When it comes to narcissism, one of the biggest and most intriguing questions is whether narcissists have selective empathy, or not.
When you encounter someone who has strong traits of narcissism, it’s natural to start questioning everything. That’s what I did too, so I get it.
The answer I’ve found is a bit complicated and can vary from person to person. Ultimately, the answer is yes, but it definitely helps to have an understanding of narcissism to get to the bottom of the question.
What is narcissism?
If you’re looking for an answer to the selective empathy question, I’m going to assume you have some understanding of narcissism. So I’m going to keep this section brief. But I can’t skip it. The answer to the question actually lies in the definition of narcissism, so we’ve got to go here.
When someone talks about narcissism or labels someone as a narcissist, they’re usually talking about a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
It’s important to make this distinction because we’re all narcissistic on some level.
The more you let your ego control your life, the more narcissistic you will be. But people with NPD meet certain clinical diagnostics and are likely to be emotionally abusive.
In order 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).
1. Grandiose sense of self-importance – they may exaggerate their talents or accomplishments.
2. Pre-occupied with fantasies of power, success, beauty or love – Someone with NPD may be obsessed with achieving power, money or an ideal partner.
3. Feelings of being special – This person may believe that others couldn’t possibly understand them. This is usually the “one-upper” type of person who has experienced more pain or achievements than anyone else.
4. Need to be admired – This person may need to be admired for simply existing. They need thanks and praise for anything they do, regardless of how minor.
5. Strong sense of entitlement – These are the people who cut to the front of the line because they believe it’s their right.
6. Comfortable exploiting others – If someone falls into this category, they are likely master manipulators and often use people to get what they want.
7. Has impaired empathy – This person may be unable/unwilling to identify with other people’s emotions.
8. Is often jealous – Many narcissists are jealous and/or believe others are jealous of him or her.
9. Exhibits arrogance with others – Many narcissists are arrogant by nature. Some hide it better than others, but if you’re close to this person, it’ll be obvious.
The DSM-IV is an easier guide for laymen to follow in determining whether they’re dealing with a narcissist, but for diagnostic purposes, it was updated in 2011. The DSM-5 criteria include:
1. Impairments in personality functioning AND impairments in interpersonal functioning (including impaired empathy).
2. Antagonism (grandiosity) and attention seeking.
3. Exhibiting above traits consistently across time and situations.
4. Above traits are not part of a normal developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
5. Above traits are not a merely a natural result of substance abuse.
Many people confuse empathy and sympathy. But in the case of the narcissist, this is another important distinction.
Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to someone else’s emotions.
Sympathy is feeling pity for someone.
Narcissists can have a lot of sympathy yet struggle with empathy.
Here’s an example of a sympathetic thing a narcissist may believe:
Poor thing… she actually thinks she can live without me.
But if you had empathy for someone you’ve hurt, you wouldn’t keep hurting them.
Related: How Do Narcissists Think And Work?