What if I told you that empathy could cause horrible – even unspeakable – physical and emotional pain?
“But Kim, isn’t empathy the glue that holds relationships together and creates a positive environment for communication?”
Yes, but not all empathy is equal.
In fact, the narcissist uses a very specific kind of empathy as a vessel to get into your head, manipulate your thoughts, and abuse you.
Here’s how it works and why the “narcissist lack of empathy” concept is a farce.
The Different Types of Empathy
Empathy itself can be good or bad – it depends on how the person experiences, interprets, and reacts.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term 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.”
No, Merriam-Webster isn’t a psychology journal or expert in the field, but this definition is pretty spot-on.
It does not mention anything about experiencing compassion, remorse, or humanity. Here are the different types of empathy and how they play out in action.
This is when you quite literally feel yourself in someone’s shoes. You cry with your friend who is experiencing hardship like the death of a loved one. You feel the same pain of those around you even though you aren’t experiencing the pain.
The problem here is that this feeling can almost immobilize a person. If you felt so distraught by a homeless person’s suffering that you gave away all your possessions and became homeless yourself, that doesn’t help the situation much, right?
This type can be empowering: you understand a person’s hardship but since you aren’t experiencing it yourself, you’re able to take action and improve the situation.
If someone is drowning, you shouldn’t jump into the river yourself because you’d both be stuck. Instead, you should stick out a branch or rope they can grab onto. That’s compassionate empathy.
This is where things start to get dark. Think of every sleazy lawyer, salesperson, or interrogator you’ve ever heard about or come across – they all utilize cognitive empathy.
This gives narcissists the ability to see things from your perspective and then act in a way that’s most beneficial to them. Cognitive empathy is still empathy – just not the kind most people are familiar with.
Why the Narcissist’s Lack of Empathy Concept is a Myth
Narcissists don’t lack empathy in the way we typically believe – they lack compassion, remorse, and regret.
We tend to confuse emotions like compassion with empathy, but as mentioned above, a person can understand what another person feels, thinks, and experiences without feeling the human emotions that go along with it.
That’s exactly why the narcissist’s lack of empathy concept is a farce – and a dangerous one at that.
It tends to let them off the hook for very hurtful behavior. The narcissist’s lack of empathy idea implies that their abusive behavior is completely unintentional.
In reality, it’s extremely manipulative and extremely intentional.
How the Narcissist Uses Cognitive Empathy to Hurt and Manipulate You
When you’re on the receiving end of a narcissist’s abuse, does it feel like you’re being tortured?
Well, that’s because you are.
In December of 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” methods. The report details how the CIA cooperated with psychologists for years to develop a program that forces the subject into a state of learned helplessness.
When you’re in a state of learned helplessness, you have suffered so much torment from outside trauma that you essentially give up your own autonomy. Learned helplessness can lead to depression and other mental illness.
If an interrogator (or narcissist) wants to force their subject into learned helplessness, the first step is to establish a connection.
And what’s the narcissist’s tool for establishing connection? Cognitive empathy.
Using Cognitive Empathy to Get What They Want
As you can see, the narcissist’s lack of empathy is a myth because they need to use cognitive empathy to get what they want from those around them.
The interrogator wants to get information, the salesperson wants to sell a car, and the lawyer wants to win their case. In all of these situations, they need cognitive empathy to get into the subject’s head. They need to understand the subject’s feelings and thoughts which they can then manipulate into producing an outcome that’s most beneficial to them.
That’s why you’ve likely found yourself bouncing back and forth many times wondering “do they love me or hate me?” It’s a lot easier to believe this is not intentional and that the narcissist is not in control of their emotions and actions – but these actions are calculated.
Like the interrogator, narcissists interpret emotions like love, openness, kindness, and generosity as weaknesses. And if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile, back up, and drive the same mile over and over until you’re pulling your hair out.
How to Shield Yourself from Their Harmful Words or Actions
The first step is to recognize when the narcissist is utilizing cognitive empathy to achieve their goals. In the beginning, this isn’t easy because you’re human and apt to respond to perceived kindness with kindness.
But the narcissist’s false kindness does not come without a cost.
It’s also important to identify what the narcissist wants from you. This could be anything including money, housework, caring for the kids, or any obligations the narcissist feels are beneath them and must be cast upon someone less-than.
In other cases, the narcissist may just want a proverbial punching bag to blame for their problems or unleash their emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse.
But responding to their false kindness and compassion by returning the favor won’t get you anything but further abuse.
Narcissists cannot be reasoned with.
That’s why you need to do everything in your power to avoid the narcissist and cut them out of your life at all costs. Otherwise, the narcissist will use cognitive empathy indefinitely to take advantage of you and destroy you.
They won’t respond well – far from it – but it’s the only solution.