Empaths and Narcissists are Pretty Similar, Actually…
The media has been painting “empaths” in a negative light, and I think for good reason…
Now, I know that empaths will loathe reading the title, because we strive so hard to stay away from any narcissistic trait — in fact, one of our main fears could very well be that we ourselves are narcissists, since most of us were raised by one.
But I’m here to tell you, in case you didn’t know already, that being narcissistic is totally fine sometimes, even necessary and vital in order to thrive in this world.
Before we begin, let’s clarify the meaning of some of the terms for a sec:
Judith Orloff, MD, a pioneer in the field, describes empaths as those who absorb the world’s joys and stresses like “emotional sponges.”
In her book “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People,” she suggests empaths lack the filters most people use to protect themselves from excessive stimulation and can’t help but take in surrounding emotions and energies, whether they’re good, bad, or something in between. -Healthline
I think it’s safe to say that most empaths are highly-sensitive people(HSP), but not all HSPs are empaths. I’d know, because I feel like I’m an HSP who’s no longer an empath thanks to learning stronger boundaries that have allowed me to no longer absorb the energies of those around me(to an extent). An HSP, in question, according to Cleveland Clinic means:
If you’re a highly sensitive person, you have a heightened awareness of the stimuli around you, which can be good or bad. HSPs tend to be bothered by violence and can easily be overwhelmed, which leads them to avoid certain situations. Highly sensitive people can also be very creative and have a deep level of empathy.
“Highly sensitive people are built more deeply, emotionally and mentally than most people,” notes Dr. Childs. “It’s more than their emotions. It can also be sensitivity to textures and sounds. You might not like big crowds or bright lights.”
What causes someone to become an HSP? The Cleveland Clinic expounds:
It’s thought that being a highly sensitive person can be a hereditary trait. But there can be other factors at play like your environment and your experiences as a child.
“If you had childhood trauma, you may likely be a highly sensitive person,” states Dr. Childs. “With trauma, we become hyper-vigilant. We’re on the lookout for things. We stay away from things that have sparked that trauma.”
HSP was first coined in the 90s by psychologists, meanwhile “empath” was first used in a movie…
Empath originates in science-fiction literature. Consider it like emotional telepathy. The term is first cited in Scottish author J.T. McIntosh’s 1956 “The Empath,” a story about paranormally empathetic beings, called empaths, that the government exploits to oppress workers.
The original Star Trek TV series helped spread the word with its 1968 “The Empath,” an episode about a deaf woman with the ability to both experience and heal others’ wounds.
…the terms are relatively new, so perhaps when psychologists mean “HSP”, they could also mean empath? For purposes of this article though, I refer to an empath as an HSP who simply doesn’t have strong emotional boundaries. I believe that an HSP, as a result of a more sensitive nervous system, may be sensitive to all sorts of things like the cold, the heat, the scratchiness of clothing, or the loudness of the environment. HSPs may be born this way, or they may learn it through becoming an empath. Meanwhile an empath is specifically more sensitive to the emotional states or energies of others and can easily embody how someone else might feel.
Meanwhile, a narcissist is:
Narcissistic personality disorder involves a pattern of self-centered, arrogant thinking and behavior, a lack of empathy and consideration for other people, and an excessive need for admiration. Others often describe people with NPD as cocky, manipulative, selfish, patronizing, and demanding. This way of thinking and behaving surfaces in every area of the narcissist’s life: from work and friendships to family and love relationships.
People with narcissistic personality disorder are extremely resistant to changing their behavior, even when it’s causing them problems. Their tendency is to turn the blame on to others. What’s more, they are extremely sensitive and react badly to even the slightest criticisms, disagreements, or perceived slights, which they view as personal attacks. -Helpguide.org
I’m writing this article because I used to heavily identify with being an empath in my early journey of healing from narcissistic abuse. However, I think that over-identifying with any label can actually be quite harmful because whatever we associate with that label, we then internalize too much.
But I am totally aware of the appeal for identifying as an “empath” for highly-sensitive people(HSPs): being one means that you’re the opposite of the insensitive people we’ve been surrounded with our entire lives — it’s even the antithesis of the greatest evil we’ve probably encountered: the narcissist.
So calling yourself an “empath” can feel comforting. Even empowering. And it’s definitely great to have a term for HSPs who have had a hard time exerting their boundaries, so that a community can be formed around it. For me, personally, it made me feel proud to be everything a narcissist was not. I think, early on in our healing journeys, we stay far away from everything a narcissist represents: shallowness, manipulative behaviors, their drive to climb up social ladders, etc. But that’s exactly the problem. Narcissistic qualities, in healthy amounts, are actually required in order to thrive in this world. And so is empathy — it’s a skill that’s highly sought-after in the work force because being good at putting yourself in someone else’s shoes assists you to know better what the customer, client, or your boss wants from you. And a healthy dose of narcissism helps you go after what you want, be more assertive, and realize that you and your work are worth more than lowballers(or narcissists) make you believe.
The problem comes when you lean one way or the other too much: be too narcissistic and you inflate yourself and your goals too much to the point where it blinds you of reality and you hurt others on your way to the top; be too empathic and you start giving too much importance to others and their opinions, in effect, neglecting your own views and importance in this world.
Now, I first had this realization when I came across a video explaining the cause of narcissism. I watched it in my search to gain more compassion for the narcissist in my own life. Ms. Swan explains that people become narcissists as a defense mechanism for how they were raised. Unlike psychopathy, which is caused by the brain being wired differently and is inborn, narcissism is learned. Empathy is the same way. You often hear of how people who read a lot of novels are more empathic because reading from a first person POV practices your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Empathy could also be learned as a defense mechanism — if you had a parent who was emotionally volatile, then you’d have to develop a lot of empathy to be able to understand the cause of their blowups so you can learn how to avoid it(or walk on eggshells to carefully navigate it).
