Accepting blame and responsibility is difficult for most people, but for narcissists, it’s almost impossible. Narcissists live in a fantasy world in which they are perfect and superior to others; therefore, admitting to any wrongdoing would call into question their very sense of self.
Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism share the core traits of aggression, entitlement, superiority, and grandiosity.
They rely on and feel entitled to the external validation of their grandiose and superior sense of self. This makes their sense of self fragile and easily challenged, and as a result, narcissists are hypersensitive to perceived threats.
Thus, when anyone seems to be challenging their sense of superiority and grandiosity by, for example, accusing or blaming them, they will be met with complete denial and narcissistic rage.
A narcissist cannot accept being anything less than perfect. To continue living in their fantasy, they have to deny any shortcomings and wrongdoings. They do this by projecting any undesirable traits or behaviors onto other people – known as narcissistic projection.
It’s a defense mechanism designed to protect their fragile ego. They will blame you for their bad mood and poor or abusive behavior instead of accepting that it is their responsibility. For example, they might say “It’s your fault I’m angry” or “I only cheated because you did this”.
Narcissists have an external locus of control when it comes to negative behavior or negative outcomes. Nothing is ever their fault unless it’s a good thing, then they gladly take all the credit.
In sum, the reason narcissists cannot accept blame is their fragile ego that relies on validation, admiration, and control. Any negative feedback cannot be accepted and must be denied and projected to protect their fantasy of being perfect and superior.
There are several tactics a narcissistic person will use to evade blame and responsibility, which will be discussed below.
How Narcissists Try to Avoid Responsibility
As discussed above, narcissists cannot accept blame and will avoid taking responsibility by any means possible. You can show them the evidence, use logical arguments, and present all the facts, but they will still manage to wriggle their way out of taking responsibility.
Here are the ways they evade blame and responsibility:
Denial serves the purpose of avoiding uncomfortable and painful truths, and as such, it’s a common coping mechanism for people in general.
But narcissists live entirely in denial: they deny their pain, shame, fear, flaws, limitations, and even their mortality. They must be perfect, in control, and superior not only in the eyes of others but also in their own perception.
So, if you hold them accountable, and point out a flaw or poor choice, they will deny it.
For example, if you say, “I didn’t like when you called me stupid earlier”, they might say “I never said that” or “I was only joking” – both constitute a denial of the pain or offense they caused you with their words/ actions.
If the narcissist cannot deny their wrongdoing (because you have clear evidence, for example) or you do not accept their attempted denial, they will probably verbally attack you.
They might threaten you “You don’t know what I’m capable of” or call you “crazy” or “paranoid”.
They exhaust you with accusations and insults to the point that you want to give up and stop fighting, and they have successfully evaded taking responsibility.
Playing the Victim/ Turning the Tables
A common way for narcissistic individuals to avoid taking responsibility is to shift the blame onto you. They tend to feel victimized if someone calls them out, even if they are clearly the perpetrator.
For example, if you let them know that their behavior hurt your feelings, they might say “If I’m such a terrible person, why are you even with me?” or “You’re so ungrateful, I do so much for you and this relationship!”. Now the tables have been turned and you feel like you have to justify or explain yourself.
Similarly, if they sense you are not buying into their lies and denial, they might play the victim (e.g., start crying or sulking) to get your sympathy and regain control.
Stonewalling refers to silent treatment and can manifest as ignoring you, physically turning away from you, or engaging in another activity to avoid you. So instead of overtly denying responsibility, they simply ignore and turn away from you.
This form of manipulation allows them to gain the upper hand when they feel they might be losing control. They might resort to stonewalling you if they feel backed into a corner and have no way out (for example, if you have evidence of their wrongdoing).
Being stonewalled causes people to have a strong emotional reaction because feeling excluded signals danger. In the hunter-gatherer days, being ostracized from the group meant serious trouble, so although that isn’t necessarily the case today, being ignored or ghosted still feels threatening.
Narcissists may not be consciously aware of this fact, but they know that stonewalling you will likely allow them to avoid blame and turn the tables on you.
Denial, turning the tables, playing the victim, and stonewalling can all be considered forms of gaslighting. Thus, narcissistic individuals evade blame by gaslighting you and calling into question your perception and sense of reality.
Saying things like “I never said/ did that”; “You’re just making a big deal out of this”; “I was only joking”; or “It’s your fault I behaved that way” is gaslighting.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that many people who have confronted a narcissist are left feeling confused, self-doubting, and exhausted.
How to Hold a Narcissist Accountable
Accepting blame and responsibility is not something a narcissistic person will do easily or at all. In some instances, it’s not worth trying to argue with them.
For example, if it’s a small or insignificant matter like who knocked over the glass of water, it might be best to ignore it.
When the matter is significant, for example, if it’s about finances, infidelity, or relates to your work, it’s important to understand narcissists and their tactics first.
Researchers believe narcissists and other perpetrators have a particular pattern of responding when they face blame and accountability.
The psychologist and scholar Jennifer Freyd coined the acronym DARVO to describe a perpetrator’s strategy to Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. She writes:
“The perpetrator may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender, so that the perpetrator adopts the victim role and accuses the true victim of being an offender. This can occur when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation.”
Understanding this is important so you can plan your strategy and avoid their attempts at gaslighting you. As mentioned, in some cases, it’s best to avoid getting caught up in this dynamic, but if needs must, here is some advice on how to handle DARVO:
Know Your Truth
A narcissist will try to confuse you, reverse the roles, and make you question what you know. Stand firm in your reality and do not allow them to convince you that you are the problem or that it’s somehow your fault.
Getting an emotional reaction out of you (crying, shouting, etc.) will give the narcissist a sense of control. Present the facts in an unemotional but assertive manner and let them know what you plan to do.
In this instance, having empathy means understanding why narcissists react to blame in the way they do. As discussed above, they perceive it as a threat to their fragile sense of self and will therefore fight anyone who dares to challenge them. Keep this in mind when you are trying to hold a narcissist accountable.
It may not be appropriate or applicable to every situation, but if possible, remain calm, use unconfrontational language, and avoid backing them into a corner.
Showing them understanding means they are more likely to tell the truth, which you can then use as evidence against them.
Keep the Evidence
Gather as much factual evidence as possible, for example, document any incidents with the specifics (date, time, location) and take screenshots or record conversations.
Do not share this with the perpetrator until you are ready to act.
If the situation relates to your work, circumvent the narcissist, and go straight to HR. If they have broken the law, go to the police.
If you do not have to put yourself into a vulnerable position by directly confronting the narcissist, get support or allow others to confront them for you.
If that’s not appropriate, you could still ask a friend or family member to support you.
Ensure Your Safety
A narcissistic person who feels challenged or has been backed into a corner might lash out. Likely, they will verbally attack and insult you, but they may also resort to physical violence. Thus, if you are confronting a narcissistic person, make sure you are safe.
Look after your well-being, speak to the supportive people in your life, find a therapist, focus on self-care, and avoid getting sucked into the narcissist’s mind games.
If you are concerned for your safety and well-being, it is probably best to end the relationship or distance yourself from that person as much as possible.
Carpenter, E.T. (2020). Stonewalling and Taking a Break Are Not the Same Thing. Family Perspectives, 2 (1), 10.
Freyd, J.J. (2013). What is DARVO? University of Oregon.
Kjaervik, S. & Bushman, B. (2021). The link between narcissism and aggression: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin. 147