Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Empathy

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Empathy

Lacking in Empathy?

Narcissism and a perceived lack of empathy have long been considered to be indicators of pathological narcissism and NPD.

Clinical research has shown that people with NPD were not lacking in empathy but were unwilling to engage in empathic responses. It is thought that some narcissistic individuals have empathic ability but choose not to engage/relate with others’ pain or distress, while others may have a deficient ability in the recognition of others’ feelings as has been seen in brain scans (the area of the brain thought to be responsible for empathy, compassion, emotional regulation, and cognitive function was found to be abnormal). The variations in empathic abilities among narcissistic individuals shows that it is inaccurate to state that narcissism is simply related to a lack of empathy. Growing evidence suggests that the relationship between narcissism and empathy is a complex one and each person with NPD has a different level of functioning which will adapt itself to each situation individually.

How Empathy Develops

Empathy involves being aware of how another person is making us feel and the recognition and understanding of how the other person is feeling and their perspective. It usually emerges within the second year of life and greatly depends on the nature of the relationships in the child’s family home and with their caregiver. Innate characteristics are also a factor here – so empathy is shaped by nature and nurture. Babies’ social interactions begin with a primary caregiver and the empathic capability of the caregiver is crucial for secure and healthy attachment to develop (see attachment theory). When children have developed a secure attachment style, they are more responsive to the needs of others and are less hostile to out-group members and more empathic towards people in need. Narcissists will often have a disorganised or avoidant attachment style which means that they avoided or were frightened of their caregivers.

From the perspective of neuroscience, there are two main subdivisions of empathy which are; emotional (i.e., responses to facial expressions and what the other person is saying) and cognitive (the understanding of mental states i.e., belief, desire, and knowledge). These enable an individual to explain and predict others’ behaviour.

If it is not tempered by compassion, and empathy, reason can lead men and women into a moral void.

Karen Armstrong

Mirror Neurons

Another element to empathy is the brain/body response to others which is known as the mirror neuron system. This was first discovered in monkeys when it was observed that a group of neurons that fires when a monkey performs an action also fires when it observes the same action being performed by another animal. It was subsequently found that in humans, mirror neurons fire even while observing meaningless movements.

The more people tend to imitate each other, the more they are able to develop an empathic relationship. Social mirroring involves the interaction of the core mirror neuron system with the limbic system (which supports a variety of functions including emotion, behaviour and long-term memory). Mirroring can also be seen when people mirror each others’ body postures or yawn and smile when they see others do so. As yet the mirror neuron system cannot be accurately measured in humans – it would be interesting to see the results of brain scans of people with NPD, when it becomes possible, to give us more insight into the disorder.

Empathy is Dangerous

Each individual with NPD is different but as a general rule it seems that people with NPD choose not to engage with others empathically. They have not had an attuned caregiver and have a disorganised/avoidant attachment style which means there is an avoidance of closeness, intimacy and being dependent in relationships. They do have a dependency on ‘narcissistic supply’ but this need is not achieved through a psychological intimate closeness with another.

This avoidance is further confused by the enmeshment there will often be between the NPD parent who can be suffocating and treat their NPD child as a substitute partner. There may be also have been damage to the developing brain as has been seen in brain scans of people with NPD. People with NPD are quite consciously unaware of their emotional life as much of it is suppressed and they have a complex system of defences against it. They learned at an early age that empathy was dangerous and they needed to dissociate from engaging in it. Their ‘lack’ of empathy for themselves may translate into that ‘lack’ of empathy for others. Kindness is seen as weakness and the classic NPD defensive position of superiority and grandiosity is incompatible with empathy. 

Sources:

Mirror neuron system

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2900004/

Empathy in Narcissistic Personality Disorder: From Clinical and Empirical Perspectives

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4415495/

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Sarah Graham

Sarah Graham

I am a Counsellor, based in Bournemouth in the UK, with specialist knowledge of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am trained in treating Complex Trauma. I work online and am insured to work in most places in the world.

Link to my Counselling Website Here

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