Why Narcissists Don't Pay Attention
You've probably noticed that narcissists seem to have pretty bad memories. They don't remember what you said or anything about you at all. They don't seem to remember that you were ever nice to them, that you ever did anything for them, and they certainly don't remember anything they did wrong. Some of this is just lying, but some of it is because they really don't remember these things.
One reason for this is because, without getting too technical here, the way their brains process information is different than the way non-narcissistic people process information. Their brains perceive almost everything as negative and threatening, therefore, they often don't realize good things have happened and, consequently, don't remember them that way—if they remember them at all. With most narcissists, if something does not fit into their all-negative perception of the world, it simply doesn't compute. It is not processed at all. It's often discounted or ignored completely. This is why, if a positive experience does manage to get through and be understood as a positive experience, they will often seem genuinely shocked by it, as if they cannot believe any good people exist. This is also why experiences that are perceived as positive or neutral one day will be "re-evaluated" as negative later.
This particular thing has to do with their emotions. Emotions run a narcissist's life, for the most part. They believe feelings are facts. It is the lens through which they perceive everything. Most of their emotions are negative, therefore so are most of their perceptions and consequently, their experiences. Someone asked me once if narcissists had positive experiences to counter-act the bad ones, couldn't that change their perception? My answer was that the problem isn't that narcissists don't have positive experiences. The problem is that they don't recognize them. The perception of the problem is the problem, in other words.
Now, most people's perception is colored by their experiences and things like that, but unlike narcissists, it's not completely clouded and controlled by these things. Most people don't rearrange events in their external reality to make them agree with their internal emotions and experiences. Most people will not insist something happened that did not happen just because they feel that's how it went. They won't insist someone is being abusive just because they feel the person doesn't like them. They won't insist someone doesn't care just because they don't care.
For example, most people will not say you are making fun of them or start screaming abuse and how you don't really care when you ask them what's wrong. Most people don't believe everyone in the world is a manipulative liar bent on self-gratification just because they are. This is how narcissists view the world. Whatever they feel, everyone else does too. Every time they look at another person, they are seeing a mirror with themselves reflected in it, either positively or negatively. They don't see another person at all.
This leads us to another reason they seem to have bad memories: because, plainly and simply, they are not listening. They don't remember the specifics of your new job or your son's age because they don't care. If you're not talking about them, they could care less. "But enough about me, what do you think about me?" This is why they often seem so put out when you "bother" them with something unrelated to them. They are. What is going on in their minds is far more interesting than anything you have to say. They don't care for conversation, they don't care for sharing ideas. They care about discussing themselves, and/or winning arguments. That's it.
This is not to say they can't fake it. They can, and some do it really well. For a time. They are often masters at appearing engaged, concerned and attentive when they want to. But it can't last and never does, because they simply have no true interest in anyone but themselves. The majority of them simply need other people around to prop up their non-existant self-esteem and to use as a punching bag. The ones farther down the spectrum toward psychopathy often don't even care about that. The "relationship" with any of these kinds of people is supremely selfish and completely one-sided. They seem like they aren't paying attention because they aren't. They don't care. This is why they might turn the TV up when you're talking, or why in conversations they can simply continue on with what they were saying as if you never even spoke. They don't hear you because they aren't interested in what you're saying. At all.
This can be very hurtful to people and it's hard not to take it personally, because when you care about somebody, blatant dismissal like that is painful. They don't understand why you're upset though. And they most certainly don't care. That's why we say it isn't personal. They'd have to see you as a person for it to be personal. You're there to be used when they need you. You're not supposed to bother them when they don't. Some narcissists get very angry at this intrusion. Who do you think you are, anyway? How dare you disrupt something they're doing with something that isn't about them? How selfish are you? Were they smiling too much for you? Did you see that they were happy and just have to ruin it? This is an unwinnable battle with a person who does not even understand the problem and wouldn't care even if they did. They are by and large not capable of having anything other than parasitic relationships, and you will never be as important to them as they are. Never.