Why Narcissist Never Listens to YOU? (Hint: Because he CAN’T: Attentional Narrowing)

Uploaded 4/30/2024, approx. 29 minute read

The narcissist appears to be listening to you, but then at the end of your soliloquy he says something or he asks a question and it's evident that he hasn't heard the word you said.

Or the narcissist pledges to do something, vows to do something, prepares everything and so on and so forth and suddenly his attention wanders and he forgets to do it, even if it's a very critical thing.

How can we explain all this?

We all know by now that borderline personalities, borderline personality organization and borderline personality disorder involves dissociation.

And we also know that narcissism, pathological narcissism is closely allied with borderline personality organization.

Narcissists suffer from dissociation, memory gaps, forgetting, amnesia.

It's not as bad as in borderline, but still it's bad enough.

The narcissist's memory gaps are autobiographical. He forgets parts of his own personal history. He is very good with memory that pertains to facts or numbers or days or professional performance, but he's very bad when it comes to personal memory.

And we make a distinction between a episodic memory and other types of memory.

I'm not going into it right now. But dissociation cannot explain what I've just described.

Indeed, narcissism is often misdiagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD.

It's often misdiagnosed as autism spectrum disorder.

It's sometimes misdiagnosed as a micropsychotic disorder.

Why is that?

Because all these mental health problems share one thing in common.

No, no, they share many other things, but one thing which I want to discuss today, and that is problems with attention.

Clinically, this is known as attentional narrowing or hyper focus.

And this is the topic of today's lecture.

And who am I to give you this lecture?

My name is Sam Vaknin.

I'm the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

I'm a former visiting professor of psychology, I think.

And if my amnesia doesn't fail me, I'm currently on the faculty of CEOPS.

Attentional narrowing is a serious, serious problem.

It's a serious problem because the narcissist's attention wanders, and it wanders in a systematic manner.

It is not reactive to environmental cues or stimuli.

It's innate, it's internal, it's inability to focus on you, on others, on situations, on circumstances, on tasks, is multifarious and ubiquitous.

But part of it has to do with grandiosity.

The narcissist simply doesn't consider you worthy of his attention.

There's nothing you can teach him.

He is far superior to you.

Why would he waste his precious time on you?

Cosmically, precious, of course.

That's part of it.

But it's not the entire explanation.

When the narcissist attempts to extract narcissistic supply, which is the number one, two, and three priorities of the narcissist.

So when he attempts to extract supply, when he engages in one upmanship, improving himself somehow better than someone else, superior to someone else, more knowledgeable than someone else, more intelligent than someone else, one upmanship.

So when he is extracting supply and when he is engaging in competition, competitive acts, he loses attentional focus.

He talks, he acts, but he dissociates the environment.

He is so laser focused on obtaining supply, so laser focused on humiliating you, putting you in the right place, reducing you to size, that he forgets everything else.

Everything else is dissociated.

Everything else vanishes.

This happens to us, to normal people, healthy people, when they watch movies, especially horror movies.

We are so into the movie that everything else disappears.

And that's why we startle, we jump when something happens, something horrible, terrifying happens in horror movie.

The narcissist is embedded in a continuous, interminable horror movie.

And he startles often.

Narcissism involves a startled reaction because it's a post-traumatic condition.

Narcissist dissociates the environment, forget other tasks, fail to register what other people are saying or even doing, is non-responsive to cues, stimuli into environmental context and behaves asocially or even antisocially, unconsciously, unintentionally, simply because his attention is elsewhere.

He is utterly immersed in obtaining supply.

The next dose, the junkie that is the addict and a person addicted to supply.

And he must buttress, sustain, uphold his grandiosity by holding other people in contempt, by demonstrating to everyone around him that he is one of a kind, unimpeachable, incontestable and superior in every manner possible.

That's a lot of work and it's permanent work.

Narcissism is a full-time job.

