For the entire relationship, we denied, rationalized, suppressed, excused, or wrote off the inexcusable things that they did to us in order to remain there in the relationship with them.
And yet it’s one of the questions that remains even after the relationship ends.
Did they know?
Shannon Thomas, who wrote the book Healing From Hidden Abuse, puts the answer like this: “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 are being honest with ourselves, we knew that already, didn’t we?
Because there were the times when we brought our concerns or questions to the table. We asked why. We tried to confirm our suspicions or ask why things didn’t add up. We tried standing up for ourselves. We tried to explain that if only they would stop doing “it” (whatever “it” was) things would be perfect. And then things would be perfect– until the next time they broke our hearts.
So why isn’t Thomas’s answer to that question satisfying?
Because we are asking the wrong question.
What we are really asking is something much more haunting than “Did they know?” What we really want to know is: “Knowing that they had to know, how is it possible that they could have done these things?
To negotiate the idea that they could have knowingly inflicted so much pain on us, we want to know:
- How much is calculated?
- How much is intentional?
- Why did it not seem to matter to them that they were hurting us, even after we told them?
So we come to try to answer the impossible, yet the answers to these questions are not straight-forward.
Accepting the answers to these questions requires understanding how conscienceless people view the world. At the heart of the answers is the essence of narcissism and what motivates narcissists when they interact with others.
Different Types of Narcissists Behave Differently
There are different types of narcissists with varying mindsets and goals in relationships. Because their needs are somewhat different, the harm they inflict can sometimes derive from different motivations. They are all viewing others as a means to an end, even when that “end” is different.
For the sake of simplicity in terms of understanding intent, calculation, awareness, control, and other concepts when it comes to thinking about narcissists’ infliction of pain, I’ll put them into two categories:*
- Type 1: Narcissists with no overlapping traits of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (including overt narcissists and vulnerable narcissists)
- Type 2: Narcissists with overlapping traits of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (including malignant narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths)
There are varying levels of awareness of self among the groups. By the nature of the disorder, most narcissists are completely unaware of what they are. Some may be aware that they are different from other people, but don’t know that they are “narcissists.”
Many are aware that some of their behavior is not acceptable and seek to hide it, but do not consider it “wrong.” Those that have some self-awareness of being different may perceive themselves as superior.
For example, they know that it is appropriate to express more empathy than they have in certain situations, so they will make a show of intentionally acting as if they have more empathy than they have in a moment. They often are not aware of why they are doing this, however (that is, that they are narcissists or that they are lacking something everyone else has).
And then there are those who are well aware of what they are and use the information about narcissism to hide their narcissism and become better at exploiting others. Almost none have an epiphany about themselves and want to change, especially malignant narcissists, because they do not view themselves as disordered– other people are the problem.
Do Narcissists Purposely Calculate the Harm They Inflict?
It depends on the type of narcissist and also on the situation.
There is a chess-game-like element to this question, that implies the narcissist is sitting down plotting to hurt the people in his or her life. Their behavior seems sometimes to be so intentional, from the love-bombing to the painful things we endured– and so systematic as well, as we talk to others and compare notes and learn that our stories are so similar– it’s difficult to believe that they didn’t plan it on purpose.
It seems that they must have found us, purposely love-bombed us with all of the flattery and praise, and then slowly torn us down to gain control over us.
It also seems so intentional sometimes when they say things to us and then cruelly smile when they watch us crumple in pain, or just sit there and do nothing while we cry and ask them to stop.
Most Type 1 narcissists, however, do not know what they are doing. They flit from relationship to relationship, each time idealizing the new partner and then devaluing them as the flaws of that partner start to reveal themselves and the partner fails to live up to the expectations or starts to disappoint the narcissist by wanting to put his or her attention on something else, such as a hobby or other friends.
Type 2 narcissists, however, may calculate how to cause distress for no other reason than that they enjoy it. They may relieve their boredom by seeing our emotional displays or knowing that they can get reactions from us.
Self-aware sociopath M.E. Thomas, whom I would classify in the Type 2 category for the purposes of this article, writes in Confessions of a Sociopath, “That’s the trouble with seduction as a game played for the thrill of it. You can innocently go about seducing people, even enjoying the attention and affection for a time, and then suddenly, when you’re ready to move on, you’re left with this dependent, besotted person who can hardly stand to live without you…
“When I first met Morgan, I didn’t know she would be so much trouble… At first, I really relished the power I had over her. I got sick with enjoyment every time I noticed a crack in her voice or a nonsensical sentence escape from her lips… I knew I had one chance to get her back, so… I sent her a seemingly heartfelt but factually insincere e-mail confessing my love and apologies… She wanted to be hurt and I liked to hurt and watch her sink further into depravity. I was only sated when she hit absolute bottom” (p. 236-240).
Do Narcissists Inflict Harm Intentionally?
Yes and no.
