This is one of the major issues people tangled up in relationships with narcissists wrestle with over and over again. Do narcissists have empathy? Sometimes it seems like they do, and other times it seems like they don’t, so what’s going on? Can narcissists actually put themselves in the shoes of another person, and fully empathize with them?
A lot is spoken about this issue of empathy with narcissists and also psychopaths, but just throwing around general rules like “narcissists have no empathy” isn’t totally accurate. Whilst these individuals can act in appalling ways towards others, the issue is a lot more complicated than that.
Oftentimes, even the ways in which they abuse people shows that they understand very well what makes that person “tick” – that’s exactly how they’re able to hurt them so much.
To provide a properly nuanced answer to this question requires us to distinguish between two types of empathy – cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.
Here is a bottom line answer that summarizes the issue:
Narcissists have little or no emotional empathy for others, as evidenced by their lack of concern about their often abusive and hurtful treatment of victims. However, they have excellent cognitive empathy in the sense they can understand very well the motivations, desires and weaknesses of others, though they use this understanding only to manipulate and control people more effectively.
In other words, narcissist do understand very well on an intellectual level what motivates, and drives others, as well as the difference between right and wrong, as generally understood in society. They just don’t “do anything” with this understanding in terms of being a less toxic, manipulative person, nor do they feel any empathy on an emotional level.
In this sense, it’s very important for people caught up with narcissists not to “let them off the hook” and excuse their toxic behavior, since they know very well what they are doing, and that what they are doing is hurting others. In this sense, they do have empathy and therefore don’t need excuses making for their often appalling behavior.
Let’s dig into the issue in more detail.
The Narcissist’s Lack Of Emotional Empathy
Let’s firstly start with the more authentic type of empathy – emotional empathy. This can be broadly defined as the ability to feel and share the emotions of others.
It is a crucial foundation for morality, since emotional empathy acts as a fail-safe or brake-check on one’s actions. You wouldn’t intentionally harm another person because you feel the pain they’d feel, you feel the emotional consequences of your actions on them.
You’re able to put yourself in the shoes of another emotionally, not just intellectually. Therefore you don’t treat others the way you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself (The Golden Rule).
This is the type of empathy that narcissists entirely (or almost entirely) lack.
This is why they can behave in such appallingly abusive and hurtful ways towards others, and not seem bothered by it on any kind of emotional level (sometimes, they even seem to take pleasure in it). They have lost connection with this ability to emotionally empathize with another person, and therefore restrain their behavior to not treat others in a way they wouldn’t want to be treated themselves.
This explains why narcissists can:
- Abuse, hurt, betray and discard others without a second thought, displaying no guilt or remorse for their actions and moving on with their lives like nothing happened.
- Act completely oblivious and confused when you try to communicate to them something they did/said that was hurtful and you’re not happy about it (this is all an act though – see further below).
- Laugh at the misfortune and downfall of others, taking pleasure in other people’s suffering (Schadenfreude)
- Mock others for displaying what they see as “weakness” or “vulnerability”
- Mock, invalidate and belittle the success stories of others, downplaying them as it triggers their own envy and shame.
- Act in appallingly insensitive and unsupportive ways at bad news others receive (like serious health diagnoses).
- Act in general as “fair-weather friends” who only stick around in the “good times” and often disappear when any demands are put on them to be a truly supportive friend/partner for someone, to help them through tough times.
- Treat people appallingly in workplaces, behaving in inappropriate and unprofessional ways to meet their own goals, showing little or no regard for those they mistreat and trample over along the way.
- More generally, just behave in ways that might make you wonder “how could a normal person say/do that?”.
One common example that will bring out the worst in a narcissist regarding their lack of empathy is when their (often long suffering) partner reveals a bad health diagnosis:
“(There are) countless numbers of people who would stick it out in the narcissistic relationship, thought they had radically accepted when they hadn’t. And then they get sick….And they’ll say ‘OK, now that I tell them that I have cancer, an auto-immune condition, whatever, they’re going see there’s something real happening. I have to go to the hospital. They’re going to sit by my bed…..’
Usually, the first comment (from the narcissist) is ‘So what, now I’ve got to take you to urgent care? Oh come on! I’ve got to sit with you in chemo for two hours, I’m busy!”
These are quotes I have witnessed.
People say ‘they wanted to drop me off at the kerb at the emergency room…..and did!’.
(The narcissist will say things like): ‘I don’t like hospitals, I don’t like sick people. Really, I’m so busy, this isn’t what I signed up for’. That’s what you’ll hear”
Dr Ramani Durvasula – see here
If you fall into the trap of thinking the narcissist will really be there for you if something really serious happens and you need support, this is what you’ll encounter.
When you see the most horrendous behavior of a narcissist up close, you’ll often think something like “there’s a hole where their soul should be”. What’s really missing here is the lack of any kind of authentic emotional empathy, where they feel on a visceral, emotional, somatic level, the hurtful consequences of their actions and therefore don’t do those things.
