When it comes to narcissists and their irrational behaviors, one of THE most frequently asked questions posed by victims of narcissistic abuse is whether the narcissist is aware of what they’re doing. A common misconception is that if they’re not aware of what they’re doing, then we shouldn’t hold them accountable for their seemingly unintentional wrongdoings. Instead, we should offer them compassion and try to help them through whatever “pain” they’re suffering that is making them behave in such a hurtful way. After all, hurt people hurt people, right?
There is one major flaw in the question – are narcissists aware of their disorder? – in that it assumes all narcissists fall on the same place in the spectrum of the disorder. They don’t. When it comes to narcissism, there are individuals who have few enough traits that they might not be identified as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (which is a huge defect in the DSM criteria, since it only takes one pathological trait to completely ruin another person’s life).
Besides, there are also people who possess the dark traits of Machiavellianism and psychopathy. These individuals are highly cunning and engage in dangerous forms of deception and manipulation. These are the people who can live two or three different lives behind their partners’ backs and rig the heaters in the winter to emit carbon monoxide, hoping to collect on their family members’ life insurance policies.
In contrast, most garden-variety narcissists aren’t sitting around strategizing about what they will do next to their unsuspecting partners. That would take too much time away from their self-fulfilling agendas. All they’re concerned with is what they need minute by minute in order to gain the most narcissistic supply — whether from you or another supply source. It doesn’t matter which. If what they desire is being reflected back to them in the form of gratifying experiences or admiration, it doesn’t matter to them which mirror they are looking into.
Inside the mind of the garden-variety narcissist
Narcissists typically act upon their emotions, which are greatly stunted. They have very low emotional intelligence and have never developed any form of emotional resilience. This partly explains why they can appear loving and caring one minute, yet seem to hate you the next. This generally happens when they’ve experienced a narcissistic injury, which is evident in their tendency to snap at the most innocent of comments or questions. Since one can never know what’s going on in the narcissist’s mind at any given moment, what they consider injurious one minute could be completely ignored the next. Do yourself a favor and don’t try to analyze it. As soon as you think you’ve come up with a solution, the rules will have changed.
…and don’t make the mistake of believing that sharing your findings that they could be a narcissist will help. It won’t. This will only instill righteous indignation in them because they are unique and special. If you dare to insinuate there is something wrong with them, be prepared for the explosive outcome.
While a non-disordered person considers how their words and actions affect other people, narcissists do not. Because of this, many of their behaviors are spur of the moment. There are some very deliberate actions they engage in, such as hiding evidence of an extramarital affair or forging another person’s name on a loan application, but they think it’s all warranted because by that point, the person they entered into a relationship with stopped seeing their greatness or began requiring too much damage control.
Many narcissists, at some point or other, do become aware of the effect their behaviors have on other people, but they are completely indifferent to it. One way to comprehend how the narcissist feels about their deceptive and manipulative behaviors against others is to compare it to a person’s penchant for steak or pork chops. Most people are aware that cows and pigs are sentient beings, yet generally don’t reflect on what the animals go through before they appear as a tidy meal on the dinner table. If a vegetarian were to point out to a meat-eater how horribly these animals suffer, the meat-eater would shrug their shoulders because they like steak and don’t plan to stop eating steak. This is precisely how narcissists feel about abusing the people closest to them.
The difference is that we generally don’t see what happens to animals that are processed for consumption unless we search for it. Narcissists see the results of their manipulation and abuse every day and still remain completely indifferent. By the time the love-bombing phase is over and you are being devalued, you’ve become their opponent and so any pain or distress you experience is your own fault.
Ultimately, whether a narcissist knows they are a narcissist is like asking if codependents are aware that they are codependents. Most are not, unless they’ve experienced an abusive relationship with a narcissistic individual and have begun the research that typically ensues when seeking answers about their partner’s cruelty.
However, unlike a person who learns they have codependent traits and may strive to develop healthier thoughts and habits, narcissists are not at all concerned with self-improvement…unless it’s a façade and a temporary means of reaching an end. In short, to what extent the narcissistic individual is aware that they are disordered really depends on the gravity of their condition. But, in any case, don’t expect to get a straight answer to our question from the narcissists themselves. Their actions always speak louder than their words, and that is what you need to listen to.
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Kim Saeed is a recognized relationship and new life educator specializing in helping narcissistic abuse survivors to heal, rebuild, find purpose, and live joyfully after No Contact. In 2013, she founded Let Me Reach, a life transformation company that teaches people to flourish after toxic relationships.