Why empaths and narcissists seem to need each other.

Credit: Let Me Reach with Kim Saeed

The concept of narcissism and HSP (highly sensitive person) or empathic traits coexisting in the same person is a matter that has very little research behind it, but I definitely think there is a strong case to be made for it. Hear me out before you hit the backspace key. I actually think it’s at the core of why empaths and narcissists are so uncannily drawn to each other.

In my article A Match Made in Hell: Narcissists and HSPs, I wrote about the tendency for narcissists and HSPs to form trauma-bonds with each other–that’s really just a fancy way of saying these two seemingly opposite types of people are often attracted to each other and form codependent relationships.

The trauma bond.

The narcissist is both attracted to and envious of the empath’s vulnerability and high empathy. They are attracted to it for a very simple reason:  they need it badly. As children, narcissists failed to be mirrored or loved unconditionally by their parents, and are love-starved, even though they’d rather die than ever admit it.   The empath, in turn, is able to love the narcissist without condition, to the point of allowing themselves to be sucked dry.

Narcissists also envy the empath’s ability to love unconditionally because on some level, usually unconsciously but sometimes consciously, they know they jettisoned their own ability to love and feel empathy a long time ago in order to survive.  Most were highly sensitive children but shamed for it.  Many were bullied.   So they learned to bury their emotions behind an invulnerable facade because continuing to be so vulnerable hurt too much. Empathy may be a gift, and I think most narcissists were born with that gift, but were never shown how to use it and were punished for having it.  It became a curse instead of a blessing, so they sent the gift into exile and shored up a false self to make sure it never saw the light of day again.

Knowing they jettisoned their ability to access their own vulnerability, combined with a continued starvation for unconditional love and acceptance, is what draws narcissists to empaths. They abuse the empath, either consciously or unconsciously, because they hate the fact they need their love so badly, and the empath’s sensitivity also unconsciously reminds them of their own sensitivity that caused them so much pain. It’s a constant reminder of the shame they felt as children for being so sensitive, but they also can’t live without it. So they punish the empath for reminding them of their own “weakness” and making them feel so needy.

The narcissist, in their neediness and simultaneous resentment of being so needy, feeds off the empath like a vampire. If they are malignant, they don’t care that they’re destroying the very person who gives them a reason to live. They may even get some satisfaction in knowing they are punishing them. If the narcissist is not malignant, they may feel some guilt over what they do to  the person who gives them so much love, but be unable to stop doing it. Or more often, they aren’t even aware they are doing it. They just seem like a bottomless well that can’t get enough and keeps on demanding more.

Of course such a relationship is extremely unhealthy, even deadly, for the empath, who will eventually either leave the narcissist or be completely sucked dry or in the worst cases even destroyed. But the empath does gets something important out of the relationship too. They truly believe that through their unconditional love, they are saving the narcissist from him or herself.

Common roots.

Empaths and narcissists often both come from abusive or dysfunctional families. Both started life as highly sensitive children. But at some point they diverged. While the empath embraced their own vulnerability and learned how to use their gift to help others and find joy and authentic connection with others, the narcissist rejected it because it seemed more like a curse and made them feel too much pain. If they were never shown any empathy or were shamed for being too sensitive, it’s understandable why they might have rejected their own empathy and covered it over with a facade of toughness.

Why are empaths drawn to narcissists?

Empaths, like narcissists, often have narcissistic parents, and are unconsciously drawn to those who remind them of their parents or perhaps a sibling or other close family member.  They are naturally drawn to those who seem to need healing, and in embarking on a relationship with a narcissist, they are unconsciously attempting to heal their parent or other family member. This is why empaths so often become codependent to narcissists.

Empaths are able to see through the facade the narcissist presents to the world, to their hidden true self. They can see the hurt, abandoned child that lives inside every narcissist. They truly believe they can “fix” them and transform them into authentic, feeling humans capable of returning what they have been given. Of course, this belief is almost guaranteed to end in disappointment (if the empath is lucky), and possibly much worse. For a narcissist to change and stop the pattern of abuse, the desire to do so must come from inside of them. They must be willing to drop their mask of invulnerability and do the hard work of reclaiming the vulnerability they were born with and gave up a long time ago. The empath can’t make a narcissist want to change. Just because they can see through to the sensitive true self doesn’t mean they will be able to draw him or her out. They can die trying, but it probably won’t work. The unwilling, un-self-aware (or malignant) narcissist is likely to punish them for trying.

