This is part 4 of my second series about the similarities and differences between those with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. Here is part 1. Here is part 2. Here is part 3. To see a list of the 10 parts of the first series, click here and view the top of the post.
The narcissist lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
The American Psychiatric Association's DSM-IV
Lack of empathy is one of the most striking features of people with narcissistic personality disorder. It's a hallmark of the disorder in the same way that fear of abandonment is in borderline personality disorder.
"Narcissists do not consider the pain they inflict on others; nor do they give any credence to others' perceptions," says Dr. Les Carter in the book Enough of You, Let's Talk About Me (p. 9). "They simply do not care about thoughts and feelings that conflict with their own." Do not expect them to listen, validate, understand, or support you.
This is exacerbated when the person has a touch of antisocial personality disorder. Then it becomes frightening, as in this all-too-common example. A woman says:
He would abuse the dog in front of his 11-year-old daughter by repeatedly pushing the shocking collar and making the dogs wail. The daughter would scream and wave her hands and if I hadn't been there to take the control away from my husband I don't know how long he would have kept doing it.
Let's look at what this means on a more moderate basis. Here are examples from partners of narcissists:
- He would actually get mad at me if I was sick. I said, "I sat here with you for days when you were depressed and couldn't get out of bed. And now you can't even be a little nice to me when I am sick?"
- My partner would hurt my feelings just when things were going well. When I would question him about it, he would make up excuses and tell me I'm wrong for feeling the way I did, and if I didn't like it there was something wrong with me.
- I could spend an hour detailing how I felt hurt and she would sit there, cold as ice. When it was her turn to speak, she tore down every word that came out of my mouth until I had to apologize for expressing how I felt. I ignored this red flag and made excuses to myself and others.
Note that narcissists can pick up on social cues and can "fake it" when necessary. Aside from looking "normal," the hope is that they will get something back. Partners said:
- He has made adaptations that allow him to "appear" to be thoughtful and concerned about others. Early in our marriage, he would ask me what I would like to do. Then one day it dawned on me that while he asked, we never ended up following my suggestions! When I mentioned this to him, he had a crestfallen appearance and behaved like child who had been caught doing something wrong.
- I think that faux empathy stems from a number of things. A need to fit in, socially--to appear like a feeling, caring person is certainly one of them. In some cases, it's probably an acquired social skill, albeit a superficial one. Like learning which utensil to use when dining in polite company. In other cases, it's a means to getting what you want from people.
- She had "intellectual" empathy: almost as if she knew she should react that way. She didn't feel it at the soul/being level. She knew the words, but couldn't hear the emotional music of our relationship.
This lack of empathy is so foreign to us--even some animals show evidence of empathy--that shocking instances can break through the denial and the hoping that one day we will get our turn. While it may leave us outraged, hurt, and feeling betrayed, it can be an eye-opening incident that we really need to acknowledge the limitations of individuals with NPD. As painful as it can be, though, we no longer feel as confused by the push-pull (or in some cases, just the push).
In my own life, my moment of truth came when an arsonist burned down my garage to the bare foundation. It happened in the middle of the night, and my family practically had PTSD from awakening in the middle of the night to see flames shooting up to the sky. The neighborhood lost power. We lost both cars and everything stored in the garage, including some priceless sentimental objects. The insurance only paid half of what we needed to put up a new garage.
After I mentioned this twice to the NP in my life on the phone, s/he got bored and made it clear s/he wasn't interested in prolonging the topic. Although s/he lived 20 minutes away from me, s/he never bothered to come over and see the damage or see how my family was doing.
Since this way of living is so foreign to us, if we have someone with NPD in our life, we need to understand how they think. One NP explains it this way:
People are tools to be I use to get what I want. No one cares what a hammer or nail thinks, nor do we even notice anything unique about them unless they don't work right. The only nail I would notice is one that bent when I hit it with a hammer. Just as it should be. Really I was not that callous, but if I could use someone to get me what I wanted, I would. And rarely would I feel guilty about it. I mean if I played you, you should have been paying more attention. You'll get over it.
Narcissist and author Sam Vaknin (Malignant Self Love--Narcissism Revisited) reveals:
I am aware of the fact that others have emotions, needs, preferences, and priorities - but I simply can't seem to "get it into my mind." There is an invisible partition behind which I watch the rest of Mankind and through which nothing that is human can permeate. I empathize more with my goldfish than with my "nearest and dearest."
To me, all people are cardboard cut-outs, sophisticated motor contraptions, ersatz and robotic. I know how I should feel because I am well-read--but I cannot seem to bring myself to emote and to sympathize. I care more about my material possessions and belongings than [almost] any man or woman alive.
Over the years, I have deciphered the code. I have learned to imitate and emulate expertly the more common affect and expressions of one's inner landscape. But this veneer is easily breached when I am frustrated or humiliated ("narcissistic injury"): the mask slips and the real Me is out: a predator on the prowl.