Lack of Empathy: A Big Red Flag
We know that narcissists demand attention and admiration, will take advantage, and feel contempt for others, but did you know they also lack empathy?
Empathy is “the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than your own” (acuityinsights 2020). When we’re empathetic, we actively share in a person’s emotional experience. That’s different from sympathy, when we feel concerned about another’s suffering but maintain our emotional distance.
Narcissists often reveal this deficiency during times of crisis, conflict, or high stress. When they’re pressured or stressed, controlling emotions becomes more difficult, and the absence of empathy is obvious. If you observe, you’ll notice that any high-pressure situation demonstrates how shallow their emotional connections really are. There is a noticeable lack of empathy, or caring, about others’ well-being.
What a Lack of Empathy Looks Like
Narcissists’ emotions are often unstable, intense, and out of proportion to the situation. They are often described as being “challenging” to interact with. They can be defensive, envious, manipulative, and condescending, and they believe they “know everything.” It is crucial for them to appear as prestigious, powerful, and superior. They’re extremely susceptible to criticism and shame and protect their sense of self, the false face/false self, at any cost, including using aggression or physical abuse.
In previous posts, I talked about the importance of validation for healthy communication. Validating others in a conversation shows that you are listening and want to understand their feelings and perspectives, even when you disagree. Because narcissists need to feel superior and “right” in every situation, they’re not interested in hearing or understanding your point of view. This, combined with their lack of empathy, means that a narcissist will not be able to validate you.
Narcissists believe that every nasty thing they do is justified or is someone else’s fault. They can’t experience remorse because remorsefulness requires empathy, sympathy, and taking responsibility for actions.
They don’t feel guilt, and so will not apologize for their actions. To feel guilty, one must feel both empathy and remorse and also own up to hurtful actions. These are all outside of a narcissist’s emotional skillset.
Narcissism has no known cure, but those on the narcissism spectrum don’t usually seek therapy because they don’t think they need it. If they seek treatment, it’s generally because it’s been requested (or mandated) by a third party or is personally sought because of interpersonal or professional difficulty or conflict.
NPD Personality Traits
Narcissists hold a distorted self-image and have “high-conflict” personalities. They do things that most of us would not, such as thoughtlessly spending other people’s money, humiliating a child in public, sabotaging a coworker, or verbally attacking a stranger (Eddy 2018).
They consider themselves superior and are comfortable with “putting down,” insulting, and demeaning others in order to feel powerful or boost their self-image. They tend to be selfish and do not reciprocate kind gestures or invitations. They’re demanding, needing almost constant admiration and attention from anyone in their vicinity (this is called obtaining narcissistic supply).
Additionally, they waste time trying to impress anyone who will listen. They break promises, make excuses, and take credit for others’ ideas or work. They enjoy bullying and are willing to speak disapprovingly of someone behind their back but only have positive things to say in their presence. All of these traits can make narcissists exhausting for those of us who live and work with them.
So Why is Empathy Important?
When talking about narcissism, it’s important to understand what the term “empathy” means and the role it plays in a narcissist’s relationship dynamics. A lack of empathy can be described as “unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” This lack is a characteristic of narcissism. The lack of empathy is a big red flag.
In the field of social psychology, it is understood that there are two kinds of empathy: cognitive and emotional. When we feel an emotion that someone else is feeling, it is emotional empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place and feel what they’re feeling. If you see someone crying, and it makes you feel sad, you’re experiencing emotional empathy.
What Does Emotional Empathy Require?
To feel emotional empathy, a person must have the ability to:
- Feel the same emotion as another person (for example, seeing someone embarrass themselves and feeling embarrassed for them.)
- Feel distressed in response to another person’s feelings
- Feel compassion for another person
Feeling emotional empathy can be extremely distressing. When we feel pain resulting from somebody else’s emotions, it can shake us. There’s also a balance to be sought and maintained when it comes to feeling for others. We can’t allow our empathy for others to negatively impact our own lives.
Narcissists are more likely to use cognitive empathy rather than emotional empathy. It’s essential to understand the difference (Baskin-Sommers, Krusemark, and Ronningstam 2014).
Cognitive empathy is the ability to have an intellectual understanding that someone may be feeling a particular emotion while not feeling anything in response to this knowledge. Narcissists are able to see another’s perspective and respond in a manner that most benefits them. This requires a rudimentary understanding and basic knowledge of emotions (Hodges and Myers, 2007).
When a narcissist uses a simple visual perspective to guess what someone’s feeling, they’re using cognitive empathy. In other words, if they can look at a person and notice that their eyes are swollen and red, probably from crying, they may correctly guess that the person is feeling sad. This type of empathy has nothing to do with actually feeling anything themselves. So, if a narcissist knows someone well enough, they can guess how that person feels, and they’ll also have a pretty good idea of how to use that information to hurt that individual too.
Daniel Goleman (author of the book “Emotional Intelligence”), writes in his blog that torturers need to have a good sense of cognitive empathy to figure out how to hurt a person best.
Similarly, if a narcissist acts kindly, they may be feeling around for hopes, wishes, and dreams to use later to inflict pain intentionally. They can’t understand how we feel, but they know that they’re in control at that moment and have the power to hurt us.
A notable point of interest here is the consideration of an “empathy gene.” The gene was first referenced in research published in Translational Psychiatry on March 12, 2018, and is said to be the most extensive genetic study done on empathy to date. The study found that our degree of empathy is at least partly due to genetics.
Could you be feeling the effects of Narcissism Awareness Grief? Download the free chapter to find out:
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How the False Face Imitates Empathy
The false face can imitate emotions and empathy, which is great for narcissists because they appear to be kind, caring, and compassionate. But secretly, the false face is threatened by anything perceived as criticism, and narcissists are terribly concerned with how other’s think about and understand them. The false self is typically anxious, judgmental, and insecure overall. At the same time, it believes it is more acceptable and lovable than the real self. Narcissists don’t like themselves and can’t accept their authentic selves.
Because the false face allows narcissists to appear kind, compassionate, and empathetic, they’re highly invested in preserving this image. It’s important for them to keep the false face intact and “on” at any cost. The people in a narcissist’s environment will always serve as a form of narcissistic supply, manipulated into feeding this false image, enabling the charade to continue.
Most narcissists will never know whether they’re on the NPD spectrum or have full-blown NPD because they don’t seek treatment and will never benefit from a professional diagnosis. They believe their problems are caused by others and don’t accept personal responsibility. They are blamers, so they are not able to see their own role in any of their interpersonal problems.
Tools to Move Forward
Learn about codependency and unhealthy survival skills learned in childhood
Understand Narcissism Awareness Grief
Understand the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Learn to set boundaries
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Find out what trauma does to your brain
Understand Cognitive Dissonance
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences Quiz
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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