Getting Real: Empathy and Narcisism

There are a lot of blogs going around the Enlightened community regarding Empaths and their relationship to Naricissists.  But I haven’t seen much written on how both can exist in all of us, with only a choice and the ability to be aware of our thoughts and actions being the difference between normal and pathological behaviors.   The difference lies in how we approach and give to the world, what we expect and want from it, and the beliefs and behaviors we practice to get there.  Neither have I seen much written that addresses the responsibilities of the Empath to address their own part in these relationships. The Empath/Narcissist connection is often used as a new-age package for understanding the age-old issue of co-dependency and how the effects of abuse can manifest in our relationships.

Growing up with multiple forms of abuse taught me to become highly attuned to the moods of those who had positions of control or power in my life, so I could navigate those cycles with a (hopefully) less destructive outcome as a survival tactic.    I was so tuned in to the moods and reactivity or volatility of my abusers to avoid or subvert punishment that I suppressed my own emotions and needs and began to do this with most people who crossed my path.  In crowds, I would feel overwhelmed because there were too many emotions from too many people for me to be able to stay calm unless I found something upon which to focus.   Over time and with a lot of therapy and self-awareness, I learned to use those same survival tactics toward more positive ends.

When this goes on long enough for anyone, a person will operate on a constant level of anxiety and hyper-awareness that mimics the symptoms of PTSD, even if they don’t have some of the larger defining symptoms of the disorder such as nightmares or flashbacks. Other behavioral patterns may also appear, such as substance abuse or other addictive behaviors, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and even the possibility of becoming an abusive person.  For myself, I would get to a point where I was so overwhelmed by the emotional demands I felt from those who held a position of power in my life and were needy that I would snap and become irritable and self-absorbed.  I would whine to my coworkers or snap at my kid when things felt out of control, especially when they were feeling overwhelmed, or I would launch into berating my partner with a list of their faults when I just couldn’t take their lack of attention to my needs anymore.  One day, I saw the look on my child’s face when I snapped at them and realized that I was being emotionally abusive by putting my own frustration and needs ahead of theirs.  Although I didn’t physically hurt or belittle them, my behavior caused emotional damage that I had never intended.  Similarly, whilst in a relationship with a narcissist, I found myself in a codependent mode with a twist; I would take care of their needs, but when I attempted to take care of my own or my child’s’ needs, my partner’s sense of overwhelm and neediness that would surface would trigger a tirade of their faults from me as backlash.  Luckily, I chose to end that relationship when I realized that it wouldn’t change, my child’s needs and my own would not be met, and my partner would never lift a finger to help themselves when someone else could do it for them. After ending that relationship, I began to get in touch with those qualities in myself that describe an empath, but I couldn’t ignore how my own behavior reflected that of the narcissistic people in my life when I snapped.  Like it or not, the snappiness and the fact that my partner’s needs came before mine and that of my child were forms of abuse.

Many of the characteristics that define a narcissistic person are almost stereotypical behavioral patterns in many Americans.  What makes narcissism a true disorder is that these are so exaggerated in the person exhibiting them that they go through life hurting others around them and literally caring about no one else.  These people are completely oblivious to their own behavior and how it affects others, and cannot empathize with the plight of others.

This is not always true for all abusers… but the effects on their victims are the same, and many of these traits cross over into other personality disorders and addictive disorders as well.  It is semantically incorrect to label all abusers as Narcissists.  However, it appears that most, if not all Narcissists are abusers.  The reason I focus on this difference is that it is the package, using pseudo/pop-psychology terms, that is being sold that can be harmful to those who don’t understand the true nature of trauma cycles and how ongoing trauma affects various people.

Some articles are written from an empowerment perspective by removing the blame from the “Empath” and placing it on their abuser so the Empath can move forward and try to assume control of their issues.  Others are written to paint the Empath as a victim so they can learn better self-care.  My concern is that few of these offer solid advice such as seeking therapy to deal with the symptoms they are experiencing and the underlying reasons they end up in such relationships (especially if there is a pattern of these). The most harmful part is that the blogs and articles do not address the fact that every relationship, even an abusive one, takes two people, with two sets of faults, and although the power dynamics in the relationship are grossly unequal and harmful, both parties have a part in how these relationships play out, and if a victim of abuse leaves one relationship and doesn’t do the necessary work on their own issues, such as co-dependency, inability to be assertive, reactivity, depression, etc., they will attract the same kind of person and have a very similar experience.

Another thing I rarely see in these articles is how the Empath or traumatized and sensitive person sometimes behaves as an abuser in other relationships.  It is extremely important that we stop looking at these issues as black and white, and see that Empaths may become abusive (even if occasionally or unintentionally) towards others, especially children or other people in their lives who are needy or dependent on the Empath.  My own experience shows me that this can and does happen.  It is also extremely important that we recognize abusers and narcissists as traumatized people as well.  They most likely won’t identify as being traumatized, as what they have experienced has been normalized in their minds, especially when taking gender roles and expectations into consideration. Most of the Empath and Narcissist examples we see are highly gendered, with the Empath as feminine and Narcissist as masculine (even in same-sex couples or in couples where women are dominant over men, both of which are less common and sometimes more damaging due to the extra stigma involved).  When we discount the experiences that led to an abuser’s behavior, we move away from the compassion that is needed for healing.  That is not to say that we should forgive them in order to stay in such a situation.  It is important that we get out of the situation and do the deep self-work that is necessary to avoid repeating the cycle in the future.

This deep self-work is multi-faceted and should be tailored to a person’s individual needs.  I have found that starting with therapy and support groups is a good tactic for most people.  I caution though, with support groups, to find those that focus on empowerment and personal responsibility rather than blame.  We are never responsible for how an abusive person treats us, but we are fully responsible for getting ourselves and our children out of such situations, and doing what we need to avoid repeating the cycle.  Along with therapy, an awareness practice such as meditation or restorative yoga helps us to be more aware of our reactions to the emotions and behaviors of those around us.  Awareness and spiritual practices help us do the shadow work… getting to know our negative and sometimes destructive side and learning to accept that as part of our humanity and transform it into an asset.

I have found in my personal experience that it is important to call out a problem for what it is.  Sometimes things can be extremely convoluted and in the search for easy answers, we fall prey to the latest pop-psychology or new age fads to explain ancient problems that are new to the collective experience because the stigma attached to them that has subverted them and blamed the victims.  When we address these problems both individually and socially, we need to be aware that dressing them up to help people become aware can have negative repercussions and connotations if the people involved (especially the victims) are not seeking professional help.

If you are in a situation that is emotionally, physically, financially or sexually abusive, please seek help.  There are many resources available, starting with the national crisis line 1-800-273-8355, and local resource numbers such as 2-1-1.  Get help.  If you have tried something for a significant amount of time and it isn’t working, it’s ok to seek another source.  Don’t give up… be a tiger if you need to.  But please take care of yourself and do the work necessary to change your experience and that of those you love in your life.


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