One of the hallmarks of narcissism is that of grandiosity or the belief that you are special, superior, or otherwise different in a way that makes you better than others, not through actual achievement or accomplishment but because you believe it to be so.
“Empath” has become one of those pop-culture buzzwords that is employed by people looking to be seen as special by others, a words akin to “psychic” in specialness but not plagued with that pesky expectation of proof by performance due to its inherent subjectivity. As such, it is a ready-made label for a narcissist to stick onto herself or himself, as it carries with it a raft of benefits, social acceptability, and almost no chance of the narcissist being outed through such inconvenient things as predictions that don’t come to pass.
Is there really such a thing as an empath? No. There are highly emotionally-sensitive people, to be sure, but that is not necessarily a good thing. There are people in the world who are overly sensitive or hypersensitive and this is a pathology that needs treating, not a special gift to be babied and tiptoed around. Claiming to be an “empath” is also a great way to fool people into thinking you are wiser than you really are, that your perceptions (and opinions) are more accurate than theirs, or that you should be entitled to special treatment so as not to bruise your hypersensitive perceptions. And it is a great way, if you actually believe you are an empath, to fool yourself into believing everything that pops into your mind is accurate.
The notion that a person can be an empath is tailor-made for abuse. What better way to seize the upper hand in any kind of relationship than to convince others that you can feel the feelings of others? Because if they believe you, then you have carte blanche to substitute anything you want for what other are really feeling and, as an empath, declare that what they report as their feelings is wrong, that you know better than they because you are an empath. This, then, is the epitome of magical thinking: credo igitur verum (I believe it therefore it is true).
People who have had emotionally abusive childhoods can become hyperaware of the moods and feelings of others as a protective mechanism: if you learn the subtle signs of your mother’s moods you may be able to detect a coming narcissistic rage in enough time to either de-fuse it or protect yourself from it. My mother was always angry, but her anger was an obvious, superficial, easily recognized thing. Silence on her part, on the other hand, was always a bad sign, especially if that silence was accompanied with tension. That was a dead giveaway that something has really pissed her off and it would take little to ignite a rage—a rage for which I, inevitably, would be blamed and punished. It was no wonder that I became hypersensitive and aware of the moods and feelings of others—it was my ticket to safety.
I can be exquisitely aware of even fine nuances in another person’s feelings. I can often discern them from a person’s writings—even to the degree that they did not recognize what they were feeling until I said something. Is this a magical gift that makes me special in some way? No, it is a skill, like any other, that was an essential part of my dysfunctional childhood and which I purposely honed and developed over the years. Can I be blind to other people’s feelings? Absolutely—happens to me all the time—because it is a skill and it needs to be applied in order to work. Even a five-star chef can turn out a bad omelette if he isn’t paying attention.
But wait! Being an empath is different from that, right? An empath is a person who feels the same feelings of another person, whether that feeling is good or bad. That is what makes them special, the ability to actually feel someone else’s emotions, right? Ummm--no.
We all have the ability to recognize and mirror the feelings of others. It is a residual of that survival instinct that powered us through our earliest months and years, the instinct to mirror our primary caretaker so that the caretaker will feel emotionally connected to us and keep caring for us until we can care for ourselves.
For some of us, however, this ability is poorly developed: either the child had no use for it beyond the early days or their upbringing was so emotionally impoverished that the ability became a liability rather than an asset. Most of us, however, have a degree of empathy for others that allows us to recognize and share the feelings of others: your best friend gets engaged and her joy is contagious and you genuinely feel happy for her even though your own boyfriend has declared no belief in the marital estate and an engagement is not a realistic part of your immediate future. You share her joy, but not because you have magically entered her body and/or psyche and are feeling her feelings, like a psychic parasite, but because her joy ignites a mirrored feeling inside you. Your subconscious picks up her happiness and triggers the same in you. It is a mirroring activity taking place in your separate body and mind, not you magically taking her feelings into you where you also feel them.
Think about it like yawning: when someone near you yawns, you probably yawn, too. Now, that original yawn could have been out of boredom, fatigue, sleepiness or just a need to equalize the pressure in their ears: do you pick up on the reason the guy sitting next to you in the doctor’s office yawned? Or do you just do it as well?
