An Empath’s Guide to Narcissists

(This information was originally the introduction to the eCourse ‘An Empath’s Guide to Narcissists’. The course (first published June, 2015) has been expanded and broken down into modules. There is also an ongoing series of videos.)

What are we talking about here?

Image by antelligent at Morguefile.comThere’s a common (mis)understanding that empaths are repelled by narcissists. This is an over-simplification of the complicated and messy relationship the two share. Both empaths and narcissists are formed by their early (and often similar) experiences in the home. They are the yin and yang of the feeling spectrum. While repulsion is part of the puzzle, so is a strong draw towards an energy that feels familiar on many levels.

Let’s begin with definitions:

What is a narcissist?

A narcissist has a deeply entrenched attachment to an ego-defined (false) sense of Self. This individual doesn’t really know him/her Self in an intimate and healthy way. There’s very little self-love involved because the individual believes the worst about themselves to be true. If that were to be discovered (by others), the narcissist’s worst fear would be realised.

Attempts at ‘self-reflection’ may involve dissociative techniques which never reach the feeling of the emotions attached to the initial wounds. There’s no desire to be authentic or vulnerable, because they fear people will discover their ‘ugly’ truth.

What is an empath?

An empath is a highly-sensitive individual who uses their feeling sense of the world to define their experience. They’re extremely attuned to emotional (and other) energy, become easily overwhelmed in crowds (especially those in heightened states of excitement), and can know the mood of a room as soon as they enter.

Part of an empath’s gift is to transmute emotional energy through their bodies. This means lower vibrational energy can be shifted by their presence. Their own awareness of the process is something to which they become more attuned as they learn to decipher which energies belong to them, and which can be attributed to others.

Empaths tend to desire authenticity and vulnerability, because they feel things so deeply that the masks people wear can confuse and alarm them. Depending on their level of awareness, if the inner sense of what’s happening doesn’t match what’s being presented outwardly, they can doubt their own inner knowing.

Young Empaths

Narcissists (primarily parents or early caregivers) ‘create’ empaths by not allowing them to be separate. The narcissist’s own needs, self-beliefs, and feelings are projected on everyone around, and children soak up the narcissist’s story. It’s often difficult for these sensitives (especially very young ones) to distinguish between theirs and others’ energies; they easily hold space for the narcissist’s feelings and conflate them into what they’re feeling. This can lead to co-dependent and enabling behaviours. It becomes the empath’s reason for being to support others’ emotional states, and ensure the well-being of those around them.

Their sense of Self has not yet been firmly established, and because of their sensitivity to harsh energies, they learn quickly how to keep the peace. They may also fear for their personal safety/security, and so develop this as a coping mechanism to remain safe. This often involves shifting to accommodate the narcissist’s moods and needs, in favour of their own. It also means the empath has trouble understanding what’s true – what they’re feeling versus what the narcissist wants to present to the world. Narcissists deny and avoid their feelings, and unconsciously teach the empath to do the same, even while it’s painful and confusing for them to resist their sensitivity.

This establishes patterns for empaths which are not easy to break: difficulty creating and maintaining boundaries; and compromising themselves, sometimes to the point of complete self-annihilation. This is also why empaths in relationship with narcissists can behave narcissistically themselves, although when it happens, it feels strongly discordant. They begin to hate who they’ve become, and feel confused that they feel both love and hate towards their partner.

Young Narcissists

Narcissists (primarily parents or early caregivers) ‘create’ other narcissists when a young child becomes trapped in their suffering and learns avoidance of painful experiences and emotions. They develop a coping mechanism, which is to wall off the intensity of the feelings they’re constantly bombarded with. Instead of processing the emotional energy through their bodies, they begin to shield themselves (their hearts) from feeling anything (dissociation). They may develop obsessions with things that feel good (temporarily), which later develop into addictions.

Narcissists also soak up large amounts of information from the world around them. Some use it to develop an image of themselves as compassionate, and empathetic while unconsciously avoiding the feelings themselves. They learn very quickly which pieces are helpful in eliciting further supply for their constant need for external validation. Their personal boundaries are more like walls, while they treat others’ boundaries as if they don’t exist.

How can I spot Narcissists?