The narcissist is engaged day in and day out, hour in and hour out, minute in, minute out, second in and second out in both these tasks, proving to the world how Godlike he is to everyone, everywhere, all the time that he is a divine creature in many ways, all-knowing, all-powerful, brilliant and perfect, a perfect entity.

And at the same time begging other people to provide him with assurances, with affirmation, with validation known as narcissistic supply.

This contradiction is too much for the narcissist, too much to countenance.

It creates a cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand the narcissist says, "I could care less.

I don't need anyone.

I am perfect.

I am self-sufficient.

I am self-contained.

I am self-sustaining." On the other hand, the narcissist says, "I need you to tell me that I am great.

I need you to tell me how perfect I am.

I need you to confirm to me and affirm to me that I am a genius.

I need you to validate my good looks.

I need you.

I don't need you.

I need you.

I don't need you.

I need you." Dissolence, cognitive dissonance.

And one way to resolve a cognitive dissonance is of course to slice off, to ignore, to dissociate, to delete, to erase, to repress everything and everyone around you, to sink into your inner mind to the exclusion of everyone and everything.

That's why narcissists are incapable of perceiving people as external objects separate to them.

Everyone is misunderstood.

Narcissists are misunderstood.

They appear to be a bit autistic or with ADHD or psychopathic or asocial or antisocial and so on and so forth simply because maintaining a wide dispersal multitasking form of attention would destroy the precarious balance of their personality by challenging their grandiosity and disrupting the process of obtaining supply.

The clinical term for this is attentional narrowing.

Allow me to read to you the definition of attentional narrowing in the dictionary of the American Psychological Association.

The restricting of attention in high stress situations to a small set of information sources with potential omission of critical task relevant information.

For example, when driving to the hospital for a medical emergency, the driver may focus the attention only on the road ahead and not notice events at the side of the road or inside the vehicle.

So this is an example of attentional narrowing.

Give me a minute.

My eyes are not as good as they used to be.

They've never been good.

So I need to enhance the, I need to increase the font.

That'll take only a second with the miracles of technology and we are good to go. Continuation of the lecture by the inevitable Sam Bhakni about attentional narrowing. Who are you? What are you doing here? You lost my attention. Okay, Shoshanin. Attentional narrowing has a lot to do with another phenomenon or maybe the same phenomenon called hyper focus and hyper focus has to do with flow. Now I'm going to delve into these issues, not as deeply, deeply as I would wish to, but all the time, bear in mind, everything I'm saying applies to pathological narcissism. Whenever I talk about something, ask yourself, have I experienced this with a narcissist and the surprising problem, the surprising answer would probably be yes. So hyper focus is characterized by an intense state of concentration in focus.

That's why it's called hyper focus.

Okay, when one is engaged in hyper focus, unrelated external stimuli do not appear to be consciously perceived, sometimes reported as diminished perception of the environment.

It's as if you are cut off in a bubble, in a cloud, everything outside appears through a mist, a veil of mist or not at all.

The third element in hyper focus is that the task has to be all consuming.

It could be fun, it could be interesting, it could be threatening, it could be challenging and we'll discuss the distinction between positive tasks and negative tasks and the surprisingly different reactions, psychological reactions or psychological dynamics when you're faced with positivity and with negativity.

Number four, during the hyper focus state, task performance improves but environmental perception deteriorates dramatically.

If the narcissist is focused on obtaining narcissistic supply from you, he's going to be hyper focused on this.

He's going to put all his resources, all his cognitions, all his emotions, all his planning, everything will go into the task of extracting supply from you and he will have no attentional reserves to listen to what you're saying.

It's simply too much.

No brain, healthy or abdominal can process so much information.

So the narcissist makes a choice.

There's a preference here, a prioritizing.

He prefers to focus on his needs, supply, one upmanship, superiority, perfection, this, that, grandiosely.

He prefers to focus on his needs on somehow sustaining the cognitive distortions and biases and myths that constitute pathological narcissism.

