Introverted children are often mistaken for shy children, but being introverted and being shy aren’t the same thing. Parents may see that their child doesn’t seem to socialize as many other children do. Their child may prefer to spend time alone reading or engaging in other individual activities rather than eagerly seeking out the companionship […]
Though no one knows the exact origin of yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis, one thing is certain, that they are more than thousands of years old. Eminent scholars are of the opinion that the origins and practice of yoga and meditation can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization. In spite of the fact that these…
An unwillingness to empathize is different than being unable to do so.
We generally assume that narcissistic people lack empathy, as though they are missing a certain brain function. Granted, such thinking can make us feel better when a relationship dissolves. However, in some circumstances, an individual with a narcissistic personality disorder may display empathy, which can be confusing.
Consider the possibility that narcissists are consciously and unconsciously unwilling to empathize, rather than lacking the capacity to do so. The notion that a person can have a capacity for empathy, yet not be empathically responsive, may be useful for understanding the personality characteristics of people we label as narcissistic.
Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.  Some regard empathy as a vicarious affective response based on the awareness of another person’s emotional state.  Many definitions of empathy include the concept of perspective-taking—emotionally or cognitively seeing things from the other person’s position.  Thus, empathy can involve both a cognitive process (the ability to understand another person’s view in terms of what the other is thinking or feeling) and an experiential process (resonating with another person’s emotional response).
A lack of empathy is often considered to be one of the distinctive features of narcissism. However, this is not entirely the case. The criteria for the formal psychiatric diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association includes “lacks empathy,” but this designation has a critical qualifier: namely, “is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”  An unwillingness to empathize with another person is not the same as being unable to empathize with another person.
Some researchers have found that the cognitive functioning necessary for empathy, such as the ability to role-play or take another person’s perspective, occurs in a different location of the brain than the emotional aspects of empathy, such as sensitivity to what another person is feeling or experiencing.  Whether one is narcissistic or not, our brains simulate the feelings of those around us. This ability to mimic another’s feelings enables us to reconstruct within us what other people may be experiencing. 
Given the many and complicated interactions we have with others throughout our lives, the ability to automatically understand what is going on with someone else is a crucial skill for successful social functioning. Some studies have shown a relationship between narcissism and deficient emotional empathy, but that narcissists, nevertheless, can recognize and react to the suffering of others, even if they are motivated to disregard such distress in other people. 
The capacity to empathize does not preclude its use for bad behavior. Descriptions of empathy have included the notion that empathy can be used for destructive purposes.   Thus, people who have a narcissistic personality may consciously or unconsciously be motivated to withhold an empathic response to control a partner or to justify their behavior. They may exploit their understanding of another’s emotional state to manipulate that person. Using their empathy manipulatively, people with narcissistic pathology know how to evoke insecurity in their partners and provoke attachment anxiety. 
The concept that a person can have the capacity for empathy, yet not be empathic in his or her response, is also important for understanding how people with a narcissistic personality disorder may protect themselves. Consider for a moment that these people do not really lack empathy, but instead, their vulnerability limits their freedom to express it. Thus, they have an unwillingness to empathize rather than a lack of empathy.
Many people who seem to lack empathy for the other humans in their lives can express enormous sympathy and compassion for their pets, and they may overtly express empathy regarding an ill or injured animal. In such situations, someone with a narcissistic personality may feel emotionally safe and capable of vulnerability. The subjective experience of trust can be a powerful tool for narcissists that reduces perceived threats and allows them to attend to the needs and feelings of others. 
There is evidence indicating that narcissistic individuals are hyper-sensitive to information that could cause them psychological distress, but at the same time, they may be oblivious to such information at the level of conscious awareness.  Interpersonally, where someone with narcissistic traits experiences helplessness or vulnerability, they are likely to withhold an empathic response automatically, appearing cold-hearted or as refusing to take responsibility for hurtful behavior. How do we understand why someone would appear to lack empathy or have an unwillingness to empathize? The answer involves a personality organization that over a lifetime has been scripted to avoid shame.
When emotions occur in persistent or repeated forms, we consider them as dispositional characteristics of the individual or personality traits—situations that typically activate a coherent pattern of interacting emotions or scripted behaviors. Unfortunately, the language of personality traits overshadows the emotional states that motivate the behavior.  For example, we generally consider narcissism as having to do with behaviors or traits, such as grandiosity, entitlement, and a lack of empathy, but this obscures how these behaviors and traits are patterned responses to specific emotional experiences. Shame is the central emotional experience of narcissism, and narcissistic disorders reflect behaviors that serve to disavow and regulate shame.  
Since an empathic response often involves an unconscious assessment of one’s vulnerability to experiencing shame, the narcissist’s inhibition of an empathic response (“unwillingness”) may simply be self-protective. This also points to the affective limitations that accompany narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists do not consciously feel a lack of empathy or an unwillingness to empathize. Instead, in many situations where one might expect them to empathize, their limitations activate a sense of helplessness (imagined vulnerability) followed by scripted responses to shame, such as shame-fear (fear of loss of face) or shame-rage (protection from some imagined trauma from the past). 
Thus, if you are involved with someone who is motivated by shame to be consciously or unconsciously unwilling to empathize with what you feel, your task is to protect yourself. Blaming heartache on a former partner’s “lack of empathy,” for example, is a mistake. You may be responding to your own shame by attacking someone who could not provide what you needed in the first place, due to their restricted emotional freedom. Instead, by accepting your disappointment and looking inside yourself, you can learn.