They come in all shapes and sizes (this is the challenge with being human); things aren’t always as they seem. Narcissists are not all divas who throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way. They’re not always ‘obviously’ narcissistic, which is the challenge for empaths and others who come into contact with them. Most have spent their whole lives building walls to protect the early wounding, and are not always easily distinguished. They also intuitively know what people want so can avoid detection or diagnosis by playing the expected role.

Covert narcissists will come across as down-to-earth, unassuming, charming, perhaps self-deprecating people who seem to care well for others’ needs. They appear happy and confident and may have achieved some level of success. They are outwardly polite, caring and can never do enough for others. Their public image is carefully controlled to convey a sense of bland positivity. They are the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

You won’t see ‘real’ stuff, like grief, uncertainty, mistakes they’ve made or their vulnerability exposed to others. When these are expressed, it is to garner supply in the form of compassion or confirmation of their false self. Narcissists very often lack true passion; they rarely allow the depth of their emotions to be seen, in whatever medium they choose for expression. In other words, there’s no heart in what they express. Their grand gestures and words of love have an empty feel to them, as if they’re ‘expected,’ not heart-felt. Compliments feel hollow and manipulative, instead of genuine and honest.

When The Masks are Off

It’s behind closed doors that the truest sense of them comes out. They’re insecure, seeking constant external validation, a part of which is the ‘nice guy/nice girl’ routine. It’s a role they play to protect those deep inner wounds from being exposed as the ugly truth. The fear of being found flawed sends them into a tailspin of fear, and they may lash out at others. Their unhealthy attachment to the false self is a trap that keeps them inventing new ways to enhance or support the image they’ve created.

In other words, a narcissist is someone who is perpetually suffering. They’ve normalised the experience to the point of unconsciousness, and have donned masks to ‘hide’ it from the world. When an empath first comes into contact with a narcissist, they’ll feel some resistance – indications that things are not entirely as they seem – but may ignore or deny it. This depends on many factors, including the empath’s trust in their gifts and their readiness in that moment to explore the narcissist-related wounds in themselves.

The key word truly is conscious, which is very different from spiritual or seemingly aware. Because the narcissist is so experienced at avoiding the deep well of inner Self, they search for things to give their lives meaning and purpose; spiritual and intuitive work can fit the bill. For a narcissist, it becomes another means of dissociation; attributing to themselves a level of importance or ‘specialness’ that adds to their external image. It’s possible to receive and understand messages on rational and ego levels without processing them through your heart.

Empowering your Empathy

Empaths can be equally unconscious, especially in connection with a narcissist. As they take the narcissist’s story as truth, they may act in ways aligned with that, in other words, unconsciously. Often, the empath will feel the internal discordance of the unconsciousness but choose to deny it to maintain the connection (cognitive dissonance). Narcissists, especially in the beginning of relationships, work to convince you you’re the best thing that’s ever happened. All other relationships pale in comparison. They’ll use terms like best friend, soul mate or twin flame early on to instill importance and seriousness.

Anyone with a shaky hold on their self-worth will be intoxicated by this attention and the potential they feel in the connection. An empath may feel a sense of purpose, being the supportive partner to this seemingly loving person. They may ignore all their internal warning signs, and choose to believe the external version the narcissist presents.

Conscious awareness carries a responsibility to align with personal integrity in each moment, whatever that means for you. As you continue making shifts in consciousness, that changes; staying attuned with your inner knowing keeps you in contact with your sense of integrity. It’s a visceral, embodied experience; learning to feel your way through the world with the tools you’ve been given as a human/spiritual being. What felt integral last week may feel slightly out of alignment today, and that’s exactly as it should be.

Learn to Trust Yourself

It’s hopefully easier to see now how the idea that empaths are repelled by narcissists is not entirely accurate. Being in relationship with a narcissist can feel so familiar that it’s challenging to ascertain what doesn’t quite feel ‘right’. The words sound good, the loving gestures are frequent, and on the surface it appears to be a desirable situation. At first.

The challenge for empaths is to really, deeply trust their own sense of knowing, which has been derailed since childhood. If they’ve been trained to believe that their feelings are not the truth, they unconsciously fall into the role that the narcissist needs of them. It’s easy, even after years of deep inner work, to accept this old, familiar way of being.

