An Empath and a Narcissist Walk into a Bar: No Joking Matter
An empath and a narcissist walk into a bar.
Sounds like a bad joke, right? But wherever there are empaths, there seem to be narcissists. And wherever there are narcissists, there seem to be empaths. The popularity of an off-the-cuff article I wrote two years ago, The Relationship between Empaths and Narcissists, is proof of the vein I’ve tapped.
I had no idea at the time that there were so many websites devoted to fighting narcissism, or worse–learning to live with it because you’re married to it, or you have a parent who’s a narcissist, or a child, or a boss.
Some readers have asked me if I think that narcissism and empathy are two sides of one coin. My initial reaction was to balk.
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
The reader went on to say that she really couldn’t tell the difference, based on what she’d read. Were narcissists really just empaths in disguise? After all, in her experience, narcissists knew exactly what she was feeling and tended to change themselves into who she wanted them to be in order to sucker her in.
I can speak only from my personal experience and from what I’ve observed in three decades of adulthood, but I think the reader might have been right. About narcissists and empaths being two sides to one coin, that is. Not that narcissists really are empaths.
An Empath Feels Emotions of Others but May Not Know the Reason
You see, here’s how it works for me as an empath. I can feel other people’s emotions and I can feel their pain. It’s frustrating at times because while I can feel their emotions, I don’t always know the reason for them. I may feel a boyfriend’s underlying turbulence, even though is he smiling and cordial to everyone and they all think he’s happy. I don’t see below his surface but I do feel it. As for the reason for his distress, I might assume it’s an argument we had yesterday or that he thinks I’m not spending enough time with him because of a work project or that he’s stewing about something that happened at his office last week.
If our communication is clear enough and he’s gotten over his fears of my empathy and understands how these hidden emotions that others don’t see can cause me to go off-kilter with worry, then instead of telling me nothing’s wrong, he’ll be honest and tell me that he’s annoyed with a mechanical problem on his car and he didn’t want to concern me with it.
Both Empaths and Narcissists Are Aware of Emotions but Respond Differently
I’m very aware of the moods and emotions of others. That’s what an empath is–aware–but at the same time, the narcissists in my life have also been aware of my moods and emotions. It may not have seemed like it because frequently they elected to ignore my distress unless it was to their benefit.
The Third Person in Every Relationship
I’ve read that there are three people in any couple’s relationship: the first person, the second person, and the relationship itself as a separate entity. In astrology, which is a hobby of mine, a birth chart is cast for each of the individuals in the relationship. Their two charts, one imposed over the other, is used to evaluate the relationship synastry, but another chart is often cast. It’s a type of composite known as the Davidson Relationship Chart, that looks at the relationship as a separate entity.
As an empath, I’ve been extremely aware of how relationships are separate entities. When in a relationship, I understand what a–let’s say a man in this case–what a man is feeling and how he rationalizes his actions, even very bad behavior, to enough of a point of understanding that I can lose myself in it and allow myself to be abused.
The Empath Takes on the Qualities of the Other Person in the Relationship
As a result, I’m very, very, VERY picky about the romantic relationships as well as platonic friendships I bring into my life. There are facets of the other person that will connect with facets of myself that may have seemed dormant or recessive until that connection is made. I believe this is true of everyone, not just empaths. But as an empath, I am especially aware of it. If I am with a man who displays reckless tendencies and that is a part of his personality both in and out of my relationship with him, then I will tend to become more reckless, not just in the relationship but as a part of my individual personality.
If I make a new friend who is a spendthrift, then the closer we become, the more likely I am to do foolish things with my own money, especially in her presence where I can sense the “oh, who cares because I deserve nice things” mindset.
If I become close friends with a co-worker who spends much of her time being negative or criticize others, I will appallingly find that I do the same, particularly in her presence. Last year, I did a 21-day experiment to not say anything negative about anything, and while it was no problem elsewhere, I simply could not refrain from negatives popping out of my mouth when I was with her. I was alarmed at how quickly I allowed myself to get caught up in the doom and gloom.
This is more than a matter of like attracting like. These are traits in another person that awaken and highlight dormant traits in me. After being single for a number of years and really understand for the first time what it was like to be ME and just ME without the close influence of parents or a husband or controlling friends, my independence meant that I could find out more about that I myself wanted out of life, what I really enjoyed, without rationalizing that I liked it just because the person I loved did and thought I should like it, too. (Hint: if I ever think I enjoy football, beer, or jazz because my man does, than I know I’ve lost some of my individuality.)
Now that I’ve broken the code on narcissists, as well as negative people, I’m very choosy about whom I attach myself to, particularly romantically. The question of whether or not to stay in a relationship, even with ups and downs, is now,
“Am I a better version of myself with this person or without?”
Like many empaths, I’ve had a tendency to attract narcissists and be attracted to their shininess but I’ve made great headway in allowing positive and compassionate people closest to me and keeping my distance from narcissists. The sense of merging with another person has become a good thing, for a change, because I’m not meshing my personality with a narcissist.
