Empathy is the ability to identify with someone else’s feelings because we have felt that way ourselves. It is, “I know the pain of loss because I, myself, have been bereft.” It differs from sympathy in that one can be sympathetic not having known the feelings. A nurse is sympathetic to a terminal patient. She provides care, attention, and comfort, but she does not know what it feels like to be dying. She does not need to know what that feels like in order to provide that care and comfort.
Narcissists do not feel empathy. In fact, it is one of the most striking indicators of narcissism. A recent study linked lack of empathy linked to a person having less gray matter in a part of the cerebral cortex called the left anterior insula. I always wonder in these cases, which came first - the lack of gray matter leading to the behavior, or the behavior leading to a shrinkage in the gray matter. I cannot say one way or the other, but it gives pause for thought. In some cases, though, the lack of empathy is a deliberate tactic on the part of the narcissist.
A narcissist will inure themselves to other people’s feelings in order to get ahead in business, or in relationships. For example, if your ex felt your pain, he wouldn’t be able to leave you so easily when he got bored, and come back to you when it fit his purposes. One also has to have a certain lack of emotion in order to be able to crush one’s competition as they climb the ladder of success. Whether deliberate or not, the fact is your narcissistic partner cares more about his own feelings than he does about yours. In fact, he may not care about your feelings at all.
In order for a person to feel empathy they must feel emotion. To a narcissist, displaying emotion or feeling emotion involves a lack of control that is unacceptable to them. They see displays of emotion as weak. Feeling emotion means being vulnerable, and they cannot be seen as vulnerable, and do not want to feel vulnerable.
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Many narcissists will act as if they care. They want to fit in. They need to be accepted and be able to walk among us. If they acted as robots, devoid of emotion, people would notice them, and avoid them. They recognize that other people have feelings, and they know what it looks like to have feelings, and they may act like they feel empathy, but they do not.
Ignoring Early Signs
If I knew then what I know now, I would have been able to peg my ex instantly. There were big, huge red flags waving in front of me, but I was so smitten that I ignored them. When my ex and I first got together, I discovered that, many years earlier, when I first met him as a colleague, he had had a long-term girlfriend. They had been together for six years. He told me that he never told anyone because she had been suffering deeply with depression. In fact, he kept her existence so hidden that many of our colleagues believed he was gay, including the gay man with whom he shared an apartment for three months.
She had trouble finding a job. He said it was because she didn’t know how to sell herself. He refused to pay for her living expenses. He claimed that she would never find a job if he made it easy and supported her, so for the months that she wasn’t working, he kept tabs of the money he laid out for her for food, phone, rent, etc., and he insisted that she pay him back every penny once she started working.
During those months, he told me, she had become a huge burden. She was extremely emotional. She had become pregnant three times, he insisted, so he would marry her. Each time the pregnancy was terminated. I asked him why he continued to sleep with her if he thought she was trying to trick him into marriage. He claimed that she lied to him each time and he believed her.
I believed him. I thought, this poor guy! Here is this conniving woman, using her sexuality to manipulate him into taking a step backwards. How awful! And here he was doing his best to help her out of a rut. With my superhero x-ray hindsight, I can see clearly that this probably wasn’t the case. Any man I know who’d been lied to by his girlfriend about her use of birth control would have bought himself a case of condoms before he slept with her again, if he ever slept with her again.
He told me that, after they terminated the third pregnancy, she suffered an emotional breakdown. He said she had a supposed resurfacing of a repressed memory of having been raped by a boyfriend. He said she blamed him and not the ex who had raped her for all her problems. He said he gave her some money, set her up in an apartment, and told her he’d always be there to help her out, but she couldn’t live with him any more. He described her emotional decline as being so deleterious and disruptive to his life that he couldn’t maintain a relationship with her.
And there seemed to be objective proof of that. Once, while he and I were in his apartment, he got a package from her. When he opened it, it was a large manila envelope filled with ripped up photographs of them. I thought, she really must be crazy with a capital C, and vengeful, and no wonder he had to get rid of her. Who could live with someone so volatile? He joked about what the scenario may have looked like - her finding a box, opening it, finding the photos, flying into a frenzy, and grabbing a pair of scissors. We laughed at the idea. I thought, she must have some serious problems. It never occurred to me that I had been told one very skewed side of the story.
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The Beast Shows Itself
It wasn’t until months after we were involved that I experienced, firsthand, behavior on his part that could drive me to come across a box of photos and shred them in a fit of rage. It was a little thing - an argument over my feeling guilty because we were very late to a dinner date and the friend we were meeting was angry with me. We were late because my ex absolutely had to go for a run in the park. He claimed that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his evening if he didn’t get a little exercise, and the run he said would take half an hour, took an hour and a half.
He absolutely refused to acknowledge that either my friend or I had any justification for being upset. In his opinion the most important thing was that he get what he needed. He was irked that anyone had any expectation of him fitting into their schedule and by the end of the evening he was angry with me and my friend, as he felt his liberty was being curtailed. And, yes, if you’re wondering, those were the exact words he used. And, little did I know, but I would be hearing that phrase many, many more times over the course of our relationship. Curtailment of his liberty was something over which we fought constantly. He seemed to think that that was what was happening if ever I asked him for something.
It started with little things like that and, over the years we were married, it morphed into increasingly bizarre things. There was a period of time after we were married when I was unable to work. During that time he also “lent me money” to pay my living expenses, so as soon as I was able to return to work, my first order of business was to pay him back. After my mother called to tell me that my dad has passed away, my ex laid me down on the floor, initiated sex, and when it was over, said, “Welcome back to the world of the living.” For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why I continued to cry afterwards. He insisted I pay for his plane ticket back to the east coast for the funeral.
You cannot argue logic with a narcissist. They cannot see beyond their own needs and desires. In many cases, the narcissist’s need and desire is to see those around him downtrodden so that he can bask in his own feeling of superiority. He will not and cannot respond to emotions. Your tears will likely anger him. If you must go head to head with your narcissistic partner, choose your battles wisely. Lay firm boundaries that you are willing and able to enforce. Do not expect him to win him over, because he will fight to the death to get his way.