When my youngest child was in school, he was very challenging, behaviourally. He had a high IQ and numerous learning disabilities (diagnosed by a specialist), and his behaviours were sometimes peculiar: he would take a toy from another child by force—sometimes even hurting the other child in the process—and half an hour later be hurt and bewildered when that child refused to play with him. This behaviour started in preschool but didn’t improve as he grew older…even in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade, he continued behaviours of this nature and nothing seemed to get him to understand the cause and effect involved.
Because of his well-documented learning disabilities, he was in special education and I kept in close contact with his teachers and the school psychologist (who, at one point, claimed my son couldn’t be learning disabled because of his high IQ). He became very manipulative which sparked disagreements between me and the staff: I could see what he was doing, they couldn’t, and because I wouldn’t join them in excusing his behaviours, I was accused of being a “non-nurturing mother.” The year he entered fifth grade he was still writing in block print and doing math at the second grade level because he had convinced the staff that he had forgotten, over the summer break, all of the things he had learned the previous year. As a result, he was able spend at least two school years without doing any real work as the teachers fell all over themselves to find ways to re-teach him—and this time retain—the things they believed he forgot.
I knew that he was faking the math—forgetting how to carry and borrow numbers—but I wasn’t entirely sure about other things he claimed to have forgotten or to be unable to do. The teachers told me he “couldn’t” learn to write in cursive—I wasn’t so sure. He liked drawing so, one Saturday morning I took out my calligraphy pens and taught him how to print using calligraphy. He took to it like a duck to water. The next morning I showed him how to connect the individual calligraphy letters into cursive…he was ecstatic. On Monday he went to school and showed off to his teachers both his calligraphy and his cursive, learned over a single weekend.
It then occurred to me that in order to help him most effectively, I first had to be able to determine which of his educational stumbling blocks—and his behaviours—were volitional and which were not. It seemed to me that the approach to volitional behaviour and non-volitional behaviour had to be different, something that the school psychologist and I butted heads over, repeatedly. If a person chooses and executes a behaviour, they can be motivated (at least theoretically) to choose a different, perhaps more acceptable, behaviour. Rewards and consequences can be brought to bear in an effort to motivate change. Modern laws and criminal procedures and penalties are based on the idea that criminal behaviour is volitional and can therefore be altered.
Non-volitional behaviour, however, cannot be expected to respond to rewards and consequences. Certain mental illnesses, for example, conditions like Tourette’s or Parkinson’s, even brain injury, can cause objectionable—but non-volitional—behaviours. My oldest son has a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from being mugged and one of the residual effects is emotional volatility over which he has little control: he can control his behaviour but not the instant leap from calm to agitated and angry—his brain was damaged (and he has obvious physical signs of brain injury) and it no longer functions normally and some things that were volitional when he was 20 no longer are.
Why is this important, knowing the difference between what is volitional and what is not? Well, taking my oldest son as an example, knowing that he literally has no control over his temper zooming from calm to agitated in under three seconds helps me: I do not expect him to control it because I know he can’t, I do not get frustrated and angry with him for not behaving the way most of us behave because I know that is not an option for him. I don’t expect him to have the same table manners as others because he literally needs two hands to manage a fork: his right hand to hold the fork, the left to steady the tremor in his right so that the food stays on the fork and gets to his mouth. My expectations of him have changed to match what he is able to do rather than be frustrated or upset with him because he “won’t” eat with one hand, because when he laughs he makes an explosive sound like a barking seal, or because he has become clumsy and often knocks into things with his awkward gait. Knowing what he is not capable of allows me to keep my expectations reasonable and within the realm of reality.
With my younger son, however, things were not so easy. I remember saying to that school psychologist “His understanding of people and their feelings is almost autistic. He doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the simplest of human actions and reactions. He seems genuinely hurt when that other child, the one he hit ten minutes ago and took a toy from, doesn’t want to play with him—he doesn’t seem to understand the causal link between his behaviour and being avoided or rejected by the other children…” And she responded by telling me that he could not be autistic because he had a high IQ and he could speak in complete, coherent sentences…and he spoke a lot. Autistic children, she told me, are intellectually deficient and seldom speak—and when they do speak, they are likely to be incoherent or unintelligible.
Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, first described the condition in 1944: Dr. Asperger, a paediatrician, noted four boys who showed ‘…a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements...,’ all symptoms my son displayed. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), however, did not recognize Asperger’s as a specific, identifiable condition and nor did it publish diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994, fully fifty years after Dr Asperger recognized the condition. This came much too late for my son who was 21 when the condition became officially recognized. But with a set of symptoms in hand and the clarity of hindsight, it was easy enough to identify his condition as Asperger’s syndrome. But I had already come to the conclusion that, while having his condition was not volitional, the behaviours he exhibited were.
When my son was about 10 or 12, he came home from camp with chicken pox (this was before the vaccine was available). It was a mild case—very few bumps—but, typically, it itched like crazy. I put calamine lotion on the spots to soothe the itching and made compresses of witch hazel he could daub on the worst spots but, like mothers everywhere, I advised him not to scratch because that could cause infection or scarring. Having chicken pox was not volitional: scratching the lesions was. The urge to scratch was powerful, but sufficient willpower—an exercise of choice—can result in no scratching.
And there it is: having chicken pox, or Asperger’s—or NPD—is not volitional. The people who have these things did not get them by choosing to have them nor can they get rid of them by choosing to be shed of them: having these conditions is wholly non-volitional. But—and this is a big but—that does not mean that behaviours related to these conditions, and many more, like BPD or AsPD—are non-volitional. Quite the contrary: the fact that my son learned cursive when it was presented to him in a format he liked (something fun like art) rather than a format he did not like (as work, like schoolwork) indicates he had a choice; the fact that he didn’t scratch the chicken pox on his face after he learned that scratching could scar him but continued to scratch the lesions on his arms and torso indicates he had a choice and he exercised that choice selectively, just as my mother could be the perfect mother in front of people who had some kind of power—like judges, social workers, or the school nurse—and then beat me black and blue just moments after escaping their scrutiny. This shows that those behaviours are a choice, volitional, not an irresistible compulsion of the disorder. My son chose to give in to the urge to scratch, but to do it selectively—he had control over that urge. In my mother’s case, she demonstrated that she knew right from wrong, she knew there were potential penalties for doing wrong, and she chose to commit the wrong in such a way that she was unlikely to be caught.
It can be very tempting to excuse our Ns on the basis that they have a disorder and, because we don’t share the disorder, it, we cannot tell what is volitional in their behaviour and what it not, and the compassionate thing to do is to excuse all of their behaviour because we cannot tell what they did through irresistible compulsion as part of their disorder and what was volitional. We are sensitized to being blamed for things not our fault and, being empathetic and kind-hearted, we would rather excuse a wrong than wrongfully place blame.
But that is where we go wrong. We assume that because the condition is non-volitional so is the behaviour. But in many instances—narcissism, for example—this is not the case. Being a narcissist is not volitional, but a narcissist’s behaviours are. If my mother could treat my brother well, excuse his misdeeds, spend money on him, give him permission to attend events with his friends and just generally coddle him, she was fully capable of doing the same with me. If she could choose to punish me for not making my brother do his chores, she had an equal ability to choose to punish him for not doing them rather than me. Would it be easy? No—what is easy to do is what she had always done, to put the blame for her behaviour on someone else so that she could continue to look faultless…. Was she even capable of treating me well? Absolutely. She acted like a sweet, loving mother in front of her own parents and famly, my teachers, doctors, even judges, because it was in her best interests to do so, because, for that brief moment in time, she wanted to.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: what the narcissist wants is the deciding factor in any choice a narcissist makes. The condition of narcissism does not include compulsive behaviour that the narcissist cannot resist or an inability to recognize right from wrong. It doesn’t deprive the narcissist of the ability to tell socially acceptable behaviour from unacceptable, either. For them the idea is that they are above such things—that it is ok for them to flout the values of their culture and society, but not for anyone else to do so. And so a narcissist commits her behaviours aware that others will disapprove but believing those others to be wrong because Ms. Narcissist is above such things as adhering to the cultural norms. In the mind of a narcissist, their wants come first, ahead of the needs—and often even the rights—of others.
