Moments of Clarity: The Narcissist's Epiphany
What is an epiphany? An epiphany is when someone suddenly realizes the truth about something. You might have heard people say something like, "I had an epiphany on my way to work this morning. I realized I've been going about this thing all wrong." Narcissists often seem to have these experiences as well. Suddenly, they seem to have understood everything you've been trying to tell them. They get it. They've seen the light, and now that they have, everything is going to change. They didn't get it before, but they do now. Things will be different from now on.
If you haven't heard this already, this can seem like the miracle you've been waiting for. Finally!! They finally get it! Except—they don't. Not really—and their behavior eventually proves it. Veterans of narcissistic abuse know that the epiphany is the beginning of a pattern, not an end to anything. It is simply the "up" part of the cycle. The narcissist sees the light. The narcissist promises to change. The narcissist sometimes even seems to be actually trying to change, and things are better. Then the narcissist starts slipping. The narcissist begins the downward spiral. The narcissist becomes horrible again. The narcissist then often develops (or creates) a crisis situation. The crisis is resolved. The narcissist sees the light and again it begins. This is not true for every narcissist, but it is true for a large number of them. They repeat this pattern over and over again throughout their entire life, pulling their loved ones behind them like a child dragging a ragdoll.
The question of whether the narcissist's epiphanies are real is a hard one. So much of what they say is misconstrued, misperceived, and miscommunicated, and so much of what they say is just outright lies. Add to that the fact that their feelings control their reality, and you can never be sure whether anything they say is real to them or not. One thing you can be sure of is that, real or not, it's not going to be permanent. The narcissist is completely controlled by their emotions. Many people seem to believe narcissists do not have emotions. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, their emotions are so strong that they are almost never in a rational, reasonable, unemotional state.
The narcissist's reality is totally controlled by these emotions. Therefore, anything they say is only true in the exact moment they said it and while they were having that particular feeling. They were happy, so they said they loved you. They were angry, so they said they hated you. These things were true at the time. In five minutes, or even three, they could be untrue. This is very hard for non-narcissistic people to understand because we don't operate that way. We are capable of sustaining ambivalent emotions, such as being angry at someone but still loving them. Narcissists are not. They are not truly capable of love at all, but what they perceive as love cannot exist inside of them at the same time as negative emotions. Unfortunately for them, what they experience as love also comes with fear, rage, self-hatred and repulsion. It's a package deal for the narcissist. This makes it impossible for them to hold on to positive feelings. These positive feelings are always "chased away" by negative ones. This can cause them to become angry or afraid when they feel positive feelings because they know the negative ones are coming, too. They then pull back, usually by becoming distant, abandoning the relationship or starting problems for no reason.
In the midst of all this often comes moments of clarity or epiphanies. This is when the narcissist suddenly seems to get it. They realize they are the problem. They get what you are saying. They know they are out of line. They know they are abusive. This is everything you've wanted to hear! After months or even years of trying to get through to them, they finally understand! They may even change some of their behaviors or stop acting out for a while. Suddenly, you have hope again. The longer it goes on, the more hopeful you become. The more hopeful you become, the worse it hurts when they invariably act out again. Whether they mean it at the time doesn't really matter, in the end, because either way, it doesn't last. It can't because the narcissist has no truth. The narcissist has no true reality. They are simply existing from one moment to the next in the grip of whatever emotion that has a hold of them at the time. Today they understand that they have a disorder, there is something wrong, and they have been treating you badly. Tomorrow they have no disorder, you're just saying this because there is something wrong with you, and you are the abusive one. Non-narcissistic people interpret this as a lie, and it very well may be; they lie all the time. Non-narcissistic people believe—and rightfully so—that if you mean something, you will stand by that. If you are sorry for something, you will not do it again. These are all reasonable and justifiable beliefs, and when they are not upheld, people feel that they were lied to. Which, again, this can certainly be. Narcissists are liars and manipulators. But it can also be that the truth is different today because the narcissist feels differently today.
This can be hard for the rest of us to understand because we don't think like that. For the rest of us, the truth does not change with our feelings. People don't somehow become guilty of all these horrible things just because we don't like them anymore. They have either done these things or they haven't, and whether we like them has nothing to do with it. We don't stop loving someone just because we're mad at them. We either love them or we don't. Narcissists don't work like that. They have no identity, and their perception is hopelessly flawed. They believe that feelings are facts. Their feelings define their reality, and their feelings are extremely unstable. Consequently, their reality is very unstable, too.
Not only is this instability extremely difficult for both you and the narcissist to deal with, it makes them irritable, paranoid, fearful, and angry. It reiterates to them the idea that nothing can be trusted, nothing is real and no one is genuine. They don't believe you have genuine positive feelings for them because their reality makes this impossible for them to experience or understand. Their epiphanies come with a heavy price, and that one moment of clarity versus the intense onslaught of their constantly-changing emotions and endlessly-shifting reality simply cannot stand. It is washed away, forgotten beneath the self-hatred, rage, and shame that are the constants on the narcissist's internal landscape. They just can't hang on to it, and it's easier to let it go.
This one of the reasons why any type of relationship with a narcissist is basically impossible. It is impossible to build anything with someone on such a shaky foundation. Even if any of the things they say aren't a deliberate lie, they are not true either. You cannot trust someone like that, and you cannot rely on someone like that. How can you build a future or a family or anything with someone on the knowledge that at literally any moment, they may turn on you and destroy it all? One epiphany or a thousand cannot change that.