The narcissist’s dark and twisted brand of empathy.


Do narcissists have empathy?  Yes, and some of them have a lot of it, but it’s probably not the kind of empathy you want anything to do with.

Some lower spectrum narcissists do have some capacity for normal emotional (not just cognitive) empathy, but it tends to be selective–that is, they can turn it off when it’s too dangerous or it makes them feel too vulnerable. That’s why, for example, a low-to-mid spectrum narcissist can feel empathy for fictional characters in a movie or novel and even shed tears for them, or can feel empathy for a stray or sick animal, but when you tell them you just lost your job, or that what they just said hurt your feelings, they turn into a block of ice. Their reaction to your pain is about as heartwarming as the Siberian wilderness in January. If they’re love-bombing or trying to hoover you, they may FAKE emotional empathy, but they don’t really feel anything.  They show you what appears to be tender compassion in order to manipulate.

It’s not news that most narcissists are ultra-sensitive, but their sensitivity is retained only for themselves, and that’s why they are so easily offended. But that sensitivity seems to have a switch that turns to “off” when it comes to other people and they can appear appallingly insensitive. Many narcissists were so sensitive as children they were actually potentially empaths. Their empathy didn’t really go away, but remained in a twisted and barbed form. Their developing disorder transformed their natural emotional empathy into something dark and malevolent. Some experts call he kind of empathy narcissists have cognitive empathy–which means the narcissist KNOWS how you feel, but can’t share your feelings or care how you feel. If they are malignant or sociopathic, they may even want to hurt you. Because most of their emotions went into hiding as a form of self protection, the emotional, caring aspect of any empathy they might have once had disappeared too, and what remains is only the cognitive portion. Narcissists have an uncanny and unsettling way of knowing EXACTLY how you feel–and if they are malignant, they use their twisted brand of empathy against you. For a malignant narcissist, empathy–a quality we normally associate with loving concern–becomes a weapon used to control, attack, and belittle you.

Cognitive empathy.

On HG Tudor’s website, Knowing The Narcissist, he wrote a post about the way some narcissists mock their victims using mimicry of their emotional reactions as a form of abuse. I am going to quote a portion of that post, because of how well it illustrates the way a malignant narcissist uses cognitive empathy as a weapon to cause pain. It’s quite amazing how well they know EXACTLY how their abuse is making you feel, but instead of feeling remorse and apologizing the way a normal person would, they instead use that knowing empathy as fodder for their mockery cannon. My ex did this to me constantly, and Tudor’s description of the victim’s feelings of overwhelming helplessness and frustration at the receiving end of this type of abuse is absolutely spot on.

When you stood there crying with frustration and I drank deep of the delicious fuel you provided me, I would raise my hands to my eyes and draw pretend tears on my cheeks and make a sobbing noise to humiliate you further. Here I was letting you know that I copied everything that went before yet now I copy again but not with the perfection I once exhibited. I allow the sting of sarcasm and the malicious mockery to infiltrate my copying of your behaviour so that your hurt and bewilderment was increased. You would shout at me and I would shout back using the exact words before standing and laughing at you as you burned with frustration, unable to find any response. You might stamp your feet in exasperation and I would do the same but with a leer of disdain writ large across my face.

There were times when you would scream. A terrified scream as my vicious manipulations would take their toll and as you tried to curl into a ball and hope you might just disappear and escape this nightmare, I would lean in close to you and mimic your scream into your ear, creating this fabricated falsetto of distress in order to further your own. Every reaction to my devaluation of you had the potential to be met by a mimicked reply from me in order to further your misery and demonstrate I did not treat your responses with any sincerity or concern.

Another way a narcissist can use cognitive empathy is to scope out your vulnerabilities–knowing exactly which buttons to press to upset you. In the comments, Katie provided a great example of this. Her mother, who scapegoated her and knew she was sensitive about her poverty, used this against her, saying things like, “Oh, Katie dear, it must be SOOOOO hard to be living the way you do and never have enough money for the basic things.” And then followed that up by crowing about how successful her siblings were and the vacations and new cars they were buying. My mother used to use my sensitivity itself, knowing I was sensitive about my sensitivity, saying things like, “It must be so awful being so sensitive.” What’s happening here is a kind of fake, sarcastic “empathy” is thinly veiling a cruel jab at one of your buttons, which their cognitive empathy is used to discern. And then, should you complain, they will act all hurt and innocent and tell you they were only trying to be nice or were showing concern for your well being. This is a vicious kind of gaslighting.

Please keep in mind that cognitive empathy in itself is not a bad thing.  It could be a tool used in mindfulness training to help a person learn to “walk in someone else’s shoes” before acting out against them.  Cognitive empathy can be learned, but emotional empathy cannot be taught–it’s either there or it isn’t.  Most empaths have both cognitive and emotional empathy.  Cognitive empathy lets them know how someone else feels, but the emotional aspect allows them to care.

