I’ve often discussed the fact that the defining quality of a narcissist is the lack of empathy. Not only is this the one quality shared by all toxic narcissists, but it is also the “tipping point” into the “toxic” side of narcissism. In this post, we will discuss how narcissists use false empathy to fool you.
The fact is that narcissists cannot put themselves into your shoes and they cannot understand any type of pain you feel because they are not capable of it on an emotional level. But this explanation isn’t quite thorough enough, because it leaves so many of us wondering, “but what about all those times they did seem to be empathetic?”
For example, if your ex is a narcissist, they probably seemed to be fully aware of your feelings when you first started dating. After all, they very clearly knew what you liked. They made sure to give you what you liked, and they did their best to steer clear of what you didn’t like. This is one of those little things that made you feel like you’d finally found your soulmate – at least, at first.
So, I know what you’re thinking. If narcissists are not empathetic, then how could they ever act like they are? Isn’t this how empathy works? To be aware of and to choose your actions based on someone else’s feelings? Well, yes, and no.
Before we get into how narcissists are able to show empathy when it’s convenient for them, it’s important to understand what “real” empathy is, so let me define it for you.
What is Real Empathy?
My shorthand definition is that empathy is the ability to feel and care about how other people feel, and to act from that perspective. To be a little more clear, real empathy is the ability to sense, understand, and feel the emotions of someone else, even if you haven’t had an identical experience. It means being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. You can feel what they are feeling even if you cannot relate to what they are going through directly because you can sort of imagine how they must feel. You feel compassion for them and you care about their feelings because of this – and then you act accordingly.
What is False Empathy?
False empathy is sadly used as a manipulation tactic by narcissists when they want something from you. Since you value connection and empathy, as most non-narcissists do, the narcissist knows it will help them get what they want from you. So they pretend to care how you feel. See, when it comes to narcissists, they are unable to feel emotional and compassionate empathy. But at the same time, they are well-aware of the fact that other people value empathy and because of that, they might demonstrate false empathy. (Wait, what?) This is why it is so confusing and so difficult to detect a narcissist early in a relationship.
False Empathy: Understanding the Narcissist’s Empathy Deficit
Here’s the thing. When we say “narcissists have no empathy,” we don’t necessarily mean that they’re not capable of figuring out what you’re feeling. What we mean is that narcissists don’t FEEL empathy in the same way as most people do. They have no compassion, no remorse and they don’t feel regret – unless they regret a choice they made because it negatively affected them directly.
To put it more specifically, when someone feels compassion, it means they are sympathetic toward someone’s situation and they feel sort of compelled to help that person fix whatever is wrong or to at least not make anything more difficult for that person. When someone feels remorse, it means that they feel really guilty about something they did that they see as wrong. And when someone feels regret, it means they recognize that they made a choice or took an action that led to a negative consequence, and they wish they hadn’t done it or even that they could go back and change what they did.
So, in other words, the narcissist is capable of understanding exactly what you think or feel on a cognitive level, but not on an emotional one. They can “think about” what someone else is feeling, but it doesn’t affect their emotional state directly, nor does it play a part in how they treat the other person. The exception is when the narcissist thinks someone feels negatively about them. This situation will make them feel angry, offended, and generally upset – and that usually manifests in narcissistic rage and/or narcissistic injury.
The truth is that while narcissists find it easy to learn the motions on how to appear to be empathetic, they are usually just imitating what they’ve seen others doing – and that is when they use false empathy.