This is a top priority and you come second, a distant second.

So your input is ignored because the narcissist's brain is busy elsewhere.

Now this has to do with a concept known as flow.

Flow is an element in positive psychology.

The conditions for entering a state of flow include perceived challenges or opportunities for action that stretch but do not overtax or overmatch existing skills.

And the second condition is clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the process being made.

These two conditions in confluence generate a state of flow.

But many scholars say that a state of flow is indistinguishable from hyperfocus and from attentional narrowing.

Experience in a state of flow seamlessly unfolds from moment to moment.

One enters a subjective state with the following characteristics, intense and focused concentration on the present moment, the merging of action and awareness, the loss of reflective self-consciousness, loss of awareness of oneself as an actor or social actor within the environment.

A sense that one can control one's actions.

That is a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next.

A sense of heightened self-efficacy which is a bit euphoric and a bit exhilarating.

A distortion of temporal experience, time is perceived wrongly.

Typically a sense that time has passed faster than normal.

And finally, the experience of the activity is intrinsically rewarding as I mentioned.

So the end goal is often minimized in relation to the process.

In other words, elasticity for example, finds the process of chasing sources of supply as rewarding, as uplifting, as euphoric, as elevating, as the actual getting of the supply.

Securing the supply, chasing the supply, conquering the supply are sometimes goals in their own right.

Not essentially the supply itself only, but securing the sources of supply.

This has to do with the narcissist problems with object constancy.

The narcissist has separation in security, also known as abandonment anxiety.

So securing the sources of supply is rewarding in the sense that it restores the narcissist's sense of safety, a secure base, determinacy.

In other words, it reduces anxiety.

It's anxiolytic.

The hyper focus, attentional narrowing, never mind how we call it, is pretty common in several types of psychiatric conditions.

It involves something called preservation.

Preservation is an inability or an impairment in switching between tasks and between activities.

This is also known as set shifting.

So when set shifting is impaired, we have a preservative or preservation state.

When hyper focus and attentional narrowing reflect this inability to shift between tasks or inability to countenance simultaneously multiple streams and sources of information, there is a desisting from mental or physical response repetition.

So there's an alteration even in gestures, even in words, even in thoughts.

Many people describe the narcissist when he is busy securing supply or when he's busy competing with you or establishing a superiority.

Many people describe the narcissist as having a far away look as if he's not there.

His gestures become expansive, his body language, his micro expressions, his posture changes.

And this is even when the stimulus is gone, physically sometimes.

It's as if the narcissist has wandered away into his or her own world and is embedded there and no longer reactive, responsive or even aware of the environment.

And it's not the same as stereotypy.

Stereotypy is highly repetitive idiosyncratic behavior.

This is not the same.

This is developmental, bio neurological condition.

In neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, we have a lot of hyper focus and a lot of preservation, inability to switch between tasks.

It's the same in ADHD.

Also there, there is a problem.

The stereotype of ADHD, the myth is that ADHD people with ADHD are unable to focus.

They have a tension deficit so they cannot focus on anything.

Because the truth is that people with ADHD sometimes get stuck.

They have hyper focus, too much focus and this emotionally dysregulates.

The emotionally dysregulates.

So we are beginning to see the connectivity, the confluence, the similarities between executive dysfunction, inability to focus or hyper focus and emotional dysregulation.

It seems that in the borderline, emotional dysregulation may be a case, a private case of executive dysfunction, maybe a private case of hyper focus, hyper focus on the emotions.

It's as if the narcissist reacts with hyper focus to narcissistic supply, including competition and superiority, while the borderline reacts with hyper focus to her emotions and moods.

And this renders her labile and dysregulated.

Outcomes of the hyper focus.

Similarly, of course, the narcissist's hyper focus on maintaining his cognitive distortion of grandiosity also could lead the narcissist to emotional dysregulation.