22 thoughts on “The narcissist’s dark and twisted brand of empathy.

  1. Holy crap. I also knew someone who used mimicry in that way, but I always got the sense that he was trying to understand what I was feeling….like, less empathetically, but more like how you’d repeat a phrase in a language you didn’t speak. Like he was spooked in some way by my ability to have emotion.

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  2. Holy crap. I also knew someone who used mimicry in that way, but I always got the sense that he was also trying to understand what I was feeling….like, less empathetically, but more like how you’d repeat a phrase in a language you didn’t speak. Like he was confused in some way by my ability to have emotion.
    Kind of an odd guy, in general. Heavy substance abuse and got arrested a lot, despite having an iq north of 130.

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    • Hmmm….hard to say. Was he N? If he was just on drugs or very socially awkward, his intentions might have been good, but came out as mockery. You can usually tell if someone really is mocking you though, because there’s usuallly this exaggerated, sing song quality about it and an evil glint in their eyes.

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      • One of my most painful memories is coming home from school crying, because I was being mocked for my ugly broken nose, which I believe my mother broke when I was 5 or so, in the middle of the night, during a psychotic break. She was a jealous paranoid schizophrenic with severe narcissism. I remember the worst part was “knowing” the smile on her face while she comforted me was not normal, that she was in some way, also mocking me. She ended with a lecture: God gave you that nose! You have no right to not like it! This is why now, I do think mocking is acceptable, only in one regard: if we mock back not the narcissist, but the evil slandar they spew against us. It is really filthy trash talk, and simply should be treated as such.

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      • He had N traits and had a lot of issues with acting superior to others…His mother actually thought he had antisocial personality disorder…It seemed like he enjoyed provoking me into crying, but the way he imitated it was weird…all I can say is he was psychologically interesting, I guess.

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  3. I’m always learning something on your blog, thank you! Well written and informative. Cognitive empathy is a new concept but I realize I’ve seen it before, I just didn’t know what it was called. Even empathy in the hands of a narc turns into acid. It confused me because my mother could manifest apparent empathy but in a way that picked at scabs or wounds in my life.

    At the time I didn’t understand that her empathetic act that left me diminished and frustrated was intentional. Designed to get me to let down my guard so the knife could go in deeper. An example that happened repeatedly went like this: My relationship broke up or I suffered some great loss….
    Mom calls, says with something that sounds like compassion “you must be so lonely” I cringed when she started conversations like this because any sort of weakness on my part was going to be exploited. I know better than to say yes I am, she goes on “you are so alone in the world, God is not very kind to you, I think you need a break”… This is supposedly empathy…

    Then,in the next breath she tells me with glee of my siblings wonderful lives. How my sister met a very distinguished lawyer that has a big shot government job that she is dating and they are pretty serious. She shares my sisters daughter is getting a PhD from an Ivy League school and traveling to Europe to do research. And how my brother bought another house…

    She ends the recital of my siblings wonderful lives, outlining the things I wanted most that they got with a pitying comment “I know you are so lonely”…. But it was glee in her voice as if my suffering was a victory for her. IN time I found out that the stories my mother fed to my siblings were about my need for her help and what a burden it was that I was so needy… The alienation that produced was heartbreaking and like narcs do the hatred between siblings was a fire stoked and fed and kept going by MN mom.


    • What your mother does is a perfect example of empathy used for evil purpose. It’s more subtle than the example in the post –not exactly mockery but in a way it is, and it is a form of sublte bullying meant to diminish you and make you feel very small and worthless. Guess what, my mother does the same thing. “You really do have so much trouble getting yourself together in life, don’t you” or “you really are a sensitive thing, aren’t you?” You know the drill. It’s jabbing the knife in, disguised as empathy. And they couldn’t do it if they didn’t have empathy, but it’s being used in an evil way.

      Your example about your mother was so good I have added to my post. I hope that’s ok with you.

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      • Yes absolutely use anything I write and thank you for sharing your experience too. Because its subtle it gives them plausible deniability they can say “I was just being compassionate to you, what is wrong with you” and then they can share with all their friends and family how ungrateful you are when they are trying to be nice. When they called to see how you are doing… what a monster you are… So yes, used for evil ends.

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        • It’s as if they all use the same techniques out of the same book or something isn’t it? I know it’s usually unconscious and don’t think about, but it sure seems that way!
          I have a lot to tell you later…but going to church right now I need to badly.

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          • May you find real comfort in church and the presence of God with you. Yes, they read off the same handbook its why I think the prince of darkness wrote that handbook because hearing of the similarities in the abuse proves there is a common source of the evil, at least in my take on it all. Its comforting to know as well that we werent alone in the experience

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  4. Of all human behaviors, mockery of other human beings for their humanity and vulnerability is one of the most evil acts there is, period. It is truly sadistic. I believe narcissists and sociopaths hate and fear the weakness they once had, in themselves and others. Thanks for another brilliant post. It cleared up some remaining fog in my mind.

