Do narcissists feel empathy for certain persons in their lives? Is the idea of narcissist-empath a myth?
Many believe that a narcissist can feel empathy, and there is some truth to that idea, even if it appears odd at first. The truth, according to psychology, is a little more complicated.
When a narcissist experiences narcissism, they need to talk about themselves compulsively. You can’t make them stop with your gestures of boredom or disbelief; they can’t read those signals.
Who is a narcissist?
A narcissist is a self-absorbed person who believes they are unique, feels entitled to special treatment, has an inflated sense of their own importance, lacks empathy, and expects constant praise from others. There are six types of narcissists.
By definition, a narcissist lacks empathy.
Do Narcissists Have Empathy (Truth About Narcissist-Empaths)
Yes, narcissists have empathy, but it is mostly cognitive empathy (or perspective-taking) that they possess. They lack both emotional and empathetic empathy. As a result, while they understand your suffering, they are unmotivated to take action to alleviate it.
The great truth about narcissists is that they can understand the pain, thoughts, and emotions of others, but not feel the same emotions or get moved by their suffering to act in compassion.
However, they can train themselves to be good at faking emotional empathy.
Narcissists fake empathy because they desire to feel appreciated.
They can respond to your emotions like someone who really feels for you.
They use their cognitive or intellectual empathy to figure out what emotion they should be feeling in response to the person they are interacting with. Then they use their acting skills to mimic that emotion to fit in.
So, while they can fairly accurately read what’s going on in your mind, they cannot feel the same emotions as you are going through.
They can correctly read thoughts like,
“This guy is planning how to escape this conversation right now.” However, they do not have feelings like, “I am overwhelming this guy with my achievement stories, so I need to shut up.”
Do narcissists completely lack empathy?
No, narcissists do not completely lack empathy but they are capable of one type of empathy called Cognitive Empathy. It helps them read your mind and make accurate guesses about your thoughts and emotions. This allows them to profile you and determine how to manipulate you, whether by hurt or by a show of love and praise.
A lack of empathy can also lead to antisocial behavior, including physical abuse and crime.
Why do narcissists struggle with a lack of empathy?
A narcissist struggles with expressing wholesome empathy because of an arrest of empathy development caused by abuse in childhood. Narcissism evolves as a child’s defense mechanism against parental maltreatment. It teaches the child to grow callous and indifferent to the pain of others as well as their own.
The root of narcissists’ lack of empathy lies in their troubled childhood.
When a parent neglects a child, pushes them away when they seek love or attention or mistreats, blames, and abuses them, the child’s brain constructs a false world for itself. For narcissists, this internal world is more real than their external world.
The fake self serves as the future narcissist’s defense against insults and abuse. It builds up delusions of grandiosity, self-importance, and apathy (opposite of empathy).
How to deal with a narcissist with no empathy?
The best way to deal with a narcissist who doesn’t have empathy, and most narcissists don’t, is to not deal with them at all, and to go No Contact with them.
If that is not possible, then an effective way is to treat them with the “gray rock method” to disengage from them.
Another way is to show them that they have power over you. If you listen to their tall tales and validate their feelings without leaking your disbelief, they will believe they are in control.
Do narcissists feel sympathy?
Narcissists can feel sympathy, which is a feeling of pity or sorrow for another’s suffering or distress. However, their sympathies are profoundly misdirected, intended to take pleasure in others’ suffering rather than feel for the sufferers. They are good at faking sympathy while also concealing their enjoyment of it.
Narcissists are copycat empaths, not true empaths.
Narcissists usually choose empaths for intimate roles like partner and friend since they are easier to manipulate. Then they learn from them how to show empathy and use the skill to achieve their own goals.
What is empathy in psychology?
Humans survive by what we were pre-programmed for – sharing of knowledge and emotions, caring for each other, and helping others.
Our species always knew how to step into a fellow human’s emotional world to understand and appreciate their experiences. Because we could intuitively do so, we were able to build strong and large societies.
That crucial skill was empathy, long before Titchener named it “empathy” in 1909.
Empathy is our ability to vicariously experience feelings and understand the situations of another (Hoffman, 2007). Psychologists see empathy as an act, a skill, a state, and also a personality trait.
One can have low or high empathy. Two tools to measure empathy are the Hogan Empathy Scale (Hogan, 1969) and the Multidimensional Emotional Empathy Scale (Caruso & Mayer, 1998).
In psychology, empathy is not a single concept but is divided into four types:
1. Cognitive empathy
It is the ability to understand what another person is thinking (point of view or perspective) or feeling without actually experiencing those feelings yourself.
Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators because it allows us to pass on information to the other person in the most effective way possible.
It is also known as intellectual empathy or perspective-taking.
2. Emotional empathy
It is matching and resonates with the emotions of other people.
Emotional empathy is the ability to understand as well as experience another person’s emotions. It is like feeling “your sorrow in my heart.” This type of empathy helps you strengthen your emotional bonds with others.
