Try to point out a narcissist’s mistakes and the attack is likely to be returned with force. Expect a narcissist to show understanding during a difficult time and the conversation will quickly be turned back towards the narcissist. Ask a narcissist to forgive an error in judgment and a detailed accounting of all blunders will be recounted.
Within the definition of narcissism is a lack of remorse, empathy or forgiveness. Narcissists have a fantasy view of themselves where they are all powerful, knowing, beautiful, and influential. Even when the reality might prove otherwise, their distorted perception of self greatly contributes to egocentric behavior. So if everything is about them, then why does a person need to admit to wrongdoing, show compassion for others, or release the wrongs of others?
In the eyes of a narcissist, they don’t. However, when it is to their advantage, a narcissist can demonstrate limited amounts of remorse, empathy or forgiveness. Here is what that looks like:
Remorse. For a narcissist to demonstrate regret, the benefit must outweigh the cost. For example, a narcissistic boss might value the financial contribution a client brings so much that they are willing to show sorrow for over a forgotten commitment. Or a narcissistic parent might want the approval of a favorite child that they are willing to acknowledge their mistakes with the other children. Or a narcissistic spouse might make a joke out of their indiscretion in front of another couple to head off any negative comments made by the spouse.
Basically, the show of remorse is part of a calculated formula where the expense of admitting to a mistake is small in comparison to the potential positive return. For the non-narcissist, this equation can be utilized as well. It is far easier to get a narcissist to admit to an error when the benefit is obviously pointed out in a discussion. However, real remorse is not likely since that would require awareness that the narcissist is not immune from error.
Empathy. Many narcissists are skilled at faking compassion for brief periods of time. They can learn from movies, videos, and empathetic people who demonstrate a caring response in times of trouble. But a show of understanding over a long time frame is nearly impossible. In order to demonstrate empathy, a person must see things from another’s point of view and be willing to allow that perspective to dominate. As hard as a narcissist might try, their distorted perception of reality won’t allow them to see things differently. It is like asking a color blind person to see yellow or blue.
However, when the narcissist can look like the hero to a person who is less fortunate, they will take on the challenge. From an outsider’s point of view, this could look empathetic, but it is not from the narcissist’s vantage point. For the narcissist, rescuing someone else is a further demonstration of their superiority.
Forgiveness. Granting pardons to those who make mistakes feeds the narcissistic ego. Again, it is another opportunity to show how much better they are than others. But there is a very high price to pay when asking for forgiveness from a narcissist. First, they might say they forgive but they won’t forget even to the point of reminding the person of the mistake many years later. Second, there is some type of restitution that is likely to be requested in exchange for the clemency which usually far exceeds the crime. And last, narcissists reserve the right to withdraw the forgiveness without notice if it serves their interest.
It is commonly believed that forgiveness is for the mental well-being of the victim, not the offender. But when the wounded person is a narcissist, there are two things they do with the pain. One, it is added to the list of deep-rooted insecurities of which no person is privy and which is covered by bravado. Two, it is discarded as inconsequential to their self-worth and therefore not worthy of their attention. Either way, the offender will not know the difference.
It can be frustrating to see remorse, empathy or forgiveness from the narcissistic perspective. But it is even more damaging to expect them to act and think like everyone else when they don’t.