It’s Narcissist Friday!
A few years ago I had a conversation with a lady who said that her husband had all the characteristics of a narcissist except one—he had lots of empathy. She said that he was very attentive to the emotions of his children and almost always knew what they were feeling. My response was that he either lacked empathy or was not a narcissist.
At the root of narcissism is the lack of empathy. This is well established. The inability to connect with or accept the validity of the feelings of others allows the narcissist to abuse with abandon. He causes pain simply because he does not care. There is nothing in him to move him away from the self-serving exploitation of others. Empathy is about caring.
In our further conversation, it became clear that this lady’s husband was truly able to discern the emotions of others, but then used that knowledge for his manipulations. In other words, he could tell when someone was sad, but didn’t care. The only reason it was important to him to know what others were feeling was for his own purposes.
Generally, empathy is defined as the ability to feel what others feel. It’s why we are moved to tears at a funeral of someone we didn’t even know. It’s the reason we get caught up in the excitement of a football game when we don’t care about the success of either team. The feelings of the crowd, or just the people around us, trigger the same feelings in us. The desire to belong allows us to join in the emotion around us. There are other words for this, of course, but it is an experience of empathy.
Empathy in personal relationships is more specific and more difficult to define. Whereas the crowd creates in us a desire to belong, personal relationships create a desire to connect. We want to understand the other person so we can share and relate and enhance our lives with their lives. This is a strong desire for most of us. So strong, that we often push the relationship toward that point.
As a counselor, I discovered this desire in myself fairly early. When I listened to the stories of others, I found that I would project my feelings onto them and assume they felt the same way. Very often I was right, of course, but sometimes not so much. I learned to tell people that I would always be blunt so they would know what I was thinking, but that I had no expectation of always being right. Therefore, I wanted them to correct my assumptions—particularly about their feelings. Many times I would jump in with some statement, only to be corrected and set on a different path by an honest counselee.
Writers, actors, politicians, comics, and others make their livings by being accurate in their assumptions about the feelings of others. Those who fail to connect are simply not successful in their work. But this is not empathy. It may be psychology, the study of what motivates people, but it isn’t empathy. It may even be an innate ability to discern the emotions of others, but it still isn’t empathy. Detecting and identifying emotions might enable a person to control or exploit, but that’s not the same as caring. To empathize is to care about the emotions of someone else. In fact, empathy requires neither conscious detection nor identification of the particular emotion. I may not fully realize that you are sad in order to feel and care about your sadness, for example.
Empathy is caring. Empathy is participating in the feelings of another person, sharing the pain or the fear or the sadness. It doesn’t have to have the same intensity, but it has reality. The feelings of the other person are real and important because the other person is real and important.
And there’s the rub. The narcissist does not see others as real or important except in service to him. People, as we have said often here, are tools, toys, or obstacles. They have reality for the narcissist, but they are not “persons.” So, it stands to reason, the feelings of others are not real for the narcissist in the way they may be real for us. It isn’t that the narcissist doesn’t see or acknowledge the emotions of others. It is that he/she doesn’t care unless those emotions are of some value.
The only emotions the narcissist feels are his own. In fact, part of his addiction is the pleasure he gets when his emotions are positive. The negative emotions he either denies or projects on others. I know that some say narcissists feel no emotions, but I disagree. I think narcissism is, by definition, an inability to deal normally with emotional stress or change; but every narcissist I have known exhibits emotions. They might do so differently, but the emotions are there.
Your narcissist might be very aware of your emotions or of the emotions of others. In fact, you may be surprised at just how perceptive he is at times. You may also be surprised at how he can twist or ignore your emotions while being so attentive towards those of someone else.
But the emotional awareness of the narcissist is not empathy; it is simply an alertness to that which is useful.