**Disclaimer: This article may be triggering to some readers, and it touches on narcissistic abuse. Please keep in mind the information in this blog is strictly opinion. This article is not meant for the reader to internalize, nor is it meant to diagnose or treat any condition. Further, this article is not intended to be used as a tool to try and call out someone for narcissism. PLEASE do not share this article and say "look, you're a narcissist." If you are the victim of abuse, narcissistic or otherwise, please seek proper help.
I got the idea to create this post after watching Dr. Ramani Durvasula's informative video on this subject, and I will link her channel here so you can check her out for yourself. I love her straight, no-nonsense approach to personality disorders, specifically about narcissism.
As I was listening to the particular video titled 'Narcissists Who Are CONVINCED They Have Empathy,' I realized that this is a very common mindset for narcissists. I really enjoyed this particular video because it got me thinking and engaging in self-reflection. I got to the point of thinking, "It doesn't matter that my therapist says I'm not narcissistic, I must be narcissistic." It really is a thought provoking video and I encourage you to look it up to check it out.
It also got me thinking about how I've heard from some of my past clients referencing their partners who claim to be so empathic and also have lots of empathy, yet they appear to reveal narcissism through their words and behavior. I've had a few questions come my way over the past few months related to what if someone is a narcissist but they're saying they're an empath, so I think today is a good day for this post.
Understanding narcissism can provoke healthy self-reflection
Every person has a bit of narcissism within us as a survival mechanism otherwise we'd give away all of our food and clothes, and we would cease to survive.
There are even some careers in which narcissism is said to be helpful. Careers in which separating one's self from emotions can be thought of as a positive such as being the CEO of a company, managing a business, being a surgeon, piloting a plane, and so on. In other words, jobs where being fearless is required.
So that got me thinking... I'm not fearless, and who's ever heard of a life coach who sells one appointment and then talks to their clients for free the rest of the time? No wonder I don't earn any money. Maybe I'm not a narcissist.
Then I thought, but who's ever heard of someone calling themselves an empath/star seed/ascended/light worker/whatever anyway, that is pretty arrogant, don't you think?
No, those were terms suggested to me.
Except I agreed with them so I have to be a narcissist.
But I don't refer to myself as those labels... and I supposedly don't check the boxes for what creates a narcissist.
But there have been plenty of times I've realized I'm in the wrong by saying something narcissistic so I must be a narcissist.
Except I catch myself and realize, and apologize, so maybe I'm not one...?
As you can see, her videos bring much self-reflection as well as valuable information.
Am I narcissistic? I hope not. I don't want to be because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.
The thing is, they say a narcissist won't do the same kind of self-reflection that a non-narcissist will do because of the empathy piece. Narcissists have a pretty good grip on cognitive empathy, meaning they understand what their narcissistic behavior will cause and how someone might respond to it, but they lack the affective empathy which is the understanding of the feelings that other people have.
In other words, it isn't just about HOW narcissistic words or behavior can hurt another person, it's WHY it will hurt them, and why not to do or say the narcissistic thing because it will hurt them. It's about understanding the feelings of the other person, and how their feelings and the narcissistic abuse may impact them in the present, but also in the long run. It's about understanding and awareness.
How can a narcissist believe they're empathic?
I realize that there's some narcissism built into all of us for the reason of survival as described above, but I'm talking about narcissistic personality in today's post.
So, what do you do if the narcissist in your life - a friend, family member, loved one, romantic partner, whomever - truly believes they're an empath?
In today's post we're discussing when someone who has very little empathy comes to believe that they're extremely empathic, and according to Ramani, may even walk around telling everyone just how wonderfully empathic they are.
I could be wrong, but I feel like this may be linked in some situations to spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is a defense mechanism. It occurs when your feelings are dismissed by being given spiritual excuses. Spiritual bypassing is defined as: "the tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."
Basically, when a narcissist thinks they're an empath it can be a bit shocking to imagine this would be possible. This happens though due to the narcissist's lack of self-awareness and empathy. Sounds ironic, doesn't it? If a narcissist lacks empathy, then how could they ever think they're an empath?
The narcissist has a skewed self-perception and lacks awareness
The narcissist is not aware of, and does not care about how their behaviors impact other people so negatively. Their personal picture of self-identity is shaped by external influences.
