If you said, “The what?!” when you saw the title of this article, you’re not alone. Empathic is not a typical descriptor of a narcissist.
Recently, someone I love sent me an email that read:
Is there such a thing as an empathic narcissist? Because, if there is, that’s me.
My knee-jerk reaction was to cite what I’d learned in grad school. That narcissists are incapable of empathy. That certainly my friend was not the oxymoron he thought he might be. But instead of responding with my knee-jerk, I took a moment.
The DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) is the mental health practitioner’s bible. Among many other things, it offers therapists checklists for diagnosing mood and personality disorders. If someone hits the magic number of diagnostic symptoms — voilá! — you’ve got yourself a solid mental health diagnosis. (Example: If you have 7/10 of these symptoms, you have x diagnosis.)
But what if it’s not always that simple? People are complex. We know that. And what if someone has not 7, but 6 of those markers. What then? Many in the mental health community would say that means the client doesn’t have the disorder. But I’m not so sure.
Is there such a thing as an empathic narcissist? I believe there is. Not because of what it means to be a narcissist, but because of what it means to be empathic. What evokes empathy in each of us is complex, singular, and multi-layered.
Think about what really moves you and gets your empathic muscles flexing. Is it kids being snatched from their parents at the border? Is it your neighbor’s cancer diagnosis? Is it your nephew’s Little League team losing their championship game? What elicits empathy in one person is the next person’s eye roll.
Personal example I’m ashamed of:
Years ago, a colleague’s dog was hit by a car and killed. Awful, right? But, at the time, I wasn’t what you’d exactly call a dog person and I didn’t have the empathic response one might expect under those circumstances. Fast forward, I’m now a dog lover and would be devastated to hear this story today. (Sorry, Ted Wayman. This is a long-overdue, heartfelt apology. So many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten my shitty response.)
So, what makes us feel empathy is not one size fits all. Narcissists are, indeed, notably unempathetic. But does that mean they don’t feel empathy when a plane goes down? Or when kids are killed in their schools? No, it does not. Because, like most people, the narcissist recognizes a ubiquitously painful event and can feel empathy for those involved.
Now, to be fair, narcissists are masters at personalizing events as well. So, their empathy may be borne of inserting themselves into the scenario. A narcissistic client of mine cried in my office when the Twin Towers fell. When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “Well, I could have been in one of those buildings!” True to narcissism, it was all about her.
Why does any of this matter?
Well, narcissism wreaks havoc on personal relationships. I’ve written about narcissists and why you should run from them as far and fast as your little legs will carry you. But when a narcissist expresses empathy, it’s confusing, right?
When we think of narcissists, we might think of someone like Gordon Gekko. We might think of certain politicians. And if we suspect someone close to us might be a narcissist, we might dismiss the warning signs because he visits sick kids in the hospital or she volunteers to foster rescue puppies. The empathic narcissist can throw us off the scent. Even when that person is practically wearing a sandwich board that says, Hello, I’m a narcissist! Let’s be in a dysfunctional relationship that revolves only around my needs and feelings!
Sometimes empathic narcissists are our biological family members, sometimes they’re our friends or coworkers. And, perhaps most challenging of all, sometimes they’re our partners or spouses.
If you suspect someone close to you is an empathic narcissist, pay close attention to what garners their empathy. If it’s usually big picture empathy like sick kids or abandoned puppies, you may be right. Because those are empathic no-brainers. No heavy lifting there.
Those who are truly empathic are sensitive to those around them and to the world at large — in matters both big and small. Empathic narcissists are incapable of that kind of empathy — the empathy that requires heavier lifting — the kind that matters the most in close relationships and requires a level of self-reflection completely foreign to the narcissist.
Being in a relationship with a empathic narcissist will never be what you deserve. Because, end of day, even though some narcissists can be empathic some of the time, they’re still narcissists all of the time.