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      • I recall reading of the results of a recent survey that spoke of perhaps five percent of bullies actually having personality disorders – and, by implication, the remaining group; nearly all of them – not being diagnoseable with anything beyond – perhaps – a then-active lust for power.

        The only people who aren’t potential bullies are those who cannot perform the necessary actions needed to DO bullying.

        Those people tend to be universally preyed upon; and the reasons, these: 1) Because the bully can do so. 2) Because the bully enjoys the act of predation and its blessings. And, 3) Because the bully derives social profit thereby, and gains rank and prestige in the eyes of his/her peers and betters.

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  5. Lucky, this post of yours is the first of its kind that I’ve read. I can remember as a kid and young adult and even now to some degree, ‘knowing’ what the person feels, knowing ‘what it’s like’ and knowing it hurts, to relate to them and feel badly for them, but no, I couldn’t always feel the feeling for or with them. I can feel pain, lots at times, when I have it. But if I know a person is hurting I’m not going to use that to further inflict pain because that’s not nice. But I see where I could be more hurt for or with them. I think the lacking of feeling for others at times comes from the profound pain I’ve felt and I say to myself, No one has had it as hard as me, although realistically I know that’s not true. But I wish I could ‘feel’ more sorry for people. I’m not cold but I think I could or should feel more. I’m not actively abusive, I wish to help people but I don’t feel as sorry for their pain as I should and I consider that an area that I’m lacking in. While I am BPD, I have been told I have antisocial traits twice anyway, but I think I get that from my MNM. I do have a hint of her in me I hate to say. I work to keep it in check. A therapist told me many years ago not to worry about my antisocial traits because in my case it meant I just broke some of the rules. I’m not an empathic, that I know, but N’s go after me anyway. I’ve been hurt a lot in my lifetime.

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    • I think it’s pretty common for people who have suffered severe abuse, whether they’re personality disordered or not, to have problems accessing emotional empathy. I know it’s been an issue for me as well, and for years I could barely access it at all, mostly because I was so caught up in my own “stuff” that there was no room left to really care about anyone else. I still have problems accessing it but it’s getting easier now. Very late in life though, I might add.

      I had pretty antisocial traits too when I was younger, especially during my late teens and 20’s. I was a ticking time bomb, ready to go off on someone or fly into a BPD rage at the slightest trigger. Although I didn’t get into physical fights (well, once or twice I did), I used to break stuff all the time and used alcohol to self medicate (which usually made things worse). I used to be pretty violent with words and even abusive when I was triggered or someone upset me, which was quite often. In between these episodes, I acted like a scared little mouse, afraid of everyone and everything. I had NO way to regulate these fight or flight survival emotions and people avoided me because they said I was too unpredictable and my rages were too scary. Hell, they scared me! I didn’t want to be like that, but had no idea what to do about it. I always felt terrible after one of these outbursts because I never wanted to hurt anyone. I also toyed with narcissism for a time (you might have read my post about that) in a misguided attempt to overlay the unpredictability of my BPD (and also because back then, I thought it made me seem more “cool” or something), but it didn’t work for me and thank God I ultimately rejected it or I might have become full blown NPD. I still think I have N traits but I try to use mindfulness to control them.

      I agree you might have picked up antisocial traits from having a MN mother. Most victims of narc abuse pick up something called “fleas” which basically means they take on a few (or sometimes more than a few) N (or even ASPD) traits themselves–but not enough to become narcissists or sociopaths. Don’t beat yourself up over it; you seem very mindful to me, and have a lot of insight, which means a lot. I have a lot of guilt over some of the ways I behaved when I was less mindful and had less insight and I struggle with that. It isn’t your fault , it wasn’t a choice you made, it was because of the abuse you suffered and just be glad you are where you are today, helping any others who have had similar experiences in their families. There are so many people who never get to where we are and never have any awareness of themselves at all. You seem to have quite a bit of empathy, and as you continue on your journey, you’ll find even more of it will become freed and accessable to you.

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  6. Is that why so many, uh, Normies seem ‘callous and unemotional’ to me? As if all of their apparent emotion is mostly an act? How they too-often act as if they really DON’T care about anyone other than they themselves and their immediate family?

    As if much of what they do is this sick-and-twisted covertly-malevolent social-dominance game?

    Is THAT why that accursed series ‘GAME of thrones (bones?) so diabolically popular? Because Normdom sees its inner life manifested on the glaring sclera of ‘ye magic(k) eye’?

    Magic eye ~ TV, especially the (Old? ) CBS symbol.

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