Both types of narcissists enter relationships with others based on whatever resources they want to extract from the person. They may then engage in harmful activities while in the relationships that intentionally inflict harm or that incidentally inflict harm.
As described above, Type 2 narcissists, are perfectly willing and capable of intentionally inflicting harm for no other reason than their enjoyment.
Type 1 narcissists may also intentionally inflict harm in cases where someone has caused them a narcissistic injury. They may get angry or offended and say hurtful, abusive things or exact revenge or punish in other ways. This is generally spontaneous and not well thought out (hence, not calculated), but it is intentional.
They may also engage in acts that are not spontaneous that harm us.
For example, narcissists may have multiple relationships simultaneously. They make a series of decisions or carry out a series of acts that lead to having these relationships, which harm or have the potential to harm multiple people.
Usually, however, the goal of the narcissist in this situation is not to harm any of the people involved but to benefit himself or herself. The harm, therefore, is not intentional, even though the relationships themselves are.
In other words, as Shannon Thomas says, narcissists know which acts they engage in are socially unacceptable and harmful– they just don’t care.
Why Did It Not Seem to Matter to Them That They Were Hurting Us, Even After We Told Them?
This is perhaps the most troubling question of all. How are they able to do things that cause harm to us?
To understand how they are capable of doing this, we have to consider two concepts that play a role in how narcissists approach the world: “splitting” and “emotional empathy.” We also have to consider how narcissists engage in reasoning and make decisions.
First, pathological narcissists lack something called object constancy, and see people as either “good” or “bad,” splitting them into one or the other based on how well they are reflecting back to them their idealized selves.
When someone does something that feels like an attack to a narcissist (such as disagreeing with an opinion, which can be perceived as a criticism by narcissists), they cannot hold onto their positive feelings for that person.
They will see that person as an enemy and “split” them into the “bad” person in their minds, unable to integrate the feelings of disappointment or irritation they feel about their actions with the positive views and shared personal history with them. In those moments, that person has become an attacker who has wronged them, and the narcissist seeks only to punish them for it.
Narcissists do this because they lack “object constancy” and this is what enables them to hurt you spontaneously if they feel they have been wronged by you, such as when they lash out verbally. It may also cause them to seek revenge.
Furthermore, narcissists do not have the ability to put themselves in our shoes and feel our suffering, so though they may understand that they will inflict harm on you at those moments, it does not register at an emotional level with them, as they do not feel sufficiently attached or bonded emotionally to anyone enough to care if they feel pain or not.
They largely care only about their own pleasure and avoidance of pain. Though they may not always intentionally harm others, they are largely indifferent to it. This is what is meant by the lack of emotional empathy.
These two missing qualities, lack of object constancy and lack of emotional empathy, go a long way toward explaining how those who lack a conscience make decisions.
M.E. Thomas states that most people use “emotional shortcuts” to make decisions in a moment or when they don’t have all the information, such as, automatically choosing not to do certain things that would hurt others because of how it would make them feel. She claims that emotional shortcuts are not available to sociopaths, so they use other ones.
“Many sociopaths use the shortcut of ‘anything goes’ or ‘I am only in it for me…’ Some sociopaths are capable of reigning in their impulses enough to decide that jail time is not to their advantage so they avoid major violations of the law,” M.E. Thomas writes. “Other sociopaths have settled on a more ‘principled’ approach to life… The one thing that sociopath ‘codes’ tend to have in common, though, is that they don’t fully map with prevailing social norms, those unspoken rules, and customs that govern behavior in a group.”
Narcissists, sociopaths and others who are unable to feel empathy or remorse for their behavior have an understanding of what others consider moral, but use it in the calculus of their rational decision-making insofar as they weigh the consequences of getting caught doing something versus the benefits of doing it.
* * * * *
Robert Hare, the author of Without Conscience, writes that psychopaths don’t often weigh the pros and cons of doing something. They often do it “because they feel like it.”
This is unfathomable to us.
This is why we keep asking the question, “Do they know they’re hurting us?”
When we know we are hurting someone, that fact enters into our decision-making to act or to not act. If we learn or are told– especially by someone we love– that we have hurt them, we make an effort to stop doing what’s hurting them.
This seems so basic to an underlying concept of what it means to be human that we cannot stop asking how it was possible that they did not consider our pain. It feels like a moral failing. Indeed, it is.
The key lies in understanding what they are and in what they lack.
“But is there is a unity in our emotional reaction to the moral struggle between good and evil, a near-universal seventh sense that can be relied on to ignore all of our differences and borders? And if so, how does it feel? …Emotional attachment is part of most of us, down to the very molecules that design our bodies and our brains, and sometimes we are powerfully reminded of it. Beginning in our genes and spiraling outward to all of our cultures, beliefs, and many religions, it is the shadow of the whisper of the beginning of an understanding that we are all one. And whatever its origins, this is the essence of conscience.” -Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door