Most of us have boundaries that prevent us from picking up and mirroring the feelings of other people except in the case of strong feelings or in the case of people with whom we feel close. A stranger in the queue at the supermarket tells you her dog has just died and you can see she is sad about it, but to burst into tears as if someone you love had just died is a little over-the-top. Our boundaries help keep us keep the emotions of others in perspective so that ours don’t fly up and down and all around when faced with a succession of people, each with different emotions. Imagine if you were a real empath and came upon an angry woman with two children, one bouncing around with happiness, the other wailing with despair—what happens to your emotions then?
When we have difficulty with boundaries, we may find ourselves mirroring and responding with inappropriate intensity to the emotions—or emotional events—of others. It is normal for a 3-year-old to cry when his balloon pops—it is not normal for a 30-year-old bystander to cry as well, not even if that bystander is his mother: that is enmeshment to an unhealthy degree. People who lack boundaries often find themselves unable to tell where they—and their beliefs, values, and feelings—leave off and another person begins, and that is unhealthy for all parties involved.
So what does this have to do with empaths? Simple: there is no such thing. There are only hypervigilant, highly sensitive people who lack appropriate boundaries. So, this highly sensitive thing—this is a good thing, right? It makes you a caring person who is aware of and sensitive to the feelings of others, right? Well—not necessarily.
A high degree of sensitivity does not necessarily correlate with a high level of empathy. Narcissists, while being very low in empathy (one of the hallmarks of narcissism), are often highly sensitive to their victims. It is what allows them to manipulate them so effectively for, while they don’t share their victims’ feelings of pain and fear, they are able to sense what will most influence those victims and bring them to heel. As an adult I was not particularly prone to gaslighting because I had such a good memory that I could recite an incident from memory, complete with dialog and a detailed description of the surroundings, what people were wearing, facial expressions, etc.: I could close my eyes and the memory would unfold in my mind like a movie. My NexH had to find other ways to manipulate me because his attempts as gaslighting seldom fell on fertile ground. Despite my façade as a strong capable woman, he easily divined that I was scared, alone, and in need of security. He quickly found out that owning my own home was what said “security” to me and that was the big carrot he dangled in front of me after I had repeatedly declined his offers of marriage. I didn’t have to tell him: he was finely tuned to those things that made me sad, anxious or happy and exploited that knowledge for his own gain. But while he was aware of my feelings, he did not share them nor did he pick up and mirror them. And that is a significant difference: the difference between awareness of my feelings (sensitivity to them) and empathy with me (mirroring my feelings by feeling the same himself).
All normal people have empathy, some more than others. Whatever you are born with, empathy-wise, can be developed both passively (by being in an environment that values empathy) and actively (by being aware and working on developing it). The reverse is also true: you can suppress empathy both passively (through a childhood environment that devalues it) and actively—imagine the effectiveness of a surgeon who felt mirrored pain with each stroke of the scalpel. As a mother, I have often found it necessary to suppress my own empathy in order to deal with my children effectively: my screaming, frightened, bleeding child doesn’t need a screaming, frightened, panicking mother, he needs (at least superficially) a calm, controlled mother who can look for the source of the blood and determine whether it needs a bandage or an emergency room.
Too little empathy, whether inborn or acquired, is known formally as “empathy spectrum disorder.” We all know how those with Cluster B personality disorders are empathy-deficient, as are a significant proportion of those with autism, but what most of us don’t know is that empathy is, itself, on a spectrum with empathy-deficient people like narcissists at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end, people who are said to be “hyper-empathetic.” And, in terms of emotional health, this is no better than not having enough. Being hyper-empathetic “blur[s] the line between self and others,” and can be the underpinnings of such things as co-dependency, enabling, helicopter parenting professional burnout, and people-pleasing. An excess of empathy is an emotionally disabling thing, just like not having enough.
It is important to note that there is a significant difference between empathy and sensitivity and that a single individual can have—or be deficient in—both. It is also important to note that a single individual can have an abundance of one and a dearth of the other: in other words, be high in sensitivity but low in empathy or vice versa. Sensitivity is not necessarily linked to empathy and can exist in people with low empathy but who are able to pick up the subtle signals we all give off. Many of us who deal with narcissists in our lives refer to ourselves as “N magnets” because of the frequency with which we seem to attract them— and their unerring ease in finding us: that is their sensitivity at work, picking up on the subtle signals we send.