If his attempt to secure supply fails and then he collapses.

So the transition between pathological narcissism and borderline personality organization, the transition between grandiosity and emotional dysregulation is via collapse, which is mediated and precipitated by attentional, narrow and hyper focus.

Narcissist and the borderline hyper focus on the wrong things, sacrificing their environmental awareness and their self efficacy in the process.

Actually there's some research that indicates the psychopaths are hyper focused as well.

While the narcissist is hyper focused on supply and grandiosity, the borderline is hyper focused on the, on her emotions and moods because she's terrified of them.

She anticipates the dysregulation.

The psychopath is focused on goals, hyper focused on goals and rewards.

Psychopaths use contextual cues, punishment, contextual information and so on and so forth and adjust their behavior in an impaired way.

In other words, the psychopaths reactants, the psychopaths reactivity to the environment is impaired because he's too focused on the goal.

And if you want to see a case in action, I recommend that you watch the amazing, breathtakingly well informed series on Netflix, Ripley.

Stunning, stunning should be shown to every student of psychology anywhere in the universe.

Amazing series.

The psychopath, the narcissist, the borderline develop tunnel vision and this blocks out stimulation.

In the case of the psychopath, it blocks out anxiety and fear.

In the case of the borderline, it blocks out internal regulation and she becomes needy and clinging because she needs external regulation.

In the case of the narcissist, it blocks out cues, information, data and stimuli from the environment so he can't listen to it.

All these are busy.

They're busy.

They are drowning deeper and deeper in their hyper focus and their attention is narrowed more and more the process known as constriction.

Now, in the literature, I provided several important articles about hyper focus.

Although amazingly, the field of psychology is not hyper, but hyper focused on attentional narrowing, which I think is a huge mistake.

These articles cover the topic of hyper focus and then describe how hyper focus and attentional narrowing manifest in a variety of conditions such as ADHD and schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders and so on and so forth.

If you read these articles, those of you who want to delve deeper, if you read these articles, I think you will get a very clear picture of what is happening with hyper focus and related phenomena.

Hyper focus is characterized by an intense state of concentration and focus because there's a concentration on the present moment.

It's a form of malignant mindfulness or pathological mindfulness, if you wish.

There's a merging of action and awareness.

It's a bit of magical thinking.

In hyper focus, unrelated external stimuli do not appear to be consciously registered or perceived.

There's a reported diminished perception of the environment.

There's a loss of reflective self consciousness, a loss of the ability to perceive oneself within the environment as an actor or an agent.

So mental proprioception is somehow compromised.

There's a distortion of the perception of time, as I said, and there's an experience of intrinsic reward whenever you engage in a highly specific task.

All these are very important elements in hyper focus.

Now hyper focus can be voluntary, can be involuntary.

So in the case of the narcissist and borderline, it's pretty involuntary.

I would say unconscious.

In the case of a psychopath, it's pretty voluntary.

The psychopath says consciously, this is my goal and I'm going to get it.

I'm going to trample everyone on the way.

I'm going to kill, I'm going to steal, I'm going to get it done.

And he's fully aware of what he's doing.

But attention and narrowing and hyper focus have been associated and observed in highly stressful or life threatening events.

In other words, hyper focus and attentional narrowing seem to be post traumatic artifacts, reactive to stress and anxiety and trauma constructs in the mind.

It's therefore not a surprise.

So surprising that we find hyper focus and so on in highly traumatized people, people with narcissistic personality disorder, people with borderline personality disorder, which are essentially post traumatic conditions.

So focused attention is the ability to concentrate deliberately on one task or source of information and actively ignore or suppress irrelevant information.

Focus attention is the benign or healthy version of attentional narrowing.

They're both characterized by a narrowing of the scope of attention to one or few items.

But focused attention is desirable.

It's beneficial.

It's an attentional state.

While attentional narrowing is undesirable.

It reduces self efficacy.

It even places the individual in danger.

