Why We Might Feel Lonely Around Narcissism

Research links a lack of emotional empathy with identity instability.

Posted Nov 13, 2017

"Shape without form, shade without colour, Paralysed force, gesture without motion" —T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Healthy narcissism is a good thing. A very good thing. People get confused about where to draw the line, though, especially when our ethical standards call upon us to consider the needs of other people above our own.

Our need to be ethical, the moral instinct, creates a community. Narcissism presumably works when the community shares a healthy sense of self; there are harmony and order, communication and collaboration. That's the ideal, clearly subject to reality.

Empathy comes in two flavors: cognitive and emotional. Of course, cognitive and emotional empathy can work together, but they can co-exist separately as well. It turns out that the balance of empathy may be connected with how narcissistic one's personality is. While more narcissistic people can be entertaining and often great fun to spend time with, their inability to pay attention to other people's needs can make it feel lonely to be around them even when we're not alone.

In the literature reviewed by Di Pierro et al. (2017), who conducted a recent research study discussed below, the authors note that early on in the field, the relationship between empathy and narcissism was not very clear. There was consensus from clinical and diagnostic theories that narcissism was associated with reduced empathy, leading to intrapsychic and interpersonal problems, but findings were mixed with regard to what kind of empathy, and if there were any differentiation. Subsequent research arguably began to detect a pattern: In general, narcissism is associated with greater cognitive empathy, but reduced emotional empathy.

According to personality theorists, as reviewed and per standard psychoanalytic theory, narcissism may be viewed as based on borderline personality organization (not to be confused with Borderline Personality Disorder, though they're related). Borderline personality organization is a foundational psychoanalytic concept (e.g., Otto Kernberg, John Gunderson, etc.) derived from the border between neurotic and psychotic personality structure, characterized by reduced personality integration, basic maladaptive defenses, and generally intact reality testing. The core identity disturbance with borderline personality organization exists alongside features more particular to a narcissistic accommodation, with the hallmark unstable sense of self, inflated self-esteem, and variability in the perception of oneself and others, typically leading to over- and undervaluations and swings in shame and pride, insecurity and grandiosity. 

The instability of the sense of self in narcissism can be a void, an emptiness in one's sense of self to be circumnavigated, preferably with minimal awareness of its existence. The need to do this self-reflective high-wire act in order to maintain a bubble of self-esteem is draining on oneself and others, forever threatening to expose a raw nerve and pushing many valuable relationships into destructive cycles of envy and competition, or neediness and abuse, in extreme but all too common situations. The impact on intimate relationships and misattuning perceptions of others is doubly problematic, as it is partially through practicing and experiencing healthier relations with others that borderline personality organization can morph into a more desirable state.

Becoming comfortable with vulnerability, developing a more coherent sense of self and/or comfort with a fluctuating sense of self, and cultivating compassion for oneself and others is challenging and resource-utilizing to achieve, when it is even possible. Oftentimes, in my experience, people are aware of a desire to work on issues related to narcissism covering over an empty, unstable sense of self, but may not have the motivation to deal with such issues unless the external situation establishes necessity, creating a do-or-die situation. Generally, when one's sense of self is depleted and/or unstable, desire and passion are greatly diminished, or even experienced as absent (though they may be hidden or latent). Rather than making decisions with a greater sense of agency and with the full recognition of others' participation, decisions are made with a greater sense of urgency, often based on thoughts of what one has to do or should do (in the eyes of some imagined other and/or one's own inner critic).

The interpersonal situation when unhealthy narcissism prevails is characterized by defects in empathic relatedness, which can range from being likable, but a bit callous, to an utter disregard for the rights of others, verging on sociopathy. Considering the difference between cognitive and emotional empathy in narcissism can help to make sense of the narcissistic perspective of the other person.

There isn't necessarily a total lack of empathy, an autistic-like inability to relate to another person at all; there is more a sense that in narcissism we can think about the other person's needs and being in a detached, intellectual way and figure out where they are coming from via the cognitive route. This is to say nothing about the cause of the narcissistic traits, whether they are innate or a response to developmental factors (e.g., adversity of particular kinds) or perhaps an interaction among several factors.

This is more like a simulation than the "real thing" when it comes to feelings, but is useful for earnestly trying to relate to others when it doesn't come naturally, manipulating people by taking their possible reactions into consideration, and everything in between. However, the emotional empathy part is not there as much in narcissism—a bit like someone who is able to play a classical piano piece with technical precision, is even able to evoke an emotional reaction in the listener, but is not able to play in a way which feels completely authentic and connected. In well-intentioned narcissism, the credo "fake it until you make it" has a lot of merit, as when emotional empathy and cognitive empathy come together, one's own sense of self is likely also to have become fuller and more coherent, and intimacy with others takes on a fuller texture and deeper lushness.

