Narcissists And Selective Memory

Written by Angela Atkinson

(Prefer to watch or listen instead of reading? Here’s a video!) Is it selective memory? Or maybe it’s narcissistic selective amnesia? Is there any such thing?

Have you ever dealt with a narcissist who seems to conveniently forget things that are important to you, but who never seems to forget that time 10 years ago when you stepped on their toe or said something that hurt their feelings? Someone who would be very forgetful when they promised you they’d do something that mattered, but who would never forget if you even looked at them cross-eyed? How did that feel to you?

Maybe you worried that they were losing their memory or started Googling stuff like “early-onset dementia” or “convenient memory loss.” Or, if you are still in a relationship with a narcissist, whether they are a parent, spouse, partner, friend, or coworker, and you are noticing that their memory seems to be going south, then you might be wondering about this right now, at this moment.

If your toxic relationships look anything like mine did, you might find this to be especially poignant when you think back to incidents where the narcissist said they’d take care of something, but pretended to forget that they made such a promise.

Later, they’d end up blaming you for being irresponsible. For instance, the narcissist in your life may have told you that they were going to take care of the grocery shopping on Wednesday. But then when you go to cook dinner on Wednesday night, they’re offended when you ask what happened with the groceries. At that moment, rather than taking responsibility and acknowledging that they forgot or chose not to do the shopping for whatever reason, they might accuse you of forgetting to do the shopping. And when you remind them that they said they were going to take care of the shopping, they get angry and deny having said that.

Despite the fact that you know for sure they said it, they will insist that you’re mistaken, and narcissistic rage will ensue as they give you a good “dressing down,” reminding you how scatter-brained and flaky you tend to be. By the time this emotionally draining exchange is over, you’ll find yourself wishing you’d just done the shopping yourself – and you never ask them to do it again.

Of course, if we’re being honest, this was the narcissist’s desire all along – to avoid the responsibility of bringing home the proverbial bacon and then frying it up in a pan part – but as always, they’ll expect you to serve it up to them with a smile if and when they want it, regardless of your own state of wellbeing and ability to drop whatever you’re doing and take care of their many demands in any given moment.

But I digress. Now, here is the question you have really been wanting to ask.

Do Narcissists Really Have Memory Problems?

Yes, and no. It’s complicated – and there are a couple of different possibilities here. Let me explain.

First, it’s important to remember that, as much as they make us doubt it, narcissists are technically human. And all humans seem to have a certain amount of bias as well as selectiveness in both their perceptions and their memories.

For example, you know about confirmation bias, right? That is where someone will only notice or remember things that confirm what they already believe. And we all know how nostalgia can lead to a convenient “forgetting” of the bad parts of life – for example, when a woman has a baby, we don’t focus on the gross, painful parts of giving birth, but we do focus on how amazing it was that we managed to have a baby. The truth is that, in this case, humanity might be in serious danger of extinction if it was any other way.

Even survivors of narcissistic abuse will find themselves dealing with what might be called nostalgia-based selective memory – but we call it “abuse amnesia.” That is what happens when we are away from the abuser in our lives for a while and we start to forget all the bad parts of being in a relationship with them. It’s when “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” on a toxic level. You literally sort of “forget” all of the bad stuff and begin to romanticize the reality of your toxic relationship. This is dangerous as it leads to reuniting with your abuser. Too many of us end up going back to the very people who made our lives feel miserable – simply because some part of us wants to believe them when they swear they’ve changed – and because on some level, we really sort of “forget” the depth of how they actually treated us in the relationship.

This is truly just how the human brain functions. Our memories function sort of like little databases, keeping records in realtime over the course of our lives. As our brain manages our physical bodies, it also grabs a few main details of each situation we deal with every day, or at least those situations that seem to matter to us in the moment – good or bad. It discards the stuff that doesn’t feel or seem important to us – and if we tap into that memory later to figure out what happened, our brains attempt to sort of reconstruct that situation, based on only those saved details.

C-PTSD and Selective Memory

If you’ve been in a toxic relationship with a narcissist, then you might be experiencing C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), which is a serious mental health condition affecting a large percentage of victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse. This disorder can take years to treat and many professionals aren’t familiar with its symptoms or misdiagnose it. They may even victim-blame if they aren’t familiar with the subtle tricks of a narcissist. Unfortunately, it can be a lifelong condition, but it can be managed with mindfulness and behavior modification, among other therapies and modalities.

