Empathy

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.)

7 Comments

Filed under Narcissism

7 responses to “Empathy

  1. My narcissistic X was very good at acting sympathetic but didn’t understand empathy at all; he couldn’t even fake it if he tried. One night I came home from work extremely distraught about a recent cut in pay. He could see the sadness in my face and put on his sympathetic act: “Oh, Pumpkin. What’s wrong? Tell me about it.” So, I proceeded to tell him about my paycut and the worries I had about paying my car loan, insurance, child care, rent, etc. He looked at me like I was nuts to worry. He said, “You shouldn’t feel like that. Do you see me going around pouting about not having solid contract work for next month or possibly losing contract work this month?” I shook my head and at first, thought he was right. But then he continued to tell me how I was supposed to feel. Not once did he say, “I understand how you feel.” Because he never felt that way. Not once did he say, “How can I help to get your mind off of these things?” Because his mind has never been burdened by these types of worries. I started second guessing my priorities. Was I being selffish for worryinf about money instead of making my X feel good? Wow! How twisted! Worry is a natural human emotion or reaction to things that happen in our lives that are counter to the normal balance of our existence. He couldn’t see this because he, as you mention, tossed aside “normal balance” somewhere along his rode to adulthood. He could only see that I wasn’t 100% focused on his needs as I worried about my own. He wanted me to immediately stop worrying so I could focus on him and give him what he needed. That’s definitely not empathy; it’s self-absorbtion and narcissistic to the core. Thank for the post!

  2. Liz

    My narcissist ex had been taught by his family of origin how to display fake sympathy/empathy. I didn’t realize that it was all for show. But then one day he TOLD me that he didn’t understand or feel empathy. I think I should have divorced him then. Instead I endured several more years before finally calling it quits. Interestingly, he knows that I am very empathic and still tries to use that quality to get what he wants from me.

  3. Kelly

    My ex (and notice, these people seem to become ex’s) also SAID the right things that would imply sympathy, but it was never genuine. I remember when my favorite dog died, he just stood there and looked at me while I sobbed, he was just frozen or something. The problem with all the right words is it gives the victim hope. At least it did me. I always believed him until I discovered he was a complete fraud. He is empty and now single with no island of stability, which is what the victim usually is to the NPD.

  4. Barbara

    When my father passed away from a massive heart attack at age 56, I was crushed. As I sat crying and sobbing, my narcissistic ex said to me, “I don’t understand why you are so upset. Your mother is better off without him.” My dad was not perfect, but how could someone sane say something so cold? It was this statement that finally got me to thinking there was something seriously wrong with him.

  5. All of these comments are so good! I appreciate each of you as you share out of your own pain. The revelation that the narcissist does not and has never really connected with your feelings is a significant step toward the truth. But it does hurt. As you have confided and trusted in this person, believing that he cared, you have every right to feel betrayed by the deception. This is especially true when you realize how you were manipulated into mistrusting your feelings in the relationship.

    Perhaps it is fair to say, as Paula noted, that people who tell you not to feel the way you do, that you should feel the way they want you to feel, are being narcissistic. Your feelings are valid. Perhaps they are not always helpful and perhaps they reveal wrong thinking, but they are still your real feelings. To deny them is to begin losing yourself.

  6. Cecilia K

    I met my ex-boyfriend at a church I visited. At some point during the service, I cried silent tears – it might have been the hymn we were singing, or it could have been a wave of sadness over my previous relationship – I don’t remember now. Anyway, early in the new relationship, my (now ex-) boyfriend told me that he had seen me crying that day and told me he had tenderly thought, “Awe, someone that beautiful shouldn’t be crying.” I’m not sure how that comes across in writing here and now, but it was meant to be and I received it as very sweet and sensitive.

    Fast forward to further into our relationship, and at one service we attended together at his church, I got emotional again, this time over a very minor issue that really didn’t deserve such emotion – I felt silly for crying about it – but I cried a little, nevertheless. I tried to hold back the tears but to no avail. No one asked what was wrong, for which I was glad. I didn’t want to say. But anyway, later my boyfriend asked me why I was crying, and I told him, and he basically scolded me, and expressed concern over what the people around must have thought. He was worried that I was making him look like a bad boyfriend.

    And then just before our first break-up, we had had a fight on a Saturday night where I told him I thought he could be controlling, which he did not receive well, of course. The next morning at church, when the pastor’s wife asked me how I was doing, I was hurting and looking for comfort. I told her we had had another fight. I referred generally to something I had said that upset him because I hadn’t intended on telling her specifically, but when she asked what I said, I told her anyway. I began crying as I talked to her. My ex walked in and saw me crying and talking to her. Later that day he asked what I told her, and I admitted to what I had said. He ultimately broke up with me over the incident, but during his rant, he said he had seen me crying and knew I was telling her about the fight.

    Instead of having compassion that I was obviously hurting, he was concerned about his image. I was so perplexed and hurt at the time that my tears would not evoke tenderness from him, but instead resentment. Now, of course, I understand. I think he said how selfish I was for wanting sympathy and attention or something like that. He was so harsh and angry. Anyway, back then I wondered how before we dated, he could be compassionate when he saw my tears but angry about them once we were together. It hurt so much!

  7. HDG

    So many stories. Different in some ways but ALL with one thing in common….NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU LOVE THEM A RELATIONSHIP WITH A NARCISSIST WILL HURT YOU. Mine did.

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