With a focus on investigating the relationship between narcissism and different forms of empathy, as mediated by identity instability, Di Pierro and colleagues (2017) conducted an initial investigation, recruiting a non-clinical sample of 462 young adults, 65 percent women and 35 percent men. Almost 60 percent were single, almost 40 percent were married, and the remainder of about 4 percent were divorced or separated. About 55 percent were university students, and the rest were found via word of mouth, social media, and via the university department website, though statistics regarding age and other common demographics were not reported. Subjects of this experiment, therefore, represent a convenience sample from the general population, consistent with the researchers' intent to look at narcissism as a normal trait, rather than to correlate pathology with outcome measures.

They completed self-report questionnaires after providing informed consent, consisting of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory-40, which measures overall narcissistic traits; parts of the Inventory of Personality Organization, based on Kernberg's model, to look at instability of self/others, instability of goals, instability of behaviors, and psychosis; the Empathy Quotient, which assesses cognitive empathy, emotional reactivity, and social skills, analyzing them with a standard regression analysis.

In their approach, differentiating between grandiose and vulnerable narcissism was not measured as a potential mediating factor, but there could be significant interactions between different kinds of empathy and different kinds of narcissism. Presumably, grandiose narcissists would have a higher ratio of cognitive to emotional empathy, and vulnerable narcissists might have more of the emotional empathy, and perhaps could benefit from the cognitive empathy, but it does not appear that research has yet examined that interaction in detail.

Di Pierro, et al., 2017
Source: Di Pierro, et al., 2017

In their first wave of analysis, they found that overall, at statistically significant levels, narcissism moderately correlates with overall instability of self/other representations and cognitive empathy, and more strongly negatively associated with emotional empathy. Identity stability was correlated with emotional, but cognitive, identity (see table for values).

Women and men reported comparable degrees of cognitive empathy, but women reported higher levels of emotional empathy than men. In the second wave of analysis, the regression model showed that narcissism and cognitive empathy are positively associated, without mediation by identity instability. The regression model also indicated that narcissistic traits were negatively associated with emotional empathy (across genders), a relationship mediated by identity instability.

Di Pierro, et al., 2017
Source: Di Pierro, et al., 2017

Taken together, these findings do suggest that identity instability co-occurs with narcissistic traits, supporting the borderline personality organization model and the tempting parallel with vulnerable narcissism.

They also find that emotional empathy tends to go down when identity instability is higher. It is easy to fit this kind of relationship into our experiences with narcissism. Identity stability ebbs and flows, directly impacting the capacity for emotional empathy: the greater the instability, the lower the empathy. This leads to chronic problems relating to others, as increasing emptiness or confusion of the self directly impacts what happens interpersonally, and this effect is pronounced when the stakes are higher, as anxiety and risk strain already-limited defensive systems (or security operations, as the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan called it).

If you are dealing with a narcissistic situation, where at least one person is viewed as being "narcissistic" or "a narcissist," it is important to think about the role of these factors especially. Consider the role of identity instability, and how the balance between cognitive and emotional empathy may lead us to misperceive and misunderstand one another, to assume the other has an emotional connection when it may not be present. This might happen when one partner is cognitively empathizing and is emotionally unempathetic, for example, and the other takes that as a sign of emotional investment when perhaps the other person understands cognitively what is happening and uses that understanding to provide behaviors consistent with empathy when the connection may not be that strong. This kind of interplay can range from disappointment to abuse, depending on the severity and other factors.

Using cognitive empathy to help strengthen an important relationship with the recognition that the emotions may not always feel as strong can help to stabilize relationships. Cognitive empathy can help us make decisions to meet others' needs and be better partners (and reap the benefits of partnership), while also helping to keep personal identity stable and preserve what emotional empathy is present for any given individual.

This research, while preliminary and with many limitations in study design, points to areas of future work to better understand how different kinds of empathy operate in narcissism to help regulate an unstable sense of self, and begins to identify correlations among factors which are key in learning about narcissism. Recognizing that those in narcissistic states may be suffering from identity instability can be helpful in properly interpreting their behavior, and in being able to at least cognitively empathize with what they might be going through and help to articulate what is happening.

Understanding that there may be something missing on the emotional level can help to explain the feeling of loneliness and isolation, which often accompanies attempted intimacy with more narcissistic people.


Di Pierro, R., Di Sarno, M., Preti, E., Di Mattei, V. E., & Madeddu, F. (2017, November 2). The Role of Identity Instability in the Relationship Between Narcissism and Emotional Empathy. Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication.