Narcissism and empathy are two vastly different things, yet they can be intertwined in unexpected ways. It is easy to assume that a person who displays narcissistic behaviors would be self-absorbed and unaware of their impact on others, but is that always true?
Do narcissists really understand how their actions affect those around them, or do they simply choose not to care? Do they know they lack empathy, or are they oblivious to that fact?
Narcissists may be aware that they lack empathy, but they may not see it as a problem. In fact, they may view empathy as a weakness and believe that their lack of empathy is a sign of strength. Narcissists often prioritize their own needs and desires over others, which can lead to a lack of concern for others’ feelings.
I remember that sometimes I would be shocked by my mother’s sudden display of empathic responses to certain situations. I was accustomed to her usual lack of understanding. Now I know that narcissists can display cognitive empathy, but they choose to use that for manipulative gain. Read on to learn more about what a narcissist does and doesn’t understand about empathy.
Do Narcissists Know They Have Poor Empathic Responses?
While it is true that many narcissistic individuals don’t possess the capacity for true emotional empathy, they can still display aspects of cognitive and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy involves understanding another person’s feelings without necessarily feeling them yourself, while compassionate empathy is responding to those feelings with sympathy and understanding.
The American Psychiatric Association defines narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as someone with the following personality traits:
- A long-standing pattern of grandiose self-importance and an exaggerated sense of talent and achievements;
- Fantasies of unlimited sex, power, brilliance, or beauty;
- An exhibitionistic need for attention and admiration;
- Either cool indifference or feelings of rage, humiliation, or emptiness as a response to criticism, indifference, or defeat; and
- Various interpersonal disturbances, such as feeling entitled to special favors, taking advantage of others, and inability to empathize with the feelings of others.
Unfortunately, this definition fails to take into account the nuances of narcissistic traits, particularly the capacity for real people with NPD to experience some degree of affective responses to other people’s emotions.
It has been suggested that even those who are high in narcissistic traits may be more likely than average people to display motor empathy—the physical expression of emotion in response to someone else’s feelings—and a heartfelt connection in relationships.
Though it may not be possible for narcissists to fully comprehend the essence of empathy, understanding their own level of empathic capacity really depends on their level of self-awareness and willingness to engage in self-reflection.
Unfortunately, the nature of their mental illness often makes it difficult for people with pathological narcissism to engage in empathetic processing. That’s why most narcissists, regardless of their internal emotional experiences, don’t often display an understanding that they lack empathy.
What are the Different Types of Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. This capacity for caring is a big reason narcissists are attracted to empaths, as explained in this video.
It can be divided into several different types, including emotional, cognitive, motor, and compassionate empathy.
What is Emotional Empathy?
Emotional empathy is the ability to experience an emotion in response to someone else’s affective experience. This means that someone who is empathic actually feels the emotional aspects of your experience as if they were experiencing that with you. Narcissistic individuals rarely display this type of empathy, no matter what they may be feeling inside.
What is Cognitive Empathy?
Cognitive empathy involves understanding another person’s perspective without necessarily feeling what they are feeling. Many narcissistic individuals do display this type of empathy, and they often use their understanding of those perspectives to manipulate and control the person.
What is Motor Empathy?
Motor empathy occurs when people mirror each other’s body language or facial expressions. Narcissistic individuals do often display motor empathy, and that is what can make them seem to compassionate, particularly in the early love-bombing stage of a relationship.
What is Compassionate Empathy?
Compassionate empathy involves recognizing a real person in need and responding with care and concern for their wellbeing. While narcissistic individuals can seem to display compassionate empathy, the reality is that they are only pretending to have that level of empathy. They want to strengthen their emotional bonds with their target so they can better manipulate them.
Each type of empathy serves an important role in our interpersonal relationships and helps us to connect on a deeper level with those around us. While all people possess varying degrees of capacity for empathy, including narcissists, narcissists are rarely able to genuinely understand alternative perspectives that are vital for prosocial behaviors.
What are the Different Types of Narcissism?
There are different types of narcissism, and that can make a difference in where a narcissist falls on the empathy spectrum.
The different types of narcissism include;
- Grandiose narcissism, also called overt narcissism
- Vulnerable narcissism, also called covert narcissism
- Malignant narcissism
Grandiose narcissists are often extroverted, have a strong sense of entitlement, and develop an exaggerated need for attention. Vulnerable narcissists tend to be more introverted but also have a fragile self-esteem that requires constant validation from others.
The following video offers a more detailed explanation of the distinctions between the two types of narcissists.
Malignant narcissism combines traits of both grandiosity and vulnerability while also exhibiting hostile behavior toward other people.
All types of narcissism can present challenges when forming interpersonal empathy relationships as they struggle to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.
Do Different Types of Narcissists Display Different Types of Empathy?
Narcissists often struggle with all aspects of empathy due to their own inflated sense of self-importance and need for admiration from others. They are laser-focused on their own needs, which makes it difficult for them to understand the needs of other people.
While some narcissists may still possess the capacity for empathy, they can often lack the motivation or awareness necessary to use it in real-life situations. They also don’t experience the emotional empathy that forms the basis for truly empathic responses to the needs of other people.
Instead, they utilized cognitive empathy to understand what other people want and need, which they then use to manipulate them. They are more likely than average people to respond with an emotional response rather than an empathic one – even when confronted with a real person in distress. This can lead to narcissistic abuse, where victims are manipulated or taken advantage of by their narcissistic partners or family members.
Research conducted by psychologists at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom has shown that grandiose narcissists are less likely to self-report cognitive and affective empathy even though their behavior often showed higher levels of affective empathy.
Covert narcissists also self-reported low levels of empathy, both cognitive and affective, but their behavior exhibited lower levels of cognitive empathy when compared to grandiose narcissists.
A more recent study conducted by psychologists at a Canadian university found that the level of empathic responses in narcissistic individuals depended more on the components of narcissism as opposed to the type of narcissism.
The components of narcissism they studied included extraversion, narcissistic neuroticism, and antagonism/entitlement. With the exception of narcissistic neuroticism, all other components were negatively associated with empathic responses. Narcissistic neuroticism, however, was positively associated with empathic distress.
The relationship between narcissism and empathy appears to be more nuanced than simply a lack of empathy. While some narcissists display cognitive empathy, there are others who do seem to have the capacity for emotional empathy.
The development of empathy in narcissistic individuals is clearly hampered by their excessive need for admiration and attention and their tendency to develop an anxious or avoidant attachment style.
The complexity of narcissism and their level of self-awareness greatly affects their ability to recognize their own capacity for empathy. If they seek counseling, however, it is possible, even for narcissists, to improve their average empathy level.
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