It is also called affective empathy.
3. Compassionate empathy
It is taking compassionate action after sensing a person’s plight.
Compassionate empathy goes beyond understanding others and sharing their feelings; it inspires us to act, and to reach out in any way we can to help.
It is also called empathic concern.
4. Motor Empathy
This is a recently recognized concept. Motor empathy is the unconscious mirroring of another’s gestures, like yawning on seeing a person yawn.
It is based on both cognitive and emotional empathy, as a lack of either would prevent one from subconsciously mirroring something they understand (cognitive) or care about (emotional).
Primatologist Frans de Waal is one of the most well-known researchers studying empathy. He likens empathy to a Russian doll with many layers: intellect, recognition, and imitation, around a central core of emotion.
De Waal found that body contact and imitation ease the ability to empathize. He wrote a book on this: The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.
So, empathy means understanding and identifying with another person’s thoughts, feelings, or emotional state. Now, the question is, do narcissists feel empathy?
Who is an empath?
An empath is a person who feels more empathy than the average person. Their heightened empathic capacity, which allows them to quickly sense the emotions of those around them, is unexplainable by conventional science. It often pushes them to help others without being asked.
By the way, the word “empath” is highly looked down upon by psychologists. What comes close is Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs).
An empath can accurately understand what other people (and animals) are experiencing, even when there are no verbal or physical cues.
Moreover, they frequently have intense reactions to other people’s emotions and can become unusually sad, furious, or afraid when they sense another person’s suffering.
Empaths intuitively feel other people’s emotions, but most specifically pain. They are particularly sensitive to the distressful conditions of others, even strangers, and hang on to the resulting negative emotion for a long time.
They can accumulate high concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the imbibed emotions.
Unhappy movie endings haunt me for hours afterwards, and sometimes for days. — An Empath
Judith Orloff, the author of Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, defines empaths as “emotional sponges” who absorb the world’s joys and stresses. She says empaths lack barriers (that most of us have and use) to shield themselves from emotional over-stimulation.
5 FAQs on Narcissism and Empathy
1. Can a narcissist be an empath?
Yes, a narcissist can be an empath. Narcissistic empathy is mostly limited to perspective-taking, that is, cognitively understanding another person’s point of view beyond one’s own point of view. However, a recent study found that those with higher scores for narcissistic personality tended to be less motivated to take others’ perspectives (Lee & Kang, 2020).
So, while narcissistic empathy may help them understand where your shoe pinches, they are unlikely to wear your shoe and experience the pain that you feel.
2. What type of empathy do narcissists lack?
Narcissists lack both emotional empathy and compassionate empathy. They do not feel an empathic connection with others because other people’s emotions do not let move them enough to sense their painful condition.
To compensate for their lack of emotional empathy, they use their cognitive empathy to mirror postures and gestures to mimic emotional empathy.
Narcissists are incapable of prosocial behavior (that is, unable to act out of empathy) because narcissism is a defensive mechanism that blunts emotional response to witnessing others’ distress.
3. Do narcissists know they are hurting you?
Narcissists are well aware when they are hurting you. In fact, they spend their time hunting for and gathering your shortcomings and weak spots, so that they can hurt you at your most vulnerable points to cause the most damage. Their awareness of your pain, however, does not compel them to respond with compassion and stop their cruel acts.
4. Do narcissists apologize?
Narcissistic people find it extremely hard to apologize verbally. They never admit to their guilt or offer an opportunity to discuss the situation. This is because most narcissists lack strong self-esteem to admit they were wrong, so they are sorry and want to be forgiven. Instead, the usual narcissistic act of apology involves reparative acts such as buying extravagant gifts.
5. Can you teach empathy to a narcissist?
Yes, narcissists can be taught to empathize. According to research, narcissists can learn empathy if sufficiently motivated to see the world from another person’s perspective. However, they do so only when they are told to or when it lies in their self-interest. They cannot automatically be empathic, especially emotionally and compassionately.
Anyone can have a few narcissistic qualities, but not everyone with narcissistic tendencies is a narcissist. Of course, unless clinically diagnosed, a narcissist cannot be classified as having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
NPD, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition, is a mental condition defined by an inflated feeling of self-importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others.
Remember, a narcissist is a manipulator who may easily fool you into thinking they are empathizing with you when, in fact, they are faking the empathetic response. One giveaway is that they often overdo it.
If you see the narcissist overreact or over-express, especially if you’re an empath, enforce your boundaries and disconnect. This will help you preserve your mental balance.
NPD is a serious mental disorder with high suicide rates (Pompili et al., 2004). If you feel someone close to you is narcissistic, suggest they see a mental health professional.
• • •
- Do narcissists cry? If yes, why do they cry?
- Did you know about Vulnerable Narcissism: The Not-So-Dark Side of Narcissism?
• • •
Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, mindfulness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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