting damage inflicted, and feeling obliged to repair that damage, and then humbly working to nurture a relationship back to better health.

In the concluding two articles of this series, I’ll be presenting two vignettes depicting narcissists in situations where amends needed to be made. One case involves a more vulnerable, neurotic narcissist and the other involves a more character-disturbed narcissist whose inherent grandiosity, sense of entitlement, and lack of empathy long impeded the process of making proper amends.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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