It’s Narcissist Friday!
Being without electricity for a significant time (three days) not only explains why I haven’t been able to post or respond to comments, but also gives me an illustration of my topic for this Friday. I have had more than one person tell me that their narcissist doesn’t fit the pattern because “he has a lot of empathy.” Lack of empathy is part of the definition of narcissism. What these folks are saying is that the person with whom they share a relationship fits the pattern in every way, except for the empathy. Their narcissists are cruel, uncaring, manipulative, and abusive—but they have a lot of empathy.
Obviously something is wrong here. The truth is that empathy is quite difficult for many people to define. They think it is the same as sympathy, which it is not. They think it means being willing to listen and say kind words at appropriate times. But empathy is something more.
Technically, empathy is that which allows us to understand that other people are real. Empathy, a term invented relatively recently by psychologists and philosophers, is the idea that people have an innate ability to connect with others by feeling what the others feel at certain times. The empathic person says, “I know just what you mean,” and really does. There is a connection as persons that allows one person to feel, to identify within himself, what the other feels.
This is more than sympathy, or at least different. Sympathy allows us to see what another person is feeling and relate to those feelings in a caring manner. In other words, the sympathetic person says, “I am so sorry that you feel that way. How can I help?” The feelings of the other person are not felt by the sympathetic person, but they are seen. I believe this is what victims of narcissists see. But the narcissist deals with the pain of others in the same way he deals with other obstacles or opportunities. The pain of the other person sometimes gets in the narcissist’s way. Or it provides an chance to be seen as someone who cares.
By definition, the narcissist does not feel your pain. He does not really understand what you are going through. Think about it. If he did, would he still be able to cause the pain? One of the reasons most people are unable to hurt others physically is because they empathize. You have probably had the experience of watching TV, perhaps one of those shows that make you laugh at the accidents of others, and you cringe when you see someone get hurt in a certain way. Others may laugh, but you can feel the pain almost as though it was your own. That’s empathy.
Somewhere along the line, the narcissist decided to reject the feelings of pain. His feelings of rejection, sadness, anger, or whatever were so strong that he had to push them away and deny them. He developed a different sense of self, an alternate identity that didn’t hurt. But, in the process, he lost the ability to feel what others felt. And when he lost the ability to connect with the feelings of others, he began to forget that others were like him—real and valuable. Instead, he started to see others as tools, toys, or obstacles.
So I have been hearing lately about all the folks on the East coast who are without power in the midst of a heat wave. Honestly, I sympathized with them. Too bad for them. Sorry they are going through that. But when the electricity went out at my house during a heat wave and I found that it is a real challenge to sleep without the a/c and I worried about the food in the fridge and freezer, then I stopped to think of those poor folks who have already gone longer than I have and may not have electricity for several more days. Now I empathize with them.
But, you say, that’s just because you have experienced something like what they are experiencing. That’s right. And empathy is the ability to connect with the pain others are feeling. Nothing like similar experiences to make that happen. We refer to this as “walking in their shoes” or “being — for a day.” Empathy doesn’t have to have similar experience, but it does have to value the experience of others. In other words, I have to see others as myself in order to connect in that way.
Empathy allows us to truly love because the pain of the other person becomes our own pain and their joy brings us joy. Empathy allows true community and true relationship.
Sadly, narcissists have lost their ability to empathize. Or perhaps they rejected it. In either case, it is not there for you.
(And, by the way, our power is back on. Pray for the folks out East.)