However, some people could also think that nothing influenced them to be that way and they were simply born with that trait. I think that if it’s possible for someone to be born a psychopath without a capacity for empathy, then it’s entirely plausible that someone can also be born with an overdrive for it.
This article isn’t for those types of people though. This is for the ones who grew up believing that they had to change or minimize who they were because their caregivers couldn’t meet their needs otherwise. They had to hide certain parts of themselves that would trigger a negative or abusive response from the adults around them, and so turn into empaths to cope: if the feelings and experiences of others became your own, then you could justify the erasure of your own needs and experiences by making-believe it’s for the well-being of the people around you, because their happiness and sadness has become yours now too. This renders you at the constant mercy of the emotional states and energies of those around you.
I used to be proud of the term “empath” because isn’t it such an admirable thing to be? But then I realized, “no, not really.” It’s only something that I had to resort to learn as the result of being raised in an environment where I wasn’t treated the way a child should be: with their needs being met, and each of their emotional states being seen and validated. I had to learn that growing up with my own unique views, interests, and dreams were only secondary to the expectations that adults placed on me. And that is screwed up. But that is the sad state of many children in the world — especially in Asian countries. But that’s a topic for a different day.
Most empaths are raised by narcissistic parents; although, another result of narc parenting is that the child could also become a narcissist. So what drives a child to become more empathic instead of narcissistic? I think there is a very fine line between the two, and they’re two sides of the same coin, or two threads from the same fabric.
I think that a narcissist used to be an empath. Contrary to what most common descriptions suggests — that they don’t have empathy — I think they do have empathy, but only cognitive empathy, wherein one knows what others are feeling but can’t feel it themselves. This is why most narcs are so good at manipulating and pushing people’s buttons, and some of them seem to be able to read your mind. It’s because they used to be empaths — for a time.
They tried being the good, quiet, obedient child who only wanted to make their parents proud; they tried being the chameleon to anticipate their immature parent/s need/s. But they soon found out that even if they were everything their parents could want, they were still not given the attention they needed(or maybe they were, but only for the usefulness they could provide; that’s why most narcissists are so good at climbing corporate ladders), or they were abused for it instead so they realized that being empathic is useless, and that they could never get their needs met by their primary caregivers. Instead, they looked to the outside world for validation. And, as we know, the world can be cruel, and you’re only valued for how you can benefit someone in some way. Also, if you show any sort of weakness, it’s used against you. So the narcissist acquired cognitive empathy, and a grandiose sense of self, in order to be able to manipulate you into believing that you absolutely need them in your life.
They had little to no attention given to them growing up, or if they did get it, it was verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. So they learned to harden their shells, never let anyone see their vulnerabilities(and even use others’ vulnerabilities as leverage), and be stubborn with their self-belief that they’re the greatest in the world.
Empaths were raised similarly — but perhaps in a milder way. Maybe only one of their parents was emotionally immature, while the other one provided stability. They got love and attention, but for the most part, it was very conditional on them ignoring their negative feelings so that they could keep the peace.
The common thread between the narc and the empath is expectation. The empath expects that if they exert their boundaries, you won’t like them anymore. And the narc expects that if they don’t inflate their own egos by making you feel small, then you’re the one who will make them feel small.
Another commonality between them is that conflicts seem very high stakes. They both weren’t taught how to communicate properly, so they resort to passive-aggressive, or even aggressive, behaviors. For example, if the narc doesn’t get what they want from you, they may insult you or resort to stonewalling which is acting as if you never existed. A very inhumane thing to do. Similarly, once the empath gets fed up, they do the door slam that’s commonly associated with the INFJ personality type. INFJs are also known to be empaths, but on the flip side, they can be seen as narcissistic to, because they can come off as cold.
Empaths can easily turn into narcs because if their expectations get repeatedly crushed, they’ll start getting bitter and will resort to their more narcissistic traits to get by if they don’t have enough guidance. That’s why we have what’s called a “dark empath”, which to me honestly just sounds like covert narcissism.
Empaths, much like narcs, have a shaky sense of self exactly because their emotional states are driven by others — like how narcs can’t take criticism because they rely too much on their fake self-image not being shattered.
Empaths also tend to want others to view them as kind or righteous, and they’re scared of seeming narcissistic or causing conflict — at least, that’s how I used to be — so we ignore our own feelings. But the thing with feelings is that the more you try to bottle it up, the more it will come out in untoward ways, even making us explode.
And because we were raised in such a way wherein we felt we had to save our parents, we also might have a savior complex. But the problem with that can be summarized with this line:
“The desire to fix another is an active avoidance of the neglected self.” -J. Mike Fields
Because once you really start committing to the work of healing, you realize how hard it is to change even yourself. No one can save someone who is unwilling to save themselves.
Explaining all this isn’t so that we can excuse bad behaviors(“It may explain it, but it doesn’t excuse it.”) It’s up to every human to become better so that they don’t spread more pain in the world.
You probably already knew all this information, but in case you didn’t, I hope it illuminates a compassion for anyone who may be a narcissist, so that you can be compassionate for yourself too when you embody these traits sometimes because it’s only human to exert your own boundaries, know what you want in life, go after your dreams, and lift your healthy ego up. And I hope it helps you detach from the label of “empath.” Because although it may seem like a noble thing to be, you’re no longer allowing yourself to be human with all our positive and negative traits.