With that being said, one of the most often-reported symptoms is short-term memory loss, along with longer-term loss in some especially traumatic cases where people might sort of blackout painful incidents of verbal or emotional abuse suffered at the hands of a narcissist.  This is a result of the way our brains function under the stress of being in a relationship with a narcissist.

This is partially related to the trauma, which has a tendency to cause us to sort of live instinctively – as in, a constant state of fight-or-flight and/or freeze mode. And you know when it’s really hard for the human brain to form and retain new memories, right?

When you’re in fight-or-flight and/or freeze mode. Yup.

So, in other words: YES, the narcissist has a selective memory or “selective amnesia.” And often, they use the premise of it as a way to gaslight you.

When Narcissists Use Selective Memory in Gaslighting

So, when it comes to a narcissist who hurts us emotionally, we obviously consider this important and significant. This is part of our survival instinct. It makes sense.

But when you consider that narcissists tend to have incredibly volatile emotions along with a lack of emotional and compassionate empathy – not to mention that when they are feeling upset or angry or embarrassed – or when they’re feeling anything other than being fully in control of the situation, and then you add in the fact that they don’t see you as real, relevant or important as they are…well, their “selective” memory might be understandable, in a way. Right?

Of course, with narcissists, nothing is so simple. And in many cases, if we’re being honest, it isn’t really about a naturally-occurring personality defect. In fact, for most narcissists, selective memory is used as a manipulation tactic, at least some of the time. It is one of the many ways they gaslight you – as in manipulating you by psychological means into questioning your own sanity.

They might claim they don’t remember doing something that hurt you so they can get out of taking responsibility, for example. Or, (and this is more common in my experience), they might even sort of attack you for EXPECTING them to remember – and they might even try to use this to justify their abuse (or to deny it completely).

The fact of the matter is that narcissists only care about what they want and what they need. And sadly, when it comes to you, they are mostly only concerned with the narcissistic supply you provide them.

The Conveniently Forgetful Narcissist

The truth is that, while human memory is fallible and while narcissists are technically human, most of the time, unless they are diagnosed with dementia or another memory-affecting disease, the narcissist’s memory is as good as anyone else’s.

In other words, narcissists will remember what they choose to remember.

They might selectively remember how much you love something. Here’s a hypothetical example to explain it a little more clearly. Let’s say that at one time, you told the narcissist you love white roses but that you’re allergic to yellow daisies to the point that it could endanger your life.

They will remember that when it is convenient for them – and forget when they feel like it.

So, during love bombing, you’ll get all kinds of white roses. And then, when they are in the devalue phase, where they’re noticing everything wrong with you and picking you apart, they will forget you like flowers at all. Or they’ll fill the house with yellow daisies and get mad at you when your throat closes up and you have to rush to the emergency room. They’ll say you are just being dramatic.

And once that incident is over and they decide they want some more of the narcissistic supply they can provide you, they might want to suck you back into the relationship with a good, solid hoover maneuver. That’s when they will suddenly recall that you love white roses, and they’ll expect you to be ever-so-grateful that they “thought about you” and that they brought you these beautiful roses. And, you might even fall for it, because they will seem so sincere and like they really mean it.

But don’t let your soft heart fool you here, my friend. The fact is that those white roses you love so much are being used as a tool to reel you in once again. That is the only reason they decide to remember that single fact about you in any given moment (and it is the same reason they forget when it is convenient for them).

Especially during the devalue and discard phases, the narcissist might suddenly recall something embarrassing that you did years ago at a party or among friends, and they might intentionally humiliate you with the story. And you can bet that they will certainly never manage to forget that one time you had let them down 20 years ago – but they won’t recall that you failed to do whatever they expected because you were in the hospital having surgery – they’ll just remember that you forgot to pay the water bill or that you didn’t make their lunch for work that day. Seriously.

Let me be clear here. The narcissist remembers and forgets things that matter to you at different times because they instinctively recognize that you will have emotional reactions to them in either case. In other words, they use this “selective memory” thing as a way to control and manipulate you.

Ultimately, while the narcissist most certainly can and does occasionally have moments of forgetfulness or things that really slip their minds, in many cases, it can be a smokescreen for the gaslighting techniques they use to control you and manipulate you into doing what they want.

Question of the day: Do you know a narcissist who used selective memory as a gaslighting and manipulation tactic? Do you believe that they are just having the same issues as other humans? What do you think? Share your thoughts, share your ideas, and share your experiences in the comments section below this video – and let’s talk about it!

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