(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?
There’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.
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.
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.
If you’d prefer a brief video definition of the terms, here’s one:
See the YouTube playlist for more videos.