In other words, the narcissist cares more about the way they appear to the outside world (and won't be shy to tell you) versus caring about how they make others feel. The narcissist has a propensity toward grandiosity. And again, they're not going to be shy about making that clear to you.
This occurs because narcissists both underestimate as well as overestimate their impact on others, as well as the way that others perceive them.
Narcissists in general, especially those who believe that they're empaths, will always underestimate the harm they cause to others.
In her videos, Ramani explains that the self-appraisal of the narcissist is almost always inaccurate. She explains that the narcissist will oftentimes be very sensitive to criticisms, they will be dismissive of your feelings and views, and they will tend to gas light you, should you attempt to correct them or challenge their views.
By contrast, the narcissist who views themselves as an empath can be skilled at framing their behavior as positive versus negative, or believe that their bad behavior isn't actually bad. Also, the narcissist can oftentimes tend to overestimate how much they have generously helped others, and how positive their influence has been on others.
What the "empathic" narcissist thinks
The "empathic" narcissist will view themselves as being wonderful and "such a great person" due to their distorted vision of themselves and lack of self-awareness, not to mention the fact that they're often oblivious to the way they are actually being perceived by the world around them. I find this to be quite ironic because it's image that narcissists care so much about, yet their vision of themselves is so skewed.
The narcissist will think to themselves or even say, "I am so nice to my friends and family, I do so much for others, I called so and so when they were sick, I donated to the soup kitchen," and so on. However, if they truly believed that they're nice people, then they wouldn't become so triggered when someone else challenges their views or questions them.
Due to their skewed views, a narcissist will oftentimes believe that everyone adores them. While it is not uncommon for people to be polite and tolerate a narcissist out of plain annoyance or fear and the desire to keep the peace, a narcissist doesn't see this, and sometimes can't admit to themselves that this is happening. Because of this narcissistic mindset, the narcissist will often challenge others such as publicly shaming their partner, under the assumption that others around them will take their side - because they are so adored. Yet, shaming others is a very narcissistic behavior, and others see it.
Why it's impossible to have a real conversation about empathy with a narcissist
If you were to suggest that you're experiencing difficulty in your relationship with a narcissist because they lack empathy, they likely will not believe you. This is because narcissists truly believe they have empathy. Not only that, but they believe that they possess a lot of empathy, and some even believe that they're an empath.
Narcissists are aware that being an empath is a socially desirable quality, so they want to present an image to the world around them that they are scoring high in the realm of empathy.
Narcissists can fake empathy long enough to get what they want, which is terrifying. They're excellent actors. When a narcissist calls themselves an empath as an excuse for their poor behavior, it can be stunning since they have such little empathy. Unfortunately, if a person is trauma-bonded, then they may very well believe the narcissist's demeaning comments or believe that the narcissist is truly empathic which puts them at risk for further abuse.
Why would a narcissist believe they're an empath?.
While it's possible that different types of narcissists might want to refer to themselves as being empathic, the covert narcissist is sometimes the culprit.
The covert narcissist can sometimes only loosely fit the stereotype of a garden variety pathological narcissist, so they are oftentimes extremely hard to spot. They are hypersensitive to criticism. While a narcissist may lack self-awareness, the narcissist can also still be extremely perceptive in certain ways.
This type of narcissist engages in a high amount of time doing image management in order to come across to the world as extremely virtuous, kind, caring, giving, generous and loving.
It is said that the covert narcissist understands his or her own core wounds, and likely possesses a history of childhood trauma so they're at least aware of how trauma can impact another person. (Cognitive empathy.)
It's further said that this variety of narcissist can be extremely intelligent, and seeks for an understanding as to why they feel they've been victimized by others throughout their lives. Some believe that this type of narcissist may tend to seek out psychology and spirituality as a form of protection regarding their own accountability.
Some covert narcissists will claim to be empaths for the purposes of justifying their extreme internal sensitivities as well as their perceptive awareness. Some will also seek to claim empathic superiority over others, which may be a protective defense mechanism.
It is further said that because this type of narcissist truly believes that they're empathic versus accepting the possibility that they may actually be delusional, others may believe them too. Others may tend to believe that they are empathic because the covert narcissist is so well versed in presenting themselves to the world, and due to the fact that they literally believe their own delusions.
How can you tell if you're dealing with a narcissist such as this?