Because empaths are feel-ers, it’s important to return to a place of feeling and trusting that as soon as you can. Over-analysis (on a rational level) can lead to more confusion and potentially obsession. You will be stuck in a dissociative state with very little movement. As an empath, you must return to your heart. Healing begins there.

Big Love,
~ Jenny

If you’d prefer a brief video definition of the terms, here’s one:

See the YouTube playlist for more videos.

15 Replies to “An Empath’s Guide to Narcissists”

  1. Pingback: Sharing Links to the sites of Four Soul Sister Friends Who Have Influenced me in a Positive Way « Facets of Joy

  2. I have been in a band situation empath/narcissist for decades and I cannot take it anymore. I feel the stress has overwhelmed any joy I get out of it. I have decided to end this relationship, but even so, I feel horrible about the other person. But it seems like Lucy with a football. The last episode felt so horrible and hurtful, yet I know they are unware of what they do – or are they?

    • Hi Kay,

      Thank you so much for your comment, and for sharing your experience here. The description of Lucy with a football is SO perfect for this dynamic. It’s push-pull all the time.

      My intuitive understanding of it is they are not fully aware of what they do, in the sense of bringing consciousness to it. There has to be a constant cognitive dissonance in order to dissociate from any feelings of empathy for another. It is a self-protective state developed through their own experiences.

      The most important thing for you is to not dwell on whether or not they’re aware of it, but to commit to your own well-being and happiness. If you feel consistently drained and abused while in their presence, whether or not they do it purposely is actually not your ‘business’ – your responsibility in those moments is to listen to your heart and seek a more resonant experience elsewhere. It’s the analysis of the behaviours and the ‘why’ that can get you stuck in a loop, which is unhelpful in the end. Most of the time, the reasons for a narcissist’s behaviour will NOT make sense to someone who feels even a normal level of human empathy and compassion.

      If you haven’t already done so, work on setting clear and distinct boundaries, which always start with your own needs. e.g How do I want to feel in ______ situation? How would I like to be treated? What are my deal breakers? What am I willing to compromise (and NOT willing to compromise)?

      Once you have a clear idea of your own needs, you can enter each situation with the capaciy to respond to whatever arises from that very centred and connected place. I do offer a free three-day boundary setting course for empaths, if it feels like something that would be helpful for you. You can find that here: http://thepowerofchange.me/empaths-guide-narcissists/boundaries-empaths/

      Also, as long as you stay connected to the old band situation, you don’t have space in your life for the better that wants to come in. There is something so much more magical out there for you.

      Sending you Big Love,
      ~ Jenny

  3. Help! I am a divorced woman, after 25 years of marriage my husband was cheating on me with my sister which I found out through a counselor. She is a narcissist and my ex too. They are constantly plotting against me. I have three children in their 20s now they still think you’re so great and treat me like I’m nothing. I’m heartbroken because I’m the one that took care of them when they were children and he is taking all the credit for it. I am living with my mother that has dementia so my sister comes here constantly nosing. Entails the X everything. It’s really a mess but I’m not allowed to speak.
    – Brokenhearted Mother

    • Hi Mary,

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      First of all, I’m so sorry to hear all you’ve been through. The type of betrayal caused by cheating is so hurtful, even without the added layer of it involving a family member. It’s so important for you to find a support network outside of your family, because it sounds toxic. It is so challenging to be enmeshed in a close circle full of secrets that feel shameful.

      Are you able to establish some kind of boundary where your sister must let you know before she comes to your Mother’s house, so that you can leave or at least be busy with something else? As it stands, each time she comes to the house, you will be re-triggered by the memory and reminder of her betrayal and the hurt she has caused you. Boundaries must start with you – tell her when she is stepping over the line or when she is asking too many questions. Even saying the word no is a step towards healthier boundaries.

      Narcissism is a tricky dynamic to work with, because so often the narcissist is a master at spinning tales and getting others to believe their version of the truth. Unfortunately, your children are now adults and will make up their own minds. Your main focus now is YOU. How can you create a healthier experience for yourself, starting exactly where you are? How can you take self-responsibility and begin to give yourself the love and compassion that you have so freely given to others?

