The flip side of wondering whether or not he loved me, of course, is wondering whether or not he was aware he was hurting me.
There are really three separate questions embedded in this one:
- Are narcissists aware they inflict damage?
- Do they inflict damage on purpose?
- Do they care if they inflict the damage?
I’m going to explain what it looks like from my point of view based on what I’ve read.
Are narcissists aware they inflict damage?
Shannon Thomas, who wrote the book Healing From Hidden Abuse puts it quite well: “Psychological abusers know when and where to turn off their manipulative games. They know precisely how to push all the right emotional buttons to get the victim’s frustrated response that the abuser craves. They know how to triangulate people and make themselves appear to be the victim. You tell me, does that sound like someone too ‘dumb’ to know what they do? They know.”
If we accept that narcissists are aware that they are inflicting damage, the next question we have to ask is why they are inflicting it. Are they inflicting it just to inflict it or is it incidental?
Do they inflict damage on purpose?
Narcissism/sociopathy/psychopathy lie on a spectrum, with narcissists on one end and malignant narcissists, sociopathy and, finally, psychopathy closer to the other end.
Psychopaths actually enjoy inflicting damage. They play a game of chess and enjoy calculating several moves in advance to cause as much chaos as possible. The damage is the goal.
There seems to be an automatic assumption that this is also true for narcissists, that because narcissists are aware they are inflicting damage, that they are inflicting it because they want to see people get damaged.
Non-malignant narcissists engage in damaging behaviors because they are disordered individuals who have learned pathological ways to get their needs met and they don’t know any other way to be. Having secret lives, wearing different masks and telling lies is how they ensure that they always have the supply they need and they are never left alone. Their actions are compartmentalized and short-term, and keeping up appearances relies primarily on each person in their different lives not talking to one other, rather than plotting out elaborate schemes. Unless they are malignant narcissists, the most they get out of inflicting harm on you is some fleeting negative attention. If any harm is caused by what they do, it’s a by-product of the narcissist just going about his or her business.
Do they care if they inflict the damage?
This is where I believe the two other questions come together to form the point. Narcissists do not see themselves as disordered, nor do they see anything wrong with their behavior. If forced to think about damage they have caused, they may experience some regret if it has caused them to lose something important to them, but it is usually only temporarily and only in shallow terms. This is because they cannot empathize with the people they are harming. They are short-term thinkers who look out for their own best interests and act according to who and what they are, which is someone who will do whatever it takes to get their needs met, regardless of who it hurts.
Even though they are not intentionally setting out to inflict harm, they just don’t care if they do and if called on it, will do anything to avoid taking responsibility for what they have done.
* * * * *
So, in summary, he was aware he was doing things that would hurt me, and he definitely knows the difference between right and wrong. He wasn’t intentionally setting out to hurt me, however, he was just doing what narcissists do and wasn’t concerned enough about the fact that it would hurt me in the moment to stop himself from doing it.
These conclusions are confirmed by things he said to me about some of the things he did while we were together: “I didn’t know it would hurt you that much” and “I did it because I wanted to.” The focus of a narcissist is so much on himself and what he needs, he isn’t able to emotionally consider what his actions might be doing to the people around him.
I feel like this conclusion is even more difficult to accept than what psychopaths do. We can accept that there are people in the world who kill others in cold blood, who set out to con them out of their money, who get off on hurting people. They are aware they are causing harm and they’re doing it because they enjoy it. It’s an awful thing to have to accept, but it is at least straightforward in its explanation of evil.