If you wish to have solid relationships, empathy is an essential ingredient, though it is a skill that escapes individuals with a strong narcissistic bent.  Being self-absorbed, they do not prioritize knowing you beyond learning how to get what they want.  

True empathy is all about understanding the other person in meaningful ways so bridges can be built.  Empathic people appreciate our inevitable interconnection, so they communicate in ways that are mutually encouraging and beneficial.

Let’s highlight five key aspects of this trait, then afterward, we will contrast it to the narcissistic pattern of engagement.

  1. Empaths wish to know and explore the inner person.  They realize that much can be learned by looking beyond a person’s veneer, focusing instead on a person’s motives, emotional drivers, desires, and needs.  Unlike the narcissist, they are willing to be vulnerable, because connection (not power) is their desire.
  1. Empathy seeks context.  Each person’s behaviors and responses don’t just appear from nowhere, but they come with a back story.  Healthy individuals want to comprehend the influences in that person’s history so the relationship can move beyond mere judgments based upon outer measurables.
  1. Empathy seeks to be inclusive.  Unlike narcissists who think of themselves in exclusive terms, healthy people take delight knowing that variety is built into the entire human experience.  Conformity is minimized as acceptance is maximized.  Empathy implies a willingness to find common ground even when distinctions are quite apparent.
  1. Empathy is typified by curiosity.  Each person has varying values and operating principles, so empathic people like to learn what makes people tick.  They like finding new ways of understanding circumstances and are willing to examine another person’s “why.”
  1. Empathy is driven by the search for meaning.  Whereas narcissists treat others in a transactional fashion, empaths think: “How can we engage with each other so it enhances our quality of life?”  They hope to become a force for good.

It is important to note that there are different layers to empathy. 

It has a cognitive component as it seeks facts about people and circumstances.  It has an affective component, in the sense of being tuned into emotions and needs.  And it has a compassionate component, in the sense of laying the groundwork for goodness and mutual regard.  

Do you see that empathy transcends narcissistic cravings?  The craving for control?  The insistence upon correctness?  The need to judge? The chronic posturing?  Trying to look impressive?  Developing empathy requires a sense of “us” that overrides the focus on Me.

Narcissists (especially those of the covert variety) might mimic the cognitive component since they are interested in knowing how to get what they want from others.  But since narcissism lacks love, affective and compassionate motives are close to nonexistent.  

Empathy is foreign to narcissists for a variety of reasons.  For instance:

  • They insist upon simplicity over complexity. “You should think, feel, and prioritize like me, period.”
  • They are not interested in giving and serving.  Even when they are helpful, time reveals a hidden taker’s motive. 
  • Unlike empathy, narcissism is so strongly defined by egotism, they can hardly make room for the needs of anyone who is too “other.”
  • Narcissists push their version of correctness with little consideration for nuance.  Being right (according to their narrow notions) is what matters most.
  • Control, exploitation, and selfishness is so baked into their manner of life that they are unwilling to harmonize with anyone who is not of the same ilk.
  • Narcissists are defined by the inability to trust, impenetrable defenses, and closed-mindedness.
  • Because anger is so automatic, they respond to differences not with a mind of steadiness, but of discord.

Identifying the core ingredients of empathy, then contrasting them with the patterns within narcissism, is it any wonder that they cannot connect at the heart level in any meaningful, sustained fashion? 

Then, making matters even more futile, narcissists are not teachable. 

Rather than weighing the pro’s and con’s of empathy versus self-absorption, they are too psychologically lazy to do the work of personal growth.

Even as narcissists overlook the essential quality of empathy, you can nonetheless give it highest priority.  Seek to know and understand narcissists as clearly as possible, then when they prove incapable of matching pitch, adjust your expectations and move forward with those who want to connect in a healthy fashion.

~Les Carter, Ph.D.

To watch the video on this topic, click here.