But narcissists are not empathetic. They may do a good job of faking the acts of mirroring and feeling the same thing we are feeling, but that is what they are doing: faking. In romantic relationships, this is part of the courtship phase and in both courtship and other relationships, this can be part of the hoovering or love-bombing portion of the abuse cycle. A narcissist may insist that s/he does feel those same feelings as you but we all know that narcissists lie whenever it suits their purpose and I cannot imagine that the subject of empathy would be exempt from that.
Empathy is defined by Webster as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” The word “vicariously” is significant because it clearly indicates that you are not feeling the feelings of another person, you are feeling your own. Empathy is not sharing in someone else’s feelings, it is generating matching feelings in yourself: it is a wholly subjective experience both generated and contained within yourself, not the result of some special gift that allows you to tap into the feelings of others and feel their feelings with them.
There is a difference, then, between being empathetic, being hyper-empathetic, and being an empath. The first is a normal condition that the vast majority of people have to some degree; the second is a psychological disorder that stems from a lack of appropriate boundaries and the third…well, the third doesn’t exist in real life, just like psychics don’t exist in real life.
So who are these people who believe themselves to be “empaths”? Very likely much like people who believe themselves to be psychics, I would guess. They have had some random coincidences in their lives that have convinced them that they have supernatural powers. This is called “magical thinking,” which can be defined as “believing in things more strongly than either evidence or experience justifies.” Of course, what evidence and experience justify can be very subjective, but in the case of psychics, none have been proven to be who and what they believe themselves to be. For nearly 20 years, James Randi, former stage magician and present-day sceptic, offered his “Million Dollar Challenge” to people who claimed to have paranormal powers. All that was required to gain a million US dollars in cash was for the claimants to prove, “under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power.” In addition to Randi’s challenge, for more than one hundred years there have been more than a dozen similar prizes offered all over the world for the same evidence—and not one person has collected so much as one thin dime. For more than a hundred years there have been fat cash prizes available to anyone who could prove themselves to have paranormal abilities and not one person has ever been able to do so.
Now, many people who claim to be psychics are clearly aware they are fakes and their fakery is a means to a lucrative end. But for every high-profile public “psychic,” there are hundreds of people who have no media presence, who don’t try to make a living fooling people into thinking they can contact lost loved ones or find the treasure in Confederate gold that great-great grandpa Eustace reportedly hid. These people believe themselves to have paranormal powers…and that makes them, in their minds and the minds of those who believe them, special.
Having empathy is considered a positive thing and, in a culture which believes that bigger is better and more is better than less, having a lot of empathy has to be a good thing, right? Google defines an empath as “…a person with the paranormal ability to perceive the mental or emotional state of another individual.” And that has to be pretty special, too, doesn’t it?
In general, people tend to not like admitting to negative things about themselves. If your mental and emotional state is such that you are not yet ready to address your denial, if you are still needing the approbation of others, if your boundaries are slack or non-existent, you may boost your sense of self and importance in the world by fancying yourself an empath. It is easier than fancying yourself a psychic, after all, because there is no standard of proof that someone might call you to provide. But there is a darker side: if you are a narcissist and well-tuned into the subtle clues given off by your quarry, you may think yourself an empath as well. It is, after all, a way to be seen as special by those among us who aren’t well-versed in the rigours of critical thinking, a way to “prove” your superiority to the hoi polloi by having a paranormal gift that nobody can prove you do not have.
But the truth is, there is no such thing as paranormal abilities and therefore no such thing as an empath. If you are hyper-empathetic, you are suffering from a pathology that needs treatment, both for your own well-being as well as that of those around you. If you are simply highly sensitive to the emotions of others but don’t actually feel the same feelings they are feeling, i.e., you don’t actually feel something sad in the presence of an obviously grieving person, then you aren’t empathetic at all and cannot accurately call yourself an empath, no matter how special and superior it makes you feel.
Either way, calling yourself an empath is akin to calling yourself a werewolf or a vampire: you may believe yourself to be one, but belief doesn’t change reality. And given the choices—narcissism or pathology—it’s not a title I would want to hang on myself.