While narcissists share many similar traits with each other, as defined in the DSM-IV and DSM-5 (considered the authoritative source of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the U.S. and elsewhere), they do not all share the exact same background and personality.
Therefore, they will express themselves differently depending on whom they are with and the general situation they are in. Not only that, it is my belief that there is a lack of understanding as to the exact meaning of empathy, which is one of the traits listed in the NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) criteria, and how it relates to narcissists.
One of the main reasons for this is that many people think that empathy and empathising is the ability to feel compassion for others and, in turn, to express a compassionate response. But it isn’t—there is far more to it. Compassion is different than empathy.
It has long been believed, both by professionals and the general public, that narcissists are incapable of recognizing and understanding other people’s feelings and needs, i.e., empathizing.
However, I would like to suggest an alternative way of observing the behavior of those with NPD, and how to understand the detrimental effects that this misunderstanding can have on those who narcissists interact with.
I believe that narcissists are entirely capable of empathising and recent studies have also arrived at a similar conclusion.
Empathy is a translation of the German word einfühlung, which means “feeling into,” and it has two components to it.
The first part to empathy is the capacity to sense and intuitively understand another person’s subtle or more obvious emotional, psychological, or physical sensations and symptoms of distress or pleasure.
This aspect of empathy is the art of seeing the world through the eyes of someone else by recreating in our own minds the other person’s set of circumstances. It encompasses an understanding of another person’s motivations, attitudes, beliefs, values, feelings, and emotions.
Therefore, when we empathize, we can view other people’s conditions and situations similarly to how they might be feeling or perceiving them, rather than viewing them purely from our own perspective.
We feel empathy so that we gain an idea of how it might feel to exist as someone else.
I believe that most narcissists are highly capable of using their senses to discover how another person is feeling, therefore, they have the capacity for the first part of empathy. The main reason I think that narcissists do this is so that they can then gain access to information that will benefit themselves in some way. Whereas those who aren’t narcissistic would empathise in order to benefit the person they are empathizing with, rather than themselves.
The second part to empathy is once we have identified and perceived how someone is feeling, we can instinctively respond to a person’s state by communicating in a compassionate, non-biased, mindful, and heartfelt manner.
This second part is where narcissists either intentionally or unintentionally fool other people. The majority of the time, narcissists will sense what someone is feeling and then express themselves in ways that make it appear as though they are offering genuine, heartfelt empathy.
In fact, this is usually what causes people (empaths in particular) to be drawn to narcissists in the first place—empaths often believe upon first meeting someone like this that they have met someone similar to themselves due to the narcissist appearing to be extremely attentive and empathetic.
Narcissists can come across as the most caring, thoughtful, considerate human beings, depending on whom they are either trying to impress or manipulate. When narcissists have something to gain, whether egotistically, financially, or materialistically, they can convince almost everyone around them that they have genuine concern and care for other people’s emotional, mental, or physical well-being.
The reason narcissists are so highly skilled at expressing faux-care is because they have so acutely observed the people they are interacting with, and thus, empathetically tuned in and understood how they are feeling.
Now, this does not mean that narcissists will then put other people first in these circumstances or that they themselves will subsequently feel emotional or mental suffering if the person they are empathizing with is suffering—this is why it is imperative to have a sound understanding of a narcissist’s empathetic capacity.
As stated earlier, those who are not narcissistic usually empathise to put the person suffering first—narcissists usually empathize purely to put themselves first.
Narcissists can accurately read the emotional, mental, or physical states of other people without actually becoming emotionally, mentally, or physically affected. To put it simply, they understand other people, but they do not necessarily feel with them.
Many narcissists become aware of their ability to empathise due to some form of emotional, psychological, or even physical injury or trauma.
It is believed that many narcissists became narcissistic due to some type of abuse, neglect, rejection, or abandonment. When a narcissist was in the presence of someone causing them harm, they often learned to either, consciously or unconsciously, tune in to the other person’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior so that they could gain insight into their mindset and then emotionally and mentally prepare themselves for potential trauma.
When someone is highly sensitive to energy, which the majority of narcissists are, and they are also immensely observant of other peoples’ energy, tone of voice, and body language, they then have the ability to empathise with those who are abusive to them.
Often people who have suffered from abuse learned to become highly empathetic so that they can easily resonate with the person abusing them. This allows them to be able to read their abuser well enough to grasp an understanding of how and why they operate so they can safeguard themselves by being somewhat emotionally, mentally, or physically prepared for the abuse.
When someone is being abused, often their senses become alerted and they observe and pay great attention to detail so that they learn to recognize ingrained patterns of behavior, thus allowing them to become more aware of what might trigger abuse. This offers the person being abused precious moments to rationally consider the available options they might have in order to protect themselves.
Generally speaking, being empathetic does not mean that compassion and consideration are always shown. In some circumstances, it is possible to tap into other people’s energy to potentially keep ourselves safe from harm without then being genuinely outwardly compassionate. Empathizing can become a form of self-preservation, and ultimately, in more serious cases, a vital method of survival.
We can feel into something and sense energy without it resulting in us then feeling any emotional reaction and without feeling the need to respond by expressing what we have sensed.
When someone is highly sensitive to energy, attentive, and aware, they can sense what is going on around them without feeling emotional. They are then in a position to keep their mind clear without their emotions interrupting and triggering their behavior.
Therefore they have the opportunity to respond in ways that are well thought out, rational, reasonable, and beneficial to the situation, rather than reacting in ways that are a byproduct of chemical and hormonal disruptions in our physiology. However, they may also behave in ways that are all of these things, but that result in a benefit that solely serves themselves—and this is generally how narcissists function.
Many people empathize and become emotionally affected, therefore, they do not always think clearly as the chemicals that the emotions are evoking can cloud the mind. As narcissists empathize and do not become emotionally affected, it offers them a way of remaining aware of what is going on around them, enabling them to easily control and manipulate others.
When we understand other people’s emotions, feelings, and intentions, it gives us an in-depth insight into their emotional, psychological, or physical state. This benefits narcissists, as they are then able to work out how someone is feeling so that they can structure the quickest and easiest plan of control and/or manipulation.
Narcissists finely develop the skill of empathy by scanning the stimuli radiating from other people until they detect what they perceive as a weak and easy to penetrate link—and when they pick up on it, they will focus in on it with masterful skill and strength.
Never underestimate a narcissist’s abilities in honing their empathetic skills, especially if they stand to gain in ways that feed their ego. They will go to great lengths to tune and master those skills, as it then enables them to play an ego-feeding game in which there will only ever be one winner. If anyone else stands to win, the game is over—often much to the relief of those who narcissists choose to play with.
Writing: Alex Myles