Do narcissists know what they are doing? Most victims would answer a resounding ‘yes’ to this question. Comments such as these are common :-
“He is so calculating in the way he manipulates me, he knows what he is doing alright.”
“Oh she knows just how to wind me up, she knows she does because she always smirks when she is doing it.”
“He is an intelligent man, how can he not know what he is doing?”
“She must know how hurtful she is being when she starts slapping me.”
However, it is nowhere near as clear cut as that. There are two factors which govern the awareness of the narcissist. Firstly, the school of narcissist that you are involved with (Lesser, Mid-Range or Greater) and secondly the issue of control.
The Lesser School
The Lesser Narcissist (Lower Lesser, Middle Lesser or Upper Lesser) goes through life like a wrecking ball. It is his way, or the high way. Do not like what he is doing? Tough – deal with it – you are the problem. Stopping him doing what he wants? Expect a fist in your face. Trying to make him account for his actions? Good luck with that, you can expect a violent outburst and utter dismissal.
Does the Lesser know that he has punched you in the head? Of course he does. Does he know that he did that that as a consequence of the fact that you wounded him and his physical violence is a manifestation of his ignited fury? No, he does not.
Does the Lesser know that he is cheating on you with your sister? Of course he does. Does he regard it as wrong? No. Is he consumed by guilt at what he has done? No, he does not even know what guilt is.
Does the Lesser who verbally denigrates one of his workers know he is bullying that person? No. From his perspective, that worker is out of line, is too slow, has turned up late again, said the wrong thing, does not work hard enough and therefore his response is entirely justified. Don’t do what he wants, expect to be dealt with. It is not bullying, it is getting the problem sorted.
Does the Lesser know that his provocative comments about your appearance are hurtful and are being said to gain fuel? No. He has no empathy whatsoever, not even the cognitive (fake) empathy and therefore does not recognise that what he says is hurtful or could even be construed as hurtful. He does not understand why you are crying after he told you that you look like the Pilsbury Doughboy in that new purple dress. In his mind the comment was justified. If you push him to explain why he made the comment, expect the helpful reply of “Because I say so” or “It just is, right?”
The Lesser acts through instinct and instinct alone. Yes, if you have escaped him he may put together a plan to drive around to where you are now staying and kick in the door and drag you out by the hair back to where you supposedly belong – but that ‘plan’ remains an instinctive response. He knows what he is doing, but because of the need for control, he does not see his behaviour as wrong, inappropriate or hurtful. It is what needs to be done.
This overriding and ever present need for control means that the Lesser will respond with an instinctive act – whether it is physical violence, sexual violence, smashing up property, shouting in your face – but he sees nothing wrong with this. It is being done to gain fuel, it is being done to keep you in his fuel matrix, it is being done to assert his need for superiority over you, it is being done to quell any rebellion on your part and it is being done to reject any notion of accountability for his actions BUT he does not know this. He does not think, “I will shove her down the stairs because she is rejecting my control over her and needs to be punished.” He just commits the act. He does not think about why he is doing it, he does it and if asked why then you may not even get answer, possibly a shrug or just a growled “She deserved it.” If pressed as to why she deserved it, it is back to “Because she did.”
This behaviour is viewed through the different narcissistic perspective. You, as a victim, do not have that perspective. Your perspective invariably causes you to think that the narcissist does know what he is doing. This perspective of yours arises for two reasons
- You know why you do things, you know the rationale behind most of them (if not all) and the consequences and therefore you expect everyone else to behave in a similar way and thus have the similar level of awareness ; and
- Your emotional thinking drives you to believe that the narcissist knows what he is doing and why because this then causes you try to get the narcissist to address this behaviour. If he or she knows what they are doing, then surely they can listen to reason, reflect and recognise and take an alternative course of action? In short – they can change. As you know, this desire for change, to heal and to fix is at the core of the empathic victim. Your emotional thinking knows this and therefore, in order to keep you engaging with the narcissist (which is all your emotional thinking ever wants you to do) it cons you into thinking that the narcissist knows what he is doing because this then raises the hope (there’s that terrible word again) you can do something about it. Thus, rather than get out and stay out, you remain, trying to reason with the narcissist, trying to get him to understand how his actions impact on you, that they are wrong and how if only he would change then everything would be good.
Accordingly, your empathic perspective causes you to think that the narcissist is calculated in his behaviour (hence why so many people are honestly mistaken when they think they have been ensnared by the rare Greater Narcissist when they have not) when actually the behaviour of the Lesser Narcissist is only ever instinct.
The Lesser has no concept of guilt, no concept of remorse, no conscience. He cannot have because this would render the defence mechanism that is his narcissism, ineffective and that cannot ever happen. The Lesser is unburdened from knowledge of why he acts as he does, he lacks the cognitive function to even articulate it in some way (which would of course would be a lie if he could, again the narcissism protecting him) and thus this is why you get no explanations about his behaviour or if you do, they are rudimentary in nature and of the dismissive, curt type explained above.
The Lesser is aware of the actions he performs – he knows he has punched you, he knows he is smashing the windows on your car, he knows he is sleep raping you – but he does not plan, he sees nothing wrong with what he is doing (owing to the need for control through his sense of entitlement, the rejection of accountability, his lack of conscience) and does not see it as manipulative or reprehensible. It is purely what must be done, well, because it is, isn’t it? Now, stop questioning him and do as you are told. Or else.