      One way to start moving forward is to shift your focus from the actions of others involved and find new ways to respond, within yourself. Do you have a counsellor you trust, with experience in narcissistic abuse? Do you have friends you can share things with, who allow you to express your pain and confusion without judgement? While you are still so deeply entrenched in your family and its drama, it is challenging to heal. Not impossible, but difficult. Boundaries are absolutely key.

      I do have a free 3-day boundary-setting course, if you feel it’s something that would be helpful (it can be found here: http://thepowerofchange.me/empaths-guide-narcissists/boundaries-empaths/).

      I hope this has been of some help to you, Mary.

      Big Love,
      ~ Jenny <3

  4. Wow! this was so heart touching!
    dear Jenny:
    I am very recently discovered lightworker. I accepted this gift past 15 days.
    3 years ago, I rejeced it for the first time when my dad passed away and a day after it was offered to myself.

    After a traumatic experience, or I would rather say being with PTSD, thanks to my narcissist husband, being without my baby for 1 year (bc my husband asked me to do that “for our own behalf”) being stucked professionally for 3 years “to recover my marriage” and many others drama histories.. I think that my husband does not have the consciussness of what is going on.

    I told him like 7 months ago that he is a narcissist and (he as a gastroenterologist) that we need counseling and while he was soberb, while he was cheating, while he rejected me, ignored me, I was past year over my knees asking for forgiveness to him because I felt guilt that I was not the woman he truly deseves.

    all of this caused by the darkness that I do not know from where was coming from… because I can bet my husband was a victim too, I’m not justifying him, but I can be pretty sure he is not a bad guy.

    This darkness that I have been feeling for 8 months (except since march), attacked me when I was in the most vulnerable days of my life (like 3 days before my exams or when I was physically sick of migraine).

    I have been in stucked professionally just studying for medical boards for internationals as my husband did some years ago, but as never experienced before: this darkness has been paralyzing myself, and there is sometimes I do not how to avoid it or challenge it or destroy it, and this time, since march it is not my husband, neither any migraine. my lack of balance in my “past life” made me think in suicide, from november to february.
    My treatment:
    my angels raphael and michael helped me on march. my another gift: I can hear them, see them and talk with them as well I can truly say it has been the most amazing experience in my life, they saved me and left me a mark on my desk that I would like to show you and ask you for your opinion as well.

    As an empath and as a surgeon I can truly say I have the gift of healing others but I can’t help myself. I have to keep going on but I do not know from where to start and enjoy this amazing new life that it was given to me after a catharsis of everything my body could take out from it as well as 3 days of sleeping as I told you 15 days ago.

    I decided to do not give up on my marriage and to help my husband in his growth, like a second chance or like re-marry him. I heartly love him and I hope to be right in my decision.

    Jenny: do you think that I can destroy darkness with love for my family as well as to pass my boards?
    do u think I can help my husband and have a normal or at least at our way of being a happy martiage as before? this was just a cycle of months. I have more than 4y of marriage

    do u think that this feeling or sensation of hypersensitivity or panic attacks or anxiety attacks and little darkness moments that obstruct me can be out of my mind ?

    now I just have one month to focus, to be more creative bc if I dont achieve my purpose I have to be another year by myself professionally frustrated in this amazing study room that have helped me and have been giving me lessons. but my life is out of my house, with my baby, with my patients and with my happy life that I used to have before this decision of living in US very far from my home country where my baby is with my mom while I’m studying but I dont feel any progress.

    What should I do?

    I need, I have, I want and I take the decision to move on, I have everything to do it and achieve it except peace. finally my american dream is coming true and I think I am the one I have fear of change my ordinary life to the one that I was dreaming and working for it since 12 years ago. please help me.
    I need a guide.

    thanks in advance.

    • Hello Myrna, and thank you so much for your comment.

      I’m taking my time with a response to you via email, as you have raised a number of points within your query here. I’ll address a couple of things here, though, as they may also be hepful to others.