The shrinkage of the perceptual field, visual by the way also, not only auditory or the visual field, narcissists find it very difficult to recall visual elements in the environment where they're highly focused on supply or one upman shape or competition.

They would therefore be very bad eyewitnesses, something the legal profession has yet to catch up on.

They don't realize that witnesses are not all made the same.

Witnesses who are borderline witnesses, witnesses who are narcissists are likely to confabulate.

Their attention is likely to be narrowed and they're likely to be hyper focused.

And so they would make extremely bad witnesses.

So there's a high level of trauma involved, the background of trauma, I'm sorry, involved and a high level of arousal, hyper focused.

And so that's the outcome of strong emotional experiences, for example, in the borderline or strong repressed emotions in the masses is coupled with negative affectivity.

Narcissist is trying to self medicate, to counter negative effects such as rage and envy to somehow reduce anxiety by consuming, by eliciting and then consuming narcissistic supply.

Even in narcissism, there's an emotional background.

Some scholars have identified factors which precipitate attention and narrowing and they all involve arousal and high motivational intensity.

And these are the outcomes of dysregulated emotionality, labile moods or a sense of threat.

For example, in pathological narcissism, because if even when the narcissist fails to obtain supply, if it when he collapses, he is liable to get in touch with his own shame, which is life threatening.

So there's a defense against emotions.

Still it's an emotional thing.

High levels of arousal reduce the amount of cues and stimuli and information and data from the environment that human beings can attend to.

We know from other studies that arousal is connected to diminished processing capacity.

And there is a performance decrement in various tasks, for example, monitoring tasks are much reduced.

This has been known for well over 120 years.

So when you are stressed, when you're anxious, when your life depends on something, when your mental health or mental functioning depend on something, when you're terrified of what might happen to you, if you fail, fail to regulate, fail to obtain supply, fail to prove yourself to be perfect and God like fear of failure, terror of failure, which is a form of perfectionism.

So this creates arousal.

It's like fight flight response creates arousal.

The arousal creates motivation to diminish the capacity to mitigate some anxiety, to mitigate some ameliorate anxiety.

And there is a hyper focused set of actions.

Negative or positive of strong intensity leads to the desire to get closer to a positively charged stimulus, getting away from the negative one.

Negative effect causes attentional narrowing, as I mentioned before, there's been a seminal work by Isterbrooke published in 1959.

And he said that this effect is driven by withdrawal.

There's a motivation to withdraw.

When you're confronted with a negative effect, like anger or envy, or you want to withdraw, there's a negative effect creates pain and hurt and anxiety.

And so there's what we call a withdrawal motivation.

And it is inherent to negative emotions and related to increase in arousal.

Now, that was in 1959.

And then many scholars came along and said that's wrong.

Arousal is typical not only of negative emotions, but also positive emotions.

And arousal creates motivational intensity and motivational and so on and so forth.

And so it's not right, not correct to discuss only negative affectivity because positive affectivity has also the same outcome of attentional narrowing.

We know that threatening events and stress narrow attention has been substantiated over the past 50 years or 40 years.

But we don't know whether this is unique to negative emotions, whether there is some non-specific arousal or some affect specific emotional motivational system or what have you.

So this created a lot of mess, a lot of debate.

Isterbrooke's original hypothesis relates to unpleasant situations only.

So for example, the narcissist would try to avoid collapse because collapse is very, very, it's actually not only unpleasant, it's life-threatening.

The narcissist becomes a borderline for a while.

He emotionally disregulates, he develops suicidal ideation.

So the narcissist would have a motivation to withdraw from the collapse.

And if you watch my videos on the modification and elaborating the two strategies the narcissist uses to withdraw from collapse and modification, strategies first described by Libby.

And so this raised the debate, do we narrow our attention as healthy, normal people?

Do we narrow our attention only when we are confronted with negativity or does it apply to positivity?

