The Role of Empathy in Healthy Narcissism.

We all have narcissistic qualities and we need them. In a healthy individual, these are the qualities that allow us to have a healthy appreciation for our self, our appearance and our capabilities. We feel special to those who are significant to us and we know how to maintain healthy interpersonal connections and boundaries. If we did not have some level of healthy narcissism we would find it very difficult to function and believe we are worthy of the care and consideration of others.

However, there are those who never get past the need to be “special” all the time–those whose demand for attention and approval dominate everyone else’s. These people are often said to have “Narcissistic Personality Disorder“, a designation that includes a whole laundry list of symptoms and generally pejorative characteristics.  Seth Myers, Psy.D. (not the TV personality) puts forward the idea that the central feature of clinical Narcissism is that those afflicted are afraid of emotional vulnerability; they are afraid of looking weak, or less than, anyone else.  As a consequence, they are always trying to dominate and be superior to those around them.

As someone who encounters many narcissistic individuals (their spouses drag them into couple’s therapy because they are so hard to live with), I would say that while there is a lot of truth to this, I do not see this as the central feature of this disorder. To me, the defining, and causative, characteristic is that the narcisssist is lacking empathy–and this is what leads to their profound insecurity and need to conceal their vulnerability.

We don’t know exactly what causes the kind of overgrowth of narcissism that leads to someone like Donald Trump, for example, extolling the merits of the chocolate cake he is eating while consigning dozens of Syrians to a fiery death, but this kind of jaw-dropping insensitivity seems, to me, the more significant hallmark of this disorder.

In my experience, a common feature of the childhood of such an individual is that, at some point under the age of five, they, themselves, were subjected to a severe level of neglect, insensitivity and/or abuse by the caretakers who were supposed to give them enough undivided attention and empathy to last them a lifetime (what we call, “narcissistic supplies”).  As a consequence, the person never develops a sense of themselves in relation to the other; because they were treated as if their own feelings did not matter, they feel deeply injured and deprived. And because there was no responsible adult to model caring behaviour, or to teach the child that their behaviour has consequences on the feelings of those around them, they do not develop empathy. For the rest of their lives their behaviour resembles that of an aggrieved toddler–charming one minute and a tantrum-throwing monster the next.

We seldom think about how important empathy is in everyday interactions with those around us, but if we do not have it, we are literally head-blind. In almost every interaction with others, we use empathy (the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes) to give us a sense of how we are being received. We carefully scan the faces and body language of others to get clues about how they are reacting to us, and without really thinking about it, use our own feelings as a gauge to help us decipher their probable reaction to our words and behaviour.  Most of us resist saying hurtful things to those we care about because empathy makes us reluctant to visit upon them something we would find hurtful ourselves.

But someone who never learned empathy is blind to the way their behaviour affects others, and when you try to tell them, they do not have the capacity to care. Their own sense of deprivation and grievance takes up the entire horizon of their experience and they cannot put their own feelings aside to consider the feelings of others. This is why, when you attempt to tell such a person how they have hurt you, they will invariable accuse you of attacking them.  It’s crazy-making and a very effective way of maintaining control of any interpersonal interaction.

I believe this is why someone who is excessively narcissistic avoids vulnerability and why they must maintain control at all times. Underneath a superficial veneer of superiority, there is nothing but emotional wreckage. They know they are deeply flawed, but gaining insight means first getting in touch with the searing pain and shame of their trauma. And, lacking empathy, they see no reward in allowing themselves the kind of vulnerability that would permit intimate connection, because they have never been able to have a deep connection with another human being and cannot imagine what they have to gain. Thus, their symptoms are interlocking and self-reinforcing and there is no way out of their isolation and pain.

We tend to be very judgemental of narcissists in public discourse, but the reality is actually much more tragic. Many of the people who fall into this category are what I would call, “well meaning narcissists”, in the sense that they really want to be good people and take care of those closest to them. They do not choose to be “head-blind” to the feelings of others and often navigate through life by creating rigid sets of rules and principles that serve to disguise and help moderate their lack of empathy and compassion. A surprising number go into caring professions like nursing, child-care and yes, even psychotherapy.  They sincerely try to be, and often believe themselves to be, good people.  The best!  And they do not understand why other people get so angry with them.

Empathy, while not a trait exclusive to human beings, is the trait which binds us together and prevents extremes of anti-social behaviour. Lacking this, those who are excessively narcissistic go through life in a fog of confusion, afraid to connect with their own inner experience and thus, unable to connect to others’. Their resistance to vulnerability is based on their inability to be empathic even with their own imperfect humanity–and this leaves them with a special kind of loneliness that is only relieved by a belief in their superiority to others.

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If you would like to read Seth Myers very interesting take on “The Roots Of Narcissism” you can read it here:

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