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 Eisenberg, N., Miller, P. A., Schaller, M., Fabes, R. A., Fultz, J., Shell, R., et al. (1989). The role of sympathy and altruistic personality traits in helping: A reexamination. Journal of Personality 57:41-67.
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 Decety, J., and Moriguchi, Y. (2007). The empathic brain and its dysfunction in psychiatric populations: Implications for intervention across different clinical conditions. Biopsychosocial Medicine 1:22-52.
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 Burgmer, P., Weiss, A., and Ohmann, K. (2019). I don’t feel ya: how narcissism shapes empathy. Self and Identity. DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2019.1645730
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 David, G. F. (2020, January 4). Personal email communication.
Is stress affecting your weight loss battle?
Stress brought on by dieting is added to the personal and work life stresses that we face every day, often resulting in a “vicious cycle” of increased stress and increased food intake. People under stress tend to engage in self-defeating and unhealthy behaviors such as binge eating and…
We should try to learn to depend on ourselves. Try not to look to others, or external things to bring us happiness or fulfillment. Being independent can be a tough battle. What many don’t understand is that being dependent on others can lead to misery, sadness, loneliness, and disappointment. Others aren’t always going to be […]
Pressure is the feeling of discomfort, worry and even fear. Many of us feel pressure on a daily basis: bills to pay, relationships to live up to, jobs to hold onto, material to study up on, expectations to maintain, etc. Pressure is a natural feeling that accompanies our everyday lives: it’s part of motivation and drive but can also be associated with anxiety and panic.
Living The Single Life
Many people become way too worried about not being in a relationship. They believe that if they hit a certain age, their chances of finding someone meaningful goes down. What they are experiencing is the perceived pressure that society puts on them. The reality is that if you believe wholeheartedly that you will meet someone significant, then it shall be done for you.
It’s hard to scroll through your social media feeds without being bombarded with motivational quotes. Bonus points if they are spelled out on a letter board.
Good vibes only. Choose happiness. Find the rainbow in the rain.
As a psychologist (and as a human), these quotes kind of irk me. They make us think that life should be all roses and rainbows; we just need to choose the right state of mind. And, by extension, if you are struggling, you aren’t trying hard enough. You just need to change your mindset.
The problem is, life isn’t all roses and rainbows. We don’t get to experience the good without the bad. As mindfulness instructor Jon Kabat Zinn says, life is about “full catastrophe living.” We must embrace what life brings us and learn how to experience the full range of human emotions, even when it’s not so pretty.
A 2016 study found that expressing negative emotions is adaptive and is associated with improved psychological health and adjustment. Conversely, avoiding negative feelings can make you feel even worse. Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College, calls this “the tyranny of the positive attitude.” In a 2016 Newsweek article, she explains that our culture has little tolerance for those who aren’t all smiles and sunshine all the time.
There is an expectation that people should always look on the bright side of adversity and be grateful for the positives in a difficult situation. This attitude is a double hitter for people going through a difficulty; first, you feel bad about whatever the thing is that is making you feel bad, and then you feel guilty or defective for not focusing on the positives and keeping an upbeat attitude. In other words, we feel bad for feeling bad.
As a therapist and an eating disorder specialist, I spend a lot of time helping clients identify and welcome in the full range of emotional experiences. In this “good vibes only” culture, so many of us have become disconnected from our emotions. We try to keep away feelings of anger, sadness, fear, jealousy, and disappointment. Rather than feeling happy all the time, this leaves us feeling numb. We live our lives in fast-forward, keeping ourselves busy every waking moment, so we never have to actually be with our thoughts or feel our feelings.
What would it be like to feel your feelings? To be OK not being OK? To experience discomfort and trust that you have the resilience to withstand it and come through the other side. This way of approaching life may not have the same letterboard appeal as “good vibes only,” but I think there is real power to bringing authenticity into our heavily filtered lives.
Coifman, K.G., Flynn, J.J. & Pinto, L.A. Motiv Emot (2016) 40: 602. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9553-y
In today’s overly divisive environment, I could not help but notice just how little emotional integrity is present. It seems to me that the more closely intertwined we become by technological advancements, the more lonely our existence cements. Have we lost that all too human capacity to be in touch with our emotional experiences, outside of the countless array of experiences we perceive others to have had because of their social media wallpaper?
Our bodies and minds are linked more than we probably even know currently. But so much science exists to support this, that we can no longer deny it. Have you ever had a lazy week or few days where you were just staying in the house and not moving around much?
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ADHD or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is a mental illness that is diagnosed in childhood, but in some cases, in adulthood as well. It’s an impulsive and chronic disorder characterized by inattention and hyperactivity. It’s considered a mental illness for two reasons: it’s classified in the DSM-V and the nature of its behavior revolves around mental symptoms. [. . .]
Hollywood hype would have us believe that a hypnotist can control and direct our actions, and that we can be made to do all sorts of unimaginable things under hypnosis. Following is a list of some of these common myths which must be clarified before we proceed further. The hypnotist can make you do things…
People who are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) go through daily ups and downs in their emotions that can seriously hamper their lives. Among the symptoms of this disorder are not only affective instability (those ups and downs) but also dependency on others, fear of rejection, insecure sense of self, problems with interpersonal boundaries, […]