      Firstly, you wrote ‘As an empath and as a surgeon I can truly say I have the gift of healing others but I can’t help myself.’ You are the ONLY one who can help yourself. Even when healing another, the healer is simply the conduit for the energy to flow through to trigger in the other the innate wisdom they hold within to heal. You have this gift. It feels like the catharsis you had (which involves great surrender) was a stepping stone towards healing yourself. You can build on that – continue to release things that no longer serve you. Don’t try to rebuild thigs that were part of the you before the process, but allow for new things to enter by leaving the space for them to do so.

      Secondly, it’s not your job to help or heal your husband, it’s his. Your job is to tend to your own needs and passions and create the life you desire. If he is not willing to do the work and meet you half way, then it may be better to ask yourself what benefits you feel you get in the role of rescuer. Is there a need or wound you’re trying to resolve in yourself? Are you ignoring your own needs in order to feel valuable to someone else?

      I’d be delighted to be your guide. I suggest you read my services pages to see how I can help you further. I’ve designed a course specifically for empaths working through relationsips with narcissists (http://thepowerofchange.me/empaths-guide-narcissists/empath-narcissists-ecourse/); and I offer one-on-one intuitive mentoring (http://thepowerofchange.me/intuitive-mentoring/).

      Thank you again for reaching out to me. I appreciate your feedback and your questions. I will reply to some of the more personal points in an email to you.

      Big Love,
      ~ Jenny

  5. Im not sure if the answer goes to my email so i might forget to read it. Im about 80% sure im an empath. Always have been. My head likes to go back and forth and i have a tendancy to over think things. I was always an over emotional child, at the age of 6 my dad and mom got devoriced. Me and my sibilings stayed with my dad (my mom was the main caregiver when they were married and she was more sensitive than my dad). My dad was a very blunt and honest man.. I dont think he nor my mom were narssisists but they were completely different. Mom was sensitive and my dad was not, he was a very logical and realistic thinker. As i grew up my dad made me strong, less emotional..and i became like him in a sense. I was blunt, honest but i knew when to hold my tongue.. Most of the time. But i still had the sensitivities that i had when i was younger, which my mother always encouraged and my dad accepted. I think i learned how to listen and control it with ever even knowing. Now i think my boyfriend of four years is a narssisist.. Its been a heck of a ride and now im figuring out all about empaths. Anyways my question is, is it possible for an empath to be able to switch all emotion off including our own? Ive always been able to.. Thanks to my dad lol as i know thats something he could do too in times when he needed to. Im in a state where ive turned off my emotion, and i must have done a good job. I can feel.. But i cant seem to get passed the block that allows me to fully feel everything and be able to deal with it. I worry myself that im turning into a narssisist.. But although i can be blunt i do over think other peoples feelings to a point im not as honest and blunt as i use to be because im scared to hurt other peoples feelings even when its the truth.

    • Hi Rea,

      Thank you so much for reaching out to me. I’ve sent a fairly lengthy reply to your email account 🙂

      In answer to your question about switching off emotions, I’m copying my response to that here as it might be useful for others as well.

      ‘I believe it IS possible to switch off all emotion, especially if it is a taught behavior. In my childhood home, emotions were not acceptable, so I became pretty good at pushing them away. The problem is, they don’t disappear, they are just held in our bodies to be released later. When I was 36, they all came rushing out in a flood, where I sobbed and grieved for months on end, three hours a day. It was uncomfortable but also the best thing that ever happened to me, because it got me started on healing my deepest wounds and traumas. And now I trust my feelings above all else. I follow them wherever they lead me, and am deeply connected to my intuition and inner knowing. I feel more alive than ever. And that’s kind of the root of it here – without feelings, an empath is not truly living/thriving. We are here to engage with the world through our sensitivity, and if that has been shut down, it feels a little empty.

      Chances are, you have shut down your feelings because they may be telling you things you don’t want to hear or had not yet been ready to admit to yourself. It’s called cognitive dissonance. Your mind over-rides your inner knowing because it feels safer to accept the false truth that’s being presented than to face the totality of the underlying truth your feelings have been trying to reveal.’

      Thank you again,
      Big Love,
      ~ Jenny <3

  6. Pingback: Self-responsibility: An Empath's Super-power - Jenny Griffin, The Power of Change

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