Failed empaths?

There may even be a genetic connection between narcissism and those who become empaths. I’ll go out on a limb and even speculate that they might even be the same thing–the narcissist being a “failed empath.  It’s ironic but I definitely think there’s a connection.

But how can that be? Narcissists are incapable of empathy, have problems feeling and expressing deep emotions, and are incapable of loving anyone but themselves. Isn’t that the opposite of being an empath?

Well, yes and no. The explanation is complicated, so I hope you stay with me here.

As I’ve explained before, I think most narcissists began life as highly sensitive people who at an early age suffered trauma due to abuse. This caused them to shut off their too-vulnerable true (authentic) selves from the world and in its place construct an elaborate defense mechanism–the false self–initially meant to protect the vulnerable true self from further harm, which has no defenses at all. Even empaths who are not narcissists have some protective psychological armor, so they did not need to construct a false self to take the place of the true one. Healthy empaths are truly authentic people who feel deeply and are emotionally honest with themselves and others. Narcissists were born with no emotional defenses at all; the false self replaces the true one and appears invulnerable. But this is only an illusion. When you face a narcissist, you will never know who that person really is because all they will show you is the protective mask they have created. They are so terrified of being hurt again that they will attack with vicious ferocity if they think you pose any threat to its flimsy underpinnings. It must be a terrifying way to live.

The high sensitivity of a narcissist is retained in the way they react to personal insults or slights. They overreact when they feel like they are being attacked, ignored, or they perceive their source of narcissistic supply may be in danger. They are paranoid, touchy, and often lack a sense of humor about themselves. They may try to appear as if they don’t care, but if you know narcissism, it’s usually not too hard to see the emotional fragility behind their defenses and acts of false bravado. When it comes to other people, they can seem incredibly insensitive.

Narcissists who aren’t high on the spectrum and become self aware may be able to reclaim emotional empathy toward others, because empathy is a skill that can be learned.  A forum member on the NPD board I read (who has NPD) described something that happened with her husband that warmed my heart.  She said he had hurt her feelings, and she caught herself about to attack him.  She felt her defenses go up, but instead of acting out, she decided to NOT act out and just allow herself to feel the hurt.  Instead of attacking him as she normally would have, she cried.   He put his arms around her and she allowed herself to be held and comforted, to feel vulnerable and cared for.   She said at first she felt awkward and uncomfortable, but the next time it happened, she felt less uncomfortable.  Now allowing herself to be loved is becoming second nature and she says she is starting to feel some tenderness toward him too, and even moments of a new feeling that she thinks is real love, a warm feeling not based on getting supply from him or bolstering her ego.   So I think empathy takes practice.  If you were born with it, you don’t lose it, but it may be hard to access and takes a conscious effort to learn to reclaim and use.

But before a narcissist can really get better and feel empathy toward others, they first need to develop self-compassion (this is NOT the same as self-pity, but is actually empathy for the rejected child-self). They must also be courageous enough to stay in treatment and confront and release the traumatic feelings that lie hidden beneath the mask.

This usually only happens when the narcissist hits rock bottom and suffers a massive loss of supply, sending them into a depression.  At that point they may enter therapy or realize the problems they have are because of themselves.   The problem with this is once things begin to improve or they begin to feel better again, they are likely to leave therapy because the work to get to their authentic self is too painful.    It takes an enormous amount of motivation, courage and positive thinking for a narcissist to stay in therapy long enough to begin to access their true self and embrace their own vulnerability.  It can be done, but it’s not easy.

For malignant narcissists though, things are very different.  Stay with me here because things are about to get complicated.

The connection between malignant narcissism and high sensitivity.

Warm and cold empathy.

In my research about NPD, there has been a lot of discussion about a concept called “cold” empathy.   Most of us associate narcissism with a lack of empathy, but this isn’t exactly the case. Most narcissists–especially malignant ones–do have empathy, but it’s not emotional or affective empathy; it’s cognitive or “cold” empathy. What this means is that a narcissist KNOWS what you are feeling, and may use what they know you are feeling against you. Cold empathy is “felt” on the cognitive (thinking) level, but not as an emotion, and that is why the narcissist can feel no compunctions about turning your feelings against you in order to punish or hurt you.

