Empathy practice.


I’ve always been empathy challenged, but I always blamed my “Aspergers” and later, my Avoidant PD for that. Oh, I can empathize in a sort of distracted, distant way (I always feel terrible when I see or read a news story about abuse of animals or children, for example). But when it comes to having empathy for real, live people, I have a problem, because true empathy requires a level of closeness I’m not comfortable with. My first instinct is to run like hell.

But something strange has been happening. I post on a forum for self aware people with NPD which is populated mostly by covert narcissists (the type most likely to be unhappy with themselves and want to change). I’ve noticed I’m much able to empathize on a deep level with these people (not so much for those who are grandiose or don’t want to change). By that I mean real emotional empathy, not just cognitive empathy. I first noticed this trend in myself about a year ago, when I started to become obsessed with trying to understand (rather than hate) people with NPD. I seemed to have this driving need to understand, and noticed an emotion I can only describe as empathy for self aware narcissists who were struggling with their disorder and wanting to change. But I still didn’t recognize myself as having the disorder, and it was a mystery to me why I felt the way I did, why understanding them was so important to me. Of course, when I became self aware a few months ago, it all became clear–I’d been trying to understand myself.

I can feel a kind of cognitive empathy for other people too, especially if they’ve been victimized (because I was too) but there’s definitely an emotional disconnect. On these forums, I actually find myself empathizing in an emotional, “heart” sort of way and feel a strong connection with people like myself. It’s strange and unfamiliar but it feels good in a way too, like something cold and hard inside me is melting.

Maybe it’s nothing more than looking into a mirror, but I think this empathy I feel toward people like me is giving me practice in empathizing with people in general. I also think it’s a skill that can be learned. Maybe later I’ll be able to expand this onto people who are less like me. In feeling this warm kind of empathy, I’m still not sure how to respond to it, how to act “empathically.”

I think most (non-malignant) narcissists have the capacity for true (emotional) empathy, but it’s been stuffed way into the back of our mental closet and had a bunch of heavy things thrown on top of it. It’s time to dig it out and dust off the cat hair and dust bunnies.


I also have a theory that might sound a little crazy. It’s pretty much the consensus that narcissists are hypersensitive and easily offended. I think most started life so sensitive they had no natural defenses that normal people learn, so narcissism was adopted as a coping strategy. But I think it goes a step further than that. I think many of us are potential empaths (HSPs), or at least started out that way. I think we are hypersensitive and empathic, but all that sensitivity and empathy got turned inward, toward ourselves, leaving no room for us to extend these emotions toward others. I remember as a tiny child, crying when a bug died. I felt the emotions of everyone around me and used to get literally physically ill when there was discord or unhappiness around me (which was most of the time, and I was a delicate, sickly baby and toddler as a result). I cried a lot and suffered from many allergies, that went away later in childhood.

It’s ironic that the most potentially empathic people of all could be the ones who have shut themselves off from being able to feel it. I think the key is to somehow find a way to turn all that self-empathy and sensitivity away from ourselves and toward others. The hard part is figuring out how to do that, or more specifically, getting past the fear. I think it was Tony Brown who said the key to healing this disorder is to replace thoughts of fear with thoughts of love. Probably easier said than done, but I think he was right.


21 thoughts on “Empathy practice.

  1. i so get the run like hell thing….intimacy scares me…..making eye contact is like physical pain and i feel dirty. like i might contaminate the other person…i fear being engulfed, smothered…

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      1. it makes me upset because it means i feel am a bad Christian. i cant’ share the gospel with people because i’m too shy and scared of being hurt … i do get lonely sometimes but i bury it in food and shopping. it manifests as an empty feeling. a hole inside. like boredom but way more intense. a huge flatness. a hollow feeling of nothing to look forward to and nothing bringing me pleasure

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        1. I’m sorry but I don’t think you’re alone, I have had a lot of those feelings too, especially the inability to share about my faith with anyone because I’m too shy. Oh yeah, that hole inside… I know ALL about that damn hole…and starting to explore it. But I know it’s not empty, I’ll find myself in there. I’ve been there all along. So have you , that emptiness isn’t really empty at all, it’s an illusion.


        2. thanks…. i have joined Food Addicts in Recovery group near me because for years ive been either bingeing or compulsively grazing and i’m now 23 stone and a British size 26-28

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  2. i may be diagnosed BPD and had some successful treatment (reached a high level of recovery i never thought possible) but one symptom of it i lacked was fear of not being in a relationship. relationships always scared me. i never want to be married or date. people who themselves are very needy scare me- i feel they swallowing me up whole….i want to empathise with and love others but this paralysing fear of getting close to people and feeling shame like a hot thick cloud is too frightening,. i feel defective…..the BPD types who want to always be with others and obsess over phone calls not happening i cannot understand at all. only when i am in terrible fear of something which affects my life eg a financial or health disaster do i become very needy and THEN i obsess about calls because i feel that person must hate me or they the only one who can help me. but i dont’ want a boyfriend…i am a damsel in a tower with a dragon who wants a knight. on a white steed; who clings to him and then as soon as the crisis is past, is back to being her usual shy, independant self. i am very sensitive to people’s opinions of me and feel invalidation like a physical pain but i dont believe i base my identity around another person. i am Miss independent

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    1. That definitely sounds like BPD, all the splitting, extreme anxiety, and extreme mood swings — all pretty standard symptoms. You can learn to regulate those. Have you tried DBT classes? They helped for me. Also you should read some books about BPD, not just the stuff on the websites but some real books by professionals. You’re not hopeless. Oh, and hello Miss I. ๐Ÿ™‚


      1. i had DBT for two years. i didn’t like the mindfulness bits but the rest was helpful…..my therapist was lovely and didnt give up on me….before her many health professionals didnt know what to do with me


  3. i can feel empathy in sense i can identify with someone’s feeling hurt but i just cant be committe dto anyone. i will do kind things for others but become drained and weary very quickly. funnily enough i often feel shame after doing something good for people. like a fraud…. because i know i’m a bad person inside

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    1. First off, stop telling yourself you are a bad person. Ask God to help you accept that maybe you’re a pretty good person and were reacting the only way you knew how to a bad situation you were placed in through no fault of your own.

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        1. according to my father, who perpetrated much of it, mine wasn’t. he worked with abuse victims as a christian counsellor and just regarded me as self pitying and spoiled…i cant help feeling his God must feel the same way….

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        2. my sister was treated just as bad but i think for me it went on longer because i had chronic illness (ME/CFS for many years, PCOS and Tardive Dystonia from a bad reaction to antipsychotics) as well as mental health. plus being very overweight, so was an easy target. i would need validation and look for it in ways that were troubling to my family at same time i would push people away . i was a way more difficult kid than my sister… i both spoke the truth and was hostile as a teenager but at same time retained my childhood fearfulness, even having panic attacks if my father raised his voice. i’d go from being headstrong and seemingly rebellious to being a fearful wreck. all genuine as well. my emotions would change very quickly but were intense.. like a tornado

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        3. it is…some mental health worker once told me she thinks i’m shallowly lurching from emotion to emotion. it doesn’t feel shallow though? that surprised me as they feel intense and everyone around me tells me im so intense im draining!

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        4. People tell me I’m pretty intense too, I used to be accused of being too draining too, but that was long time ago. I know I’m intense but I think I’m putting the intensity to better use. It can be done!

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