Making proper amends is hard work, even for someone with a relatively healthy personality. But it’s a particular challenge for someone with narcissistic traits in their character.
Whether we’ve hurt someone else intentionally or unintentionally, repairing a damaged relationship is often a slow, delicate, and painstaking process. It’s not the kind of undertaking that narcissistic characters are prone to engage in very willingly or enthusiastically. Depending on the type of narcissism a person has — the more “neurotic” or “vulnerable” vs. the more character-disturbed or “grandiose” type — and depending on how much of that narcissism is in their character, the extent to which they’re capable of making the kind of amends that can truly bring healing can vary considerably. The following vignette (with potentially identifying details altered to ensure anonymity) will hopefully demonstrate some of the challenges a person with more “vulnerable” narcissistic features in their personality can face when needing to make amends.
Arnie knew he would have a lot of explaining to do. After all, his wife Karen had to read about the ugly incident in the newspaper, and that alone was cause enough for much embarrassment. Arnie could barely believe what had happened. Most of his flirtations were perfectly harmless — at least that’s what he’d always told himself. After all, he only flirted to boost his ego, as had long been his need. Arnie, you see, had never quite gotten over the ridicule and putdowns he suffered as a puny, pudgy youngster with the funny looking teeth and the “geeky” bookworm persona. So when he emerged in young adulthood as fairly good looking and talented graduate of a prestigious business school, he had a lot to prove to the world about his worth. People would no longer make fun of him, he would see to that. In fact, they would adore him. He’d learned the secrets to making that happen. He knew how to charm, seduce, and to sway. And in his flirtatiousness, he never really wanted to hurt anyone, especially Karen. After all, it wasn’t so much that he really wanted to have anyone else. Rather, he was out to prove that he could have them, that is, if he really wanted to. That’s all it really took to feed his ego. But this last time he picked the wrong person to come on to and he also went too far. A complaint was filed against him, and because of the prominence of his position, it made news. Now he would have to explain to Karen, and he’d have to clean up the mess he’d made of their relationship.
Making honest amends was not Arnie’s first inclination. As is so common with folks with narcissistic traits, he first wanted to blame everyone else. He’d have to overcome substantial denial to admit that he and he alone was responsible for the predicament in which he found himself. For a while he thought about using his usual tactics with Karen, too: throwing her on the defensive by blaming her lack of attentiveness for stoking his need to solicit the adulation of others in the first place. But in the end, he would have to admit that his craving for admiration was his own issue, born of his pain in younger years — long before meeting Karen — and his spiteful determination to “prove” his worth even if it meant doing so at the expense of others. But in going about his typical campaign of charm and imaginary conquest, he only really succeeded in revealing the shallowness of his character. A charmer he was. A noble character he was not.
Fortunately for Arnie, Karen would be a hard sell as he attempted to make amends. She would seek proof he had it within him to be the man he’d always claimed to be. She would hold him firmly to account. Arnie had a real prize in Karen, and he knew it. He didn’t want to blow it, so he got to work trying to repair the damage. Karen didn’t want flowers, dining and dancing, or sweet talk. She wanted action on the character front. She wanted no more “minimizing” about the so called harmlessness of flirting all the time and a firm commitment to stop doing it. (For more on minimizing see the chapter of In Sheep’s Clothing on common manipulation tactics and the article “Minimization: Trivializing Behavior as a Manipulation Tactic”.) If it’s affirmation he truly needed, then he would have to act like someone who’s truly worthy of it. To Arnie’s credit, despite his natural resistance, he made the decision to step up and behave like someone who deserved a woman of Karen’s integrity.
“Vulnerable” narcissists are much more amenable than their “grandiose” counterparts when it comes to making proper amends. As I explain in my book Character Disturbance, that’s because such folks are truly “neurotic” to some degree and as such have underlying emotional conflicts, insecurities, fears, etc. (often largely unconscious to them) that drive their maladaptive behavior. All of these characteristics are tailor made for working through in traditional counseling. Things are very different with the “grandiose” or character-disturbed narcissist, however. It takes a lot of humble pie, force fed by the dire reality of circumstances to challenge their delusions of grandeur. In the concluding article of this series, I’ll give an example of a grandiose (i.e. character-disturbed) narcissist faced with the task of making amends.
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