An extreme example of this would be the sadistic, psychopathic rapist. The rapist “smells” your fear and uses that against you to become even more sadistic. It *is* empathy, but it’s “cold”–the rapist understands exactly what you are feeling and your fear makes him feel powerful, so he increases the level of torment. He feeds off your fear like a vulture feeds on carrion. You don’t need to tell him you’re afraid; he KNOWS. He just doesn’t care and even derives pleasure from it.

Cold empathy is the twisted mirror image of warm empathy, which non-pathological people are capable of feeling on an emotional, not just a cognitive level. HSPs and empaths have an excess of warm empathy.  Here’s where things get complicated. If a narcissist is also a failed empath, their high sensitivity could morph into a quality that seems almost supernatural and is utterly chilling–a cold, sadistic form of “empathy” where they seem to be able to see into your mind. A non-sensitive person would not be able to detect your emotions without you telling them how you feel, and therefore not have that creepy, unsettling way of “seeing into your soul” that the malignant narcissist does. So, the higher the sensitivity a narcissist has (and the more the “warm” empathy has been shut out or turned “cold”), the more malignant they will be.

Malignant narcissism is high on the HSP spectrum.
Credit: http://dondepresso.rujic.net/post/116940034025/manic-chart-narcautism-spectrum

This idea was actually illustrated in the humorous-but-true graph (shown above), where initially I wondered why malignant narcissism was showing so high in empathic/HSP traits. But actually it makes perfect sense. An empath who adopts narcissism as a way to cope and whose warm empathy all turns cold will become malignant. A less sensitive person (or a highly sensitive person who still retains some warm empathy) may still become a narcissist, but they won’t become malignant. Of course, at their core, all narcissists are highly sensitive. They just don’t want you to know.

In summary, then, empaths and HSPs can be the most kind and caring people you can ever hope to meet–or the most dangerous. A narcissistic empath is definitely someone you’d want to avoid.

They are two sides of the same coin. The tragedy is that a malignant narcissist can destroy a previously healthy empath, but it doesn’t work the other way around: a non-narcissistic empath can’t change a malignant narcissist into a good person.


Further reading:

Narcissists and Empaths: The Ego Dynamic

21 thoughts on “Why empaths and narcissists seem to need each other.

  1. Pingback: Why empaths and narcissists seem to need each other. — Lucky Otters Haven | HelpingOthersHelpThemselves

  2. This is truly fascinating. I especially agree with the statement “empathy takes practice.” Even HSP/Empaths, while naturally more intuitive and sensitive to others’ perspectives, need to actively engage with them. Kindness and understanding are always crucial. Furthermore, being Empathic does not automatically mean being a good person (or immune from Narcissism).

    Conversely, being a Narcissist (emphasis on low on the spectrum, self-aware, and recovering) does not automatically mean destruction and misery. If empathy is a practiced behaviour, then you suggest that even Narcs can be able to do it. I do think though that this would require at last a degree of therapy, and lots of self discipline.

    All in all this is a powerful, thought provoking post. I loved it!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The post is interesting… but does not address narcissistic and empath traits co existing “in the same person.”

    Contradictory things cannot exist at the same time.

    Though there are familial and cyclical “connections” (do narcs breed hsp, and do hsp’s over support their children and breed narcs?) I am still awaiting evidence of coexisting contradicting traits.

    Sorry Lucky Otter. Your empathy for the narc only proves you truly are not one, never was, and never will be.

    This is not a condemnation of those who split as children due to abuse and become narcs themselves, nor is it a denial that at times we are all drawn towards selfishness, but contradictory personalities cannot co exist at the same time, even in a person with outright multiple personality disorder.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s also important to draw distinctions between personality disorders and moral judgements. Just because someone is incapable of empathy (narcissist or sociopath) we cannot judge them as good or bad, “responsible” or not. We do not know their upbringing or their childhood.

      On the other hand, once you eliminate the moral judgement entirely, it is clear to see that a personality noted for high sensitivity, hsp, (whether or not this sensitivity is used for good or evil) cannot coexist simultaneously with a disorder diagnosed by incability of feeling empathy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Moreover Lucky Otter, what I am saying is in all your blogging you have demonstrated the most self-less compassion and empathy towards others that I’ve seen in a long time.

