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.