It is speculated that many narcissists believe that they're empathic, or at least possess a high level of empathy. Again, this is incredibly ironic because it's the low or lacking of empathy that basically defines the personality of a narcissist, doesn't it? So, how can we tell if we're dealing with a narcissist if someone tells us that they are empathic?
Since you're reading this article, I'm guessing you think you may have a narcissist in your life. You probably also have a pretty good amount of empathy yourself, and you may even be wondering if you're the narcissist in the equation. The thing is, if you're self-reflecting and blaming yourself, you're likely not the narcissistic person in your situation.
Setting boundaries can help you determine if you're dealing with a narcissist. Particularly, setting and resetting firm boundaries. You see, a narcissist has little to no regard for the boundaries of others. If you were to, for example, disagree with your narcissistic boss, it would reveal rather quickly whether or not they're a narcissist or an empath.
An empath will, even if initially a bit embarrassed or taken aback by being challenged with a comment, still consider that the other person can be correct, or they'll understand that there may actually exist the potential for more than one "right" answer to a situation.
Rather than deflecting, the empath will consider your opinions and views as being potentially valid. They will not invalidate you; rather, they will open a healthy dialogue and try to understand your perspective.
If they attempt to force you to agree, or try to flip the situation around by deflecting or somehow point shame or blame toward you, if they attempt to intimidate or embarrass you, if they give you a mean-spirited rebuttal as a negative reaction such as, "wow, you're triggered, maybe you need to seek insight into yourself," then this may be a sign that they are not empathic and instead, may be narcissistic.
If you find yourself agreeing to things that you'd normally say no to, especially with regard to pacing a romantic relationship, this may be an indication of the narcissist's manipulative tactics having an impact on you.
One main difference between empaths and narcissists is that the narcissist will desire instant gratification and attention. Narcissists are known for arranging their lives around receiving gratification and attention, and oftentimes rely heavily on others for exactly that. If one says "no" to a covert narcissist or sets strong personal boundaries, the narcissist may try to engage a sense of urgency within you in order to use you as narcissistic supply for that attention and gratification they so intensely seek.
Alternatively, an empathic person will not trample over someone's boundaries, nor would they attempt to seek attention or gratification.
Take note of the person's responses/reactions around you as these may help you indicate whether you're dealing with a narcissist or an empathic person.
For example, if you're upset or angry, an empath will immediately care about your feelings as well as the cause. While covert narcissists often mimic the soothing and reassurance behaviors of true empaths, the person on the receiving end may still have a sense that the narcissist does not actually care about their feelings.
Covert narcissists may internalize your frustration, and may be triggered by it. They may attempt to make you feel guilty for "playing the victim" or "being too sensitive" or "not focusing on the bright side," and so on.
This can be difficult because it makes us rely on our own empathic ability and our own feelings about the person and the situation. It's the true empath's inherent wish to believe that everyone is good, at least a little bit, and that everyone else thinks like we think (that pretty much everyone is inherently a good person and has positive, unselfish intentions.) It's this beautiful gift that you possess (empathy) which unfortunately can cause you to stay in unhealthy, toxic situations longer than you should.
Empaths may understand that their purpose on this planet is to help others, and to do as much good in this world as possible. Covert narcissists who frame themselves as, or believe that they are empaths may have the same belief, and similar to an empath, they won't be shy regarding expressing their objectives. However, when it comes to the narcissist, they will derive a great amount of supply from exactly this and will be oftentimes very image-focused.
An empath wishes to help others because it's the right thing to do. A narcissist will oftentimes wish to be in the role of helping others because doing so gives them a never-ending outlet of narcissistic supply, attention, appreciation and gratification.
In example, if you're someone who requires help that is above the narcissist's ability, they may not be forthcoming about this fact. For example, if someone comes to an empath and asks for assistance that the empath knows they're unable to provide, the empath will likely be kind and reassuring, but will suggest the person work with someone who is more qualified to help.
Because narcissists understand how to expertly mimic the empath by expressing aspects of their own path of growth and development, narcissism can sometimes be difficult to spot.
Narcissists will oftentimes describe their past accomplishments in helping others, as well as have an exaggerated view of their own path and experience. Duplicating a true empath's narrative, a narcissist will express a grand vision of their objectives of helping others.
Examples of verbiage can sound like, "I overcame ___ with merely happy thoughts," or "I achieved ___ with my positive intentions." As you can see, these statements might be heard by anyone who is speaking with an empath -or a narcissist. That said, it can be very hard to distinguish between the two. The above can also potentially relate back to the previously mentioned spiritual bypassing.
