I saw something today addressed to someone I know to be a textbook narcissist. It was a meme about what it’s like to be an empath, and it was heavily implying that this person–the known narcissist–was actually an empath.
And that’s the problem with labels.
There’s this other meme that goes around a lot that says the narcissist’s worst nightmare is an educated empath. I don’t think it’s really that simple. And I don’t think there’s as much difference between both narcissists and empaths.
But now that there’s so much discussion about narcissists and empaths, I know for sure that some narcissists actually see themselves as empaths. I know this at the very least because the person I stayed with the longest when I moved down here described herself as a highly sensitive person and an empath. But if you looked at her actual behavior, it was much more narcissistic in nature.
I have no doubt that she truly saw herself as an empath and a highly sensitive person. She saw herself as a victim of other people, her now ex-husband in particular. And she always talked about how much people sought her out because she was so empathic, and I saw no evidence of that at all. Just because someone sees themselves as a victim doesn’t mean they really are.
As I said recently, we all think we’re the heroes in our own narratives. Surely we would never have any bad traits. Us good, them bad. Except it’s never that black and white.
However, the above graphic shows that there is such a thing as a narcissist. I’m definitely not saying there isn’t. Just that even narcissists can see themselves as far more innocent and blameless than a lot of the memes say.
Note that I am in no way saying that I think there’s no such thing as an empath or highly sensitive person. Nor am I saying that all narcissists think of themselves as empaths.
The truth is that these labels are very non-specific and not that useful. I believe that some people, maybe a lot of people, are both narcissists and empaths. They are at the very least opposite sides of the same coin and neither one is healthy.
You can still deeply feel the pain of others but not let it affect your behavior. Or you can selectively feel the pain of only certain people (or animals) but be completely oblivious to how your actions make people feel.
I think a couple things are true about the whole topic of narcissists and empaths:
Yes, I think you can be both. But not everyone is both.
You can have some narcissistic traits and work to get better if you’re self-aware enough and committed to the effort.
A lot of people just have unhealthy relationship dynamics. Trying to paint a picture in which all your exceptionally good qualities make you the victim of someone evil and manipulative is missing the point entirely.
Any time you start saying, “I am good and so sensitive that evil people take advantage of me,” you need to step back and start working on yourself. In relationships, nothing is ever only one person’s fault. Even if one person is more selfish or more difficult than the other.
You have no obligation to stay with someone who mistreats you. That’s definitely not what I’m saying.
What I am saying is that if you’re in a screwed up relationship with someone who seems to have real problems, you have to ask yourself why you’re sticking around.
All relationships have dynamics. Unless at least one person makes an effort to change, you can reasonably expect that dynamic to continue.
When you change, the relationship will inevitably change, too. Sometimes it will get better. But sometimes it will also get worse.
There’s no point in getting hung up on labels. I do think narcissists and highly sensitive people tend to be attracted to each other, but I think narcissists have far less sinister intent than people say they do.
Does that mean we should feel sorry for narcissists or excuse what they do? No, definitely not. Boundaries are good. If someone makes you feel bad and makes no effort to change, you have no obligation to stay.
But sometimes these relationship dynamics are just the way two people connect. Some relationships are just unhealthy. We don’t have to pathologize one person while declaring the other the victim.
Self-awareness is the key here. If you think you’re highly sensitive but also suspect you have narcissistic traits, then work on overcoming the narcissism.
I’m pretty convinced that narcissists aren’t roaming our cities, looking for highly sensitive empaths to victimize and suck the life out of. They’re just people who don’t know how to have healthy relationships. And the people they’re in relationships with probably also don’t know how to have a healthy connection.
Neither one is off the hook. Neither one is doomed. All it takes is enough self-awareness and reflection to work on it. And honestly, I think that both “narcissists” and “empaths” need to work on themselves because neither one is a healthy way to live.