In March of 2012 I wrote a blog entry entitled “Empathetic Narcissist = Oxymoron.” In reviewing that post recently I came across this line: “Empathy is that quality that allows us to identify with the feelings of another…Narcissists don’t know how to do this—they don’t have the capacity and because of that, they find no value in it.”
In re-reading this line it occurred to me that some will read this and their own natural empathy may lead them to feeling sorry for the narcissist. After all, the narcissist is being deprived of something natural and fundamental and even essential to the building of character. That which most of us take for granted has been denied, either through trauma or the fickleness of nature, to narcissists and some of us are prompted not only feel sorry for them but find the fact of this privation sufficient to give them a pass on their behaviours. This may be our natural inclination but, believe me, to do so is a grave mistake.
While it is true that narcissists lack empathy—it is one of the defining features of narcissism, after all—it is not necessarily true that the narcissist experiences suffering as a result of this lack. Empathy is not part of our survival instinct, selfishness is, because selfishness helps us to hoard resources that guarantee our survival, even at the expense of others. If we had empathy and shared our resources, we might die.
Very young children are naturally very selfish and lacking in empathy. Your infant doesn’t care how sleep-deprived you are, he only cares that his discomfort is relieved. Empathy is supposed to evolve as the child matures and becomes more cognizant of others and more capable of fending for himself. Children are supposed to gradually outgrow this selfishness, to become increasingly aware not only of others but of the needs and feelings of others and eventually to respond to them with emotional resonance. By the time we reach adulthood, if our development has been on track we not only can read and write and have the basic skills necessary for autonomy, we have developed the empathy for others that allows us to function well socially.
Unfortunately not all of us develop that empathy—narcissists are chief among those who lack it. We who have grown up with an ingrained sense of empathy find it difficult to grasp that someone can be without one. It is further difficult to grasp that they don’t miss it at all.
How is this possible? Well, think of it this way: if you had never eaten jellied moose nose, would you miss it? You might even think that it was an undesirable thing to eat and be glad you’ve never tasted it and have no wish to ever do so. And because you have never tasted it, you most definitely would not miss it, would you?
Well, narcissists lack empathy. They have never had it, they don’t recognize it when it is directed at them, and when they realize that it can make you very vulnerable, they don’t want it. They like to see it in others because it gives them a way to manipulate those others, which is precisely why they don’t want it for themselves. Narcissists do not miss being empathetic because they have never experienced it—they quite literally do not know what they are missing. But, like you and the jellied moose nose, they aren’t exactly eager to experience it.
So, ask yourself—should I feel sorry for you because you have never tasted jellied moose nose? Should I excuse bad table manners and look the other way when you eat your spaghetti with your hands—both hands—because you, poor thing, have never been able to eat jellied moose nose? If you don’t care about it, don’t want any for yourself, and don’t feel deprived by the lack, why should I feel bad for you because your life—and diet—has been deficient in the jellied remains of a moose’s nose? Wouldn’t I be guilty of wanting it for you more than you want it for yourself? What business, actually, is it of mine?
Is it any different with empathy? If the narcissist doesn’t miss it (because he never had it) and doesn’t want it (because he believes it leaves him open to manipulation), why feel bad for him? Don’t say “I know how I would feel…” because that doesn’t matter—what is germane here is how that narcissist feels. If you think he feels the way you would, that is projecting (which is a narcissistic trait—check yourself for fleas!) and it has absolutely nothing to do with how that narcissist feels.
So, because he lacks empathy, he doesn’t know any better and you should cut him some slack, right?
Nope. Unless he has been living under a rock in a cave in the bowels of an ancient volcano, he knows better because the clues are everywhere. Movies and TV shows often are no more than elaborate morality plays that effectively demonstrate that characters who lack empathy end up negatively. Books, news articles, overheard conversations—all contain the general consensus that people who lack empathy are assholes and idiots, disliked and disrespected.
That means that narcissists know what empathy is and they know that the society expects some degree of it from all of us. The narcissist also knows that he can use the vulnerabilities that empathy exposes to manipulate others—which means that if he develops empathy he will be vulnerable to people like himself. The narcissist well know what empathy is and she knows that it is a powerful means to manipulate and control others, either by manipulating their empathy or feigning her own.
The truth is, you cannot miss something you have never had. You can want it, you can yearn for it, but you can’t miss it. If you are inclined to feel sorry for a narcissist for his lack of empathy, imagine how you would feel if I were to feel sorry for you for your lack of jellied moose nose experience? You might appreciate that I was thinking of you, but if I offered to bring you a nice big plate of it, wouldn’t you quickly decline my offer?
And so it is with the narcissist and empathy—she doesn’t feel bad, she doesn’t suffer from her lack of empathy any more than you feel bad or suffer from your lack of acquaintance with the jellified moose snout. You might think the narcissist is missing out on something beautiful and necessary but the narcissist will have a very different—and quite valid—point of view.
Why is it valid? Because it never works to want something for someone more than they want it for themselves. Because, no matter how much we believe we are right, we don’t have the right to impose our wishes for someone onto them, not even narcissists. They have the same right of self-determination as you and I do, and it is just as sacrosanct, even if it is self-serving and counter-productive. Because we don’t have the right to try to change other adults to suit ourselves, no matter what. But most important, because that narcissist has a perfect right to be a narcissist, to continue being a narcissist, and to even enjoy being a narcissist. We do not have a right try to change them or even to expect them to change.
This can be difficult to accept because their lack of empathy can make life very difficult for us and when something is going wrong in our lives, we have a natural instinct to want to change it. If our narcissistic parent is wreaking havoc in our lives it is natural to wish for that parent to change and stop doing it. We impute the same emotional processes to the narcissist that we, ourselves, enjoy and so we believe that those things that motivate us will motivate them. But we are wrong. You cannot appeal to the empathy of a person who has none and you cannot give empathy to someone who doesn’t want it.
Most of all, you cannot empathize with a feeling that is not there. When you feel bad for the poor narcissist who is devoid of empathy you are not empathizing, you are projecting. You are assuming that the narcissist is feelings the same pangs you are feeling when, in fact, the person is not feeling bereft at all. That is how you believe you would feel if your empathy were to disappear tomorrow and you are projecting onto that narcissist—it is not at all the nothingness that the narcissist is feeling.
1. Sweet Violet. “Empathetic Narcissist = Oxymoron.” The Narcissist’s Child. http://narcissistschild.blogspot.co.za/2012/03/empathetic-narcissist-non-sequitur.html (accessed January 19, 2018).
2. Wisniewski, Laura. “Fresh Eyes: Jellied Moose Nose.” Bozeman Magazine. http://bozemanmagazine.com/articles/2014/02/27/22796_fresh_eyes_jellied_moose_nose (accessed January 19, 2018).