It's important to speak directly with the person to determine whether you're talking with an empath or a narcissist. A narcissist will oftentimes deflect or shift the conversation to another leg of the same subject, in an attempt to make themselves appear the empath, and deflect from any negative which might reflect on them.
What are some sigs to look for in covert narcissism versus an empath?
- The empath will help you create healthy boundaries. The narcissist will trigger your insecurities.
- The empath will show you empathy. The narcissist on the other hand will look empathetic and describe empathy, but may activate your trauma bonds.
- An empath engages in healthy relationship behaviors. There is no amount of relationship help on this planet that can "fix" a relationship with a narcissist.
- The narcissist will lead you on in cycles of "bread crumbing" and you may find yourself focusing on the few crumbs of good versus the large amount of bad in the situation or relationship.
- An empath is self-aware. A narcissist mimics self-awareness.
- When challenged, an empath will attempt to understand your perspective. A narcissist may deflect or blame-shift.
- An empath focuses on understanding, tolerance and kindness, while a narcissist is a bully - they know what they want and how to get it.
- An empath will water their own lawn so to speak while a narcissist will send over a bulldozer to squash any pastures they think may be greener.
- An empath will usually have a kind word. A narcissist will manipulate you with toxic positivity / spiritual bypassing.
Toxic positivity is when someone deflects you with toxicity, or suppresses your negative emotions with toxicity.
Example: "I'm having a hard day."
Kindness: "I'm sorry to hear that."
Or take it a step further: "I'm sorry to hear that, how can I help?"
Toxic Positivity: "It's the Mercury Retrograde, it'll get better."
Example: "My wife cheated, I don't know what to do."
Kindness: "I'm sorry you're going through this, that's a painful situation."
Or take it a step further: "I'm sorry you're going through this, that's a painful situation. Would you like to talk about it?"
Toxic Positivity: "At least you have a wife, what did you do to make her cheat?"
Or spiritual bypassing...
Example: "My boss fired me today."
Kindness: "I'm sorry. That's a really tough place to be."
Or take it a step further: "I'm sorry. That's a really tough place to be. I'm here for you, would you like to talk about it?"
Toxic Positivity/Spiritual Bypassing: "You always said you hated your boss anyway so it's a good thing. Don't worry, it's just your bad karma from when you did XYZ. You'll get another job."
In the above examples, the toxicity ignores the fact the person is feeling bad, blames them and puts a negative spin on the conversation by justifying the bad thing that occurred, thus invalidating the person's feelings even more.
Because narcissists are so unaware of their behavior and lack self-awareness, they're oblivious to how their behavior can impact other people. Also, it's speculated that some narcissists actually believe that they're doing or saying the right things, or are doing good, hence the belief that they're empaths.
Let's say a narcissist works with you and you've worked on a team project together. Oftentimes it's the narcissist who prefers to be the one in charge, which is why many narcissists choose roles in leadership, particularly when it comes to the workplace. If they see someone else is in charge, they may try to undermine that person as the narcissist desires to receive attention and may experience a narcissistic injury when they're not the one receiving positive attention, or enough positive attention in any given situation so far as their liking.
At the end of that project, the narcissist takes most of the credit for the work, and leaves your boss thinking that it's because of their work that the project was a success. This leaves out any credit to those on the team, though.
The narcissist will receive compliments and accolades from the boss, and then drop bread crumbs about those accolades to the other team members at work. The team members of course compliment the narcissist too, because they know what they're dealing with based on experience, but they have hurt feelings that they were not credited or appreciated for their contributions to the project.
However, if one of the team members speaks up and shares their feelings, the narcissist may engage in a spear campaign, the bully the narcissist happens to be, and enlist flying monkeys to assist them. The flying monkeys may or may not realize they're flying monkeys, and some may even go along with the bully narcissist because they do not want to end up on the receiving end of the narcissist's narcissistic rage. The narcissist will justify their skewed thinking. They truly believe that their views and opinions are the only that matter in the moment, and they justify their bad behavior based on their skewed views. The narcissist truly believe that they're in the right, due to believing they're an empath.
This is why narcissism is so very toxic, and how damaging it can be. I hope this helps explain the toxicity of narcissism pertaining to the empath. XO