Is It True That Narcissists Have Zero Empathy?
Could that be a misconception?
Posted May 21, 2019
If you have ever had a negative experience with a narcissist, you have probably just rolled your eyes when you read the title of this blog post. Perhaps it stirred some anger in you or even brought back painful memories of the times when your narcissist completely disregarded your emotions. I am well aware that narcissists are usually depicted as haughty, vain, selfish, condescending, self-absorbed human beings who exploit others to achieve their personal goals. Rumor also has it that they desperately lack empathy and take absolutely no interest at all in other people’s feelings.
On the surface, it might certainly seem that way, but if we look beneath the surface and analyze narcissists’ behavior, we might come to a different conclusion. While I could in principle agree that at first glance narcissists do not pay any attention to how others feel, I cannot fully concur with the statement that narcissists are alien to the concept of empathy. In my opinion, they are more than familiar with it. In fact, they are rather good at empathy, even though one of the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder (DSM-5) is “a lack of empathy.” 
Before we delve into that argument, however, let’s first take a look at the definition of the term “empathy.” Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person; the capacity to feel what the other person is experiencing; the capability to place oneself in another person’s position and understand their thoughts from their point of view. Narcissists are perfectly capable of doing all that, surprising as that might sound. If they weren’t, they would have never been able to get under your skin as they did. They would have never been able to make you feel at home when you were with them. They would also not have been able to manipulate you as they did. Yet they managed to achieve all of the above, almost effortlessly and inconspicuously. If you think back to the time when you were in the golden period in your relationship with a narcissist, you will probably agree that you felt more loved, understood and supported than you ever had in your life. You thought you had found your soul mate, your other half, someone who finally got you and made you feel special. How come? Because narcissists are excellent in reading people and in attuning to them at a phenomenological and emotional level. That is to say, they can relate to what you are experiencing and feeling, often because they have themselves felt and experienced the very same things. Hence they know exactly what you need, wish and crave, and they know what they need to do to win you over.
Therefore, I wouldn’t insist that all narcissists have zero empathy, because a large majority of them does have it. It is just of a different kind compared to the one most of us feel. Undoubtedly, their empathy is more intellectual and self-interested, also because they use it predominately as a tool to their advantage and benefit only. They are still capable of understanding your thoughts and feelings from your point of view. They fully comprehend what it is like to be in your shoes. The only difference is that they will use that knowledge to manipulate you to help them maintain their inflated false self. Narcissists might have an impaired sense of sympathy and compassion, but they certainly know what empathy is, even if they experience it more at a cognitive level. As I have mentioned before, narcissists will not necessarily feel sympathetic, i.e. feeling compassion, sorrow or pity for what you are going through, but they will certainly empathize with you, for they know exactly how it feels to be where you are. Therefore, I believe it would be rather unfair to claim that all narcissists have zero empathy and claim it under the assumption that everybody else in the world does have empathy and even shows it.
Narcissists are not a homogeneous group of identical individuals. There are different types of narcissists and some of them indeed have very little empathy or, at the very least, have considerably less empathy compared to compassionate human beings. However, I would not qualify all narcissists as incapable of empathy just because of some bad apples among them. What should also be stressed is that narcissists are reluctant to show empathy because they fear it would be perceived by others as a weakness. This, in turn, would make them vulnerable to potential exploitation from the same people they are being empathic towards. Therefore, let us focus more on how we could be less competitive with narcissists in our relationships with them. They don’t like competition and being judged, that is why it is important we help them to feel good enough. When narcissists feel they can trust us and know that we won’t use whatever they have trusted us with against them, they will open up and become softer. When they feel safe enough to be vulnerable, they will also be willing to use their capacity for empathy in a way that benefits both partners in the relationship.
1. American Psychiatric Association. Personality disorders. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc; 2013.