- A primary feature of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a lack of empathy in interpersonal relationships.
- A person with strong narcissistic tendencies is preoccupied with his or her image and engages in manipulation to inflate it.
- A narcissist is able to display sympathy for others, but lacks empathy for a partner.
- A narcissist often needs to be in control and acts as the "hero" in order to avoid truly feeling for others.
The discrepancy between a narcissist’s treatment of acquaintances and his interactions with loved ones is often confusing. The world views him as a “hero,” but his lack of empathy and need to project guilt and shame onto those closest to him causes extreme anxiety in the people for whom he is meant to care. This routinely causes a person involved with a narcissist to wonder if the toxic interactions are his or her fault. In addition, he often brags about the great admiration and respect he garners, which may be perplexing for a loved one who experiences intense and ongoing difficulties in relation to him.
There are three explanations for a narcissist’s backward style of relating. First, a narcissist works hard to create a favorable public opinion for himself. Like a politician, he performs kind acts and is sympathetic when others are present or when he can advertise his good deeds on social media. Swooping in to “save the day” reinforces the glowing image he is attempting to create for himself, which inflates his ego and confuses the people who experience him differently.
Second, a narcissist may be skilled at managing relationships that do not require closeness; however, he is frequently inept regarding affairs of the heart. A narcissist’s extreme and unconscious defensive structure prevents him from experiencing the deep and uncomfortable emotions necessary to sustain closeness, such as empathy, insight, self-awareness, and sincere remorse.
His rigid defensive structure acts as a forcefield, deflecting and projecting anything that taxes his self-esteem. For this reason, he is unable to look at himself in a relationship, which prevents him from authentically taking responsibility for selfish and hurtful acts. Occasionally, when his back is against the wall, he gives lip service to admitting fault and feigns remorse, but continually repeats the same hurtful behaviors.
Third, a narcissist may be capable of sympathy but lacks empathy. Possessing empathy for a loved one is key to the health and vitality of the relationship. Empathy is simply setting aside personal feelings for a moment to put oneself in a loved one’s shoes to gain and communicate a sincere understanding of what he or she is feeling.
Why narcissists struggle with empathy
Although empathy may be temporarily emotionally taxing, it is worth the effort because a loved one feels understood, comforted, and less alone in his or her plight. He or she feels close to the person who “gets it” and is better able to think through a problem or engage in an activity that will continue to help him or her feel better. A narcissist often lacks empathy because he defends himself against uncomfortable emotions and thus fails to resonate with the other person’s emotional state. Typically, he does so by constantly redirecting the conversation back to what he is feeling.
For example, a narcissistic mom says to her adolescent daughter, “Don’t you dare. I drove you all the way to this tournament and sat here all day for you. I’m exhausted, and I do not want to see tears because you lost.”
Conversely, the mom with empathy senses her daughter’s intense disappointment, recalls what this feels like, and aches a bit for her child. Gently and softly, she communicates her understanding to her daughter, “You are so disappointed. I get it. I would be too. You really wanted this. Keep at it, though. Next time it may be different. You are a good player, and you are brave for going out there in the first place. I’m proud of you.”
The first response is self-centered, and the second is empathic. The unemphatic response may cause additional pain, loneliness, and the desire to quit in a loved one. Alternatively, the empathic response usually soothes and empowers him or her.
The narcissistic parent usually arrives home and brags about spending the day supporting her child at a tennis tournament, which leads people to believe she is a selfless and caring mother. Yet, her lack of empathy and attempt to inflict guilt and shame cause significant emotional pain in her daughter.
Empathy versus sympathy
Although a narcissist usually lacks empathy, he is capable of experiencing sympathy. Sympathizing is helpful in many situations but may not be the most effective tool in an interpersonal relationship. Experiencing pity for others is doable for a person who has narcissistic tendencies because it does not require him to access difficult emotions.
Feeling sorry for someone may place distance in the relationship because it can create a power differential and is situational. A person who pities another person is often thinking, “I am glad that is not me,” or “That would never happen to me because I’m…” as opposed to resonating with the person’s emotional state as a fellow human being who has felt the same emotion at some point in the past.
Sympathy often tempts a person to save another individual from his or her situation, which inflates the sympathizer’s ego because he becomes the “hero.” However, in many instances, a hero is only heroic if there is a “victim” to rescue. Treating a person as a victim in place of understanding, empathizing, and empowering often strips the person of his or her self-efficacy.
For example, say the mom in the scenario above feels sorry for her daughter. Instead of empathizing, she blames her daughter’s opponent for cheating. She confronts the opposing coach in front of her daughter and screams at him for his player’s behavior.
Her daughter, then, is led to believe the loss was not her fault, and she was the victim of foul play. In place of working hard for the next practice, she spends hours lamenting and complaining about how the other player is at fault. She learns to protect her self-esteem by displacing blame onto others. Denying her flaws, she fails to evolve because she is convinced she is a perpetual victim and, therefore, entitled to a free pass.
A narcissist often treats acquaintances like gold and loved ones with disdain. It is common for him to put more energy into fluffing up his image than in maintaining quality interactions with the people in his daily life. His continual struggle with empathy and accountability makes sustaining and protecting a loving bond almost impossible. It is important to assess his motivation for change. If he is committed to improving his relationships, he may need support and professional assistance.