Types of Empathy
A lot of people don’t realize that there are different types of empathy as defined by psychologists, including cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy. And what is even more perplexing for a lot of us is that it is totally possible to demonstrate one or more of these types of empathy without actually caring on an emotional level what someone is feeling or going through.
As defined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, cognitive empathy is “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.” He adds that cognitive empathy is also sometimes called “perspective-taking.” In other words, it means being aware on an intellectual level of someone’s emotions and likely thoughts about any given topic or situation.
It’s like understanding that a coworker is sad that their grandma died, but since you didn’t know her, you might not feel personally sad about it. You tell them you’re sorry for their loss and offer to help them keep up on their workload while they attend the out-of-town funeral, but you don’t necessarily go home and cry about it.
Narcissists will use this kind of empathy as a way to manipulate you in the same way that a used car dealer would try to get you to buy an over-priced, underperforming vehicle. The salesperson doesn’t really care about the fact that you’ve got kids or that your budget is stretched. They’re more concerned about moving inventory and getting paid.
Yet, on an intellectual level, they can read you well enough to understand your thought process and what you’re looking for in a vehicle. And they can gather that you’re emotionally tied to this decision in some way, whether it’s due to a desire for a safe, dependable vehicle, or a desire for a pretty and stylish vehicle, or one that is super extra fast and powerful.
If they don’t have something in stock that fits your needs perfectly, the ethical thing to do would be to say so and possibly recommend another car lot. But they have the goal of moving their own inventory and making money, so they’ll do what they need to to make something they have work for you.
And while the car they ultimately talk you into buying may or may not be right for you, they will use this understanding of what you want to make it seem like exactly what you need. Sure, maybe it’ll cost way more than you can afford, or maybe it’ll have 300k miles on it – but these things aren’t a concern for the salesperson. They just want to sell you a dang car so they can go out to lunch, or buy that boat they’ve had their eye on, or whatever.
This is a great example of how a narcissist, while they have the ability to see things from your perspective, will always act in a way where they will benefit the most. In other words, they use cognitive empathy to get what they want by understanding what is important to you or what your perspective happens to be.
In fact, Daniel Goleman also notes that this is the kind of empathy used by people who use torture tactics. It allows them to understand what makes a person tick without feeling any sympathy toward them.
So, narcissists can and will use cognitive empathy to get what they want. But it doesn’t mean they can feel anything you feel, you feel me?
But, it’s all false empathy! Just remember that.
A twist on cognitive empathy is “agenda-driven” empathy. See, when the narcissist is getting what they want from you, they will pretend to know that you are making sacrifices for them. And they think by acknowledging that, they can convince you to be more willing to give up what you want for them.
For example, let’s say you’re excited about your upcoming friends’ night out. You’re going to see a movie you’ve been DYING to see. At the last minute, the narcissist you work with asks you to fill in for them the same evening, even though they were well aware that you wanted to go. They will say things such as “Oh I know you were looking forward to this but if you do this favour for me I will be forever grateful.” How can you turn that down?
Emotional empathy is the type of empathy most of us think of when we call ourselves empaths. It means that you can sense and in some ways, actually feel what other people around you are feeling, even when they’re a stranger.
For example, if you watch someone on television stub their toe or get kicked in the shin, you sort of “feel” it along with them. It’s what makes us cry at movies and what makes us feel sad when someone we love is sad. It’s sort of like the feelings of other people become almost contagious for you. This can be seen in humans as early as two months old, when a baby will smile back at their mother smiling at them, or when the baby will cry when hearing another baby cry. Narcissists do not feel emotional empathy.
However, they might feel a sort of shallow empathy, which is when the narcissist shows a degree of softness for you. This happens most often early in a relationship during the love-bombing phase, and even then, if you look hard enough, you’ll see that they continue to show their true colors elsewhere. And of course, they will show their true colors to you eventually. It’s kind of like a doctor who has an amazing bedside manner but who is a total jerk to his wife and kids. Same deal.