It’s tempting to give narcissists the benefit of the doubt, especially if you’re in love with one. You might want to believe that they’re unaware of their destructive behavior and that their manipulative ways are completely subconscious.
Many people who’ve struggled to survive a narcissistic relationship have asked themselves, “Do narcissists know what they are doing?” And you can understand why. It’s hard to believe that someone who claims to love you would intentionally treat you so badly.
Narcissists may not be aware every time they manipulate, gaslight, or blame you for something they did, but they are aware of their general behavior, much of which is premeditated.
Of course, it’s never that simple with narcissists, so we need to dig a little deeper. In this article, I want to examine whether narcissists are truly oblivious to the pain they cause or if their actions are intentional.
Are Narcissists Self Aware?
Narcissists know when they’re love bombing you or gaslighting you. They invest time and thought into their manipulations, ensuring they’ll have their desired effect.
There’s nothing wrong with a narcissist’s level of self-awareness – the problem stems from their lack of empathy. Narcissists know that flying into a narcissistic rage will upset you or even drive you to tears, but they don’t really care.
One of the easiest ways to understand a narcissist’s behavior is to compare them to a dog (not very flattering, I know, but bear with me).
When a dog barks at you, it’s not doing it to upset you or even frighten you – it just wants you to go away. It doesn’t think about or even care how its behavior makes you feel as long as it has the desired outcome.
The narcissist behaves in the same way. They can see that their behavior upsets you but can’t empathize with those emotions, so think no more about them.
A degree of premeditation is essential. It would be impossible to consistently love-bomb and then devalue someone without a certain measure of self-awareness.
Sadly, the narcissists’ self-awareness is a little different from other people’s. If we behave in a manner that upsets someone else or is perceived as antisocial, we strive to change and become better people in the eyes of others.
Narcissists don’t have this desire. They’re what’s known as ego-dystonic, meaning they see their behavior only in terms of their self-image and goals, so it doesn’t arouse the same self-recrimination it does in others.
Do all Narcissists Know What They are Doing is Wrong?
Narcissists may have some self-awareness, but that doesn’t shed much light on the question, “Do narcissists know what they are doing is wrong?” We need to gain some insight into their complex thought patterns to answer that.
While some narcissists may recognize their behavior as problematic, others might genuinely believe their actions are justified or even righteous because they achieve certain goals.
Think about it like this – a narcissist believes they’re perfect and superior to everyone around them. In their formative years, no one ever told them what they were doing was wrong, so they never learned to be accountable for their behavior or learn from their mistakes.
Researchers at Oregon State University found that because narcissists refuse to acknowledge they’ve made a mistake, they fail to learn from them. They lack the self-reflection needed to recognize bad behavior and the motivation to change it.
Even if they do recognize that they’ve done something wrong, they’ll refuse to take responsibility for it, either by understating it or blaming someone else for provoking it.
For instance, a narcissist might realize that cheating on their partner is wrong, but instead of owning up to it, they might shift the blame onto their partner, claiming that the partner’s perceived coldness or inattentiveness pushed them into the situation.
In essence, the degree to which narcissists comprehend the wrongfulness of their actions can vary greatly. It’s often intertwined with their deeply ingrained self-image, their upbringing, and their capacity for self-reflection.
In general, most narcissists are aware that their behavior might be considered wrong but don’t accept that the rules that apply to everyone else apply to them.
Narcissists believe themselves so superior that they think they can break the rules and get away with doing things others would be admonished for.
Do Narcissists Know They are Manipulating?
Not every manipulation will be premeditated, but the narcissist will be aware of their manipulative behavior.
So, “do narcissists understand what they are doing?” – to a degree. In some instances, narcissists aren’t just aware of what they’re doing but also proud of it. In other situations, a narcissist may react subconsciously, using well-worn patterns of behavior simply out of habit rather than conscious intent.
I’ve got a couple of examples to help illustrate my point.
Imagine you’re in a committed relationship with a narcissist, but his need for attention and validation is such that he’s always looking out for other opportunities to boost his self-esteem. After a few months, he feels his narcissistic supply is drying up and seeks the thrill of a new context.
He plans each moment of his deception, starting by strategically creating distance between himself and you. He instigates subtle arguments, withdraws emotionally, and starts planting seeds of doubt about the stability of your relationship.
The narcissist then pinpoints a co-worker who’s shown a friendly interest in him and starts spending more time with her, telling her his relationship with you is on the rocks and hinting at his emotional vulnerability.
He slowly escalates the physical aspect of their relationship, love-bombing her into believing this relationship is all he’s ever wanted. At the same time, he rationalizes the affair, telling himself he has every reason to look elsewhere because you’re not giving him the attention he deserves.
When you finally find out about the affair, he blames you for his infidelity, saying you’ve been emotionally distant and neglectful.