In this new trend, I’ve given my heart to a man who has certain viewpoints and habits that are beneficial to my health and my career, for example. I’ve allowed those aspects of myself to shine. Without this analytical and science-minded person in my life, I’m not as apt to…oh, let’s say log my daily exercise, food intake, blood sugar, and blood pressure in to a datawhore-worthy spreadsheet or dress like a manager instead of my personal preference for hippie garb. The analytical and managerial facets are true to my nature but this relationship brings them to the forefront as I realized two years ago when I hopped out of my morning shower and instead of worrying about sloshing water on the floor, I found myself calculating the trajectory to the sink where I’d left my towel. That still makes me laugh because it was the first sign that our personalities were merging even though we’d never touched.
For me as an empath, I can become something a little different, a little more matched to the person I’m with. Overall, I think it’s a good practice for everyone to choose to be around people who support them and help make them better. At least according to their own views of better and not the better of those who would have them be something of someone else’s choosing. Positive, healthy relationships are always good things, in my opinion.
Empaths and Narcissists in a Relationship — the Worst Combination
Empaths can’t always have that, though, and I have witnessed some nice, normal, gentle empaths turn into raving lunatics in the presence of a narcissistic significant other as they mirror the narcissist’s qualities and defend the narcissist’s behavior because the empath can feel the narcissist’s emotions as righteous and warranted. An empath in a relationship with a narcissist will become what the narcissist wants, even to the point of self-annihilation. Empaths will give up everything they love, everything that makes them individuals, and it will still not be enough. They will beat themselves up constantly for being unworthy because that’s how their partner sees them and the partner’s feelings become their own.
Instead of incorporating some of the health habits and career mindsets of a significant other and letting those positive traits bolster weak but desired habits, if the significant other is a narcissist, the empath may instead find herself (or himself) with a warden dictating which foods will be eaten, which clothes will be worn, which friends will be associated, which job will be chosen, which breaths to take. Like a frog in cold water being boiled to death one degree at a time, the empath will go from merging in a relationship in a narcissist so that their individual identities change to a team identity to instead becoming an extension of the narcissist. They will have only one identity in the team, and it isn’t the empath’s.
Are Narcissists Really Empaths in Disguise?
And yet the reader who asked me if narcissists are really empaths in disguise has a good point. Empaths know where other people’s buttons are. They just don’t tend to push them. Or maybe, for many of us, it’s just a matter of honor and integrity that we don’t push others’ buttons.
When one of my relationships broke up, the other individual (a diagnosed narcissist) informed me that he knew exactly where my buttons were and exactly how to push them to get what he wanted. It was a glaring moment of truth. He knew how to manipulate me with barely enough crumbs from the banquet to keep me around for the seductive possibility of more. He put the bare minimum into our relationship, becoming exactly what I wanted in a partner just long enough and just often enough to make me believe it could be this blissful all the time and to keep me in line with threats of withdrawing affection if I didn’t toe the line.
Looking back, I see now that he had a way of molding himself into exactly what I wanted, intentionally becoming something he wasn’t. But he couldn’t sustain it the whole time. The burden of his charisma was too heavy to hold up 24 hours a day and it came down when we were alone.
The last narcissist in my life, in a romantic capacity, was a year-long relationship and it was unfortunately as empty as my previous relationships with narcissists. Initially, it was thrilling, exiting, but eventually–when the narcissist could not continue to hold up a particular image to me and be the person he portrayed himself to be–the emptiness and confusion set in. There was something missing from the relationship then but as an empath, I couldn’t figure out what it was. Every time I was in his presence, I felt what he felt.
In that particular case, I did something that many empaths do that this narcissist used against me. I can’t say that I’d do it any differently now. I’m a very open person and forthright about what I want. Early in the relationship, narcissists are so charming and charismatic whereas later in the relationship, it’s easy to see them as charming and charismatic with strangers and acquaintances but not with us. And why not? If they already have you in their pocket, why waste the energy on you?
In this last case, I’d stated openly and earnestly what I was looking for in a mate when we first met. (He asked.) I’d answered honestly that I was looking for a man who was truly happy, and several others things, including having the ability to discuss Life-Death-and-the-Universe subjects like Tesla over a glass of wine. That led to a fantastic first date…as really most of my first dates with narcissists have been. He brought wine and regaled me with everything he knew about Tesla, which I realized later was only enough to last through pre-movie conversation.
For the next year, he was frequently out of town but every time we were together, he presented himself in a certain way that I later discovered was completely false. He was nothing like the person he presented himself to be. In fact, he was living a triple life and playing the same game with two other women.
The narcissists I’ve observed have tended to be either extremely critical and negative–in a dark place–or almost always happy-go-lucky and in times of tragedy around them, cold-hearted. This man was truly happy. I could feel his emotions. It was the motive for happiness that I misjudged. When I understood finally, I thanked my Gods that I ended that relationship before any permanent damage had been done.
His response to my dumping him was almost identical to other times I’ve left narcissists. My leaving was unfair, an attempt to “fuck his life,” to take away the benefits of my being in a relationship or friendship. It was never about my hurt–only about what my choices to leave the relationship did to him.
So yes, narcissists can, like empaths, know which buttons to push and they can be highly attuned to their victims’ emotions. It is the empath, however, who will mold himself or herself into what a partner wants, and it is the narcissist who will use the same sensitivity to feelings to make someone else into what the narcissist wants them to be. Two sides of the same coin, yes.
Again, the Most Dangerous Combination
But the most dangerous combination is when the relationship is between the narcissist and the empath.
One who wants everyone else to mold themselves into his world and the other so very willing and able to be molded.