We know that in the case of pathological narcissism, in the case of the borderline, we're terrified over our own emotions.

In these two cases, we know that negative effects, the potential for negative effects causes arousal, the arousal causes motivation, the motivation causes withdrawal in narrow focus, hyperfocus.

We know that.

What about positive things, positive events, positive traits, I mean positive occurrences, positive emotions?

What's the reaction there?

Increasing motivational intensity increases focused attention.

And we know this has nothing to do with the motivational system, whether it is an approach system or avoidance system.

So there is a general thread, a general kind of algorithm or dynamic, but arousal is ill-defined.

Is it a unitary construct? Is motivational intensity and arousal conceptually related? Could we mistake arousal for motivation and motivation for arousal?

These are serious questions.

And increased emotional arousal is not a sufficient condition to produce focused attention in the positive cases or attentional narrowing in the negative cases.

There are other things.

And so it seems that attentional narrowing is mostly observed with negative effects, but not with positive effects.

In other words, attentional narrowing is a negative thing.

We would never narrow attention. We would never hyperfocus in the bad sense of the word when we are confronted with positive effects.

Anyone we are confronted with negative effects.

So this supports Isterbrooke's conjuncture of 1959, his hypothesis that attributed attentional narrowing not to a general arousal, but to a drive or motivation to withdraw from a negative intolerable effect.

And this, of course, it's well with everything I'm saying about narcissism.

Narcissism involves only negative effects, negative emotions.

Narcissists do not experience positive effects or positive emotions.

And of course, they would react with arousal and a motivation to avoid the negative effects, a motivation to withdraw, to run away.

The narcissist method of running away is by narrowing the attention, hyperfocusing on obtaining supply and establishing superiority.

That's his way of avoiding or withdrawing or escaping the negative effects.

Because when the narcissist says I'm superior, he doesn't feel envy anymore.

When you obtain supply, he doesn't feel anger anymore.

That is his strategy.

But he cannot afford to do anything else. Anything else is focused on this 100% of the time when he's at work, when he's in church, when he's having sex, when he's talking to you, all the time the background processes of securing supply and buttressing grandiosity are in operation.

And they narrow the attention.

That's why he's no longer with us, the narcissist.

And yes, he, she, half of all narcissists are women.

Now attention represents a key element of self-control.

And there are many theoretical accounts that highlighted the role played by abundant attessional capacity in affecting successful self-regulation.

This is the beginning of an abstract, the abstract of a fascinating article titled Control Yourself, Broad Implications of Narrowed Attention.

It was published in the perspectives on psychological science two years ago.

The authors are Warren and Mann.

So they say, what then are the consequences of living in today's world in which attention can become so easily divided by a multitude of stimuli?

In this article, we consider the implications of divided attention for self-control.

And we show that although the end result is typically disinhibited behavior under specified conditions, attentional myopia can be associated with enhanced restraint.

So what these scholars are saying is that we need to focus attention because there's an avalanche, a tsunami of stimuli from the outside.

In order to exercise restraint and inhibition and prosocial behavior, we need to focus our attention.

But don't confuse this with attentional narrowing, which is pathological, which is a narcissist way of ignoring reality, ignoring the world because the reality tends to push back.

Reality challenges the narcissist's self-perception, sense of self, self-image, call it as you will.

Reality informs the narcissist.

This is all a delusion.

You're delusional.

Reality sometimes frustrates the narcissist the way a mother frustrates a baby by not giving the narcissist narcissistic supply.

And so the narcissist makes a choice.

He gives up on the world.

He gives up on external objects.

He gives up on reality.

He gives up, as Cleckley said, on life itself.

And instead he withdraws into fantasy.

And within this fantasy, all is well, all the time, as long as his attention is dedicated 110% to the fantasy.

He has no attention for you or for anyone else or for anything else because he's too busy maintaining the impossible, a fantasy that he is God.

So, I would like to thank you all for your attention. Thank you.

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