        Even with naysayers you maintain a dignity and respect towards them not even demanded by the common rules of etiquette.

        Therefore I am your most ardent supporter, and simply hate to see you, who has such an evolved conscious, suggest to others what might be interpreted as your words being narcissistic, when they are clearly, not.

        There is a reason for that ancient adage.. choking on gnats (fleas?) while swallowing camels. Your heart is beautiful blogger, and we all appreciate it. Please own the goodness and heroism God gave you.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am thinking of that one blog where you gave an example of all the negative things people were accusing you of. As an outsider, it was very evident that those critiquing your success were jealous of your success. Yet your responses were consistently intellectually responsible. You did not even give in to a just anger against those who obviously resented the deserved attentions your blogging solicits.

          And may I suggest to you that the response you get from supporters like me who see your true self and love you for it is more real than family members and jealous friends who were never there for you and jealous of you in the first place?

          For I have nothing to gain or lose in calling your personality like I see it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You are so sweet. I used to be a very angry person and flew into uncontrollable rages. I know that’s probably hard for you to believe. I’ve worked really hard to get to this point where I can let go of anger and forgive. It wasn’t easy, believe me. But unrelenting anger poisons the soul and it was poisoning mine. I could no longer live that way. It would have killed me.


      • I agree with your first point 100%. As for your second, I respectfully disagree, however, the sensitivity in these cases is not used for good purposes.


          • By the way anger is not a sin. The only thing that is a sin is acting out of anger.

            I say this because I too was frightened when the anger and over me, that I would become a narcissist. If I indulged it, it would indeed eventually poison the soul.

            But there is such a thing as proportionate justified righteous anger. The processing through this is inevitable, even healing, and should never frighten us into thinking we will become a narc. Narcissists aren’t even capable of feeling that kind of passion.

            Remember that proportionate feelings of anger are just feelings, with no moral judgement attached. Only actions can have a morality attached, right or wrong.

            Liked by 1 person

            • There’s nothing wrong with righteous anger at all. Sometimes it’s necessary, like when you are leaving a narcissist. It gives you courage and overrides fear to do what you need to do and get away from an abusive situation. Without it, we’d still be stuck with our abusers and possibly even dead.

              Righteous anger also causes people to become heroes, if they are fighting for what is right or against what is wrong. Of course, right vs . wrong can be a value judgment and taken too far. Problems arise when there is disagreement about what is right and wrong — for example, a person who believes they are right by shooting gay people or bombing abortion clinics may be seen as a hero by a few but as a terrorist by many more.
              But someone who uses righteous anger, for example, to fight against racial discrimination (such as MLK did) is using it in a good way. Jesus did too, when he went on a rampage through the temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers. I think you know where I’m going with this. I agree with you that narcissists don’t have that sort of passion unless it’s about themselves. But even that could change though under the right circumstances — I always think of Saul/Paul.
              Violence, either emotional or physical, due to uncontrolled anger is always wrong though. I don’t care how passionate your cause is, violence and abuse is never the answer.


          • I haven’t used it for harm, at least not knowingly. I think everyone makes mistakes though and no one has ever gone through life never hurting anyone, purposefully or not. Humans are all flawed. Some are worse than others though.


  4. Pingback: Cluster B | CLUSTER B

  5. I think there is a lot to this post. Humiliation as I understand it is the core issue in development of full blown NPD. Its only natural that while narcs bury this desire to be seen and loved and empathised with it still exists somewhere but can never be overcome because their deeply by now unconscious fear of humiliation or pain has caused massive defences. So I really think you are on to something here and it makes a lot of sense about what happened to me in my last relationships with a narcissist, because when I showed him empathy sometimes he would rage as I validated his vulnerability and that enraged him. I think this is a wonderful post,

    And anger by the way is only damaging when the assertive impulse to set boundaries was not validated in childhood. Then we have within us a deep dark storehouse of anger or rage that comes out. It doesn’t make us bad people it just shows the depth of our wounds.


  6. Pingback: Why empaths and narcissists seem to need each other. — Lucky Otters Haven – Living By The Moonlight

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