In this sense, when you say a narcissist has no empathy, you’d be absolutely correct.
It is true that some narcissists can sometimes feel flickers of emotion like guilt or shame, that comes up from deep down inside the “narcissistic shell”. But this quickly dissipates and it’s clear these people don’t lie awake at night, thinking about how they’ve treated others. Put simply, it doesn’t bother them how they behave towards others, and in this sense, they have no empathy.
The Narcissist Does Have Cognitive Empathy
Having said all this about a narcissist’s lack of emotional empathy, the picture will still be confusing for people who’ve dealt with them up close. Because they also do show signs of having some kind of empathy, in the sense of understanding and appearing attuned to others.
This is because empathy needn’t necessarily be emotional. It can be purely cognitive in the sense that a person can understand intellectually and logically how a person behaves, what they like/dislike, what hurts them etc, but not have this understanding contaminated with any emotional component.
It remains a purely intellectual understanding of the motivations/drives/preferences of others, and in this aspect, narcissists have excellent empathic ability. It’s what allows them to be so controlling and manipulative.
Here are some examples of this:
- Narcissists who spend any prolonged period of time around someone learn very well what motivates that person. What they like, what drives them, what their vanities are, what their dream/goals are, what their preferences are. They are perfectly capable of attuning to people in the “honeymoon” phase, and “mapping” very well what that person is all about.
- Narcissists tend to be excellent sales people, able to very effectively “mirror” others (which requires some form of empathy and is designed to build empathy), and tell them what they want to hear. They know very well how others work.
- They are also very adept at scanning people for weaknesses, vanities, unresolved traumas and “pain points”, and filing them away to use later on when needed.
- In short, they very good at profiling and scanning people, both strengths and weaknesses, and using this understanding to manipulate others for their own benefit.
- Narcissists also display that they know very well how, people work and how the world works. In this sense, they’re not clueless robots who need leading through life. They understand human interaction and don’t need it explaining to them why someone did/said something in any given scenario (more on this below).
- Hoovering – during the so called “hoovering phase” when a narcissist is trying to win back an ex, they’ll demonstrate that despite all their past hurtful behavior, they knew very well all along what the person wanted from them before (what hurt them, what they wanted, how they wanted them to behave/not behave, the person they wanted them to be/not be). Because the whole hoovering act involves them temporarily being who you wanted them to be before, though it never lasts (don’t fall for this act).
While it’s also true that narcissists have ZERO concept of deeper level ideals like growth, meaning, vocation and purpose (they’re solely power and emotional reaction fixated), they DO know how to scan and map individuals very well in terms of their more basic drives/motives/vulnerabilities.
In this sense, they have excellent cognitive empathy, and it actually makes sense that they’d have this ability. To be able to “profile” someone psychologically and know their weaknesses especially, is to be able to more easily manipulate and control that person down the line, which is what narcissists tend to do longer term.
A Simple Test For Cognitive Empathy With Narcissists
If you’re in close contact with a narcissist on a regular basis, you can actually pretty easily test out what we stated above about a narcissist’s ability to at least cognitively understand and empathize with the actions of others. They will demonstrate to you on a daily basis that they DO know why people do the things they do and say the things they say.
Personality disorder expert Richard Grannon put it this way:
“(I’ve been in) highly abusive relationships with girlfriends who were co-morbid with different conditions……highly, highly narcissistic people.
But, when we would watch a Netflix show or a movie, they never failed to understand the motivation of every single character in the film or TV series. They never stopped watching the show and turned to me and said ‘I don’t understand why Timothy said that to Olivia in that moment’.
They know perfectly well how the world works. They know what good and bad is. All of this (rubbish) that narcissists gas-light you with – ‘it’s different in my culture’, ‘it’s a language barrier’, ‘it’s an age difference’, ‘it’s a difference of perception’, – it’s garbage. It’s gas-lighting.
They understand other people’s situations, even when they’re fictional, perfectly well. But when you pick them up on something that they did, and they can’t deny the evidence of it, (they say) ‘oh well, I don’t really understand’, ‘that’s not how I was raised’….
And you’ll be thinking ‘are they brain damaged? Do they have PTSD? Are they autistic? Why is it that they don’t understand simple communication when the context shifts and it’s about them?’
Because they do understand perfectly well, and you’re being lied to”
Richard Grannon – see here
Try the same thing in your own own life, or just observe what’s happened in the past, and you’ll find this is true. Narcissists understand perfectly well the motivations of others, as well as the values and morals of society. In this sense, the “empathy” question almost becomes moot.
I love this quote because it’s a great way of bypassing this entire issue of narcissists and the yes/no empathy empathy question, and not get caught up in obsessing about it if you’re engaging with one of these personality types.
Bottom line – they know full well that what they are doing is hurtful, abusive and wrong. In this sense, there are no excuses for their behavior, even if they have little or zero emotional connection with this understanding.