This is a clear example of premeditated manipulation. Not only did your partner prepare the ground for his betrayal, but he also identified a target, pursued her, and justified the affair to himself while maintaining the role of the victim in his relationship with you.
A narcissist might behave unconsciously in a different scenario, but their manipulation will be just as effective.
Imagine your narcissistic partner feels insecure in the relationship and employs passive-aggressive tactics to manipulate your emotions.
When you tell him you’re going to spend the evening with friends, he responds, “Oh, you’re going out with them again? I guess you really enjoy their company more than mine.”
This makes you feel guilty and conflicted, even though your partner is completely unaware of his passive-aggressiveness.
His actions reflect his unconscious efforts to control your emotions to maintain a sense of security in their relationship.
Whether intentional or subconscious, narcissistic manipulation is confusing and hurtful. It may be the product of intentional planning, or could be the result of their ingrained behavior patterns.
In either case, the impact on those around them can be deeply damaging and emotionally distressing.
Do They Know They are Using You?
Narcissists may have some self-awareness, but they’re not in tune with those around them. Remember, narcissists see other people as extensions of themselves rather than autonomous beings, so they believe they have every right to control and use them to achieve their goals.
This brings us back to the narcissist’s understanding of right and wrong. They may know it’s wrong for someone to cheat on their partner, but they don’t believe it’s wrong for them because they’ve justified the behavior in their own minds.
From their perspective, they’re not hurting you, you happened to be in the way, so accidentally got caught in the crossfire.
Imagine you’re a soldier on the frontline, and you have a choice between shooting one of the enemy or being shot yourself. In this context, you won’t feel guilty about killing someone, as it was the only way to ensure your survival.
Similarly, narcissists justify their manipulations by viewing them as necessary for survival, fulfillment, and validation.
This unique perspective allows narcissists to detach themselves from their actions’ consequences emotionally. Instead of seeing their targets as individuals with feelings, they view them more like obstacles in their path to getting what they want.
This lack of empathy and inability to see things from another person’s point of view contributes to their manipulative behaviors.
In this light, the narcissist’s actions are not perceived as morally wrong in their own internal narrative, and they may not even consider the possibility that they’re causing harm or pain.
Do They Know They are Narcissists?
Most narcissists know they are narcissists, especially as they mature. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that narcissists know they’re narcissists and are proud of the fact.
They also know other people think they’re narcissists but don’t care – they would rather be admired than liked.
Researchers also believe that narcissists may downplay their behaviors to make them seem more acceptable. For instance, if you tell a narcissist they’re being arrogant, they might perceive it as a compliment, thinking you mean deservedly confident.
Do They Consider Themselves Evil?
Narcissists think their actions are completely justified. Even though some narcissists intentionally hurt other people, they don’t necessarily see that behavior as wrong or evil. If you’ve ever wondered, “Do malignant narcissists know what they are doing?” The most accurate answer is both yes and no.
From their perspective, they might acknowledge that their actions can cause harm, but they often justify their behavior based on their own needs, desires, and self-centered worldview.
This lack of empathy and the conviction that their actions are warranted prevent them from considering themselves as doing something genuinely wrong or evil.
Instead, they might rationalize their actions as necessary or even righteous within their distorted understanding of the world.
Can You Make Narcissists Understand What They are Doing?
You might be able to get a narcissist to develop some level of self-reflection about their behavior if you approach the situation correctly.
As we’ve already established, most narcissists know they are narcissists but don’t necessarily see this as bad. They also know their behavior impacts you but can’t empathize with your emotions, so don’t really care.
As a result, you might find it challenging to get a narcissist to understand what they’re doing, but if you’re determined, confident in yourself, and capable of sticking to your guns, the following approaches might help:
Ask Pertinent Questions
When you witness a narcissist making unreasonable demands, call them out. Ask them, “Do you think that request is reasonable?” Or “How would you feel if I asked you to do that?” Hold a mirror in front of the narcissist and encourage them to look at their reflection and see themselves from your perspective.
Don’t Blame the Person
Accusing a narcissist of being a narcissist sounds confrontational and may lead to them becoming defensive, so focus on specific examples of their behavior instead.
For example, instead of saying, “You’re such a narcissist,” you could say, “I noticed that during our conversation, you repeatedly interrupted and redirected the topic to yourself. I find such behavior narcissistic, and it makes me feel like you don’t value my thoughts or feelings.
This approach highlights the behavior while also expressing your feelings, making it more likely for the narcissist to engage in a constructive dialogue.
Using humor can indirectly help a narcissist understand their behavior without triggering their defensiveness.
Let’s say you have a friend who consistently dominates conversations with their own stories. Instead of saying, “You’re always making conversations about you,” you could take a more humorous approach: ”You must be the world’s greatest storyteller; every conversation becomes a thrilling episode of ‘The Me Show’!”
This adds a playful twist to the situation and might make them pause to consider their behavior. It also reduces the likelihood of them feeling attacked or becoming defensive, creating a more open space for self-reflection.