The narcissist’s behaviour is wholly volitional: he knows what the society considers to be right but he believes people who adhere to those social mores are weak, predictable, and foolish. He deviates because he wants to, because he believes he is entitled to, because he is “too smart” to be held back by the limits the rest of us abide by. And if someone is hurt by his behaviour, well…that isn’t his concern or responsibility. Where you or I might suffer pangs of guilt for hurting another, the narcissist, devoid of empathy, is unmoved by your pain.
The guilt you or I might suffer as a consequence of unacceptable behaviour is uncomfortable to us and, as we mature emotionally, we learn to avoid that pain by avoiding behaviours that trigger our feelings of guilt. Narcissists don’t feel guilt so they don’t have the built-in mechanism that keeps our behaviour in check: self-imposed guilt for wrong doing of any kind. You would feel guilty if you ate cookies that your roommate bought and did not say they were to share: the fact that you didn’t buy those cookies would be enough to keep you from eating them because you would know that, since you didn’t buy them, they aren’t yours. The narcissist, however, would eat your cookies and do it without a moment’s guilt. She might even blame you: “Was your name on them? So how was I supposed to know they were for you? If you don’t want people to eat your stuff, put your name on it.” This actually sounds reasonable until you recall that she knew they weren’t hers because she didn’t buy them, and why should you have to put a label on your own food in your own home when it is easy enough to know if she bought something or not?
Narcissistic behaviour is volitional. It is also disrespectful. It does not always have a malicious or nefarious intent, but the behaviour is done without any consideration for the feelings of those who will be affected by it. Narcissists live in a self-constructed delusional world where up is down, red is black, right is wrong and good is bad…until it serves them to change it. They may cast you in the role of antagonist when the truth is, you are only expecting them to show you simple respect.
For narcissists, life is a one-way street—their way. They “…need other people’s validation that their delusion is true. To achieve that, they create preposterous, slanderous, manipulative narratives where all of that is true and try to convince others of it. And since many people are unwilling and unable to look into the truth behind it, the narcissist can find that validation they so desperately crave and even act out their revenge fantasies… As a result, sometimes people get seriously hurt: socially, financially, emotionally, or even physically. But the narcissist doesn’t care about that. In fact they are often glad, because in their narrative the target deserves it by being “evil,” so whatever happens is justified.
“Of course not everyone can see the truth when listening to the narcissist but it’s quite evident looking from the outside or if you have enough psychological insight and experience.”
Make no mistake—a narcissist’s behaviour is volitional. She doesn’t think about the damage it might cause because she doesn’t care—in the coolest, cruellest, most oblivious sense of the phrase, she does not care. Just as you may not care that sweeping your floor disturbs the path an ant has laid down for his buddies, the narcissist does not care that her choices may cause harm to others. Just as the disruption of the ant’s path was not your intent when you chose to sweep the kitchen, but your sweeping disrupted it anyway, so the narcissist may not have the intent of hurting you, even though her choices had that result. And, if someone tells you later that you disrupted an ant trail to your pantry before the ants could follow the trail and swarm your cupboard, you will not feel remorse for your behaviour—well, the narcissist will not feel remorse if she is later told that you were damaged by the choices she made because she feels entirely justified in what she did and if you got hurt, well, too bad for you but it’s not her fault…she literally does not care.
A narcissist will make choices that advantage her and she will make those choices without any consideration for how they might affect others. She will have no remorse or guilt for any damage you might suffer as a result of her choices…she may even justify her choices in such a way that you are blamed for the consequences of her choices. But be clear: a narcissist chooses her behaviour and she chooses it to advantage herself to the greatest degree possible. Her behaviour is volitional, calculated to advantage herself with no consideration as to how it will hurt others, because she doesn’t care about anything or anyone outside of herself and her own advantage. And for you to think otherwise, for you to doubt the volitional nature of her behaviour, only validates her and makes it possible for her to continue.