Narcissism is a broad term that includes narcissistic traits on a continuum from “healthy with extreme self confidence” to the severe personality disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Empathy involves the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes; i.e., the ability to imagine yourself in their position and imagine how you would feel, think or want. Our empathy allows us to imagine how other people feel and allows us to see them as human beings rather than objects. Some people have very little capacity for empathy and appear to be cold and unfeeling; narcissists have little or no empathy (empathy makes it difficult to be cruel to other people or disregard their humanness). Even people who do have a capacity for empathy can easily lose the ability in certain times and places. Certain defenses, such as intellectualization (‘she is not a person-she is just a body in a vegetative state’) or rationalization (‘she won’t feel anything’) allow us to distance ourselves from the awareness of another’s suffering and humanity. Narcissists, on the other hand, are often keenly aware of their lack of empathy but do not care- sometimes they even proclaim it as a virtue.
Lack of empathy is a quintessential hallmark of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They simply do not care about thoughts and feelings of others, especially if they conflict with their own. Do not expect them to listen, validate, understand, or support you. Here are some typical examples from partners of narcissists:
- He would actually get mad at me if I was sick. I said, “I sat here with you for days when you were depressed and couldn’t get out of bed. And now you can’t even be a little nice to me when I am sick?”
- My partner would hurt my feelings just when things were going well. When I would question him about it, he would make up excuses and tell me I’m wrong for feeling the way I did, and if I didn’t like it there was something wrong with me.
- I could spend an hour detailing how I felt hurt and she would sit there, cold as ice. When it was her turn to speak, she tore down every word that came out of my mouth until I had to apologize for expressing how I felt. I ignored this red flag and made excuses to myself and others.
It is important to understand that narcissists can “fake it” when it benefits their agenda. Beside the need to look “normal” and magnanimous, they also expect to get something back. Partners of narcissists have said:
- He has made adaptations that allow him to “appear” to be thoughtful and concerned about others. Early in our marriage, he would ask me what I would like to do. Then one day it dawned on me that while he asked, we never ended up following my suggestions! When I mentioned this to him, he had a crestfallen appearance and behaved like a child who had been caught doing something wrong.
- I think that faux empathy stems from a number of things. A need to fit in, socially–to appear like a feeling, caring person is certainly one of them. In some cases, it’s probably an acquired social skill, albeit a superficial one. Like learning which utensil to use when dining in polite company. In other cases, it’s a means to getting what you want from people.
- She had “intellectual” empathy: almost as if she knew she should react that way. She didn’t feel it at the soul/being level. She knew the words, but couldn’t hear the emotional music of our relationship.
This lack of empathy is so alien to us (after all, even some animals show evidence of empathy) that obvious incidents can break through our denial. It may leave us outraged, hurt or feeling betrayed. It can also be an eye-opener that we need to acknowledge the significant limitations of individuals with NPD. As painful as it can be, coming to terms with their lack of empathy toward us dissipates the confusion caused by their cycle of “push-pull” (or in some cases, just the push).
Narcissist and author, Sam Vaknin, writes in his book Malignant Self Love–Narcissism Revisited:
I am aware of the fact that others have emotions, needs, preferences, and priorities – but I simply can’t seem to “get it into my mind.” There is an invisible partition behind which I watch the rest of Mankind and through which nothing that is human can permeate. I empathize more with my goldfish than with my “nearest and dearest.”
To me, all people are cardboard cut-outs, sophisticated motor contraptions, ersatz and robotic. I know how I should feel because I am well-read–but I cannot seem to bring myself to emote and to sympathize. I care more about my material possessions and belongings than [almost] any man or woman alive.
Over the years, I have deciphered the code. I have learned to imitate and emulate expertly the more common affect and expressions of one’s inner landscape. But this veneer is easily breached when I am frustrated or humiliated (“narcissistic injury“): the mask slips and the real Me is out: a predator on the prowl.
The narcissist (especially ‘high-level narcissists’ who are very successful in the world) is skilled at faux empathy or what some call pseudo-empathy. “The socially gifted narcissist is an expert at convincing others that he/she cares deeply about them. Pseudo empathy is exquisitely designed by the narcissist to manipulate others so they will fulfill his narcissistic needs.” (Linda Martinez-Lewi, Ph.D., Ezine article).
The narcissist is always filtering his world, honing in on ways to fill his need for Narcissistic Supply including his need for money, power, adulation, praise, and attention. He seeks intelligent, highly motivated people that he can delegate most of the work to and then turn around and take the whole credit himself. In his personal life, the narcissist is attracted to a partner(s) who enhances his image of perfection, self-entitlement, and power. These partners are emotionally pliable and mesmerized by his wiles and charm.
The narcissist ensnares his victims by appealing to their needs which include: to be wanted, to be cared for, and to feel valuable, attractive or powerful. When a narcissist turns on his well practiced fake empathy, the unsuspecting and vulnerable victim feels singled out as a Very Special Person (often for the first time in his/her life).
Many of the narcissist’s followers and victims never see through his phoniness. They continue to be selfless servants, unable to psychologically or physically separate themselves from him. Those who do become aware of the price they are paying (giving up their own lives and needs), either leave or make the Faustian bargain i.e., decide that the lifestyle and perks connected with being a part of the narcissist’s world are worth it.