When it comes to narcissism, one of the biggest and most intriguing questions is whether or not narcissists have selective empathy.
When you come across someone who has strong traits of narcissism, it’s only natural that you start to question everything. That’s what I did too, so I get it.
And one of the big questions in my mind was, “Can narcissists have selective empathy?”
The answer I found is a bit complicated and can vary from person to person. Ultimately, the answer is yes, but it certainly helps understanding narcissism to get to the bottom of the question.
What is narcissism?
If you are looking for an answer to the question of selective empathy, I will assume that you have some understanding of narcissism. So I will keep this section brief. But I can’t skip it. The answer to the question actually lies in the definition of narcissism, so we have to go here.
When someone talks about narcissism or labels someone as a narcissist, they are usually talking about narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
It is important that we make this distinction because we are all narcissists on some level.
The more you allow yourself to control your life, the more narcissistic you will become. But people with NPD face few clinical diagnoses and are potentially emotionally abusive.
To be diagnosed with narcissism, you must exhibit five of the following nine characteristics according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
- High sense of self-importance – they may overestimate their own talents or achievements.
- Preoccupied with delusions of power, success, beauty, or love – Someone with NPD may be obsessed with achieving power, money, or an ideal partner.
- Feeling special – This person may believe that others cannot understand them. This is usually the “upper” type of person who has had more pain or accomplishments than anyone else.
- Need to be liked – This person may need to be liked just because they are there. They need to be thanked and praised for anything they do, no matter how small.
- A strong sense of entitlement – These are the people who cross the front line because they believe it is their right.
- Cozy exploitation of others – If someone falls into this category, they are probably master manipulators and often use people to get what they want.
- Has a weakness for empathy – This person may be unable/unwilling to recognize the feelings of others.
- He is often jealous – Many narcissists are jealous and/or think other people are jealous of him or her.
- Displays arrogance with others – Many narcissists are naturally arrogant. Some hide it better than others, but if you’re close to this person, it’ll be obvious.
The DSM-IV is an easy-to-follow guide for lay people in determining if they are dealing with a narcissist, but for diagnostic purposes, it was updated in 2011. The DSM-5 criteria include:
- Impairment in interpersonal and impairment in interpersonal functioning (including impairment in empathy).
- Hostility (grandiosity) and attention-seeking.
- Consistently displaying the above traits across time and situations.
- The above traits are not part of a normal developmental stage or sociocultural environment.
- The above traits are not just a natural consequence of substance abuse.
Many people confuse sympathy with empathy. But in the case of the narcissist, this is another important distinction.
Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to the feelings of others.
Empathy is feeling pity for someone.
Narcissists can have a lot of empathy but struggle with empathy.
Here’s an example of an empathetic thing a narcissist might think:
Poor thing…she thinks she can live without me.
But if you have sympathy for someone you hurt, you won’t keep hurting them.
Why do narcissists have weak empathy?
As an empath, I would like to be able to say that empathy is inherent in all of us. But all the research we’ve done tells us otherwise. Empathy is an acquired trait (and empathy isn’t quite the same).
But this is probably why so many narcissists are weak in empathy.
Most of them have experienced some level of neglect or abuse in childhood, and so they rely on their ego for protection.
To avoid the pain of abuse, narcissists learn to manipulate situations to their advantage. In this way, they regain control. But they couldn’t achieve the level of control they needed with the nagging empath weighing heavily on their shoulders.
Empathy requires that they face up to any pain or injustice they inflict on others. And pain is exactly what they are trying to avoid.
So for most narcissists, empathy is a useless tool. In fact, it would have the opposite effect on their mission.
Can narcissists have selective empathy?
According to DSM-5 criteria, all narcissists have impaired empathy.
And if you’ve ever run into a narcissist, that makes perfect sense. But in order to explore the answer to this question, we must take a closer look at the word weakness.
Weak empathy means that their empathy is broken. It is not complete.
This does not mean that it does not exist.
So can narcissists have selective empathy? Yes.
But if you’re trying to get to the bottom of this question, you’re probably wondering if the narcissist in your life is real at all.
And this is the hard truth…
You’ll never know, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Most narcissists are master manipulators. And since narcissism is on a spectrum, one narcissist may have more empathy than the other. But you will never know if you see genuine sympathy or masterful manipulation.
Here’s why that doesn’t matter.
You would never have learned about narcissism if this person had your best interest at heart. You are here because this person manipulated and hurt you.
Do they have some redeeming qualities? I bet they do.
But as far as you are concerned, their sympathy or lack of sympathy is of no consequence anymore. Your job now is to heal and get over this (as much as possible).