There’s an awful lot of talk about empathy these days, especially in regards to narcissism. Narcissists are supposed to have no capability of feeling empathy. But what exactly is empathy anyway? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If so, then I have felt it, but for a narcissist (and probably for most people!), it does involve a conscious effort to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” I think having a measure of empathy does help most of us choose to not cause another person deliberate pain, because we wouldn’t want to be in “those shoes.” It’s possible to still make a choice not to hurt others even if the only empathy we can feel is “cold.”
Someone at Psychforums said that “catching someone else’s emotions” isn’t empathy. But if that isn’t empathy, then what is it? I don’t think too many people, even non-narcissists, can “catch someone else’s emotions” though under normal circumstances. Laughing may be an exception, but contagious laughter is almost like yawning. You see someone do it, and it’s almost a reflex to do it yourself. I don’t think it’s really in human nature to be able to “catch emotions.” We are all a little bit narcissistic (or should be–someone with no narcissism at all would probably not survive). But there are those few people–empaths, probably– who literally can cry WITH you, and feel your pain WITH you–apparently with no reference to themselves.
The other day I read one of Sam Vaknin’s essays called “Write Me a Letter” in which he describes a time when he was in prison (evidently the same prison stay in which he became self-aware of his narcissism) and met an old, crippled blind man there and listened to this man’s story. The old man started to cry and shared his feelings of worthlessness and unloveability, and Sam actually held the man and cried with him! That’s right–Sam Vaknin, a narcissist who supposedly has no emotions. Maybe he was making this up but I don’t think he was. So even someone without empathy, can, at unusual moments, or when their false self is temporarily disabled (as it might be for someone who’s been imprisoned and recently lost a wife, as Vaknin had) be vulnerable to the emotions others around them are feeling. Or maybe he could just really relate to the old man and was actually crying for himself, for his own losses and sense of failure? I don’t know. Empathy is a strange thing. I might add though as a disclaimer, that the old man in the story seemed to be a narcissist himself, and Sam has said that narcissists can feel (warm) empathy for other Ns. So that could explain it, I guess.
It’s been said that empathy is a choice, and I agree with that. It takes a narcissist more conscious effort to place themselves in someone else’s shoes (because we’re always so caught up in ourselves and can’t SEE that another person is hurting, feeling pain, anger, grief, what have you). Cold empathy isn’t especially difficult, but warm empathy would require an ability to feel with another, and isn’t that the same thing as “catching emotions?” The false self–which because it is false, can’t feel emotions other than those (anger, defensiveness, fear) that are germane to its survival–gets in the way. But underneath that, somewhere, is the true self, which may from time to time be uncovered in an unusual situation–most likely, after a massive loss of supply. And that’s what those of us who want to heal from NPD need to try to access without having to suffer serious losses–cut through all the bullshit that lays on top of it, and then true empathy gets so much easier.
What about compassion? Is it the same thing as empathy or not? Personally I don’t really see the difference, although compassion may have more of a “doing” element about it. Compassion would be empathy with action. An example might be giving someone worried they’re about to be evicted money to pay their rent. Empathy doesn’t necessarily require you to do anything other than understand on a feeling level how someone about to get evicted feels. It doesn’t require you to give anything else of yourself.
I can understand the distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy doesn’t require any emotional investment. To me, sympathy would be the same thing as cold empathy. If someone tells you their grandmother died, you can understand on an intellectual level how they feel and utter the right words and condolences, but you’re not required to feel anything other than a vague sense of understanding that it must have hurt to lose their grandmother. You don’t have to share the bereaved person’s sadness or grief.
What about pity? For me, the distinction is pretty clear. I hate pity. It’s condescending and insulting. “Oh, I feel so sorry for you.” Said with no real emotion there. It’s similar to, “Oh, I will pray for you” said in a condescending, morally superior tone of voice. I want to punch someone who tells me that.
It’s hard for me to have empathy or feel with another in a real-life situation because of my shame and fear of allowing others to see my vulnerability, which empathy requires. I don’t seem to have a problem doing this online, on a semi-anonymous blog, but in person? That’s something entirely different. I’m so emotionally shut off from others in real life. Not being able to really feel with others is a big reason why I’m socially awkward and almost a recluse. I prefer to spend most of my time in solitary activities.
I think that’s another reason why I’ve opted for self-therapy. Alone, I can allow myself to be completely vulnerable, without any sense of shame or embarrassment, as I would experience with a therapist. I actually would be weirded out by being reparented by a therapist, which could possibly mean limited physical contact. I’m very squeamish about that.
Empathy sometimes requires touching or holding another. I’ve never felt comfortable having physical contact with others (with certain exceptions made for sexual/romantic relationships and when my children were babies and toddlers) and especially making myself so vulnerable in front of another person. Right now, I couldn’t do it. I would like to work toward being able to be physically close with someone in a nonsexual, emotionally vulnerable way, but that in itself would require therapy for me to even reach that point. I just don’t trust people enough. I feel the same way about empathizing with someone else in a real life (not online) situation. Sometimes I can see when someone needs to be physically touched or even held, but I hold myself back. I can’t do it. It makes me too vulnerable and embarrassed.
I can’t cry in front of others either. When I was in therapy, I never actually cried. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I’ve gotten pretty good at crying alone which is a necessary part of healing, but I know I couldn’t do it in front of anyone else and time would be wasted in therapy just to get to that point.