“Do narcissists know what they’re doing is wrong?”
“Do narcissists know they hurt you?”
“Do narcissists know they’re doing bad things?”
“Do narcissists know what they do?”
This is by far the most common question asked about narcissists by all visitors at Light’s House. Everybody wants to know if narcissists are aware of the pain they’re causing, and whether or not they know their behavior is wrong.
People feel very differently about someone who chooses to do something hurtful that they know is wrong and someone who isn’t aware that what they’re doing is hurtful or wrong (or who doesn’t do it on purpose).
Let’s say you and a friend are jogging side by side when his foot catches yours and trips you up accidentally. He apologizes, asks if you’re all right, helps you up and tells you he didn’t mean it. You forgive him without a second thought, and you say it’s okay.
But what if you were running alongside a competitor in a road race, and they tripped you to get ahead? You’d feel very differently about this person tripping you up than you felt about your clumsy friend, wouldn’t you?
If a two year-old pushes another child down the stairs, we feel very differently about the toddler than we’d feel about a 12 year-old who did the same.
If a developmentally delayed person gets upset and yells at someone, we don’t have the same reaction to that as we would to someone of average intelligence who does it.
We clearly have different expectations of – and responses to – people who do not truly know the pain they cause or at least do not cause it intentionally.
Narcissists do know wrong from right. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t hide their unfair actions like they frequently do. If you ask narcissists whether it’s fair play to cut someone off in traffic or take credit for someone else’s work, they’ll easily be able to tell you it’s not right. And if they do either of those things, they will attempt to hide the fact that they’ve done it. This is because they do know it’s wrong, and they don’t want to lose the admiration and respect of others who will think less of them for having done so.
However, the diagnosis of pathological narcissism involves the presence of insufficient empathy. Even though narcissists do know hurting someone’s feelings is wrong, they still aren’t capable of really empathizing very much with (and therefore, caring about) the person being hurt.
So when narcissists need an ego fix, they do what they know is wrong (like putting someone down), largely because they lack the empathy that should stop them. Then, because they are aware that what they did is wrong and that people will think less of them for it, they cover it up so they won’t have to pay the consequences. (Narcissists don’t like consequences. Those are for little people.)
So narcissists will do insensitive things to get their narcissistic supply, because they both want it so badly and because there’s no empathy to make them feel for the people they’re being unkind to. Then, because they are aware it’s wrong and that it makes them wrong, they cover it up and (perhaps sometimes unconsciously) deny it, gaslighting and projecting their way out of responsibility so that nobody, including themselves, will see them as imperfect for having done it. (And if you see them as imperfect, then you’re a serious problem, because as long as you’re there to remind them they’re not perfect, they’ll have to think about the concept, and they just plain won’t.)
Do narcissists know they hurt you?
They know you’re hurt, but they don’t feel your hurt.
Do narcissists know what they’re doing is wrong?
They know what wrong is, and they may do it, but they cannot accept the concept of being a person who does anything wrong, because that means they’re not superior and perfect. So narcissists vehemently push away the information that they’ve done something hurtful. They do know what a hurtful act is, and yet they have to deny that they did it.
Narcissists use a number of different ways to deny their hurtful actions (and to try making you deny it along with them so you’ll stop complaining). Blaming others, gaslighting, labeling someone who complains about them cruel, lying, making excuses and playing the martyr are a narcissist’s typical responses. Whatever it takes to stop all recognition (by them and you) of the fact that they were inconsiderate can be expected.
So yes, narcissists are aware that they’ve hurt your feelings and that it’s wrong, but they just cannot accept that knowledge. They deny it to prevent narcissistic injury, and desperately want you to deny it as well. And usually, they deny it so quickly and so habitually that it doesn’t even register in their consciousness before the excuses and protests are given out.
Typically, when told they’ve hurt your feelings, a narcissist’s denial takes the forms of insisting you’re not hurt, or that you shouldn’t be hurt, that you’re wrong to be hurt, that they didn’t hurt you, that you’re too easily hurt, and that you shouldn’t complain because they’re hurt worse.